Book reviews and notes

Here are about a half-century's worth of book notes, together with some more or less formal book reviews I have written, many of them for our church newsletter. My habit is to write a synopsis or at least jot down the main points of every book I read, although for long stretches of time I did not do this – for example, I have read everything written by Chaim Potok, including his Wanderings: History of the Jews, but I can only find a couple of reviews of his books on my computer.

The book reviews and notes that I can find are collected here under the familiar categories of fiction, arranged alphabetically by author, and nonfiction, arranged alphabetically by title. To find fiction by title, or nonfiction by author, use the search function of your browser (CONTROL-F).

Favorite books (fiction) ...  #1 - Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset; #2 - A Shooting Star, Wallace Stegner.  Other favorites: The Samurai, Shusaku Endo; Crooked Little Heart, Anne Lamott; Godric, Frederick Buechner.

Favorite books (nonfiction) ...  #1 - Victory Through Surrender, E. Stanley Jones.  Other favorites: The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt; The Limits of Power, Andrew J. Bacevich.

Favorite books (classics) ...  Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen.

Most recently read (fiction) ...  Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (1/18); Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith (10/17); Do We Not Bleed?, Daniel Taylor (9/17).

Most recently read (nonfiction) ... Just Courage, Gary A. Haugen (12/17); The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman (11/17); Words Made Fresh, Larry Woiwode (10/17).

Currently reading (fiction) ...  All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Also, I'm rereading The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Currently reading (nonfiction) ...   Rise of Christianity, The, Rodney Stark.

[Go to nonfiction]
FICTION  Authors beginning with the letter A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Authors beginning with the letter "A"
Watership Down, Richard Adams (Avon paperback, 1972) (read Jan. 1981)  [Next review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An engrossing adult "Peter Rabbit" story, about a handful of rabbits who are warned by one of their number with extra-sensory perception ("Fiver") to flee the destruction of their warren by men who were bulldozing the site for construction. Under the general leadership of Hazel they first land in Cowslip's Warren, where they found large well-fed and friendly rabbits who had dug a "great burrow" underground where they could meet. However, they learned that rabbits mysteriously disappeared from this warren – no one in the warren would answer a question beginning, "Where ...?" – and then Bigwig was caught in a snare (the "shining wire"). Fiver figured it all out. The farmer was feeding these rabbits and then snaring them one or two at a time.

After leaving their warren, they made it to Watership Down, where they dug their own warren. Major problem surfaces: no does, and therefore no mating and no new rabbits to keep the warren going. There are then two expeditions to get does – one to Nuthanger Farm, where Hazel releases a couple of tame does and bucks, and the other, major expedition to Efrafa, a large warren overcrowded with does, discovered by Kehaar, a large black-headed gull, whom the rabbits had befriended when its wing was hurt and he couldn't fly. Efrafa was organized like a fascist state under an awesome fighting rabbit named General Woundwort. With the help of Kehaar, an expedition led by Hazel and Bigwig managed to rescue about ten does from Efrafa, escaping by floating down a stream in a small punt they found.

That's not the end of the story, however, for Woundwort organized a fighting force and came after them. The final assault on the Watership Down rabbits, who were holed up trying to defend their warren, was repulsed when Bigwig fought the feared General Woundwort to a standstill, and then Hazel, Dandelion and Black made a sneak exit, ran to Nuthanger Farm and released the tied-up watch dog, who came and scattered the Efrafans.

So victory was secured, the does bore litters, and soon Hazel began planning to establish a new warren halfway between Watership Down and Efrafa. Finally, in the Epilog, Hazel leaves his earthly rabbit life when he is summoned by a strange rabbit with shining ears; Hazel discards his body and bounds off, presumably into rabbit heaven.

A fun book to read, with characterization that makes the rabbits seem like humans. Explores such important themes as loving one's neighbor as the best policy, organizing society by force or freedom, etc.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (Penguin pbk; orig. 1954) (read 11/94)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This was recommended as an extremely funny book, but I found it only mildly amusing. Maybe it's funnier to those in England, because the setting is an English university just after World War II and the characters say things like "you want a bloody good punch on the nose?".

The story is essentially about a newly hired college teacher of history, Jim Dixon, who manages to get himself fired (or not rehired for the following year), but ends up with a good job and the girl he had been pursuing without great hopes.

Maybe it's not possible to write a book like this, a parody of faculty life in a university, and draw believable characters. At least, I don't think the author did in this novel. The characters are interesting enough to move the story along, but not so compelling that I found myself really caring what happened, one way or the other.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (orig. 1813; Octopus Books Ltd. 1982) (read on Kindle, May-June 2012)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Jane Austen is a good writer and develops her characters well, but this novel was not as good, in my opinion, as Pride and Prejudice. Fanny Price, oldest daughter of a poor family with many children, is invited by her aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, to come live with them at their large estate, Mansfield Park. There she thrives, despite hostility and condescension from another aunt, Mrs. Norris.

The plot thickens when the Crawfords move to town. Mary Crawford is personable and fun but self-seeking and very materialistic; she sets her eyes on the Bertrams' older son, Tom, but it is their younger son, Edmund, who falls for Mary. Her brother, Henry, likewise falls in love with Fanny. She, however, dotes on Edmund.

The reason this novel was disappointing to me is that at the end it all falls together so predictably and in such summary fashion, as if the author got tired of relating the details of what happened to each of the characters. In this very contrived ending, Tom recovers from a very serious illness and "became what he ought to be." (p. 462) The troublesome Mrs. Norris moves away from Mansfield Park. Edmund suddenly realizes that the girl of his dreams is not Mary Crawford but Fanny Price, and they get married and live happily ever after.

Maybe a C+ but that's about all.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (orig. 1813; Octopus Books Ltd. 1982) (read on Kindle, May-June 2012)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Classic novel of manners and society in England two centuries ago. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bennet, second daughter of a gentleman of very modest circumstances, is first repulsed by, and gradually falls in love with, the very rich and handsome Mr. Darcy. Lizzie's older sister, Jane, is the prettiest and most gracious in the family of five daughters, and she falls in love with Mr. Bingley, a close friend but quite the opposite in personality of Mr. Darcy.

In Jane Austen's world, that main activity seems to be visiting and being visited, and going to balls. The unmarried females talk mostly about finding a man, and they seem to "fall in love" after very brief acquaintanceship. Even among the men, no one seems to actually work, although everyone's worth is measured in so many pounds per year, apparently from rents or perhaps investments. A strange world.

The story turns out as one might expect, with happy marriages for Jane and Lizzie. I enjoyed reading the book more than I thought I would, but I don't really think it is a great novel.

Authors beginning with the letter "B"

Feast of Love, The, Charles Baxter (Vintage Books, paper, 2000) (read January 2008)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This novel was a National Book Award Finalist, and it certainly is well written, but I did not really enjoy reading it. In fact, it is one of those books that I start with high hopes but finish only because I do not like to give up on books. It's not my kind of book.

As the title indicates, the story, or stories (because it seems to be a novel created by stringing together several stories) are about love. However, except for a middle-aged Jewish couple, Harry and Esther Ginsberg, a philosophy professor and his wife, "love" in this novel seems to mean mainly "sex". The main narrator, Bradley W. Smith, is on his third wife. He has a dog, also named Bradley. So his stories are about his wives, especially the first two, and his dog.

Bradley is a painter, mostly abstract stuff that no one can figure out, and he also manages a coffee shop, Jitters. Another couple, Oscar and Chloé (pronounced "Klo-ay") are minimum-wage workers who meet working in Bradley's coffee shop. Chloé goes on and on about their sex life, but they do get married, eventually, although about four months later Oscar dies playing touch football, of a congenital heart defect, leaving behind a young pregnant widow.

Other types of love surface in this book, including the Jewish couple's love for their lost son, who is mentally ill, perhaps from drugs; calls home berating his parents for all they have and haven't done for him, but mainly asking for money, and finally disappears.

The best part of this book is the writing and the descriptions of working class life in drab cities of Michigan. Baxter really can capture the atmosphere of the dingy streets and apartments and stores, and the language (mostly foul) of the inhabitants. But as far as I can tell there is no particular insight into their condition or hope for the future. Everything is like Bradley's paintings, drops and drippings and smears of paint that no one can really make sense out of. As he explains about one of his paintings:

A portrait of Bradley, my dog, is also up near the entryway, but it's very abstract. You can't tell whether it's a dog or a contraption or what, though it looks friendly in its abstract way, like Nude Descending a Staircase except with a dog. You can see Bradley in there if you know where to look. He's eating dog chow, the food suggested by drips and dribbles. It was cubism plus charm. (p. 113)

There are a lot of vague statements about the need to be related to someone else, even a dog, and about how bad it is to be alone. But I did not find my ideas about love expanded, or broadened, or helped in any way. The stories themselves are mostly tawdry, not worth reading. In sum: Not a book to recommend.

Picturing Will, Ann Beattie (Vintage Books, 1989) (read fall 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I liked this book more after I read it than while I was reading it. A slim (minimalist?) novel about a divorced woman, a photographer/artist, her boyfriend/lover Mel, her young son Will, her former husband Wayne, who was living in Florida with his third wife, and a few other characters. Mel takes Will to Florida for a visit with his father, Wayne, and his wife Corky. Wayne is really not that excited about being a father to Will, and shifts most of the burden of entertaining him to Corky while he has a couple of affairs with other women. Wayne is arrested after one of these flings, when a bottle of pills belonging to his wife is found in a rented car along with a picture of his lover and boxes full of cocaine. From the bathroom window Will sees his dad being led off by the police.

Next comes a flashback. Will is now grown and married, with a baby of his own. In just a few pages the author reveals a lot about how he grew up, mostly raised by Mel, who did marry his mother, and about what happened to the various characters.

I didn't like the book while reading it, I think, because I dislike almost all the characters; they are mostly immoral or amoral, apparently following no principles other than to either be a success or just survive. But I admire the skill of the author. She can capture characters and scenes in so few words and I found that the book made me think about the characters and what happened to them. Overall, not the best book I've read, but better than most.

Return of the Wolf, Martin Bell (Seabury Press, 1983) (read 5/94)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the second book of short stories, poems, parables and miscellaneous writings by Martin Bell, an artistically talented Episcopal priest. They are all on biblical themes, in one way or another, though seldom overtly scriptural. The memorable short story, "Barrington Bunny, is in his earlier book, The Way of the Wolf, but this one has some thought-provoking stories as well, including "Hatfield" (another with the God-as-wolf theme), "Midway of the Jackals" (clowns of God?), and "From New York to Boston and Beyond" (divorce). I don't understand much of his poetry but like most of his stories.

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Lancer Books, 1968; orig. pub. 1888) (read 1981-82)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A utopian novel first published in 1888. The story is simple: Julian West, a young Boston insomniac, is put to sleep in his sound-proofed basement room by a hypnotist on the night of May 30, 1887; the house above apparently caught fire and burned to the ground, and Julian did not wake until his underground room was disturbed by workmen more than a century later -- in the year 2000. The rest of the story -- there is hardly any plot -- spins out the author's fantasies of the future: a wonderously utopian world of peace and plenty!

This universal prosperity was achieved by abandoning individualism and embracing a public spirit; the country became one giant monopoly of all businesses and industries; everyone was assigned jobs for which they were suited. After hearing that there was no more war, politicians, demagoguery or corruption, Julian says, "Human nature itself must have changed very much." "Not at all," was the reply, "but the conditions of human life have changed, and with them the motives of human action." (p. 66)

Of the changes predicted, some of the physical or technical developments have come about, such as pasteboard "credit cards" (p. 93) and music piped into homes by "telephone" (p. 120), but all the predictions hinging on a change in human motives have not. (Lawyers, of course, have been done away with - p. 212)

Anna of the Five Towns, Arnold Bennett (Wordsworth Classics, paper, 1994; orig. 1902) (read 9/11)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

How long has it been since you finished a novel, closed the book, and just sat there thinking about the characters? And then went to bed, got up the next morning, and ... thought some more about the characters?

This little novel – 175 pages – is that kind of a book. Much slimmer than the first of Arnold Bennett's novels that I read and enjoyed so much, The Old Wives' Tale, Anna is also about two sisters, Anna and Agnes, daughters of a rich, secretive miser, Ephraim Tellwright. Ephraim, who became wealthy through inheritances and business acumen, had been a strong Wesleyan Methodist, though his heart was not really in it.

.... [H]e expounded the mystery of the Atonement in village conventicles and grew garrulous with God at prayer-meetings in the big Bethesda chapel; but he did these things as routine, without skill and without enthusiasm, because they gave him an unassailable position within the central group of the society. He was not, in fact, much smitten with either the doctrinal or the spiritual side of Methodism. His chief interest lay in those fiscal schemes of organization without whose aid no religious propaganda can possibly succeed. It was in the finance of salvation that he rose supreme .... The minister by his pleading might bring sinners to the penitent form, but it was Ephraim Tellwright who reduced the cost per head of souls saved, and so widened the frontiers of the Kingdom of Heaven. (pp. 14-15)

However, Ephraim retired from business, and after his second wife and his housekeeper died, Ephraim lost interest in even the financial aspects of his religion; he sold his house in Hanbridge and moved with his two daughters to another of the five towns in that area, Bursley.

Anna, now 21 years old, became aware that a very suitable bachelor, Henry Mynors, morning superintendent of the Sunday School and conductor of the Sunday afternoon men's Bible class, was interested in her. She finds this puzzling but exciting. When he offers to walk with her and her sister to the park, she ponders what he must be thinking. "He – and she: they were utterly foreign to each other. So the primary dissonances of sex vibrated within her, and her own feelings puzzled her. Still, there was an instant pleasure, delightful, if disturbing and inexplicable." (p. 7)

The chapter describing the "revival" (pp. 39-46) is fascinating, to me at least. It brings back memories of childhood revival meetings – such a mixture of the absurd and the profound. Bennett does not expressly mock the revival, but he describes it in such a way that it is hard not to see how manipulative and self-serving (to the revivalist, the pastor, and the devout) it can be. On the other hand, there is such deep, deep truth in the message, distorted though it may be, that we humans are abject sinners who cannot save ourselves, but need God's gracious intervention. And yes, we do need to make a decision, for or against, the Lord.

Anna herself did not believe the was converted, either before or during the revival, although ...

She repeated to herself softly, "I believe; I believe." But nothing happened. Of course she believed. She had never doubted, nor dreamed of doubting, that Jesus died on the Cross to save her soul – her soul – from eternal damnation. (p. 45)

But she continued to be tormented by doubt and guilt-feelings, and these are acerbated by her situation: wealthy daughter of a hard-grasping miser. When her father casually discloses that he plans to press one of his tenants until he goes bankrupt, Anna starts to object, and wonders, "Would Christ have driven Titus Price into the bankruptcy court?" (p. 58) When summoned by a note from Anna's father, Titus sends his son, Willie, and Mr. Tellwright tells Anna to demand the back rent, since the Prices' factory is her property. She invites Willie into the front parlour, and he pleads for leniency:

His tone was so earnest, so pathetic, that tears of compassion almost rose to her eyes as they looked at those simple naive blue eyes of his. His lanky figure and clumsily-fitting clothes, his feeble placatory smile, the twitching movements of his long red hands, all contributed to the effect of his defencelessness. She thought of the text: "Blessed are the meek," and saw in a flash the deep truth of it. Here were she and her father, rich, powerful, autocratic; and there were Willie Price and his father, commercial hares hunted by hounds of creditors, hares that turned in plaintive appeal to those greedy jaws for mercy. And yet, she, a hound, envied at that moment the hares. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the failures, blessed are the stupid, for they, unknown to themselves, have a grace which is denied to the haughty, the successful, and the wise. (p. 59)

Without disclosing the abrupt and almost shocking ending, I would summarize the remainder of the book this way. Anna's friend Beatrice, the daughter of the most prominent family in Bursley, the Suttons, invites her to accompany the family on their annual two-week vacation in the Isle of Mann. Mrs. Sutton, a devout, kind, irresistible force in the church and the community, procured Ephraim Tellwright's permission for Anna to go with them. Of course she wants to go, especially because Henry Mynors was going along too.

At the end of that idyllic, but eventful time, Henry asks Anna to be his wife, and she accepts, somewhat reluctantly. When she gets home, her father is as surly, rude, and stingy as ever, but she is gaining strength and successfully confronts him, facing down his wrath, and gets control of enough of her own money to buy her trousseau and "house linen" before her wedding.

Before that big day arrives, however, Titus Price, her tenant in the run-down factory, commits suicide. This is a great scandal and brings out all the morbid curiosity of the townspeople. But it strikes deep into Anna's heart – she is sure it is because her father, and she herself, have pressed him too hard to pay his debts.

The story then proceeds inexorably to its stunning conclusion, which left me thinking about so many issues ... yes, this book practically cries out to be discussed in a book group! All I can do at this point is highly recommend it. A gem of a novel.

Old Wives' Tale, The, Arnold Bennett (Modern Library, Random House, 1908) (read 1/08)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Somewhere I picked up a reference to this novel as a "must read," although the title alone almost dissuaded me. But I stuck it on my list of books to look for at used book sales, and finally found it.

I'm so glad I did! It is a wonderful, very funny novel, set in the late nineteenth century. Two young girls, Constance, 16, and Sophia, a year younger, live with their extremely ill father, John Baines, and their mother, a big imposing woman, in their house on St. Luke's Square in Bursley, one of the Five Towns in Staffordshire, England. Part of the house, which was actually three dwellings combined into one, was the Baines' draper's shop, the most distinguished business on the square, so well known that it didn't even have a sign.

The household, in addition to the four Baines, consisted of Maggie, the cook and servant, who had been engaged 11 times in the 17 years she had been with the Baines, and Mr. Povey, manager of the draper shop, a young small man of about 30, who slept in a bedroom next to John Baines. Several hired girls worked in the shop also, but did not live with the Baines. Other important characters are Mrs. Baines' sister, Harriet Maddack, and Charles Critchlow, the chemist, a crotchety old man who was John Baines' best friend.

The two daughters find husbands. Sophia, the younger, more impulsive and rebellious one, runs off with a "commercial traveller" (traveling representative of Birkinshaws, a company that supplied goods for the Baines' shop), Gerald Scales, and Constance, more conventional, works in the shop until after her father's death, when Mr. Povey approached her mother about taking Constance as his wife. She was at first shocked, but relented; eventually Mrs. Baines gave up the business to Sam and Constance Povey and moved to the town of Axe to live with Harriet, her sister.

Although a lot of momentous events occur in this novel – including the murder of a drunken woman by her husband, Daniel Povey, Sam's cousin – its main impact comes by creating an atmosphere and describing, with a sort of dry humor, the characters as they grow old. Along the way, there are fascinating descriptions of the drapery business, legal proceedings, household servants, fashions, and especially the main characters. For example, Aunt Harriet, a "majestic and enormous widow whom even the imperial Mrs. Baines regarded with a certain awe" (pp. 89-90), came to visit her younger sister:

Mrs. Baines had increased in stoutness, so that now Aunt Harriet had very little advantage over her, physically. But the moral ascendancy of the elder still persisted. The two vast widows shared Mrs. Baines's bedroom, spending much of their time there in long, hushed conversations – interviews from which Mrs. Baines emerged with the air of one who has received enlightenment and Aunt Harriet with the air of one who has rendered it. ... They referred to each other as oracular sources of wisdom and good taste. Respectability stalked abroad when they were afoot. (p. 135)

Book 1 of this 640-page novel is captioned "Mrs. Baines," and sets the stage for the remainder. Book 2, "Constance," describes Constance from the time she is a teenager, as she gets married; bears a son, Cyril; becomes a widow when her husband dies of pneumonia; sells the family business to Charles Critchlow, who then marries Maria Insull, who had succeeded Sam Povey as the most trusted employee who could run the whole business.

Book 3, "Sophia," describes the younger daughter's life from the time she ran off with Gerald Scales until she ends up as the successful, hard-working, proud proprietress of the Pension Frensham, the most respectable pension in Paris. Along the way Sophia experiences the sophistication and decadence of Paris, but quickly sees through it and wants to have no more to do with it. Her husband, Gerald, turns out to be a foolish and profligate young man who quickly blows through his inheritance of 12,000 pounds and finally abandons Sophia in a tawdry hotel room when she refuses to write home to England to borrow money from her family. He doesn't understand that she would rather starve than condescend to admit the folly of her ways, especially to her family.

Sophia, however, is nothing if not clever. Before her husband takes off she filches 200 pounds from him and sews it in the hem of her coat. Although she becomes very ill after his departure, and has to be rescued and nursed back to health by one of the middle-aged courtesans that she despises, Madame Foucault, she shrewdly – but fairly – buys all the furniture that Madame Foucault possessed buthad never paid for, and ultimately takes over the establishment. She makes a success of it, but it is in a very disreputable part of Paris, so she is stymied in her efforts to prosper without catering to those seeking a room for a mistress or other immoral purposes.

Then she has the opportunity to buy the Pension Fransham, in a much more respectable part of town. She becomes rich, but reclusive. She rarely leaves the pension. Finally, an artist friend of her nephew, Constance's son Cyril, happens to stay at the Pension Fransham, sees Sophia and learns that her married name is Scales. He puts two-and-two together and concludes that she is the long-lost Sophia, Constance's sister. When he goes back to England he tells Constance that he has found her sister.

Book 4 is entitled "What Life Is." It starts with Sophia at Pension Fransham and ends with the deaths of Constance and Sophia. Although she swore (to herself) that she would never return to Bursley, one day Matthew Peel-Swynnerton, the close friend of her nephew Cyril Povey, arrived at Pension Fransham to spend a couple of days recovering from a wild time enjoying the "crepuscular delights" of Paris. He learned that the name of the proprietress was Mrs. Scales and realized, after studying her profile, that she was the long-vanished aunt of his friend Cyril. That led, ultimately, to his relating this information to Constance, who wrote to Sophia and re-established their relationship.

Sophia went back to Bursley, just for a visit with her sister, but she never left it. She finally dies, an old woman of about 70, a day or so after being summoned to the deathbed of her husband, Gerald, who passed away before she got there. Not long afterwards, Constance herself dies, and the book is over.

Reflections on this novel. One of the best I have ever read at showing the changes that take place as people age – and the changes that don't take place; i.e., how some childhood traits follow people all through life.

Sophia, for example, is stubborn and rebellious as a child, and remains so all her life, even though she realizes that she made wrong decisions and at times acted very foolishly. She just cannot bring herself to admit it to anyone else. Her pride is her downfall. She does have good character in many ways – for example, she refuses to go to Paris with Gerald without being married, later as the owner of two pensions she is fair to those she deals with – and she is certainly hardworking and well-organized. But she cannot swallow her pride. When she and Gerald are arguing about whether she would accompany him to Paris unmarried and he temporarily walked out on her, she faced the fact that she had been, in her own words, "a wicked girl."

But she would not repent; at any rate she would never sit on that stool. She would not exchange the remains of her pride for the means of escape from the worst misery that life could offer. On that point she knew herself. And she set to work to repair and renew her pride. (pp. 317-318)

The French don't come off very well in this novel. They are generally portrayed as excitable, shallow, pleasure-loving, and opportunistic, as compared with the English. As she thought after going back to England to visit Constance:

Constance did honestly appear to Sophia to be superior to any Frenchwoman that she had ever encountered. She saw supreme in Constance that quality which she had recognized in the porters at Newhaven on landing – the quality of an honest and naive goodwill, of powerful simplicity. That quality presented itself to her as the greatest in the world, and it seemed to be in the very air of England.


She had always compared France disadvantageously with England, always resented the French temperament in business, always been convinced that "you never knew where you were" with French tradespeople. And now they flitted before her endowed with a wondrous charm; so polite in their lying, so eager to spare your feelings and to reassure you, so neat and prim. (pp. 529-530)

Toward the end of the book, after Sophia dies, Constance reflects on what had happened to her sister:

Yes, Constance's heart melted in an anguished pity for that stormy creature. And mingled with the pity was a stern recognition of the handiwork of divine justice. To Constance's lips came the same phrase as had come to the lips of Samuel Povey on a different occasion: God is not mocked! (p. 608)

However, although Constance herself stayed on the "straight and narrow," as she conceived it, her life does not seem to be very meaningful. Note that the title of this book is However, although Constance herself stayed on the "straight and narrow," as she conceived it, her life does not seem to be very meaningful. Note that the title of this book is The Old Wives' Tale, indicating that both Sophia and Constance – and perhaps all wives – have basically the same story. They are young and slim and pretty, they grow old and lose their beauty (and frequently their figure), and they die. Not much about redemption here.

But still, this is a wonderful story, one of those where the fate of the characters seems to absorbing that you can't wait to see what will happen. Much of the interest is sustained by the interior dialogue, especially of Constance and Sophia., indicating that both Sophia and Constance – and perhaps all wives – have basically the same story. They are young and slim and pretty, they grow old and lose their beauty (and frequently their figure), and they die. Not much about redemption here.

Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004) (read summer 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See separate review.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (Heritage Press, orig. pub. 1847) (read early 1985)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A strange wonderful classic, written by one of the three Bronte sisters before her death at the age of 31. It's the story of a powerful and evil, almost demonic, character named Heathcliff who had been picked up -- "a dirty, ragged, black-haired child" -- from the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw, brought home to the rural homestead "Wuthering Heights" and raised with his own children Hindley and Catherine. Though the children despised him at first, Cathy grew to love him, but as he was an orphan she could not, of course, marry him. Heathcliff, however, retained his love for her throughout her brief life, managed to take over the family property, and ultimately succeeded in being buried next to her and her husband.

The story is told by Nellie Dean, a servant of the Earnshaws and the Lintons (the family Cathy married into), to Mr. Lockwood, a tenant at the Linton's property, Thrushcross Grange, which was taken over by Heathcliff along with Wuthering Heights. While there are a number of interesting characters, Heathcliff clearly dominates, and I can't remember any other book in which a character was so pervasively, persistently and yet believably malevolent thoughout his life. He died, apparently starving himself to death, during a brief period of insane delusions of his beloved Cathy tormenting him with her ghostly presence.

How can a young woman with apparently not much education and certainly not much experience in the world write such a powerful book? It's limitations are clear, but as I got to the end of the book I was still in that state of suspended belief that, to me, marks a successful novel.

Godric, Frederick Buechner (HarperCollins paperback, copyright 1980) (read January 1999  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory])

A novelistic retelling of the life of Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century hermit considered to be a holy man. Born of Aedlward the freeman and his wife Aedwen, Godric was the oldest of three children. His sister, Burcwen, was a tomboy who never married, and his brother William prattled on all the time, whether anyone was listening or not.

Godric left home, became a thieving merchant and something of a scoundrel, along with his boisterous friend Roger Mouse, but when he landed on the island of Farne to bury some ill-gotten treasure, he met Saint Cuthbert, or his ghost, and while his life didn't change immediately, that was apparently the beginning of his turning away from the world toward God.

But first he sailed, under the name Deric, with Roger Mouse on a vessel they stole from an old man who had rented it to them. They traveled up and down the coast, putting in at fairs to sell goods, swindling, stealing, wenching, and then later carrying passengers, whom they also robbed and took advantage of.

After burying all his treasure, again, he and Roger split up for six months, and Godric went home, to find that his father had died. His mother pleaded with him to take her to Rome, to Peter's tomb, to pray for Aedlward to be released from Purgatory. So they made the long journey to Rome, which turned out to be a total disappointment. On the way home he has a vision of a beautiful maiden named Gillian, who adjures him to "Repent and mend your ways."

At home Godric becomes the servant of a great lord, Falkes de Granvill, then later meets up with Roger Mouse again, but it's not the same. They sail to Jerusalem, but Godric refuses to rob pilgrims on their way, and eventually they part company when they get into a big fight and Roger throws him overboard.

Godric then goes back to Farne, digs up his treasure, and leaves it on the altar of a church for the poor. He returns home and became a hermit, living alone at Finchale for a half century or so. Monks from a nearby monestary, at Durham, revere him, and one of them, Reginald, is given the task of writing down the life of Godric, which he does by leaving out much of the evil that Godric tells him about. In addition to the wildness and lusts of his early life, he falls to temptation and commits incest with his sister Burcwen, whom he really loves, while struggling against his sinful nature.

There are so many wonderful things in this book. The language, while not easy to read, is powerful and poetic. I found myself reading word by word, and re-reading each chapter, so as not to miss anything. The scenes evoke pre-Reformation Christianity, with all of its contradictions and zeal. In telling the story of Godric the author explores the mystery of sin, grace, forgiveness and redemption, the great Christian themes. There are also some strange things in the book, like Godric's friendship with two snakes, Tune and Fairweather, who live with him until he banishes them for interfering with his prayers.

Lion Country, Frederick Buechner (Harper & Row, 1984; orig. pub. 1971) (read August 1985)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is Part 1 of the Book of Bebb, a four-volume set of novels about Leo Bebb, Founder and International President of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., who is portrayed as a crude fundamentalist with foul language, bad morals (he has spent time in jail for indecent exposure), greed for money and power; in other words, a charlatan. And yet, he is also portrayed as having apparently performed miracles and having a real if distorted faith, and as a social misfit who is simply struggling for some freedom and an identity. He is an intriguing character.

The story is told from the point of view of Antonio Parr, a 34-year-old bachelor who has dabbled in art, teaching and now writing, and plans to publish an article exposing Bebb as a fraud. In brief, Parr pretends to join Bebb (via a mail-order ordination), meets with him in New York, then travels to Florida to the "Mother Church," where he is seduced by Bebb's foster daughter, whom he ends up marrying after he gives up his plan to expose the whole racket. In the meantime there are some other things going on, mainly the "capture" by Bebb of a wealthy Indian from Texas, who apparently gets sexually rejuvenated from the "laying on of hands" by Bebb.

Beuchner is a Christian, who has written a number of other books, both fiction and nonfiction. I have a hard time understanding how a Christian can inject so much eroticism into a book, apparently to make it "realistic." While he leaves the details to the imagination rather than graphically portraying them, and does not make fornication "right" or even the norm, nevertheless it is also not condemned, even by implication, so far as I can see. It's just the way his characters behave.

A further criticism is that while the characters are well-drawn, the plot is somewhat implausible at a number of points, and I would say even approaches farce, though I don't think he intended it that way. For example, Bebb's daughter, Sharon, a beautiful but crude and lusty girl with no apparent education, three times initiates sexual encounters with Parr, after which he decides to marry her, brings he back to New York where she is befriended by Parr's former girlfriend, an educated "elitest" liberal. Parr's own background makes it highly unlikely that such a marriage would last or even take place under the circumstances given.

Love Feast, Frederick Buechner (Harper & Row, 1984; orig. pub. 1971) (read 1986?  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory])

This is Part 3 of the Book of Bebb, a four-volume set of novels about Leo Bebb, Founder and International President of the Church of Holy Love, Inc. Although the plot of this novel is a continuation and therefore, of course, different from Part 1, most of my comments remain the same. See the entry for Lion Country.

Open Heart, Frederick Buechner (Harper & Row, 1984; orig. pub. 1971) (read 1986?)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is Part 2 of the Book of Bebb, a four-volume set of novels about Leo Bebb, Founder and International President of the Church of Holy Love, Inc. Although the plot of this novel is a continuation and therefore, of course, different from Part 1, most of my comments remain the same. See the entry for Lion Country.

Son of Laughter, The, Frederick Buechner (HarperCollins paperback, orig. 1993) (read winter 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A beautifully written fictional retelling of the biblical story of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Some of it is grim, even gruesome, but overall it shines with light and beauty.

In this novel we learn about all of the biblical characters, at least we learn how Buechner imagined them. Esau, for example, is portrayed as a rough and crude man, but basically kind-hearted.

The big love story in this book is Jacob's love for Rachel. When she died after giving birth to Benjamin, something in Jacob died too. Buechner quotes his thoughts after Rachel's death:

I have never looked at anything in this world – the moon, the hills, my people dwelling in their tents – without remembering that it is a world bereft of her who when she lived was my heart's deepest delight and when she died its deepest sorrow. (p. 193)

Joseph's wife, Asenath, the daughter of an old Egyptian priest, Potiphera, was given to Joseph by the king. Asenath was "thin as a bird and all but breastless " (p. 252), but Buechner says she was a good wife, and she comes alive in this novel.

I really enjoyed this book. Buechner is such a wonderful writer, so graceful and imaginative. One of his tricks is to rename things and concepts that are very familiar, apparently to induce readers to ponder their meaning. For example, God, the biblical God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is referred to as "the Fear." Jacob is "Laughter." Egypt is "the black land;" Israel's promised land is "the land of the black tents."

Maybe not a great book, but very, very good. I give it an A- and highly recommend it.

Treasure Hunt, Frederick Buechner (Harper & Row, 1984; orig. pub. 1971) (read 1986?)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is Part 4 of the Book of Bebb, a four-volume set of novels about Leo Bebb, Founder and International President of the Church of Holy Love, Inc. Although the plot of this novel is a continuation and therefore, of course, different from Part 1, most of my comments remain the same. See the entry for Lion Country.

Clockwork Orange, A, Anthony Burgess (Ballantine paperback, 1962) (read 1982-83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A grim vision of a violent future and of a scientific attempt to eradicate violence by behavior modification techniques, somewhat reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.

The story is told in the first person by 15-year-old Alex, who leads his gang into various episodes of random violence and vandalism until, though the treachery of one of the gang members, he is apprehended and sentenced to jail. Desperate to get out, he volunteers for a new "cure" for criminals -- Ludovico's Technique -- which basically consists of shock treatments while watching movies of violence and crime, so that the viewer develops a strong aversion to such scenes.

The moral issue involved is raised by the prison chaplain, speaking to Alex: "What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?" (p. 96) After the treatment, Alex is literally willing to "turn the other cheek," but he soon meets with so much rejection and violence directed against him (to which he can't respond) that he tries to commit suicide. Then he is "cured" of his treatment, apparently through hypnosis (see p. 172), and of course readily chooses evil again.

The story is written in an invented slang language of the future, which makes it a bit difficult to read, but is well-written and thought provoking. I'm not sure what the "orange" in the title refers to, but the "clockwork" obviously refers to Alex after his treatment; he has lost his power to choose good or evil.

Way of all Flesh, Samuel Butler (Dutton; completed in 1884 but not published until 1903) (read spring 1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Supposedly a classic, this novel is a cynical look at the family of an English clergyman, Theobald Pontifex, especially his son Ernest, who is mistreated by his father, becomes a clergyman, goes to jail for six months, becomes a tailor, marries a former servant girl of his father's (who turns out to be alcoholic and a bigamist), and finally inherits a large sum of money from an aunt and spends part of it traveling and writing, though not very successfully.

I suppose the message of this book is something like the futility of life and the phoniness of those who believe it can have meaning. Samuel Butler (there were two, this one, a nineteenth century novelist, and a seventeenth century poet) was apparently an atheist who hated his own father and thought money and health, in that order, to be the highest good. None of the women in the novel are portrayed favorably except a harddrinking landlady who becomes a friend of Ernest Pontifex.

Not a book I would recommend, though it was mildly interesting.

Authors beginning with the letter "C"

Stranger, The, Albert Camus (Random House, Vintage paperback, 1946) (read May 1979)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Readable, brief (154 pages) novel about an ordinary young man living in Algiers who ends up convicted of murder and sentenced to be guillotined.

The plot is simple. The protagonist, who relates the story in the first person, is informed of the death of his mother, who used to live with him but who was now living in an old people's home. He gets time off and attends the funeral and goes through the customary all-night vigil beside the coffin, but declines an offer to see the body and generally shows little emotion over his mother's death.

Next some scenes of his apparently lonely life in an apartment house and at work; he carries on a weekend affair with a girl who used to work at the same office, and gets involved with a reputed pimp, Raymond Sintés, who lives in the same apartment house. At the invitation of Sintés, he and his girlfriend, Marie, visit a friend of Sintés, who had a little bungalow at the beach. In an argument that turns into a fight, the narrator/protagonist gets possession of Sintés' revolver; he later returns to the scene for reasons not quite clear to me, and shoots and kills one of the "arabs" who were really Sintés' enemies.

The rest of the story is taken up with his interrogation and trial, and time in prison awaiting execution. He is visited once by Marie, but she doesn't come back, and he is visited, against his will, by a priest, who tries to get him to confront eternity, but to no avail. He becomes angry with the priest, claims he doesn't believe in God, and rants and raves about his "certainty."

It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he [the priest]; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into – just as it had got its teeth into me. I'd been right, I was still right, I was always right. (p. 151)

The main thing that struck me about this book was the utter loneliness and hopelessness of the narrator/protagonist, which is no doubt why the title is "The Stranger." He has no real relationship with anyone, not his mother, nor his girlfriend, nor anyone else in the story. He is utterly alone in a world that is indifferent. What a pathetic picture.

Spartina, John Casey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) (read spring 2014)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Set in Rhode Island's South County, this novel by John Casey tells the story of Dick Pierce, who ekes out a living on the coastal waters, mostly by catching lobsters and digging clams. Dick, who has lived on the coast all his life, is building a huge boat in his back yard, although the project is stalled because he doesn't have enough money to finish it.

The rest of the story can be condensed. Dick manages to borrow the money he needs to finish his boat from a female officer from the Natural Resources Department, Elsie Buttrick, whom he seduces (or is seduced by). He finishes and launches "Spartina" just before a major hurricane batters the coast. He can't get the boat hauled out of the water before the storm hits, so he decides to single-handedly take it out far enough to escape the worst of it, which he does, barely.

Dick's life with his wife, May, and two sons is greatly complicated when he discovers that Elsie is pregnant with his child. Although May more or less forgives him, Dick doesn't quite know how to handle it. I guess the author tries to show that "all's well that ends well" when Dick apparently reaches some degree of acceptance of his lot and Else moves to Boston with a female friend where she plans to have the baby delivered.

Because of the Rhode Island scenes and the realistic portrayal of what Dick and his friends do for a living, I enjoyed most of the book. But I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through. The author, an English professor and graduate of Harvard Law School, had already published a novel to critical acclaim, but it seemed to me that in this book he frequently violated a cardinal rule of good fiction – show, don't tell. And sometimes he veered off into metaphysical gobbledegook. A couple of examples:

After a bit Dick said, "What is it? What is it, Elsie?" He thought she might be about to tell him she was pregnant. He felt his worry about her turn, just a little shift that changed it from being hard-pressed to being tender. (p. 295)

As if he were falling into her mind, he sensed a close darkness, and then, fresh and bare as a pulled-up root, her wish. It was so close to his senses it was as if he plunged his face into it. He felt the sting of her feelings like the smell of a root drilling up his nostrils. She wanted her child – and what she was going to do about having her child – to come out of what was good in her, and she wasn't sure what that was. Everything in her could go either way. For all her quick nerve, she still wasn't sure she'd absorbed enough good from doing a job, from living here, from wanting to be rooted in this heap of hills, rockbound ponds, scrub woods creased with streams running down to the salt marsh. ... (p. 315)

The smell of a root drilling up his nostrils? Hey, what? That kind of writing does not a good novel make. I'd give this one a C+, at best.

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (trans. by Edith Grossman (HarperCollins, 2003) (read 2005-2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I now know why this book is a classic. What a wonderfully entertaining novel! At 940 pages, it is probably too long and could be edited down to 500 or 600 pages without losing anything important. But I loved it, even laughed out loud at some points.

The whole point of this novel is to spoof the romantic notion of knights errant who travel the world righting wrongs, battling all kinds of evil creatures (human and otherwise), and rescuing and protecting fair damsels, who are always exceedingly beautiful and virtuous and worthy of being rescued and protected.

Don Quixote, an old bachelor from a little village in Spain, is crazy, but he is well-loved by his niece and his housekeeper, and by friends in the village. He reads nothing but ancient books of chivalry, believes the stories in them are all true and glorious, and so one day sets out, with a simple-hearted neighbor as his squire, to live the life of a knight errant. He is dressed in a comical suit of armor, with a wash basin for a helmet, and finds many "adventures," in most of which he is ingloriously defeated. For example, he sees in the distance 30 or 40 windmills, but he believes them to be giants; he charges into the first one at full gallop on his horse Rocinante, thrusts his lance into the sail, but the wind turned it with such force that it shatters the lance and picks up Don Quixote and his horse, throwing them battered to the ground. (pp. 58-59)

In his delusions, Don Quixote sees inns as castles, and has many funny and usually disastrous adventures in them. For example, see pp. 111-115, where the knight and his squire were sharing a room with a muledriver, who arranged for the innkeeper's daughter to come to him in the middle of the night. Don Quixote heard her come in and, thinking that the "daughter of the lord of the castle ... had fallen in love with him and had promised to steal away from her parents that night and come and lie with him for a time," grabbed her and sat her down to explain why he could not satisfy her desires because of "the promise of faithfulness that I have sworn to the incomparable Dulcinea of Toboso ...." The muledriver then attacked Don Quixote, the innkeeper was aroused and came charging into the room, the girl was afraid and jumped into Sancho's bed, who woke and thought he was being attacked. "And, as the old saying goes, the cat chased the rat, the rat chased the rope, the rope chased the stick: the muledriver hit Sancho, Sancho hit the girl, the girl his Sancho, the innkeeper hit the girl, and all of them acted so fast and furiously that they did not let up for an instant; then, the best part was that the innkeeper's lamp went out, and since they were in darkness, everyone hit everyone with so little mercy that wherever their hands landed they left nothing whole and sound." (pp. 111-115).

Even in his sleep, Don Quixote had adventures, like the one in which he attacked a skin of red wine hanging at the head of his bed, thinking it was the head of a giant. He slashed the wineskin open and thought the spilled wine was the blood of the giant. When Sancho called for help, the innkeeper and others hurried into Don Quixote's room, and "they discovered Don Quixote in the strangest outfit in the world. He was in his shirt, which was not long enough in front to cover his thighs completely, and in back it was shorter by a span of six fingers; he legs were very long and thin, hairy, and not particularly clean; on his head he wore a red, greasy nightcap that belonged to the innkeeper; wrapped around his left arm was the blanket from the bed ...; in his right hand he held his unsheathed sword and was slashing with it in all directions and shouting as if he really were fighting a giant. Best of all, he eyes were not open because he was sleeping and dreaming that he was doing battle with the giant .... He had slashed the wineskins so many times with his sword, thinking he was slashing the giant, that the entire room was covered in wine." (pp. 305-306)

Much of the charm of the novel is in the way the characters use tricks, practical jokes, and elaborate disguises to create the plot. Don Quixote is extremely gullible, and everything he does not really understand he chalks up to enchantment or magical powers. His squire, Sancho, is also gullible – he really believes that his service to Quixote will be rewarded by giving him the governorship of an "insula" – but at the same time is much more down to earth and practical. He knows that many of the things his master sees as enchantments are nothing of the kind, but he plays along with him as a faithful servant who perhaps realizes the limits of his own intelligence and therefore accepts as true what he really does not believe.

For example, after Don Quixote had fought with the wine skins, believing he was slaying a giant in order to return the Princess Micomicona to her throne, Sancho tries to explain the situation to his master.

"Madman, what are you saying?" replied Don Quixote. "Have you lost your mind?"

"Get up, your grace," said Sancho, "and you'll see what you've won and what we have to pay, and you'll see the queen transformed into an ordinary lady named Dorotea, and other changes that will amaze you, if you can see them for what they are."

"I shall not marvel at any of it," replied Don Quixote, "because, if you remember, the last time we were here I told you that all the things that occurred in this place were works of enchantment, and it would not surprise me if the same were true now."

Later, when Sancho says that the Queen of Micomicon was no more a queen than his mother, because he saw her hugging and kissing one of the men at the inn (who was actually her husband, Don Fernando), Don Quixote was overcome with rage and "with precipitate voice and stumbling tongue and fire blazing from his eyes, he said: ?Oh, base, lowborn, wretched, rude, ignorant, foul-mouthed, ill-spoken, slanderous, insolent varlet! You have dared to speak such words in my presence and in the presence of these distinguished ladies, dared to fill your befuddled imagination with such vileness and effrontery? Leave my presence, unholy monster, repository of lies, stronghold of falsehoods, storehouse of deceits, inventor of iniquities, promulgator of insolence, enemy of the decorum owed to these royal persons. Go, do not appear before me under pain of my wrath!'" (p. 401) Sancho scurries away, but Dorotea, "who by this time understood Don Quixote's madness very well," soothed things over and induced him to forgive his squire by saying that Sancho must have been enchanted to say such terrible things. (p. 402)

The barber and the priest from La Mancha, seeking to bring Don Quixote home and cure him of his madness, conspire to lock him in a cage and have him carted home b an ox driver. When they captured him while he was sleeping and put him in the cage, the barber, disguising his voice, issued a prophecy that Don Quixote interpreted to mean that he was "being promised a union in holy and sanctified matrimony with his beloved Dulcinea of Toboso" and therefore he endured his captivity. (p. 404) Sancho tried to explain to him what was happening, and that those who held him captive were the priest and barber from his home town, but Don Quixote insists that they only look like the priest and barber because of they have been enchanted. (pp. 419-420)

But Sancho, who sees through the so-called enchantment, has his own misperceptions of reality; for example, he tells the priest that he recognizes him through his disguise, but says if it weren't for the priest butting in, Don Quixote "would be married by now to Princess Micomicona and I'd be a count at least ...." (p. 410)

As the barber says, "... I'm not as astounded by the madness of the knight as I am by the simplicity of the squire, who has so much faith in the story of the insula that I don't believe all the disappointments imaginable will ever get it out of his head." The priest replies, "... it seems as if both were made from the same mold, and that the madness of the master, without the simplicity of the servant, would not be worth anything." (p. 470)

This is enough to give the flavor of the novel. Some other notes:

A well-to-do gentleman who meets Don Quixote on the road says he has "some six dozen books, some in Castilian and some in Latin, some historical and some devotional ...." (p. 554)

Sancho Panza, responding to an exceedingly flowery speech by the Dolorous Duenna, in which she asks for "that most unblemished knight Don Quixote of La Manchissima, and his most squirish Panza:"

"Panza," said Sancho before anyone else could respond, "is here, and Don Quixotissimo as well, and so, most dolorous duennissima, you can say whatever you wishissima, for we're all ready and most prepared to be your most servantish servantissimos." (p. 706)

When Sancho, anticipating the governorship that has been promised to him, admits that he can neither read nor write, Don Quixote says, "... you must know, Sancho, that a man not knowing how to read, or being left-handed, means one of two things: either he was the child of parents who were too poor and lowborn, or he was so mischievous and badly behaved himself that he could not absorb good habits or good instruction." (p. 735)

Don Quixote's advice to Sancho not to use so many proverbs in his speech – pp. 733-736. Actually, they both use proverbs, maxims, and folklore throughout the book. Word-play is a big part of the charm of the novel.

Sancho gets his governorship, an elaborate practical joke, but when he is seated in the judge's seat in a courtroom, and three cases are brought before him, he renders Solomonic decisions. See pp. 748-752.

When Sancho tells Don Quixote that he is not very good looking: "You should know, Sancho," responded Don Quixote, "that there are two kinds of beauty: one of the soul and the other of the body; that of the soul is found and seen in one's understanding, chastity, virtuous behavior, liberality, and good breeding, and all of these qualities can exist and reside in an ugly man; and when a person looks at this beauty, and not at that of the body, an intense and advantageous love is engendered. I see very clearly, Sancho, that I am not handsome, but I also know that I am not deformed; it is enough for a virtuous man not to be a monster to be well-loved, if he has the endowments of the soul which I have mentioned to you." (p. 836)

All good things must come to an end, and finally I finished this wonderful novel. I leave it a bit sadly, because I would like to read it again but in all probability I never will. It's just too long and there's too much else to read. But reading it once was a joy!

Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins (Random House, 2001) (read summer & fall, 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Poetry is not really my thing, but I thought I'd better give it another try and so I read this volume of poems by the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins.

I liked it. I read them one by one, seldom two at a time. I see how poets evoke feelings and memories by a judicious choice of words; how the jarring of incompatible scenes put together can in itself provoke thought.

Yes, maybe I should read some more poetry.

Mr. Bridge, Evan S. Connell (North Point Press, 1959) (read August 1991)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the companion novel to Mrs. Bridge, and it shows the lives of the Bridge family from the husband's point of view. He is a classic midwestern WASP, morally rigid, highly opinionated, prejudiced without recognizing it, very materialistic, and generally without a clue as to what life's all about. Absorbing and depressing.

Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell (North Point Press, 1959) (read winter 1991)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An unusual character study of a proper, nice, upper-middle-class woman, surrounded by other proper, nice, upper-middle-class women, married to a lawyer who gives her everything she wants or needs except himself, who raises three children she doesn't understand, whose life is so empty she often spends half the morning just wondering what to do that day, and who ultimately finds herself a lonely widow, trapped by the cocoon of a life she has constructed (or slid into). The novel is unusual in that it consists of 117 brief chapters, some only a paragraph long, each one relating some incident in Mrs. Bridge's life. Together these cameos comprise a kind of biographical mosaic.

The book is very well written and absorbing to read, although it has a depressing end – elderly Mrs. Bridge, now living alone, was backing out of the garage in the huge old Lincoln her husband had given her; the car stalled in such a position that the doors were blocked by the sides of the garage doorway. Since she couldn't re-start the car, and the horn wouldn't work:

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called to anyone who might be listening, "Hello? Hello out there?"

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Coroner's Lunch, The, Colin Cotterill (Soho Press, 2004) (read fall 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A mystery set in Laos, with a doctor turned coroner as the detective, and a host of characters, mostly Lao and Vietnamese, so many that I got confused.

Enjoyable read, but I find the magical elements – amulets, visions, ghosts – somewhat disconcerting, like reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Parts of it are humorous, and the characters are pretty interesting. Obviously the author, who has lived in Laos and other southeastern Asian countries, has learned a lot about medicine, especially anatomy and physiology.

Basically, however, I just don't get into mysteries that much, and I probably won't read any of his others.

Mapmaker's Dream, A, James Cowan (Warner Books, 1996) (read summer 1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Subtitled "The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice," this is a strange and, to me, disappointing novel. It purports to tell the story of a sixteenth-century monk who sits in his monastery cell composing a map of the world. How does a solitary monk get his information to construct a map of the world? People who have travelled come to him and relate their experiences and ideas. And the map Fra Mauro is making is not simply a map of the physical world but includes all sorts of ideas and feelings and concepts brought to him and filtered through his own dogmas and prejudices. He loves "the beauty of rhumb lines and wind roses," and adds all kinds of esoteric information to his map, until at one point he says, "Needless to say, this map of mine has grown out of all proportion to its size. The four corners of the globe are now filled with an indescribable array of knowledge that previously I would have considered outside its purview."

Not much of a plot, certainly, but there are some interesting things about it. I think I was drawn to the book because of the footnotes, which are historical annotations, apparently genuine, about people or events mentioned in the text. One of the themes of the book is reflected by Fra Mauro's frequent lament that he is not courageous or adventuresome enough to travel and experience life himself but has to settle for doing it vicariously through those who come to him to tell of their travels. Another theme, which I have a hard time understanding, is that the world is really only what people imagine it to be, and that it changes only in human consciousness.

Authors beginning with the letter "D"
Lyre of Orpheus, The, Robertson Davies (Viking, 1989) (read fall 1997)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The third book in the Cornish trilogy. Like the others, this is wonderfully entertaining and displays a vast knowledge of (or research into) many fields, especially art, art history, music, opera, and theater. Arthur Cornish, banker and heir of his rich uncle Frank, and his wife Maria, former graduate student of Gypsy descent, set up the Cornish Foundation to spend money left by his uncle and to further the arts as patrons. They decide, with others on the Board of the Foundation, to underwrite the presentation of an opera begun (barely) but never completed by an 18th century composer, E.T.A. Hoffman. Hulda Schnakenburg, a brilliant but snotty graduate student with Lutheran fundamentalist parents, undertakes to write the music as her doctoral thesis.

In the course of this project many new characters are introduced and, for the most part, are fleshed out and become real to the author. However, I didn't think Hulda ("Schnak") was too believable, and her parents are caricatures of fundamentalists. As a fantastic or surreal touch, the original author, Hoffman, appears at different points as an observer from "limbo", but this is sparingly done and not disruptive.

The name of the opera is "Arthur of Britain, or The Magnaminous Cuckold," based on the tale of King Arthur who forgave his best friend Lancelot for seducing Guenevere, his wife. In a clever and almost-believable way, Arthur Cornish is cuckolded by Geraint Powell, the producer of the opera, who sneaks into Maria's bed, wearing Arthur's dressing-gown, when Arthur is away. And of course Arthur responds magnaminously.

Davies may not be in the first rank of authors, but he's up there pretty close. He knows how to tell a story, he creates unusual and (usually) believable characters, and he explores great issues like the role of art, and religion, truth vs. deception, and so on. I like reading him very much.

Rebel Angels, The, Robertson Davies (Penguin paperback, orig. 1982) (read winter, spring 1997)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A well-written, somewhat bizarre novel, the first of a trilogy, by an extremely erudite Canadian author. The story, set in a Canadian university (College of St. John and the Holy Ghost, nicknamed "Spook"), is difficult to summarize so I will just list some of the characters: Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a graduate student studying the French humorist Rabelais, falls in (mostly platonic) love with a professor (Clement Hollier), and then with a chaplain (Father Simon Darcourt), and finally marries a wealthy businessman (Arthur Cornish), the nephew of a rich deceased collector of art treasures, which he left to the University and in which several of the professors are very much interested. Maria is of Magyar Gypsy descent, and her mother, Mamusia, and her uncle Yerko are brought into the plot. A real wierdo, John Parlabane, an old classmate of Hollier's, whose face is scarred by a childhood injury and who is apparently homosexual, shows up and more or less dominates Maria until, toward the end of the book, he commits suicide.

The writing is brilliant, scatalogical, humorous and even theological. The author is incredibly knowledgeable about many things. I hope to read the next two books in the trilogy.

What's Bred in the Bone, Robertson Davies (Penguin paperback, orig. 1985) (read spring, summer 1997)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The second book of the Cornish trilogy. Not quite as good as the first (Rebel Angels) but still very entertaining, displaying the author's incredibly broad knowledge, especially about art and art history. The timing is peculiar, as this book consists largely of a long flashback to things that take place before the first book in the series. Basically it is the life of the rich, stingy, eccentric art collector (and secret artist) Francis Cornish, who is also, at least for a time, a member of the British secret service keeping an eye on Nazi activities.

Although Davies is a good novelist, he does at times use highly improbable coincidences to bring off his plots. In this book, for example, Zadok, the undertaker in Frank's small village in Canada who shows a great deal of tenderness towards Frank's brain-damaged younger brother (the "Looner"), turns out to be the soldier who impregnated Frank's mother in a London hotel and so was actually the Looner's father.

White Noise, Don DeLillo (Penguin Books, 1985) (read September, 2012)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Don DeLillo is an amazing writer, but that does not mean that this is a great novel. I would say it is a very good novel, with exceptional writing, but the plot is somewhat unlikely and tends toward the melodramatic ("I woke in the grip of a death sweat" (p. 47).

It's about a professor at a midwestern college, Jack Gladney; his fourth wife, Babette; his, her, and their children; and his friend from New York City, an unmarried visiting professor, Murray Siskind. Jack teaches in the Hitler Studies department, a field he invented, and struggles to understand and relate to his family as well as to life itself.

Jack's overriding fear, and that of Babette, is of death. This is the theme that permeates the book. A toxic cloud is released over their town; Jack is exposed more than the others, and tests positive (apparently) for some kind of ultimately fatal disease, although he won't know for sure for 30 years.

Although initially this scenario seems plausible, it becomes too much of a dominating motif. It is carried much too far; even on the second-last page of the book the men in Mylex suits are in the area, "gathering their terrible data" about toxicity. (p. 309)

There are a number of other quirks that I found disconcerting, although my reaction might just show that I like old-fashioned novels and don't care much for modernist fiction. For example, sprinkled throughout the book are excepts from radio and TV announcements that seem out of context. A friend of Jack's son, named Orest Mercator, is training to set a world record for endurance for sitting in a cage of poisonous snakes, which seems like a silly side anecdote to me.

Finally, the end of the novel is bizarre – I don't know whether it is a dream or reality – but it is, at best, inconclusive.

However, I do think there is some great writing in this book. His descriptions of people and everyday events are vivid and believable. For example, he describes Jack's visits to the grocery store and what he sees seems so real. And here's an extended example of his descriptive power:

    That night I walked the streets of Blacksmith. The glow of blue-eyed TV's. The voices on the touch-tone phones. Far away the grandparents huddle in a chair, eagerly sharing the receiver as carrier waves modulate into audible signals. It is the voice of their grandson, the growing boy whose face appears in the snapshots set around the phone. Joy rushes to their eyes but it is misted over, infused with a sad and complex knowing. What is the youngster saying to them? His wretched complexion makes him unhappy? He wants to leave school and work full-time at Foodland, bagging groceries? He tells them he likes to bag groceries. It is the one thing in life he finds satisfying Put the gallon jugs in first, square off the six-packs, double-bag the heavy merch. He does it well, he has the knack, he sees the items arranged in the bag before he touches a thing. It's like Zen, grampa. I snap out two bags, fit one inside the other. Don't bruise the fruit, watch the eggs, put the ice cream in a freezer bag. A thousand people pass me every day but no one ever sees me. I like it, gramma, it's totally unthreatening, it's how I want to spend my life. And so they listen sadly, loving him all the more, their faces pressed against the sleek Trimline, the white Princess in the bedroom, the plain brown Rotary in granddad's paneled basement hideaway. The old gentleman runs a hand through his thatch of white hair, the woman holds her folded specs against her face. (pp. 267-68)

A final comment. It seems odd to me that in a novel about fear of death there is so little mention of God or religion. His friend Murray, who talks to him about fear of death (and a great many other things) does tell him at one point that he "can always get around death by concentrating on the life beyond" and says "you can find a great deal of long-range solace in the idea of an afterlife," but when Jack says, "But don't I have to believe?" Murray's answer is, essentially, no, just "[R]ead up on reincarnation, transmigration, hyper-space, the resurrection of the dead and so on." (pp. 272-73)

I'm glad I read this book, but I don't have any great desire to read DeLillo's other novels. Based on this one, I would say his writing is highly and even beautifully descriptive, but ultimately pointless.

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See separate review.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens (orig. 185?, Heritage Press Ed., 1942) (read 2014-2015)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This mid-19th century novel is classic Dickens, with memorable characters, an absorbing plot, and vivid details. It is also maddingly sentimental, filled with many "sweet, dear girl" expressions, clinging hugs, and romantic visions.

The story centers on two wards of the High Court of Chancery, Ada Clare and her cousin, Richard Carstone. It is told by Esther Summerson, an orphan who was placed by Mr. Kenge, of Kenge and Carboy, representing John Jarndyce, one of the principals in the famous case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in a school for training, basically to be a servant. She became the companion for Ada.

After the death of Ada's godmother (really her aunt, her sole relation), John Jarndyce of Bleak House, a bachelor, was appointed as guardian for Ada and her cousin Richard. Mr. Kenge, of Kenge and Carboy, the solicitor for Mr. Jarndyce, arranged for Esther to live at Bleak House as a companion for Ada.

Dickens includes many images that are really metaphors for the interminable proceedings in the Court of Chancery and the hopelessness of those who come before it. For example, there is an apparently unbalanced old woman who for years has showed up every day the court is in session, holding her documents, and hoping for her cause to be heard. She induces Esther, Ada and Richard to visit her lodgings, which are over the shop of Krook, Rag and Bottle Warehouse, a dark dingy place where everything – paper, bottles, rags, clothing, even bones and hair – is bought and stored, but nothing is ever sold (like Chancery, nothing ever comes out of it). (pp. 60-69)

Tragedy strikes Esther. She gets very sick, goes blind, and is shut up in her room for a long time, away from Ada although lovingly tended by her apprentice maid, Charley, Mr. Jarndyce, and others. One day her sight is restored, but she refuses to look in a mirror because she knows her face is disfigured. When Mr. Jarndyce arranges for her to go away to the empty house of a friend, Esther finally looks in a mirror and sees that although her face is very much changed, she can accept it. Then, in a dramatic scene, Mrs. Dedlock finds her and reveals that she is, in fact, Esther's mother; that she was apparently an illegitimate baby, thought dead when born but rescued and raised by her aunt, with no knowledge of her mother. Mrs. Dedlock's haughtiness is a mask covering her guilt, and she says she will never get over it, although she gives Esther a letter with all the details, asking that it be destroyed but allowing her to share it with Mr. Jarndyce.

However, Bleak House also has some of the weaknesses of other Dickens novels, like silly names for people ("Lord Coodle" and "Sir Thomas Doodle," leaders in the government). (pp. 543-544) Also, descriptions of people – caricatures, really – who could not possibly be that way in real life. Take, for example, Harold Skimpole, a charming, childish man who had no concept of money or responsibilities and whose idea of the universe is that

It should be strewn with roses; it should lie through bowers, where there was no spring, autumn, nor winter, but perpetual summer. Age or change should never wither it. The base word money should never be breathed near it. (p. 82)

Many of the other characters are also drawn in extremes, like Mrs. Jellyby, who fervently sought to help the natives in Africa, especially the natives of Borrioboola-Gha on the left bank of the Niger, but utterly neglected her own family (pp. 46-57); Mrs. Pardiggle, who did not neglect her family but on the contrary imprisoned them in her vocal benevolence (e.g. giving her sons allowances but then compelling them to donate the entire amount to one charity or another, such as the Tockahoopo Indians). She dragged her five sons with her as she visited and admonished the poor in the village, such as the brickmaker who beat his wife and whose daughter cradled a dead baby in her arms (pp. 109-118).

Bleak House quotes. On what the solicitors offer to the High Court of Chancery in the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce: "bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, master' reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them." (p.16) "The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings." (p. 520)

And the atmosphere of early industrial England:

As he [George Rouncewell] comes into the iron country ... coalpits and ashes, high chimneys and red bricks, blighted verdure, scorching fires, and a heavy never-lightening cloud of smoke, become the features of the scenery. ... He comes to a gateway in the brick wall, looks in, and sees a great perplexity of iron lying about, in every state, and in a vast variety of shapes; in bars, in wedges, in sheets; in tanks, in boilers, in axles, in wheels, in cogs, in cranks, in rails; twisted and wrenched into eccentric and perverse forms, as separate parts of machinery; mountains of it broken-up, and rusty in its age; distant furnaces of it glowing and bubbling in its youth; bright fireworks of it showering about, under the blows of the steam hammer; red-hot iron, white-hot iron, cold-black iron; an iron taste, an iron smell, and a Babel of iron sounds. (pp. 813, 814)

Dickens doesn't miss many opportunities to make sly digs at Christians or churches or missionaries; for example, as he says of ragged Jo, the street sweeper, when he eats a crust of bread for breakfast on the doorstep of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, "He has no idea, poor wretch, of the spiritual destitution of a coral reef in the Pacific, or what it costs to look up the precious souls among the cocoa-nuts and bread-fruit." (p. 22)

My final take on this book: despite its weaknesses, it is so interesting, so amazingly plotted, and so alive with people and atmosphere, that I would almost call it a great novel. At least it is very, very good, and I'm glad I read it.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (Barnes & Noble Classic) (read summer-fall, 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A really good novel! Pip, a poor orphan being raised by his bossy sister and her mild-mannered husband, Joe, is selected to be changed into a gentleman, apparently one fit for beautiful Estella.

Pip thinks the one who selected (and paid for) him to become a gentleman is the weird and rich spinster, Estella's aunt, Miss Havisham, who has got to be one of the most memorable characters in fiction. She was stood up at the altar by her intended bridegroom, and ever since she has lived as a recluse and has never changed anything since her wedding day. She wears her now-yellowed bridal gown, a moldy wedding cake is on the table, and no light ever penetrates the interior of her gloomy mansion.

When Pip comes back from London to see her, after his elevation in status to a young gentlemen, and also sees Estella, more beautiful and proud and haughty than ever, Miss Haversham tells him to "Love her, love her, love her!" Then she says, "?I'll tell you,' said she, in the same hurried passionate whisper, ?what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter – as I did!'" (p. 231)

One of the reasons I think this is a really good novel is because the plot is so ingenious. I've read that there are no new plots – just a set number of plots that are reworked in every novel – but I have never read a novel with so many unexpected and yet artful twists and turns. The main one, of course, is the revelation that Pip's patron is not Miss Haversham but rather the rough convict he had helped as a boy when he smuggled a file to him so he could file off his leg irons. Then at the end there is another jolt, as Pip, bereft of his fortune, returns home in hopes of marrying Biddy, and arrives on the day of her wedding – to Joe! In reading most novels I have just been content to enjoy the unfolding of a vaguely familiar story, but this one I kept wondering what's going to happen next? How is it going to turn out? I think Dickens was a genius.

I'm not sure this is a great novel, however. Some of the unexpected happenings are a little too clever; for example, when Pip was tricked by responding to a letter into coming to a remote "sluice house" where he was attacked and tied up by his boyhood enemy Orlick, he was rescued just in time by his friend Herbert who just "happened" to find the letter that Pip "happened" to drop in his apartment before leaving town. (pp. 398-408)

As to be expected in a Dickens novel, his characters are memorable: in addition to Miss. Haversham, he gives us Joe Gargery, Pip's brother-in-law, the humble, loving, inarticulate blacksmith; Uncle Pumblechook, "a large hard-breathing middle-aged slow man, with a mouth like a fish, dull staring eyes, and sandy hair standing upright on his head, so that he look as if he had just been all but choked, and had that moment come to," (p. 31) who always took credit for Pip's "great expectations"; Jaggers, the heartless, efficient, successful lawyer, and Wemmick, his obsequious clerk, who kept track of Jagger's money; Herbert, Pip's faithful roommate, whom Pip secretly sets up in business so he can marry his girl friend, Miss Clara Barley; Provis, the convict whom Pip helped when just a boy, who turns out to be Pip's benefactor, and so on.

All in all, a wonderfully entertaining story by a master!

Brothers Karamazov, The, Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics Ed., 1991) (read spring 1992)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is one of the really great novels of the world, the story of a disolute and sensual man, Fyodor Karamazov, and this three sons, Ivan, brilliant, well-educated, and cynical; Dmitri, sensual, like his father, but torn by questions of honor and faith, very emotional and hot-blooded; and Alyosha, pure, saintly, and perhaps naive. Another man having an important role in the story, Smerdyakov, is likely to be Fyodor's illegitimate son.

The novel is divided into four parts, each made up of four books, with the books divided into varying numbers of chapters and even subchapters. It also has an introduction by the author and an epilogue. The basic plot of the story concerns the rivalry between the father, Fyodor Karamazov, and his son Dmitri, over the same woman, Grushenka, and Dmitri's obsession with getting 3,000 rubles he believes his father owes him from his mother's estate. He needs the money to take Grushenka away, whereas his father is using the same amount (although probably not Dmitri's) to coax Grushenka to him. Dmitri swears in a drunken rage that he will kill his father if necessary to get the money, and subsequently if father is found dead with his head bashed in and the envelope that apparently contained the $3,000 rubles torn open and empty.

The genius in this story is that while the reader is let in on the fact that the illegitimate son Smerdyakov killed Fyodor, it is completely logical for the jury to find, as it did, that Dmitri killed him. In fact, Ivan might well have killed him too. Throughout the whole story there are many explicit and implicit references to the Bible, which is quoted and misquoted by various characters, and the whole story is soaked in Russian Orthodox Christian culture. The moral seems to be that everyone, especially Fyodor, reaps what he sowed. There is also a parallel between the four sons and the four soils of the parable told by Jesus. And some great philosophical discussions involving Ivan and Alyosha, and the marvelous mysterious "poem" of Ivan's called the Grand Inquisitor.

Authors beginning with the letter "E"

Jim the Boy, Tony Earley (Little, Brown & Co., 2000) (read Jan. 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A simple, well-written novel about a year in the life of a 10-11 year old boy, Jim Glass, in North Carolina about 1930. Only 227 pages long, in relatively large print, this book reminded me of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

There is not much of a plot, but some real tragedies occur, complicating Jim's life. First, his father died of a heart attach at age 23, just before Jim was born. He is being raised by his mother, Cissy, with the close help of her three unmarried brothers, two of whom are twins. Jim's father had been estranged from his father, who had been imprisoned for illegally making and selling whiskey, and Cissy would not let Jim meet his grandfather, until Jim was 11 and his grandfather was dying. At that time Jim's uncles took him to see his grandfather at his run-down home in the mountains.

Another tragedy occurred when a classmate friend and competitor, Penn Carson, was crippled with polio. Other momentous events in Jim's life included taking a trip with his uncle Zeno to see the ocean, and the coming of electricity to Jim's hometown.

Name of the Rose, The, Umberto Eco (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, 1983) (read August 1985)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An absorbing murder mystery set in a 14th century monastery, containing enormous amounts of information about monasteries and life in general at that time, particularly as it swirled around religious and political controversies involving rival popes, emperors, theologians, and scholars. The vocabulary is incredibly broad (how did the translator do it?) and some of the discussions are about subtle and arcane points of religion and philosophy that I didn't follow too well. Though translated from Italian, many phrases and quotations are in Latin or other languages, most of which I could not decipher.

But the story keeps moving, and sure enough, at the end the visiting Franciscan scholar at the monastery has solved the half dozen or so murders and other crimes, although there is no triumphant ending: the murderer manages to kill himself and, through an accident, the library and whole monastery burns to the ground.

All in all, an impressive and entertaining book, displaying vast learning (and/or research) on the part of the author. It is not easy to read, however, and I found that I had to jot down the names of some of the more important characters on the inside cover in order to keep them straight.

Silas Marner, George Eliot (Kindle) (read Jan. 2015)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This story is about a linen-weaver, Silas Marner, who was a loner and furthermore had occasional cataleptic fits, but he was engaged to be married to a young woman named Sarah. He also had a best friend, William, but this friend unaccountably accused him, wrongfully, of stealing a sum of money from the church. When the leaders of the church, by casting lots, determined that Silas was guilty, Sarah broke off their engagement. In little more than a month she married William and Silas moved away from the village.

Silas became a hermit and a miser in a primitive, remote village. He earned his living by going around taking orders for cloth from the wives in wealthier households. He worshiped the money he made, every night taking it out of the hiding place in his small cottage and counting it over and over. But then another treasure came into his life and turned it around completely.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll just say that through a tragic accident, the mother of a little baby died in the woods, and the baby crawled into the open door of Silas's cottage. She grew up as "Eppie", believing that Silas was her father, and they loved each other in a way that utterly transformed him. When Eppie grew up and was about to be married, her real father – until then unknown to everyone except himself – claimed her as his daughter, which produced great torment in Silas's life. But it all worked out in the end ... to find out how you'll have to read the book.

This short novel is a bit maudlin, the characters are all drawn in black-and-white with little moral ambiguity. But it is very enjoyable to read and raises some pretty deep issues about self-worth and judgment, faith and forgiveness.

Samurai, Shusaku Endo (Vintage paperback, orig. 1984) (read December 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I would say this is a great novel, although it may be just great for me; in other words, that is my subjective assessment. I loved this book, but the subject matter – the fate of Roman Catholic missionaries to Japan in the 17th century – is probably not of interest to many people, even to many Christians.

Based on a true story, this novel by the Japanese Christian author Shusako Endo is set early in the 17th century. Rokuemon Hasekura, a samurai, or low level landowner, is chosen to accompany a Franciscan priest, Father Velasco, on a special venture to Mexico in a Japanese-built ship. Three other envoys, of the same rank as Hasekura, are also chosen for this mission, and a number of Japanese sailors and Japanese merchants accompany them.

One reason for the trip is to return a number of Mexican sailors to their homeland after their ship was wrecked on the coast of Japan. In an audacious plan, the Japanese, who had never built a ocean-going ship, built one with the help of the stranded Mexican sailors. But it was not from pure altruism that the Japanese decided to do this. They also wanted to open up their area of Japan to trade, and for that they would need a port to rival that of Nagasaki.

Another reason, motivating not the Japanese but the Franciscan missionaries, was to dangle the prospect of trade between Japan and Mexico before the local Japanese authorities in exchange for permission to freely evangelize in that part of Japan. Since the only person available who spoke both Japanese and Spanish was Father Velasco, he was allowed, or chosen, to go on the journey as an interpreter.

Father Velasco is proud and ambitious. He wants to be named bishop of Japan, but is troubled by his own ambition. He especially doesn't like the Jesuits, who were the first missionaries to Japan, because he thinks they ruined evangelism in Japan by their aggressive approach, which alarmed the Japanese and resulted in Christianity being banned in many parts of Japan, including the capital city, Edo (present-day Tokyo). Father Velasco is allowed to stay in Edo, along with another Franciscan priest, only because his services as a translator are valuable to the Japanese.

The trip was dangerous, with two fierce storms that took the lives of several Japanese. Hasekura was from the a marshland or plains area of Japan, and had never even seen the ocean. He could not even imagine other countries and peoples. He and the other Japanese aboard were often terrified.

But finally they reached Mexico, landing at Acupulco before traveling overland to Mexico City. They were not warmly welcomed. But through the guile and even dishonesty of Father Velasco, most of the merchants are "converted" to Christianity and baptized in a huge ceremony that gladdens the hearts of the Mexican hierarchy and eases – but does not completely overcome – the difficult path to obtaining full trading privileges.

Although Father Velasco knew that the "Viceroy of Nueva Espana" did not have authority to grant permission for trade with Japan, he does get permission to go to Madrid himself, with the Japanese envoys, to wangle such permission. Then he deceives and manipulates three of the four envoys into accompanying him. The other one, Matsuki, stayed in Mexico so he could return to Japan with the Japanese merchants.

Before leaving for Spain, Father Velasco ruminates:

I recite Mass at the monastery and give Communion to the newly-baptized Japanese merchants. They have most definitely become Christians for the sake of profit, but whatever their motives, they have come into contact with God. Those who have encountered God cannot flee His presence. Thanks to their baptism, these Japanese merchants have been able to sell their wares to the traders here, and in turn they have purchased plentiful amounts of wool and fabrics. Four months from now they will load these goods onto the ship and go back to Japan to realize a healthy profit." (p. 110)

Later, he reflects:

In Mexico City the Japanese merchants converted to Christianity, but it was not from their hearts. They did it for profit. But I accepted that. Because I believed that those who accept the name of the Lord even once will eventually become His captives. (p. 146)

However, he has nagging doubts about this. He hears a voice sounding in his ears:

What you are trying to do now? To baptize men who do not believe in the Lord, for your own benefit, is a blasphemy and a profanation It is an act of arrogance, and through the sacrament of baptism you heap the sins of unbelievers upon the Lord. (p. 146)

Overcoming these doubts, Father Velasco manipulates the three Japanese envoys into being baptized. (pp. 170, 172-175) Apparently he believes that the physical ceremony of baptism is efficacious to make Christians of nonbelievers. He says, "When an individual receives baptism, no matter what the circumstances, the power of that sacrament supersedes his own will." (p. 255) That seems highly unlikely to me, but is it possible that undergoing baptism and learning something about the Bible and ritually going to Mass can have some long-lasting benefits? It's not saving faith, but can it lead to saving faith? Or is it more likely that the reaction to being manipulated and cajoled into being baptized will make them even more anti-Christian?

In addition to being proud and ambitious, Father Velasco is also conniving and even ruthless. He says,

Missionary work is like diplomacy. Indeed it resembles the conquest of a foreign land. In missionary work, as in diplomacy, one must have recourse to subterfuge and strategy, threatening at times, compromising at others – if such tactics serve to advance the spreading of God's word, I do not regard them as despicable or loathsome. At times one has to close one's eyes to certain things for the sake of sharing the gospel. (p. 97)

He cites the example of Cortez, who landed in Mexico in 1519 and with a handful of soldiers he captured and killed multitudes of Indians. Father Velasco acknowledges that, "In light of God's teachings, no one could call such acts proper." But then he says that, as a result of Cortez, "today countless Indians have come into contact with the word of our Lord, and have thereby been saved from their savage ways and begun to walk the paths of righteousness." (p. 97)

In my opinion, the result of this kind of evangelizing has been to spread a thin veneer of Christianity over a pagan culture, with very little evidence of true life-changing faith. For example, when the Japanese travel through a village of "converted" Indians, Father Velasco queries the village headman before the Japanese. He asks, "What have you people learned from the padres who come here?" The answer: "We have learned to read and write. And to speak Spanish ... [a]nd how to sow seeds and cultivate a field. And how to tan leather." (pp. 93-94)

Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll say that Father Velasco fails in his ambitious undertaking, the Japanese with him are returned to Japan, and he is assigned to a quiet administrative post at a monastery in Manila ... until he decides to sneak back to Japan, where he is promptly apprehended and ... (you can guess the rest).

Some take-away thoughts: First, Father Velasco, for all his misguided theology, has a passion to serve God and see the Japanese serving him too. At one point, he says (to himself):

For the past few days, I have been turning to Corinthians and pondering the tribulations of St. Paul on his missionary journeys. "In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the wilderness, in perils on the sea," the Apostle writes. All for the purpose of bringing the teachings of God to the heathen peoples. Like Paul, I begrudge not "watchings often, hunger and thirst and cold." Because for me there is Japan. Those tiny islands, shaped like a unicorn, are the lands which the Lord has given me to conquer, the battlefield where I must fight. (p.112)

Second, there is at least one clear hint in his novel that the author believes that one can be a Christian without buying into the Roman Catholic rituals. After the Japanese make it to Mexico City, and learn that they cannot complete their mission there, they are confounded when they meet a Japanese man living in one of the nearby villages. Turns out he is a former monk, who first says that he has abandoned Christianity (p. 105). Later, he denies abandoning Christianity. After severely criticizing the padres for preaching God's mercy and love while ignoring the sufferings of the Indians, he explains, "No, no, I am still a Christian. It's just that ... I don't believe in the Christianity the padres preach. ... I believe in my own Jesus. My Jesus is not to be found in the palatial cathedrals. He lives among these miserable Indians .... That is what I believe." (p. 120)

Third, this novel shows how difficult it is for people with deeply ingrained traditional beliefs to accept the Lord. It is not, in some societies (like Japan), just a personal decision. When pressed by Father Velasco in Madrid to become a Christian, the samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, thinks about the hymn of praise that his uncle back home had often chanted:

When he had finished chanting the hymn, his uncle would always repeat, "Praise to the Amida Buddha. Praise to the Amida Buddha," over and over again in a low voice, and a look of relief would appear on his face. The samurai could almost hear his voice now. Yes, in the marshland everything was as one. The samurai did not intone such hymns himself, but he could not abandon the faith revered by his father and his uncle. That would be tantamount to betraying his own flesh and blood, betraying the marshland. (pp. 152-153)

Father Velasco's opponent in a crucial debate in Madrid, Father Valente, the head of the Jesuits, echoes this view:

The Japanese never live their lives as individuals. We European missionaries were not aware of that fact. Suppose we have a single Japanese here. We try to convert him. But there was never a single individual we could call "him" in Japan. He has a village behind him. A family. And more. There are also his dead parents and ancestors. That village, that family, those parents and ancestors are bound to him tightly, as though they were living beings. That is why he is not an isolated human being. He is an aggregate who must shoulder the burden of village, family, parents, ancestors. (p. 164)

Fourth, this novel also shows how weird the gospel seemed to the Japanese, even when they correctly understood it. Thus the author describes the thoughts of the samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, while he is sitting in the cathedral in Madrid, waiting to be baptized,

To the samarai, the life of Jesus seemed bizarre. Without ever knowing a man, his mother had given birth to him in a stable, and when it was all finished she had quietly become the wife of a carpenter. Yet from the time of his birth Jesus had been appointed as the king who would save men and nations, and answering the call of Heaven he had abandoned his native land and practiced the ascetic life under a priest named John. At length Jesus returned to his own country, acquired many disciples, showed forth wondrous works before the multitudes and taught them how to live. Because of his great following, he was hated by the Church and the priests, endured much tribulation, and was falsely sentenced to death and executed. Jesus recognized this as the appointed way of Heaven, and submitted to these indignities without resistance. Then, three days later, he was restored to life in the tomb and ascended to Heaven. (p. 173)

Although it is certainly possible to quibble about the details, what the samarai understands is essentially the Christian gospel. Shusaku Endo makes clear just how foreign this is to a someone without a Christian heritage. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing ...." and "God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe." (1 Cor. 1:18, 21)

The final word: I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I went back over parts of it several times. It is well-written, exciting, and deeply meaningful ... at least to me.

Silence, Shusaku Endo (Taplinger Pub. Co., copyright 1969) (read Jan.-Mar. 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A wonderful, thought-provoking novel about the persecution of Roman Catholic missionaries in Japan in the seventeenth century. The title refers to God's silence in the face of the incredible torture and suffering of his priests and people that occurred after all missionaries were expelled from Japan in 1614 and Christianity became a banned religion.

Three young Portuguese priests decide to sneak into Japan to find their former seminary professor and mentor, Christovao Ferreira, and to minister to underground Japanese Catholics. Sebastian Rodrigues survives but is captured and, like the others, is ordered to trample on the "fumie," an image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, or face torture and death. He refuses to do so, but ultimately recants his faith, not because of his own suffering but because his wily Japanese tormentors decide to torture Japanese Christians in his sight and/or hearing until he can't stand it any more. Furthermore, he does find Father Ferreira, the missionary he came to Japan to look for, but discovers that the rumors of his abandoning the faith are true; he recanted under torture.

Gradually I realized as I was reading this book that it paralleled the story of Jesus' arrest, beating and death, though there is no physical death for Rodrigues. But there is a Judas figure, Kichijiro, who betrays Christians but hangs on to a thread of faith and seeks out Rodrigues even after he has renounced the faith to ask him to hear his confession. The two former priests, Ferreira and Rodrigues, are given Japanese names and even the wives and families of deceased Japanese, and they are given some tasks involving writing. But they are each so guilt-ridden that there is no triumph for them, even though they may still secretly believe. See p. 143, where Ferreira tries so hard to justify his present worth. ("... So I am not useless in this country. I can perform some service. I can!")

This would make a great book for a discussion group. The fact that it was written by a Japanese Christian makes it even more compelling than if it were written by a non-believer.

Wonderful Fool, Shusaku Endo (Harper & Row, orig. 1974) (read fall 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A really good but flawed novel by a Japanese Christian writer, who also wrote the more horrifying – but equally absorbing – novel Silence.

This is the story of Gaston Bonaparte, a Frenchman and actual descendant of Napoleon, who is tall, ungainly, ugly (often described as having a "horse face" or "potato face"), and appears to be a simpleton. He arrives in Japan for a visit of unannounced duration and initially stays in Tokyo with a former pen-pal, Takamori, his sister, Tomoe, his mother, Shitzu, and a maid, Matchan.

Gaston, soon called "Gas," behaves strangely right from the beginning. His Japanese is limited, and through a humorous mix-up he thinks a Japanese loin cloth is a napkin, which he ties around his neck before eating in a sushi shop. He befriends a stray dog, which he names Napoleon, and feeds it. And he decides to leave his hosts' home and wander out into Tokyo alone to meet other kinds of Japanese, even though he had already been beaten by a thug when seeing the sights of Tokyo at night with Takamori, Tomoe, and a fried of hers from work, Osako.

Gas has all kinds of adventures in the low-life of Japan, helping and being befriended by prostitutes, before being kidnapped by a notorious Japanese gangster, Endo, who is on a mission to murder a man he believes was responsible for his brother's execution as a war criminal. (Interestingly, the author gives the most evil character in the book his own name, Endo.)

Gaston is obviously meant to be a Christ-figure, displaying incredible love for the unlovable, caring nothing about himself, living and even sacrificing himself for others. But to me he is not a believable character, and the author is "over the top" with his description of him. "Just as the stars strove bravely to illumine the night sky with their tiny lamps, so this foreigner did his utmost to give strength to men with the purity of his heart." (p. 165)

Tomoe, Takamori's sister, cannot figure him out. She wonders, "But to be a saint or a man of too good a nature in today's pragmatic world, with everyone out to get the other fellow, was equivalent to being a fool, wasn't it?" (p. 172) When he decides, after the death of his mongrel dog, to go to find Endo, she does her utmost to dissuade him, but inwardly – and not very believably – her opinion of him is turning from disgust to admiration. "Gaston, who until now had been nothing more than an object of her ridicule and pity, seemed suddenly transformed into a man of extraordinary power." (p. 179) The theme of this novel seems to be:

For the first time in her life Tomoe came to the realization that there are fools and fools. A man who loves others with an open-hearted simplicity, who trusts others, no matter who they are, even if he is deceived or even betrayed – such a man in the present-day world is bound to be written off as a fool. And so he is. But not just an ordinary fool. He is a wonderful fool. He is a wonderful fool who will never allow the little light which he sheds along man's way to go out. (p. 180)

Although a notorious criminal and an intended murderer, Endo is not totally evil. As Gaston persists in following him, willingly and unwillingly, he begins "to feel a deep compassion for Endo. ... an intimacy that could not quite be designated 'friendship' or 'affection' but was more like the feeling he had had for the stray dog." (p. 128) When Endo was telling Gaston about his brother, "[h]is eyes overflowed with human feeling." (p. 129)

I won't give away the ending of the novel, which is not really a big surprise. But Gaston triumphs, in a sense, over murder, and in the end his foolish, indiscriminate love wins out.

I give this book a B+ and not an A, because as meaningful as the story is, some of the characters are not quite believable.

Authors beginning with the letter "F"

Sound and the Fury, The, William Faulkner (Vintage Books, Random House paperback, 1929) (read August 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A really great novel about a degenerate quasi-aristocratic southern family: the father, Jason Compson, who drank himself to death; the mother, an invalid who saw herself as weak and helpless with disease, but who ruled the household from her bedroom, frequently complaining, "I know I am a burden to you, but soon I'll be gone ...."; the son Quentin, who apparently (this is not entirely clear) committed incest with his sister, was sent to Harvard by his father (who sold off the pasture to afford it), and committed suicide by drowning at the end of his freshman year; Candace (Caddy), the daughter, who in some way loved her brother, married a rich eligible bachelor from Indiana when she was two months pregnant by someone else, brought her illegitimate daughter (named after her brother, Quentin) home and left town on the next train, and then was divorced, married again, divorced, etc.; Jason IV, the son who stayed home, worked as a clerk in a farm supply store, blackmailed his sister Caddy into staying away from home after the birth of her illegitimate child and into paying him the money she sent for the child's support; Benjamin (Benjy), an idiot brother, who is always moaning and slobbering, and who loves Caddy; Dilsey, the Negro cook, who has taken care of the whole family, and who in a sense emerges as the only whole person in the book.

Important appendix at the end (not in all editions) explaining what happened to the major characters. Especially interesting: Quentin, on his way to commit suicide, stops at a bakery for some buns, meets a little girl who becomes attached to him; he can't find out where she lives, and finally he is arrested for kidnapping when found with the little girl still tagging along (p. 155 et seq.); Easter service at black church (p. 358 et seq.)

Great Gatsby, The, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner's, 1925) (read 2/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A great novel, worthy to be called a classic. The story of Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz, ambitious, opportunistic, who meets young rich girl, Daisy, just before going off to fight in the war; five years later he has amassed a fortune, apparently illegally, and tries to win Daisy away from her husband, Tom, who is also rich (though not nearly as rich) and is having an affair with another woman. Gatsby throws lavish parties all summer, to which hundreds come, but ends up being shot to death by the husband of a woman killed in an automobile accident by Gatsby's car, though Daisy was driving. Somewhat implausably, the woman struck by the car was Tom's mistress. At the end, only the narrator and a few servants, and one of his former guests, attend his funeral.

The writing is simply wonderful; how he can put words together! So many pregnant phrases, a few words suggesting so much. A short book, 155 pages, 9 chapters, averaging around 5,000 words per chapter.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (Kimble ebook) (read 10/11)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Simple story. Farmer's daughter marries doctor, becomes bored with provincial life, dreams about Paris, has affairs with prosperous landowner and poor student, lives beyond her (and her husband's) means, loses her lovers and ends up hopelessly in debt. Commits suicide.

Not the best novel I have ever read, but has redeeming features. Shows pretty clearly what the wages of sin are. Not much in the way of redemption; the church and the priest in the story are not much help to Emma Bovary, nor is anyone else, really. Her husband, Charles Bovary, loves her but is bumbling and obtuse, particularly in his inability to understand Emma and her needs.

I'd give it a C+.

Good Soldier, The, Ford Madox Ford (Vintage Books, 1957; orig. 1927) (read summer 1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A story of two wealthy couples, one English, one American, who have no children. The original title was "The Saddest Story," changed at the behest of the publisher who didn't think it a marketable title. The opening line is, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." However, while it is sad, it is not grim or horrible.

The narrator is a wealthy American with no occupation, living in Europe with his wife Florence, who is ill with an apparent heart condition of some sort, which requires her husband's constant attendance but no intimacy – they do not sleep together or in the same room. They meet an English couple, Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife Lenora. Edward is repeatedly described as a a wonderfully good-hearted man, generous, kind, although not too wise in handling his financial affairs – Lenora takes charge and maintains his estate – who has a fatal flaw – he is unfaithful to his wife, a cold Roman Catholic, and has affairs with several other women.

The story plays out with the narrator gradually learning that the man he admires so much, Teddy Ashburnham, has been having an affair with his wife. There is much, much more to it than this. In the end Florence and Captain Ashburnham both commit suicide, though not together (by this time, Ashburnham is in love with young Nancy Rufford, his wife's niece who has lived with them for many years, although in a final act of "virtue" he does not seduce her but sends her away to her family), and Lenora marries a colorless character with whom she once tried to have an affair.

This book has often been called a classic, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. I don't think it's that great, but it is an intriguing and powerful story of moral degradation. The characters are very well drawn and seem real. It does make one think about people and what goes on in their lives behind the mask of convention and wealth and worldly success. But there is no note of redemption here, just a bleak sadness.

Authors beginning with the letter "G"

Frolic of His Own, A, William Gaddis (Poseidon Press, 1994) (read fall, 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Although winner of the 1994 National Book Award for fiction, this book is weird and difficult to read. I gave up after a few chapters. Ostensibly a mockery of the legal profession, it is written in a free-flowing style without quotation marks and minimal punctuation. I did not find what I read humorous or particularly interesting.

Forsyte Saga, The, John Galsworthy (Scribner's, 1918-1933) (read spring and summer, 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A long (921 pages) and fascinating novel tracing the heyday and decline of Victorianism through three generations of the Forsyte family. The basic theme is what happens when Beauty intrudes in a world of Property.

Old Jolyon Forsyte, the oldest of six males and three females, is the central figure until he dies at 85, and the last of the older generation, Timothy, is over a hundred when he dies. Jolyon's nephew, Soames, is married to a beautiful woman of artistic temperament, Irene, but it is a loveless marriage and Irene becomes involves with Philip Bosinney, the architect hired to design the new house in the country which Soames is having built to hopefully reclaim Irene's love. Bosinney dies, apparently in an accident, and Jolyon's son, "Jo" or "young Jolyon" (who had scandalized the family by leaving his wife and children for another woman) eventually marries Irene. Soames, after getting a divorce, marries a French girl who bears him a daughter, Fleur. Through a somewhat contrived plot, the son of young Jolyon and Irene, called Jon, falls in love with Fleur, Soames' daughter, but at the end Jon decides not to marry her to spare the feelings of his mother who can't bear the thought of any relationship with her former husband, Soames.

The novel is implicit with criticism of the concept of property, and of allowing property rather than "Beauty" rule the lives of Victorians. Everything, including works of art, has a price, and a true Forsyte always knows what that price is. Even wives are considered property, and the story graphically shows how Soames seeks first to reclaim Irene as his "property" and then how difficult and embarrassing it was to obtain a divorce from her in Victorian England.

The writing style is probably typical of the period, a bit turgid and awkward in places, with overblown descriptive passages, and so on, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book (or collection of books; it was written in separate parts).

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (Signet Classic, orig. 1842) (read Jan. 2001)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The plot of this funny and satirical classic of early Russian literature is based on the fact that in the early nineteenth century peasants (or "souls") belonged to the landowner, who might have as many as several hundred of them, so that his estate was really a village. Landowners were responsible for collecting taxes from the peasants and paying them to the government, and even if a peasant died the landowner had to pay taxes for the dead peasant until the next census.

Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a former customs agent, dreams up a scheme to buy deceased peasants from the landowners and mortgage them to the government. Apparently he is doing this to prove that he is rich enough (in peasants) to win the hand of a rich landowner's daughter, although this isn't too clear. The story tells of the humorous transactions he makes to acquire dead souls from both gullible and suspicious landowners, some of whom are glad to give them away and other drive such a hard bargain that the sale falls through.

The ending of the novel is somewhat inconclusive and it wasn't until I had finished reading it that I learned it was the first of a projected trilogy, but Gogol never got around to writing the other two books before his death at the age of 43 in 1852.

Crabwalk, Günter Grass (Harcourt, Inc. paper, trans. 2002) (read Jan. 2015)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Interesting but convoluted novel by a famous German writer about an incident toward the end of World War II when a German-built Russian submarine torpedoed a German passenger ship, killing thousands, including about 4,000 children of all ages. The ship was grossly overloaded with Germans hoping to escape oncoming Russian troops by crossing the Baltic.

The German ship was named after a Nazi organizer, Wilhelm Gustloff, who was murdered by a Jew, David Frankfurter. The story is told in the first person by the youngest survivor of the sinking – he was born in a lifeboat pulling away from the doomed ship. His mother, a dedicated Communist, always wanted her son to write about the sinking of the ship, but he refused and eventually went to West Germany.

In short summary, the author says he was trolling the internet, long after the war, when he came across a website of pro-Nazis who still hate the Jews. The webmaster recounts the story about the murder by "that treacherous Jew" and the ensuing trial, but then posts begin to appear on the website by one "David" who takes an anti-Nazi position and sides with David Frankfurter, Gustloff's killer.

Turns out that the webmaster is the author's estranged son, Konrad, who more or less conspires with his grandmother to tell and retell the story of the sinking, even though she is supposedly an anti-fascist communist. After sparring online with "David" for quite a while, they agree to meet and ... (spoiler alert) Konnie shoots and kills David.

What to make of this novel? The numerous flashbacks and change of view made it difficult for me to follow, but I certainly was able to get the drift of it. It says something about family, prejudice, passion, and probably some other themes, but I'm not sure. It would be a pretty good book to discuss in a group, except that I'm not sure it would be worth reading it again.

Living, Henry Green (Penguin Books, 1945, 1978)(read summer 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

After thoroughly enjoying Loving by Henry Green, I came to this book with great anticipation but was somewhat let down. The first reason was the peculiar writing style, which routinely omits the articles and makes for choppy, stilted reading. The book starts this way:

    "Bridesley, Birmingham.
    "Two o'clock. Thousands came back from dinner along streets.
    "'What we want is go, push,' said works manager to son of Mr. Dupret ...."

A second reason is because I couldn't keep the characters straight. The main characters are workers in a foundry, and I guess the title "Living" indicates that the book shows what their everyday life is like. It's a rather dismal picture. Mr. Craigan, the head of the household, is "the best moulder in Birmingham" but is slow and old and finally pensioned off. Joe Gates, apparently his son-in-law, is laid off and drinks a lot. Lily Gates, his granddaughter and housekeeper, has an unsuccessful romance with another worker, Bert Jones, who is not a good worker, was suspended and finally let go.

The story is mostly dialogue among the workers, and also the owners, father and later son, and is written in the dialect of the working class. Maybe this book was an experiment for the author, to try to write it as workingclass people think (or as the author thinks they think). By the end of it I was getting interested in the main characters, but it had an inconclusive, enigmatic ending and thus was not very satisfying.

Loving, Henry Green (Penguin Books, 1945, 1978) (read winter 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Not much of a plot, but a wonderfully written novel by an English writer whose real name was Henry Vincent Yorke. The story is set in an Irish castle during World War II, and it revolves around Charley Raunce, the head footman who becomes the butler when the previous butler dies. The author does a great job of capturing the personalities and speech of those who live in the castle, from Mrs. Tennant, the widowed owner, and Mrs. Jack, her daughter-in-law who has an affair with another man while her husband is in military service, to Paddy the lampman, whom no one except Kate, a housemaid who falls in love with him, could understand. The story has a weak ending -- Charley and Edith, another housemaid, run away without giving notice, and go back to England where "they were married and lived happily ever after."

Why is this story so compelling? Because you come to care about the people in it, and wonder about their motivations, hopes and dreams. They seem like real people, each with distinct character and unpredictible actions. Not everything is explained or made simple, but I notice that I tend to think about the people in this story, and care about them, even when disagreeing with some of the things they do.

Leeway Cottage, Beth Gutcheon (Harper Perennial paper, orig. 2005) (read summer 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Fair novel, at best worth a C, about a young Danish pianist, Laurus Moss, who meets and marries an aspiring singer, Annabee "Sydney" Brant. The most interesting parts of the novel, to me, occur when World War II breaks out in Europe and Laurus goes to England to see if somehow he can help fight against Hitler. Although Denmark did not resist the German army, and has become a "model protectorate," the Danish people are strongly opposed to the Nazis and especially to the persecution of Jews.

Laurus cannot go to Denmark to help with the underground because he is too well known as a musician, so he stays in England and helps translate documents and does other things in the background to help the war effort. His sister Nina, however, is actively involved in rescuing Danish Jews and ultimately is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, first in Denmark and then to Ravensbruck in Germany. Ultimately she survives, but is scarred by her experiences for the rest of her life.

About half way through the book the war ends and the rest of the book is about how Laurus and Sydney grown old and finally die. I guess the idea is to show how they change and how their children grow up, but I got pretty bored with it all. Sydney's mother was a self-centered tyrant, and Sydney grows up to be like her mom.

Three very implausible scenes: (1) Laurus comes home from England after four years or so, is picked up by Sydney, taken to their apartment, has sex, goes out to dinner, and never once inquires about the baby girl born after he left for England, even though Sydney has been writing to him about her and sending him pictures of her!

(2) When Eleanor, their firstborn, and a second baby are baptized in an Episcopal church, in the presence of Laurus' parents and sister, not a word is said about any possible doubts or questions anyone in this Jewish family might have about whether the children should be baptized as Christians or what the ceremony is all about.

(3) Laurus, a Jew, is elected president of the YMCA, in a small town, at a time when the Y still required some kind of Christian commitment of its staff members.

There are many examples of just poor writing in this book. For example, after RAF pilots secretly flew the famous physicist Niels Bohr to freedom in Scotland, they learned that his oxygen mask had malfunctioned. The author imagines them thinking about reporting to Mr. Churchill, "We got him here – we lowered his IQ a hundred point, though. Is that okay?" (p. 209) That is a silly, one-liner a standup comedian might use, but it is totally inappropriate in the circumstances. Also, she overuses the vague noun "things" – "the officers in their green uniforms march up and down like inhuman things" (p. 210) In another place she talks about children doing "things" in the sand. See also the ridiculous description of desperate prayer on pp. 211-212.

Although I did enjoy parts of it, about Denmark and the Danes during World War II (which seems pretty well researched), I would not recommend this book to anyone. The author, in my opinion, is not a very good writer and the book is both boring and, in parts, unbelievable.

Our Lady of the Forest, David Guterson (Vintage Books, paperback, 2003) (read January 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A good novel, I would grade it B- perhaps, by an excellent writer. A sickly teenage girl, Ann Holmes, who escaped from an abusive home and is supporting herself in a trailer camp by foraging for mushrooms in a Washington rain forest, sees a vision of the Virgin Mary out in the woods. Soon people hear of it, and start pilgrimages, to join Ann as she makes five trips into the forest to meet with the Virgin Mary, and to beg her to ask the Virgin Mary to intercede for them. Thousands of people start showing up.

Ann's friend from the campground, an unbeliever named Carolyn, is cynical about the whole business, but she starts acting as Ann's spokesperson when the crowds arrive, and she skims off much of the money from the donations made by pilgrims so she can winter in Mexico.

The local Catholic priest, Father Collins, is highly skeptical and the hierarchy even more so, but at the end of the book Ann dies, apparently from her fever, and the church she said the Virgin Mary told her to build in the forest is constructed. Carolyn shows up at the consecration of the new church, meets with Father Collins, and says she discovered that the cold pills Ann was always taking contained Phenathol, and that one of the side effects of Phenathol is hallucinations. "That's what your presiding over, Father. A Phenathol trip. A lot of Phenathol." The priest replies that the official cause of death was her rising fever, and although that might include an adverse reaction to Phenathol, maybe that was "the hand of God." He says to Carolyn, "Your cynicism does you zero good." She says, "It's what I have."

Although I enjoyed reading it, ultimately this novel is disappointing. I don't think the author was just trying to put down believers – for example, a drunken prison guard, formerly a logger, whose son is a quadriplegic apparently through his father's negligence, becomes an acolyte in the new church. But it is not a very convincing conversion. Overall the tone of the book seems to be pretty skeptical and negative, and the ending is really too abrupt. Not really a satisfying read.

A theological irritant: according to Ann's visions, the Virgin Mary says her Son, Jesus, is angry about all the sin in the world, but not to worry – she will intercede and mollify his anger. Totally contrary to scripture.

Finally, I will say that Guterson really is a good writer. For example, his description of the kitchen in Father Collins' church evokes the atmosphere of hundreds of small church kitchens, whatever the denomination. (pp. 273-274).

Authors beginning with the letter "H"
Chess Garden, The, Brooks Hansen (Riverhead Books, paper, 1995) (read January 2006) 
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This is a weird, fantastic, but highly readable novel of ideas. At least, that's what I would call it. The basic clash of ideas seems to be between materialism or determinism and spirituality (in a broad, general sense).

The plot is simple, and by itself not very believable. A Dutch physician, Gustav Uyterhoeven, has a brilliant career as a teacher and researcher in Europe, but is increasingly separated from his colleagues by his rejection of logical, determinist thought in favor of "vitalism" – which I think is the idea that no description or analysis of cause and effect can fully account for the reality of anything.

Anyway, with his wife, Sonja, he moves to Dayton, Ohio, where he develops a "chess garden" in his back yard, where everyone, children and adults, are welcome to come and play. He gives lessons in chess, also. And all kinds of other games are played there too, dominos, checkers, etc.

One day, when Dr. Uyterhoeven was 77 years old, he told everyone that he had found a map of the "Antipodes" and intended to go and search for this mythical place. As some chapters of the book reveal, he actually went to South Africa to volunteer his services as a physician during the British-Boer war.

However, he had told his wife and others who gathered at the chess garden that he would keep in touch, and sure enough, he writes a series of 12 letters purporting to describe his adventures in searching for, finding, and then exploring the Antipodes.

Here's where the fantasy enters in. The Antipodes, he discovers, are populated with "pieces;" that is, living game pieces, such as cards, chessmen, checkers, dice, etc. He manages to relate to them, in various ways, but has many scary moments and bizarre experiences. This major part of the novel, I think, illustrates the ideas of spirituality that he has long believed. He is particularly taken by the ideas of the Swedish spiritualist, Emanuel Swedenborg.

There are also many subplots, and even a love story (Gustav & Sonja's courtship), but without a careful re-reading I don't think I can really summarize the novel. I enjoyed reading it, especially since I was on vacation, but I don't think I'll read it again.

Return of the Native, The, Thomas Hardy (Macmillan paper, 1961) (read July 1980)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A wonderful old classic, full of real if somewhat dour human beings. It's a love story, with the eternal triangle: the "native," Clym Yoebright, returns from an apparently successful start in the business world in Paris to his home country, "Egdon Heath," a dark and gloomy part of the backwoods, populated by simple folk for the most part but also by Eustacia Vye, a romantic young woman longing to escape to a more exciting life in the big city. An engineer-turned-innkeeper, Damon Wildeve, marries Clym's cousin, Thomasin "Tamsin" Yoebright, but continues to yearn for his earlier flame, Eustacia, especially after she marries Clym. When Clym sticks to his plan to become a schoolteacher in Egdon Heath, Eustacia begins to respond to the advances of Wildeve ... in the end Eustacia and Wildever are drawned during an attempt to flee together, Tamsin then remarries, and Clym then finds his vocation as "in itinerant open-air preacher and lecturer on morally unimpeachable subjects."

The book is characterized by humor (see pp. 20-22 about the man no woman would marry), a stern non-redemptive view of human nature ("instead of men aiming to advance in life with glory they should calculate how to retreat out of it without shame" p. 348), and wonderful characterizations. His view of life is tragic. The village fool/simpleton/incompetent is surnamed "Christian." Fate or chance play a large part in the lives of his characters.

Well worth reading, both for entertainment and for thought. But the opening chapter or two is very slow reading. Once the plot thickens, it's tough to put down!

Dean's List, The, Jon Hassler (Ballentine Books, 1997) (read December 1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a so-so novel, a sequel to Rookery Blues, which itself was not one of Hassler's better novels. Leland Edwards, the straight-arrow lit professor and pianist, is now the dean of Rookery State College, but is still dominated by his mother, a local radio talk show host.

The plot essentially involves Dean Edwards plan of bringing to campus a famous poet, Richard Falcon, whose poems have been read and even memorized by many of the characters in the book, including a woman who lives with her husband in a shack by the lake and goes ice fishing. Not very believable. Various characters from Rookery Blues appear, much older, of course, and one of them, the daughter of the artist, Connor, brings a sexual harassment complaint against him for hugging a woman after class. In the course of the book we meet Leland Edwards family in Nebraska, on both his mother's and his father's side; his mother, Lolly, is still a radio talk show host but is old, weak, and on oxygen much of the time; Leland is still a mama's boy, and that's what broke up his marriage to Sally, although they have occasional rendesvous is the nursing home where she works; and by the end of the book Leland is inaugurated as President of Rookery State.

Green Journey, A, Jon Hassler (Ballentine Books, 1985) (read fall 1997)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Not one of his best, but still a good novel. Jon Hassler continues the story of the spinster parochial schoolteacher, Agatha McGee, who takes in a pregnant, unmarried teenager, Janet Raft, and eventually winds up going on a tour to Ireland with Janet and other Catholics, including a very modern bishop, Richard ("Call me 'Dick'") Baker, who is searching for priests to emigrate to Minnesota.

Janet has her baby, names him Stephen, and soon marries a weak and indecisive only child, Randy Meers, who bumbles through life hanging onto his mother's apron strings. Randy and Janet were given the trip to Ireland as a wedding present by his parents, but at the last minute he backed out, so she went alone.

The real story of this book is about Agatha's pen pal, James O'Hannon, with whom she has been corresponding for about four years, since she saw a letter by him in a Catholic newspaper. Now she's retired from teaching and decides, when the opportunity presents itself through the tour to Ireland, to look him up. She meets him and has a wonderful time for a couple of days until she discovers, by going to Mass alone on Sunday morning, that he is actually a priest. The world caves in for Agatha, but she rebounds and even meets with him again although not to take up any relationship.

The novel also covers the "troubles" in Ireland, and I think the author is trying to say something about the poignancy and futility of the situation there.

Not a strong ending to the book. Bishop Baker, whose ideas are anathema to Agatha, tries hard to win her over and even offers her the position of principal of St. Isidore's, from which she had just retired after many years of teaching, although only for a two-year period before he closed it down. Agatha accepts and is looking forward to taking up her duties as the plane leaves Ireland. Janet is looking forward to seeing her husband and son.

North of Hope, Jon Hassler (Ballentine Books, 1990) (read spring 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a really wonderful novel, one of the most enjoyable I have read in a long time.

It tells the story of Frank Healy, beginning when he was a skinny insecure high schooler, whose mother died young and whose father was a recluse, and continuing through part of his time at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Seminary; then it jumps ahead 20 years to pick up his life as a priest in a small Minnesota town with a side parish on nearby Basswood Indian reservation. Frank meets the girl of his dreams, Libby Girard, in the first chapter, and is still in love with her at the end of the book, but -- and this is what makes the book so unusual -- he does not leave the priesthood for marriage, nor does he ever have a sexual relationship or affair with Libby. And yet it turns out to be a very satisfying and complete story.

Libby is beautiful but eventually, at least, she becomes a moral and emotional wreck. She marries three times. First she married a classmate who got her pregnant and, after she lived with him and his mother on their chicken farm and their little girl Verna was born, she left him and married a "self-made businessman" who offered her everything materially but also secretly began sexually abusing Verna when she was seven. After that Libby went through nursing school and married Tom Pearsall, a physician who got involved in selling drugs and wound up serving as doctor on the Basswood Indian reservation for a year, the same reservation where Frank Healy had his little parish.

Frank discovers that the doctor's wife and nurse is his old flame Libby, and realizes that he is still in love with her. And she loves him too -- and apparently always has -- but doesn't really understand Frank's commitment to being a priest and also she only understands love in a physical or sexual way. Libby's third marriage breaks up when she discovers that her husband Tom has been having sex with Verna since she was 15. How this plays out as Verna has a nervous breakdown, Tom is found out, and Libby almost loses hope (she's "north of hope"), is the story Hassler tells in the rest of the book.

Along the way we meet some fascinating characters, like Caesar Pipe, the taciturn Indian who's the sheriff on the reservation; his wife Joy Pipe, who with Caesar makes up the parish council of the Indian church; Billy Annunciation, their nephew who learned a lot of white ways while living in the city but loves to fish and builds a fish house out on the ice; Monsignor Adrian Lawrence, a sweet bumbly man who has a stroke, which leads to Frank becoming the pastor of St. Ann's Church; "Judge" Bigelow, a former justice of the peace who owned a local bar, shacked up with Verna now and then, and sold drugs to Indians, which he got from Libby's husband Tom; and Toad Majerus, a midget who worked for the Judge as a bartender and handyman.

The novel also discloses some of Frank's ruminations about God and God's way, and a few prayers and colloquies between Frank and God, all of which point to a traditional "works" theology. No reformation Gospel here.

All in all, a really superb novel, one of those you remember and think about and wonder what the characters are doing now ....

Rookery Blues, Jon Hassler (Ballantine Books, 1995) (read spring 1996)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Interesting but not one of Hassler's best. The story of five academics at a branch campus of the Minnesota state college system, who form a quintet which satisfies some deep needs of at least some of the members, during the Vietnam era. The new instructor in music who is the catalyst for this group, Peggy Benoit, falls in love with the member from the art department, Connor, who is married to a severely depressed woman with whom he has a young teenage daughter. That part of the plot works out with the wife finding liberation in separating and apparently divorcing Connor, who then has his true love, Peggy. The daughter, starved for attention, takes up with a lewd, potsmoking son of a department chairman, Gary Oberholtzer, but he is so overdrawn as to be a caricature of a '60's college dropout rebel.

Another part of the plot involves Victor Dash, drummer, who also rouses the faculty to join a new union and go on strike for higher salaries and equal pay for women. The strike fails, but Victor gets a job with the labor union organizing strikes full time and vows to come back to Rookery State to spearhead a successful strike.

Neil Novotny, on clarinet, is an aspiring novelist and lousy teacher, who finally gets fired for telling off the Dean but signs a contract to have his unfinished novel published, although at great cost -- it must be drastically changed (including giving the author a woman's name) to sell as a modern romance. This part was a little unrealistic, I thought, although I guess it's meant to show how desperate some authors are to be published.

The final member of the quintet, Leland Edwards, pianist, is a straight arrow, dominated by his mother who is a local radio talk show host, although during the novel they begin to diverge in some ways, especially in their attitudes toward the new faculty union - she comes to favor it, while he remains adamantly against it.

Unlike some of the other Hassler novels, there is no Catholic priest and nothing directly relating to religion in this one, except that the striking teachers hold their meetings in the local Lutheran Church because they can't meet on campus. I'm not even sure there are any Christian themes in the book, although Conner does overcome his alcoholism and he tries to stay faithful to his wife probably longer than most men would. All in all, I don't think the book has a strong central theme or plot, although he does develop the characters enough so that the reader begins to care about what happens to them.

Simon's Night, Jon Hassler (Ballentine Books, 1979) (read Dec. 1996)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Another excellent Hassler novel, perhaps as good as North of Hope. This one focuses on a retired professor of English, Simon Shea, who is getting forgetful and almost burns down his house, so he moves into a retirement home, which has a half dozen mindless inhabitants. Simon had married when he was about 40, but his 26-year-old wife left town with another professor. However, as a practicing Roman Catholic Simon didn't believe in divorce, so he stayed married for more than 30 years -- remaining faithful except for one brief affair with a former student -- and ultimately is reunited with his wife and moves out of the stultifying atmosphere of the home for the elderly.

This novel is more explicitly religious than some of the author's and it describes Simon's senses of commitment to his Church and quotes several of his bedtime prayers. It's also pretty funny in places. I liked it a lot.

Staggerford, Jon Hassler (Atheneum, 1977) (read Sept. 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

First novel by an excellent writer, about a high school English teacher in a small town in Minnesota, Miles Pruitt, a bachelor who lives with an elderly spinster schoolteacher, Miss McGee. The plot is not very compelling but the characters are well drawn and the writing is really good, and funny at times. Miss McGee is a Roman Catholic from the old school, who takes her religion seriously, and the author takes it seriously too. Somewhat disconcerting feature of the book was that the protagonist, Miles Pruitt, dies at the end.

Staggerford Flood, The, Jon Hassler (2002, Plume paperback) (read fall 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A bit boring, but good enough to keep me reading to the end. Hassler's devout, spunky, elderly, spinster heroine, Agatha McGee, lives in a big old house at the top of a hill in Staggerford, and when torrential rains push the flood level higher than ever known before, her house, as the only dry house in town, becomes a refuge for a half-dozen other women. One of them, Calista Holister, had operated the post office in a dying town, Willoughby, with the help of her sister, Dort, and her brother Howard. Dort died, and in a not-very-believable subplot, Agatha decides that the only way to keep the government from closing the post office is to have Calista pretend that she is her sister, Dort, who died. Of course, that results in Agatha suffering guilt feelings in spite of her faith.

Some pretty good interaction between Agatha, who really wants to confess her sins of lying and jealousy, and the new priest in her parish, Father Healy, who just waves it off and says she is becoming too fussy and narrow in her old age.

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo, translated by Lascelles Wraxall (Heritage Press, orig. 1862) (read 2008-2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An enormous novel, of five volumes, with each volume divided into books and chapters. (Note that the pagination, in this edition at least, starts over with each volume.)

Volume I, Fantine, Book I, opens with a chapter describing a good man, a priest who has been made a bishop but who has the heart of a parish priest, gives away most of his money, lives simply, and has enormous compassion for everyone, especially the poor and those whom others reject. Bishop Myriel, also called Monseigneur Welcome, was about 75 years old, and lived with his sister, Mlle. Baptistine, who was ten years younger, and a housekeeper, Madame Magloire, who was about the same age as his sister, in what used to be the hospital adjoining the episcopal palace. (He switched his residence when he discovered that the hospital had too many patients for its small size.)

Book II introduces the protagonist, Jean Valjean, a recently released convict who has spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread (and trying to escape several times). He is uneducated, except for some basic schooling in prison, physically powerful, and consumed with bitter hatred for society. Although he knows he was wrong to steal, he feels justified by the enormously disproportionate punishment meted out. He is rejected and ostracized by all he meets. He cannot even stay at a hotel, though he has some money from prison. He finds his way to the Bishop's house and is welcomed, fed, and given a bed for the night.

But Jean Valjean is bitter:

The starting-point, like the goal, of all his thoughts was hatred of human law; that hatred, which, if it be not arrested in its development by some providential incident, becomes within a given time a hatred of society, then a hatred of the human race, next a hatred of creation, and is expressed by a vague, incessant, and brutal desire to injure some one, no matter whom. (vol. 1, p. 91)

After this encounter between Jean Valjean and the good bishop, the scene suddenly shifts to four young couples in Paris, who are out partying and having a good time. As a somewhat cruel practical joke, the leader of the four young men, M. Felix Tholomyes, suggested that they desert the women while they were still sitting at the dinner table in a restaurant, which they do. The women pretended not to care, but one of them, Fantine, had been Tholomyes' lover and had borne his child, a little daughter. She soon is reduced to poverty, and decides to sell her meagre belongings and return to her home town, but she knows that as a single unmarried woman with a child it will be very difficult for her. So on her journey home she leaves the child, Cosette (real name Euphrasie) with an apparently kind couple who had two daughters of their own and operated a "pot-house," the Thenardiers. Fantine then went to her home town, found work, and began to send money to the Thenardiers to support Cosette. However, the Thenardiers took Fantine's money but treated the little girl badly, turning her into a despised, neglected servant, whom they called the "lark". (vol. 1, pp. 118-154)

Fantine lost her job, was continually hounded by creditors and by the Thenardiers (who used Cosette for leverage), sold her hair to pay for medicine to cure a non-existent disease Cosette reportedly had contracted; sold her two front teeth, again to save Cosette from a threat of being turned out into the world as a penniless child; and finally descended into prostitution. (vol. 1, pp. 174-184) And then she is rescued by the angel-mayor, M. Madeleine. (vol. 1, pp. 189-194)

The incorruptable police inspector, Javert, who comes to M. Madeleine and insists that he, Javert, should be dismissed from service because he wrongly denounced the mayor as the ex-convict Jean Valjean, explains his philosophy:

M. le Maire, I do not wish you to treat me with kindness, for your kindness causes me sufficient ill-blood when dealt to other, and I want none for myself. The kindness that consists in defending the street-walker against the gentleman, the police agent against the mayor, the lower classes against the higher, is what I call bad kindness, and it is such kindness that disorganizes Society. Good Lord! it is easy enough to be good, but the difficulty is to be just. (vol. 1, p. 206)

M. Madeleine, who was really Jean Valjean, is tormented by the fact that Inspector Javert first identified him as Jean Valjean, the ex-convict, and then some other man, named Champmathieu, had been arresed as Jean Valjean and was awaiting trial in Arras. Without a clear sense of what he was doing, M. Madeleine makes a flying trip to Arras in rented horse-drawn vehicles. Although he cannot decide what to do beyond going to see the trial, he reflects that he would emerge from this black moment in his life. He thought, "After all, he held his destiny, however adverse it might try to be, in his own hands, and was master of it." (vol. 1, p. 236)

Although he still wants to do the right thing, it is clear that he is in the grip of evil, and he has already been changed. When a boy who had helped M. Madeleine find a substitute cart ran after him and reminded him that he had not been rewarded, he called him a "scamp" and refused to give him anything. (vol. 1, p. 241)

But, sure enough, he gets to the trial in Arras on time, and is even given an honored seat when he gives his name as M. Madeleine because his reputation as a wise and benevolent factory owner and mayor has spread. Just when the president of the court was about to pronounce judgment on Champmathieu, who had been identified by eye-witnesses who swore they knew him in prison, M. Madeleine stepped down from his seat and revealed that he was the notorious Jean Valjean, and he proved it by identifying the eye witnesses, such as by describing a hidden tattoo on one of them. Everyone in the courtroom was stunned, but they did not immediately arrest him, so he calmly walked out of the courtroom. (vol. 1, pp. 268-272)

The description of inspector Javert, at the moment when he is about to arrest Jean Valjean, is remarkable. He "personified justice, light, and truth in their celestial function of crushing evil," but "[t]here was in his victory a remnant of defiance and contest; upright, haughty, and dazzling, he displayed the superhuman bestiality of a ferocious archangel;" he had the "pitiless joy of a fanatic;" "nothing could be so poignant and terrible as this fact, in which was displayed all that may be called the wickedness of good." (vol. 1, pp. 282-283; emphasis added)

Volume 2, Cosette. Here the story bogs down, mainly because Hugo inserts whole chapters of parenthetical material, such as a detailed (and horrifying) description of the Battle of Waterloo (vol. 2, pp. 4-47) and a long diatribe against monasteries and nunneries (vol. 2, book VII, pp. 211-224).

This volume ends with Jean Valjean saved from recapture and punishment by hiding out in a convent. Cosette is accepted into the convent as one of the school girls; Valjean is an assistant gardener, saved by the convent gardener, Fauchelevent, the man whose life he had saved many years before by lifting the wagon off of him.

Volume 3, Marius. Hugo can be pretty funny. Here's his description of the prudery of an old maid, Mlle. Gillenormand:

Age had only heightened this pitiless modesty, – her chemisette was never sufficiently opaque, and never was high enough. She multiplied brooches and pins at places where no one dreamed of looking. The peculiarity of prudery is to station the more sentries the less the fortress is menaced. (Vol. 3, p. 37)

This volume was hard for me to follow. A young man Marius grows up and leaves his grandfather, M. Gillenormand, who secretly loves him, and makes his way into poverty in Paris. From a hole in the wall of his shabby apartment, he witnesses a plan by a bunch of thugs under the leadership of Thenardiers, the former soldier who had rescued Marius's father in battle, but had also, with his wife, had abused and exploited Cosette. The plan was to rob or extort money from a wealthy but mysterious benefactor, M. Leblanc, who was probably Jean Valjean a.k.a. M. Madeleine in a different disguise. At the last minute the plot is interrupted by the police inspector, Javert, but M. Leblanc escapes through a window.

Volume 4. The Idyll of the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint Denis.

After leaving the convent, Jean Valjean moved with Cosette into the Rue Plumet, a house surrounded by a large garden with railings looking out on the street. Behind the house was a smaller house, which was connected by a secret passage, not underground but hidden by walls in the garden, to another street a quarter of a mile away. Here they could dwell in secrecy.

However, Jean Valjean and Cosette go out to take walks, and in one of their favorite places to visit, Marius falls in love with Cosette, who has become beautiful, and Cosette falls in love with him, though they have never met. They saw each other when Cosette used to take walks with Jean Valjean, whom she considered her father. All this was very troubling to Valjean, as all he lived for was Cosette.

Very interesting chapter on slang, which is "the language of misery" ... The true slang ... is nothing else ... than the ugly, anxious, cunning, treacherous, venomous, cruel, blear-eyed, vile, profound, and fatal language of misery." (vol. 4, p. 164, 166)

One of the leaders of the revolution, Enjolras, behind the barricade, offers a romantic, idealistic prophecy to his fellow revolutionaries:

Citizens, in the future there will be no darkness, no thunder-claps; neither ferocious ignorance nor bloodthirsty retaliation; and as there will be no Satan left, there will be no St. Michael. In the future, no man will kill another man, the earth will be radiant, and the human race will love. The day will come, citizens, when all will be concord, harmony, light, joy, and life, and in order that it may come we are going to die. (vol. 4, p. 394)

However, later, when a cannonball accompanied by grape-shot smashed through the barricade, Enjolras aimed at the young officer who fired the cannon. Combeferre objects to killing him, in these words:

Enjolras, you aim at that sergeant, but do not notice him. Just reflect that he is a handsome young man; he is intrepid. You can see that he is a thinker, and these young artillery-men are well educated; he has a father, mother, and family; he is probably in love; he is but twenty-five years of age at the most, and might be your brother. (vol. 5, p. 31)

But Enjolras says, "Let me alone. It must be." and kills the sergeant with a single shot.

Chapter 19 of Volume 5 is entitled, "The Vengeance of Jean Valjean," but what happens is that Enjolras, the leader of the insurgents, announces that the last man out of the barricade should blow out the brains of the inspector, Javert, who has been captured as a spy and is tied up. Jean Valjean asks if he can take Javert and blow out his brains himself. He then loosens the ropes enough so that Javert can walk, takes him behind the barricade to a deserted area, and sets him free, but fires a shot with his pistol so everyone in the barricade will think Javert has been killed. So this is Jean Valjean's vengeance – to set free the man who tormented him so much! (vol. 5, pp. 60-62)

Volume 5, book 2, is a digression on the sewer system under the city of Paris, into which Jean Valjean escaped. Hugo describes in great detail the history of this system, and mentions the engineers who died constructing it as heroes whose "acts of bravery ... are more useful ... than the brutal butchery of battlefields." (vol. 5, p. 100)

The climax of this epic novel is in volume 5, book 4, entitled "Javert Derailed." After Javert seized Jean Valjean as he came out of the sewer, he let Valjean take the half-dead Marius, whom he had carried through the sewer system, to his grandfather, M. Gillenormand. Then Javert disappeared. Valjean was free. What happened, of course, was that Javert, whose life was saved when Valjean freed him at the barricades, responded – against his own will and inclinations – with mercy and let him go free.

So Javert has an extreme crisis of conscience. For the first time his absolute rigid adherence to law and correct procedures was shaken. He recognized that Valjean, this escaped convict, who under the law should have been arrested and sent back to prison, had acted with mercy and goodness. "One thing had astonished him – that Jean Valjean had shown him mercy; and one thing had petrified him – that he, Javert, had shown mercy to Jean Valjean." (vol. 5, p. 148) He thought about Valjean: "A benevolent malefactor, a compassionate, gentle, helping, and merciful convict, repaying good for evil, pardon for hatred, preferring pity to vengeance, ready to destroy himself sooner than his enemy, saving the man who had struck him, kneeling on the pinnacle of virtue, and nearer to the angels than to man." (vol. 5, pp. 149-150)

Javert asks himself, "What has this convict, this desperate man, whom I followed to persecution, and who had me under his heel, and could have avenged himself, and ought to have acted so, both to gratify his rancor and assure his security, what has he done in leaving me my life, and showing me mercy? his duty? no, something more. And what have I done in showing him mercy in my turn? my duty? no, something more. Is there, then, something more than duty?" (vol. 5, p. 151, emphasis added)

Unfortunately, Javert couldn't handle this inner conflict. He stops at a local police station and writes a report entitled "Note for the Administration," and left it on the desk. This report, however, has nothing to do with the enormous struggle in his soul; it's just a list calling attention to little flaws he has noticed about police work and prison procedures that should be corrected. Javert is still the total embodiment of living the letter of the law. Then he jumps off a bridge and commits suicide. (This is the part of this sprawling novel to be re-read and pondered, book 4 of volume 5, pp. 147-157.)

What's my final word on this novel? Is it a true classic, to be read and re-read? Well, yes. Hugo deals with great themes – the greatest themes: good and evil, war and suffering, the nature of love and loyalty, the letter-of-the-law versus the spirit-of-the-law. A key question: "Can man, who is created good by God, be made bad by man?" (vol. 1, p. 88)

Hugo is incredibly optimistic, and from our 21st century standpoint, incredibly wrong in his view of the future. About the French revolution, he writes:

The French Revolution, which was nothing but the ideal armed with a sword, rose, and by the same sudden movement closed the door of evil and opened the door of good. It disengaged the question, promulgated the truth, expelled the miasma, ventilated the age, and crowned the people. We may say that it created man a second time by giving him a second soul – justice. (vol. 4, p. 179)

And he truly believes that the French Revolution represented inevitable progress and was the final turning point toward human goodness:

The future, the speedy bursting into flower of universal welfare, is a divinely fatal phenomenon. (vol. 4, p. 181)

Of those who set up and manned the barricades, he writes, "These soldiers are priests, and the French revolution is a deed of God." (vol. 5, p. 67)

But Les Miserables is not a perfect novel. For example, Hugo tends toward exaggeration in portraying the characters. The bishop is almost too good to be believed; Jean Valjean is too bad and violent; the Thenardiers too despicable; M. Madeleine, the benevolent factory owner and later mayor (and the reformed Valjean) is almost perfect; Javert, the police inspector was totally rigid in following the rules and totally and implacably against vagabonds and anyone who broke the law; and so on.

Hugo also gets carried away with flowery language. If the overall story were not engaging, I would give up after reading passages like this about Marius and Cosette:

He fell on to the bench, and she by his side. They no longer found words, and the stars were beginning to twinkle. How came it that their lips met? how comes it that the bird sings, the snow melts, the rose opens, May bursts into life, and the dawn grows white behind the black trees on the rustling tops of the hills? One kiss, and that was all; both trembled and gazed at each other in the darkness with flashing eyes. (vol. 4, p. 122)

Give me a break! But that was the style of the times, I guess, and today's spare just-the-facts approach may not be the perfect style either.

So reluctantly I put this big book back on the shelf. I am very glad I read it, despite its flaws. Let's give it an A-.

Authors beginning with the letter "I"
Expeditions, The, Karl Iagnemma (Dial Press, 2008) (read June 2009) 
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See separate review.

Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen (U. Of Minn. Press, transl. By Rolf Fjelde, Copyright by translator 1980) (read winter 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See separate review.

Artist of the Floating World, An, Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage Books, 1989) (read January 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A beautifully written novel set in Japan shortly after World War II. The plot is simple: an elderly retired artist seeks to arrange a marriage, according to Japanese custom, for his younger daughter, now 26. His older daughter is married, and his wife was killed, apparently in a bombing raid at the end of the war. The artist, who narrates the story, was formerly an artist of the "floating world" of music, drinking and entertainment after dark, but changed his focus to do patriotic paintings. Now, after the war, he feels guilty for contributing to bringing about the war, and one of the virtues of this novel is the subtle way the author brings out the complexities of motivation and the themes of guilt and forgiveness and atonement (a factory owner commits suicide to atone for his wrongs, and the artist's children are afraid he might do the same).

Pale View of Hills, A, Kazuo Ishiguro (Penguin paperback, 1983,1987) (read August 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A beautifully written but somewhat puzzling book by a young Japanese author living in England. A Japanese woman who had been married to an Englishman, and who was now living in the English countryside, is visited by her daughter who lives in London, apparently with a boyfriend. During her visit, the mother remembers and re-tells the story of an odd friendship she had with another woman, Sachiko, and her daughter in Nagasaki many years ago, during the time of the Korean War. I guess basically I didn't understand the plot, but it seems to explore family relationships, especially between mother and daughter, but also husband and wife and wife and father-in-law. This novel is not as good as his other two novels that I read.

Remains of the Day, The, Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf, 1989) (read 4/91)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An unusual novel told in the first person by a man who has spent his life as a butler at a large English estate, which was formerly owned by an idealistic English lord and now by a wealthy American. The new American owner is going back to the States for a time and tells the Stevens, the butler, to take his Ford and go on a little vacation trip himself, which Stevens decides to do. In addition to vacationing, Stevens has another purpose: to visit a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton, who had left the estate to get married, but who had recently written implying that her marriage was ending and that she would like to return.

The rest of the book is an account of his trip through the English countryside and of frequent flashbacks as Stevens thinks back over his life as a butler. His ruminations reveal deep doubts about the worthiness of his career; the character of his employer, Lord Darlington; his missed opportunity for marriage with Miss Kenton, and the meaning of life in general.

There are some funny parts, including a hilarious account of his attempting to convey the facts of life to the son of a friend of his employer's, who was about to get married. The title comes from a conversation recorded near the end of the book by a retired butler at a much smaller estate, who told Stevens that "the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day." He decides that he "should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day."

Unconsoled, The, Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf, 1995) (read winter 1996)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

What a disappointment! This author's other novels are so great that I looked forward to this one with great anticipation, but it is bizarre and, to me, uninteresting. It is one of the few novels I have begun and gave up on.

As far as I read, the plot goes like this. An internationally known pianist, Mr. Ryder, arrives at a European city to give a concert, and he is met by fawning hotel officials and others who are making arrangements for this big night. What gives the novel its bizarre, dreamlike, almost amateurish quality are factors like these: Mr. Ryder keeps meeting people he seems to have known, or in one case, even been married to, without any plan or forethought (for example, the elevator operator at the hotel turns out to be the grandfather of Sophie, who was apparently Mr. Ryder's wife or at least the mother of his child, Boris); there are frequent flashbacks involving people he meets in this city whom he knew as a child; he is able to describe scenes and conversations taking place behind closed doors, as if he were omniscient; he never remembers anything about his schedule or what he's supposed to be doing when, or who is in charge (for example, he attends a fancy reception, in which everyone is dressed formally, in his bathrobe and pajamas because he didn't know about it and was rushed there in his nightclothes because there wasn't time to change); although some people dote on him and fawn over him others are rude to his face although he doesn't seem to react to it; he forgets that his parents are arriving and has not made any plans for them; and so on.

This is apparently some kind of experimental fiction, but as far as I am concerned, the experiment failed.

Authors beginning with the letter "J"
Bostonians, The, Henry James (Modern Library College Ed.) (read summer 1994) 
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A surprisingly interesting and sometimes humorous novel about early feminists in Boston and New York. Simple plot: Olive Chancellor, a young determined feminist who hates men latches on to Verena Tarrant, a beautiful girl with pure motives and a gift for public speaking, and prepares her to "lead the charge" for women's rights into the future. Unfortunately for Olive, a cousin of hers, Basil Ransom, a Mississippian who has moved to New York, meets up with Verena, falls in love, and persistently courts her while vehemently disagreeing with everything she says in public and apparently believes. The story ends with a full house at the Music Hall waiting for Verena to come out and speak, which she finds herself unable to do despite the pleadings of Olive and her parents because Basil has shown up to intercept her outside her backstage room. Finally Basil gets past the policeman at the door, talks Verena into slipping out of the building with him, while Olive, who never saw herself as a public speaker, mounts the stage to confront the impatient crowd.

I enjoyed the book, though the writing is turgid in the style of nineteenth century writing. Although I wasn't sure while reading the book whether the author was poking fun at the feminists, or the men opposing them, or both, the conclusion can be interpreted as saying that women just can't pull together for a cause and that their natural destiny is to belong to a man.

Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James (Alfred A Knopf, 2001) (read Jan. 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An absorbing mystery set in a very small theological college on the East Anglia coast of England. In an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the novel, the author writes, "In setting this story of murder and mystery in a Church of England theological college I would not wish to discourage candidates for the Anglican priesthood, nor to suggest for one moment that visitors to such a college in search of rest and spiritual renewal are in danger of finding a more permanent peace than they had in mind."

The story opens with the discovery of the body of a student ("ordinand"), Ronald Treeves, buried in sand from an overhanging cliff on the beach adjacent to St. Anselm's College. Ronald's rich father is dissatisfied with the inquest, which reported it to be an accidental death. Sir Alred Treeves asks Commander Adam Dalgliesh of the Metropolitan Police to conduct an informal investigation to see if something more sinister was involved in his son's death. Adam had spent some time at the College as a youth (his father was an Anglican rector) and he was happy to return, although the only person he knew from his time there as a child was the elderly Fr. Martin, a kind-hearted priest.

In addition to about 20 ordinands, most of whom were away when all the action occurs, there were four priests at St. Anselm's (including Father Martin), several staff workers, such as a gardener/handyman, a cook, etc., plus a parttime Greek instructor, _____ Gregory, a visiting lecturer in poetry, Emma _______, and a few other visitors.

Three other deaths occur after that of Ronald Treeves, including the bludgeoning of Archdeacon Crampton, a Church of England official who was visiting St. Anselm's. He strongly disagreed with the high church, historic, "smells and bells" orientation of the College, and made no secret of his intention to have the institution closed down. The other deaths were apparently either natural or accidental, but an official murder investigation was opened into the death of Archdeacon Crampton, with Dalgliesh in charge.

Only a few of the ordinands figure into the story, but one of them, a handsome guy named Raphael, is the illegitimate grandson of the wealthy woman who founded St. Anselm's.

A number of people have a motive to kill Archdeacon Crampton, and the way the author narrows down the list of suspects is ingenious. The final identification of the murderer is logical and emotionally satisfying.

Devices and Desires, P.D. James (Warner Books, 1989) (read 11/91)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A murder mystery characterized by very fine writing and a pretty interesting plot, although a little difficult to follow at times. The author works in subplots about nuclear power and a mysterious enemy spy ring, but the main plot is about a serial killer called the Whistler who stalks and kills women. The Whistler is caught, but very shortly afterwards another murder occurs in such a manner as to resemble the Whistler's killings. Obviously this murder was by someone who didn't know the Whistler was caught. At the end it all works out and the murderess is discovered but commits suicide by burning down her house around her.

Murder Room, The, by P.D. James (Vintage Books, paper, 2003) (read winter 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I was happy to read this book, and it kept my interest, but when I reached the end I thought, this isn't the kind of book I really like to read. There's no question but that P.D. James is a good writer, and her books – I think this is the third I've read – are more than just murder mysteries. She creates characters that are more than stick figures and interwoven into the plot are ideas and speculations about life, which are very interesting to me. But I have some trouble keeping the characters straight and following the plot. So, for me, this book is a solid B.

An interesting conversation between Tally Clutton, who does the dusting and cleaning at the Dupayne Museum, and James Calder-Hale, the museum curator, about what happened to the people whose lives are recorded in the museum:

"... But I sometimes wonder where they've all gone – not just the murderers and their victims, but all the people photographed in the museum. Do you wonder about that?"

"No, I don't wonder. That's because I know. We die like animals and from much the same causes and, except for the lucky few, from much the same pain."

"And that's the end?"

"Yes. It's a relief, isn't it?"

She said, "So what we do, how we act, doesn't matter except in this life?"

"Where else could it matter, Tally? I find it difficult enough to behave with reasonable decency here and now without agonizing to acquire celestial brownie points for some fabled hereafter."

She took his cup to refill it. She said, "I suppose it's all that Sunday School attendance and church twice every Sunday. My generation still half-believes we might be called to account." (p. 62)

In another conversation, between Mrs. Strickland, an elderly calligrapher and volunteer at the museum, and Commander Dalgliesh, she recounts a conversation she had with Neville Dupayne two weeks before he was murdered. Dr. Dupayne was a psychiatrist, and in this conversation she said they spoke about atonement and forgiveness, after she had told him that "in old age the past wasn't so easily shaken off. The old sins return, weighted by the years." Mrs. Strickland said:

I'm the only child of a devoutly Roman Catholic French mother and an atheist father. I spend much of my childhood in France. I said that believers can deal with guilt by confession, but how could those of us without faith find our peace? I remembered some words I'd read written by a philosopher, I think Roger Scruton. "The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation." I told him I sometimes craved even imaginary consolation. Neville said we have to learn to absolve ourselves. The past can't be altered and we have to face it with honesty and without excuses, then put it aside; to be obsessed by guilt is a destructive indulgence. He said that to be human is to feel guilt: I am guilty therefore I am. (p. 263)

James seems to be describing a world that is post-Christian, with just haunting memories of a God that is alive and must be reckoned with. Her heroes are polite, generous, humble, but they don't have any answers. There is nothing, as far as I can see, about redemption in this book. But then maybe that's asking too much from a best-selling murder mystery.

Waiting, Ha Jin (Vintage paperback, 2000; orig. 1999) (read spring 2001)   [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The story of a doctor in the Chinese army, Lin Kong, who at his family's insistance had married a village girl and fathered a daughter, before going away to serve as a doctor at an army base in or near a large city. He goes back to see his wife, Shuyu, and his daughter, Hua, every summer, but really doesn't love his wife or know his daughter. At the army base he meets a nurse, Manna Wu, and gradually they fall in love and begin a kind of courtship, although to get divorced he needs his wife's permission, which she -- or her brother -- refuse to grant. Finally, after 18 years he is able to get the divorce without his wife's assent, and he does so, and soon after marries Manna.

However, it is not a "happy ever after" story. Although Manna is by now in her early 40s, she bears twin sons to Lin. He should be overjoyed, but Manna falls into depression and illness, and he is filled with questions and doubts about their relationship. Also, his former wife, Shuya, a simple woman, harbors no resentment and apparently is always waiting for Lin to return to her. At the end of the book, Lin is bewildered by, in effect, having two women loyal to him, almost two "wives."

This is a beautifully written novel that would be great for a discussion group, raising many issues about the meaning of marriage, duty, parenthood, and life itself. It is clearly a non-christian book, not anti-christian, and the people are lost.

Authors beginning with the letter "K"
Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes (Bantam paperback)  
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A novel with a simple but absorbing plot: Charlie Gordon, a retarded adult, becomes part of an experiment by two university psychologists to speed up mental processes. They first work with a mouse who masters a maze -- that's Algernon -- and then they get Charlie to progress from retardate to super-bright.

However, Algernon soon peaks and then his mental abilities decline rapidly, which is a clear indication of what is going to happen to Charlie. Sure enough, at the end of the book he is retarded again. He has buried Algernon, and his final plea is to "put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard."

Many flashbacks attempt to show Charlie's early life and how that contributed to his condition.

Secret Life Of Bees, The, Sue Monk Kidd (Penguin, paper, 2002) (read Dec. 2007)   [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Fourteen-year-old Lily Melissa Owens runs away from her abusive father, T. Ray, with big black Rosaleen, one of the workers in T. Ray's peach orchard. The time is in the early 1960s; President Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act; but this is in South Carolina and not many whites are ready to yield one inch to the Negroes. On her way to register to vote for the first time, with Lily, Rosaleen deliberately pours tobacco juice on the shoes of some white men who were taunting her; they assault her; the police are called and the two of them wind up in jail.

Lily is hauled home by her father but before he can punish her – his pet punishment is to make her kneel with bare knees on grits spilled on the floor – she runs away, figures out how to sneak Rosaleen out of jail, and the two of them head for Tiburon, a city or town that Lily has only heard about because one of the few momentos she has of her deceased mother is a photo of the "Black Madonna" with the inscription "Tiberon, South Carolina."

The title comes from Lily's and Rosaleen's experiences helping a black female beekeeper, August Boatwright, who lives on the edge of Tiberon and has a substantial honey business. August and her sisters May and June take Lily and Rosaleen in when they ask for help; they give them a place to stay and put them to work, Lily helping August with the bees and Rosaleen in the kitchen with June. (May is a bit wacky and frequently breaks down sobbing, and they have to calm her down.)

Where this book started to lose me is when it describes the involvement of the Boatwrights and a few other women (and one man) in the "Daughters of Mary," a weird cult of Virgin Mary worship with a physical object of worship, a "Black Madonna," a.k.a. "Our Lady of Chains," which was rescued from a river. In addition to praying to Mary using a rosary, there are many strange and (to me) unbelievable rituals, including smearing honey all over the statue. At times the Black Madonna seems like the Holy Spirit, as when August explains to Lily, "Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She's not the statue in the parlor. She's something inside of you." (p. 288)

The rest of the plot is not worth detailing, but it can be summarized by saying that Lily and Rosaleen find a home with the beekeeper and her sisters; Lily is continually tormented by the thought that her mother had abandoned her, although coincidentally she discovers that August had worked for her grandmother and taken care of her mother as a little girl, and that her mother had come to stay with August (just as Lily had) before going back to her husband and child where she was accidentally killed; the law never catches up with Lily and Rosaleen; at the end her father, T. Ray, finds her and threatens to take her home, but his stony heart is melted, somewhat, when he learns that Lily's mother, whom he really loved, had lived in that same house, so he drives away leaving Lily to continue living there.

What to make of this book? Very readable, well-written, somewhat implausible, and downright silly in parts. Almost all of the white males in the book are bad; all of the women, white and black, are good or at least not evil. A lot of mystical rubbish about the "great universal mother" and the "universal feminine divine."

Bottom line: Maybe a C+. Not recommended.

Authors beginning with the letter "L"

Crooked Little Heart, by Anne Lamott (Pantheon Books, paper, 1997) (read winter 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See also another review of this novel.

Thirteen-year-old Rosie Ferguson is a star tennis player, regionally ranked number one in doubles in her age group with her best friend Simone. Rosie lives with her mother, Elizabeth, who's frequently depressed, and her step-father, James. Her real father, Andrew, died in an auto accident when she was seven.

Rosie's best friend and doubles partner Simone Duvall is well developed physically and is crazy about boys, and of course boys are crazy about her, especially her body. Rosie herself has a little girl's undeveloped body, and the boys pay no attention to her, which bothers her greatly.

Although an excellent tennis player, Rosie is inwardly full of doubts about her ability, and she just about panics when she is in a tough match, especially with a lower-ranked player. And so one day, in a tight singles match, she cheats. She calls her opponent's shot out when it clearly hit the line.

Nobody saw her do this except Luther, an old bum who has been hanging around the tennis courts, especially when Rosie is playing. Apparently he shows up just to watch her. Rosie's mother, Elizabeth, thinks Luther is stalking her daughter and is terrified of him. But Rosie's coach, Peter, thinks he's a harmless old guy who just likes tennis, and besides he wasn't breaking any law so there was nothing they could do about him.

Then in another close match Rosie cheated again, this time shielding her opponent's lob with her body and then calling it out even though it was good. Of course, this started to tear her up on the inside, and made her even more difficult to live with than she had been as a teenager.

Meanwhile Simone has more than enough troubles of her own. She starts letting boys fool around with her and does a little drinking and, sure enough, she has sex with an older high school tennis player and gets pregnant. To further complicate matters, Simone refuses to have an abortion, breaking two appointments at the Planned Parenthood clinic.

The Fergusons have other close friends who figure in this story, including an older man, Charles Adderly, who had taught Rosie to ride a book. Charles' wife, Grace, had died, and now during the book Charles dies too. Another friend is Rae, a weaver who becomes a Christian (although it does not seem to affect her lifestyle much) and Lank, a single guy the Fergusons are trying to get to date Rae.

The tennis season proceeds, Rosie cheats a couple more times and lives in fear of a letter from the tennis management committee. Simone gets visibly pregnant, but continues to play, although she can't move as well on the court. Rosie finally admits to Simone and then to her mother that she has been cheating, but this was after she talked with Luther, almost against her will, and he said there's a big difference between having cheated and being a cheater.

Without giving away the climax, I'll just say that the author brings it all together in a beautiful -- and very surprising -- ending, with a great description of the final tennis match in which Rosie, freed of her burden of cheating, helps carry a heavily pregnant but still game Simone to victory, clinching their first place ranking.

One of the really interesting things about this novel is how the author portrays Rae, the only Christian character. She is earthy and hungry for a man in her life, but is very free about her love for Jesus. When Rosie, all tied up inside because of her cheating, is talking to Rae, she asks,

"Rae, are you not ever afraid because you believe in God?" "I am afraid sometimes. But I have company." "You mean, because you feel like God is with you?" "Uh-huh.'' (p. 212)

And then, when Rae's potential boyfriend Lank teases her about Jesus sitting next to her in the car: "Rae patted the space next to her, giving Lank the clearest, kindest look. 'He's in my heart, Lank.'" (p. 213)

This is a great novel, maybe not great measured against the best of the classics, but a great story, well told, by a superb writer. I definitely plan to read more of Anne Lamott's books.

Imperfect Birds, Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, 2010) (read July 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a sequel to my favorite Anne Lamott book, Crooked Little Heart, with the same main characters, Elizabeth, her daughter Rosie, and husband James, Rosie's step-father. In Crooked Little Heart, Rosie was a skinny undeveloped 13-year-old girl; now she is a beautiful voluptuous 17-year-old finishing her junior year of high school.

While this novel is, in my opinion, a failure, Lamott's writing is as delightful and earthy as ever. She says things like,

Still, life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out. (p. 7)

Life on earth is a head-scratcher for anyone who's paying attention. This place has been a bad match for me since I was four. (p. 10)

And while she did not agree with Rae that a pulsing seed of God was inside each person waiting to bloom, she had stopped seeing the people in recovery as a bunch of fundamentalist bowling-alley types. (p. 12)

The only admitted Christian among the characters is Rae, the weaver, who is married to Lank. Her theology is not what I would call well-developed. As she explained to Elizabeth:

You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee. (p. 14)

Lamott's characters seem to be searching for God, even when they deny it. Rae, the Christian in the mix, tries to be a witness, sometimes using humor: "Some people call God Howard, as in 'Howard be thy name.' Or Andy, as in 'And he walks with me, and he talks to me.'" (p. 151)

So why do I think the book is a failure? Mainly because it's over-the-top, almost soft-core pornographic, in its cumulative mind-numbing description of all the drugs and sex Rosie and her friends get involved with. I'm willing to believe that there is a drug and sex sub-culture among California teenagers, and that some parents are as clueless and spineless as Rosie's mother Elizabeth (yes, we are all "imperfect birds"), but how does describing the downward spiral of an out-of-control girl and the disintegration of her freaked-out mother comprise a novel? To me, it doesn't.

Also, Lamott describes a church in this novel that is truly bizarre. "Sixth Prez" hires Rosie and her girlfriend Jody to run the children's program at Vacation Bible School, including teaching them Bible Stories, although they have no discernable spiritual qualifications. The church sponsors events like a women's "sweat lodge" and "Ancestors' Day, where people gather outside in a half-circle around one of the pastors to "celebrate the ancestors, to thank them for their company and guidance, and to give of ourselves ...." (pp. 221-222) Really weird.

Finally, out of desperation, Elizabeth and James take all their savings and send Rosie to a three-month wilderness camping experience. I won't tell the outcome, but believe me, there's little if any redemption in this book. Rosie is a loser, her friends are losers, her parents are losers, and there doesn't seem to be any hope for any of them, especially at Sixth Prez.

Joe Jones, Anne Lamott (Shoemaker & Hoard paperback, orig. North Point Press, 1985) (read winter 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This early book by Anne Lamott was mostly a disappointment. The story seems maudlin – a foul-mouthed waitress, Louise, in a diner longing for her no-good former boyfriend – and the characters, equally foul-mouthed, do not seem very realistic to me. Louise's best friend is the cook, a homosexual, and they frequently cry on each other's shoulders by going into the bathroom together and locking the door for privacy.

Impressions upon reading about two-thirds of the book: just too much dirty language, too much drugs and talk of drugs, and too melodramatic; not really believable, some of it. She can really describe the character and personality of the different characters, but they seem a bit far-fetched, like there really aren't any people like that. Maybe I just don't know any people like that. They are almost all so needy, basket cases. If some Christian authors make their characters – the "good guys" – too sweet and unbelievably good, Lamott goes to the other extreme; there are no good guys, really, but there are some with traces of faith, love, etc.

Final impression: this is not a good book. Don't recommend it.

Rosie, Anne Lamott (Penguin, paper, orig. 1983) (read Dec. 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is an early novel by Anne Lamotte; the one I liked so much, Crooked Little Heart, is a sequel to Rosie. So most of the same characters are here, but there seems to be a difference to me. There is no trace of Christian faith here, no redemption, only some vague hope that things will work out in the future.

The story starts with Elizabeth, Rosie's mother, happily married to Andrew Ferguson. Rosie is born, despite Elizabeth's desire not to have children, and she soon becomes the center of Elizabeth's life, at least next to Andrew. Then Andrew is killed in a car crash, and helpless alcoholic Elizabeth is left to raise Rosie alone.

She manages, partly because Andrew left her a lot of money, so she doesn't have to work and probably wouldn't be able to work anyway; she's so neurotic and such a severe alcoholic.

Well, she meets James, falls in love, is either blissfully happy or in a raging jealousy; finally he moves into her house with his dog, and ultimately they get married.

Meanwhile Rosie is growing up much like her mother. She's very bright but extremely fearful. Has nightmares all the time. Grows desperate over her mother's drinking. And then her best friend Sharon's father exposes himself to her, as he has apparently been doing for years to his own daughter. This traumatizes Rosie; despite her promise not to tell anyone she finally discloses her awful secret to family friend Rae, who helps her tell her mother, who confronts Sharon's mother, and ensures that her father will get help.

There are many weaknesses in this novel, although I still think Lamott is a great writer. The resolution of the child molestation incident, for example, does not seem very clear. Sharon's father is transferred by his employer to another location, but there are vague assurances that her mother will follow up and make sure he gets counseling.

While drunk Elizabeth runs over a dog and kills it; a few pages later a motorcycle comes roaring down the street and kills James' dog (and almost hits Rosie). A little too coincidental to be realistic.

There's too much sex and drugs and alcohol in this book. I know that's the way the world is, but there should be some victory over addictions, or some real hope of victory, which I don't think is there.

All in all, a good book, but not a great one. It's carried along by Lamott's flair for writing.

Fragrant Harbor, John Lanchester (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002) (read June 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a somewhat strange and ultimately unsatisfying novel. I almost gave up on it after the first few chapters, which were about a woman named Dawn Stone who was a gossip columnist for a newspaper in London. Very materialistic, foul-mouthed, not (to me) a sympathetic character at all. She climbed the ladder to different newspaper positions and then accepted a job in Hong Kong. And that's the end of her story until she finally reappears late in the book. Then a young guy from England, Tom Stewart, goes to Hong Kong seeking adventure, and contrary to my expectations, did not get involved with Dawn Stone (except peripherally, at the end of the book) but instead met two Roman Catholic nuns, one of whom, as the result of a bet, teaches him to speak Cantonese during their six-weeks voyage to Hong Kong.

The story begins in the mid-1930s and continues through the war with Japan and the post-war years. Indirectly the reader learns that Tom has an affair with Maria, the Chinese nun who taught him to speak Chinese, and she bears his child, who in turn has a son who shows up at just the right time to save Tom – his grandfather – from getting beat up by some Chinese thugs.

Among the weaknesses in this novel are too many coincidences, characters who don't seem to contribute to the plot, and a number of developments left unresolved. I would not recommend spending time reading it.

Gesture Life, A, Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 1999) (read spring 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a powerful, well-written, but not altogether pleasant novel. It tells the story of Franklin "Doc" Hata (shortened from "Kurohata"), a Japanese-American living in a nice suburb named Bedley Run, who's main goal in life was apparently to fit in and be respected. Although not a real doctor, for many years he operated a medical and surgical supply store, until he finally sold it and retired to the comfort of his large prominent house. Although Hata was never married, he adopted a little Korean girl, Sunny, who grew up to reject him and his lifestyle. He also had a woman friend, a widow, Mary Burns, with whom he became intimate but their relationship ended, amicably but irrevocably.

Sunny left home and lived a promiscuous life, perhaps partly to taunt her father, had one abortion and finally gave birth to a baby boy, Thomas, whose father more or less disappeared. Later she is partially reconciled with her father, who loves the little boy and tries to help him as much as possible, even though Sunny doesn't want him to reveal that he is the boy's grandfather.

As the novel proceeds, Hata has flashbacks to his days as a medical assistant in the Japanese army during World War II. He doesn't see any action, but his unit is supplied with four or five "comfort women" – Koreans who were forced to become sex slaves for the soldiers. He falls in love with one of them, an intelligent young woman with a good family background, but in the brutality of her circumstances she is finally killed. The scenes in this part of the book are difficult to read about, so gruesome and revolting; the women were treated completely as objects, with no rights or consideration at all, just objects to be used by all the men.

"Doc" Hata is a decent man, who was turned off by the excesses of the soldiers around him. His great desire is to do his duty and please everyone. "... I only wished for myself that I could bear whatever burdens might fall to me, that I might remain steadfast in my duty and uphold my responsibilities and not waver under any circumstance, and by whatever measure." (p. 229) He talks about being "nearly paralyzed with the dread of dishonoring my fellow merchants."

Finally, he sort of checks out of life, but with all good intentions. He has his friend, Liv Crawford, the real estate agent, sell his house, and he discloses his plan to use the proceeds to repurchase the store building he used to occupy, renovate the upstairs for an apartment for Sunny and Thomas, and let her run whatever business she wants to from the downstairs. Then he'll just "go away from here and live out modestly the rest of my unappointed days. (p. 355) He says he's going to go away, but "it won't be any kind of pilgrimage. I won't be seeking out my destiny or fate. I won't attempt to find comfort in the visage of a creator or the forgiving dead." (p. 356) Rather depressing.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (Lippincott, 1960) (read 5/90)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Atticus Finch is a small town lawyer and a good man, who tries to teach his two children, Jem and Jean Louise ("Scout"), to love their neighbors -- all of them. Scout, who is just entering first grade when the story begins, is the narrator, and through her eyes we learn how she and her older brother interact with various kinds of people who live in Maycomb, Alabama.

The main plot involves a false accusation of rape against a Negro, Tom Robinson; his trial and unsuccesful defense by Atticus; and his subsequent death when he allegedly tried to escape from prison. At the end, the man who instigated the prosecution tries to get even with Atticus by attacking Jem and Scout, but he is drunk and apparently winds up killing himself by stumbling and falling on his own knife, although a reclusive character named Boo Radley, whom the children used to taunt, apparently also came to their rescue.

This is a wonderful novel, simply and powerfully written. The title comes from what Atticus told Jem about shooting birds with his air rifle -- it's "a sin to kill a mockingbird" because, as Miss Maudie explains, "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." And Tom Robinson was a mockingbird.

Socratic Method, The, Michael Levin (Ivy Books, 1987) (read fall 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Novel satirizing law school, not well-written, and downright silly in parts. No sense of identification with the characters, and it's hard to tell all but the main ones apart.

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis (Macmillan Co., paper, 1946) (read 2016-17)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Not so much a novel as a Christian allegory, like Pilgrim's Progress, this slim book stirs up many ideas and questions. It would be great for a discussion group.

Although this book is all about heaven and hell, Lewis cautions his readers that it is just a fantasy with a moral, "not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us." (p. 8) That I doubt, after reading the book. It is at least a speculation, and a provocative one, about what happens after physical death.

About earth, which in common understanding seems to be interposed between heaven and hell, Lewis says:

Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself. (p. 7)

The first three chapters describe a strange bus trip. The passengers are from below, and the general direction is above; in fact, after a little while the bus takes off and flies, leaving the earth farther and farther behind. The narrator, Dick, refers to the passengers as "Ghosts" and yes, you can see through them. For the most part, the ghosts are a disagreeable lot, confronting and cursing one another, all seeking to get their own way. Like real people.

When the bus "lands" on a level place and the Ghosts get off, they meet "Bright Ones" or "solid people" from up above, who try to help them make it up the sometimes steep, difficult, and painful ascent. But many of the ghosts don't want the help or advice of the Bright Ones; they want to make it on their own terms and, of course, they fail or fall back.

When they get off the bus, one of the "more respectable ghosts" said to Dick about the other ghosts, "Damn it, one's chief object in coming here at all was to avoid them!" (p. 29)

In Chapter 4 Dick encounters a "Big Ghost" who was a "decent chap" and only wants his "rights". The "bright one" who's sent to him was one of the ghost's former employees, who had committed murder. This fact, among others, makes the Ghost feel vastly superior, and he rejects the Bright One's offer to help him up the ascent. Many provocative statements, like "I'm asking for nothing but my rights." (p. 33) "I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity." The Bright One answers, "Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity." (p. 34) The Bright One also says to him, "There are no private affairs." (p. 35)

Chapter 5 describes an encounter with a bishop, a spiritual philosopher, who reveres "honest opinions, sincerely expressed." (p. 41) The "White Spirit," one of the "Bright People," used to discuss spiritual matters with this ghost, but now he speaks frankly – almost rudely – to him. He calls him "an apostate" and says, "I am telling you to repent and believe." (p. 42) He says that where he will take the bishop there is

No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God. (p. 43)

Chapter 6. One of the ghosts tries to take a golden apple that had fallen from an enormous tree next to a waterfall. As the ghost struggled to lug it back to the bus, a loud voice from the waterfall itself (which now looked like both a waterfall and a "bright angel who stood, like one crucified, against the rocks") said, "Fool ... put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell." But the ghost struggled on with the apple.

Chapter 7 describes the chronic and cynical complainer, blaming God for not finding "something that doesn't bore us." (p. 56)

Chapter 8. Dick, the narrator Ghost, begins to doubt, and senses that where he is poses great possible dangers. "If only I could find a trace of evidence that it was really possible for a Ghost to stay – that the choice were not only a cruel comedy – I would not go back," he says. (p. 59) He meets a Ghost, formerly a woman, who rebuffs the entreaties of one of the Bright People by saying she would be overcome with shame to be seen by "people with real solid bodies." (p. 61) The Spirit says to her, "Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?" (p. 62) The chapter ends with the arrival of a thunderous herd of unicorns, scaring away both the female Ghost and the narrator, who never saw her again. Later one of the Bright People explains that the unicorns were meant to frighten the Ghost; not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but it might take her mind off herself, creating an opportunity to be saved. (p. 76)

Chapter 9. This is the longest and most challenging chapter. Of particular interest is Lewis's discussion of Purgatory, which is tied up with time. (See p. 69: "Hell is a state of mind .... But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself.") He says time works backwards; those who choose Heaven (apparently after they die) have always been in Heaven, while those who reject Heaven have always been in Hell. One of the Bright Ones (George MacDonald) says to the narrator,

... both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. (p. 67)

Of Hell he says, "All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it will be opened." (pp. 72-73) As to the place of art and artists, see pp. 79-83.

Chapter 10 is one long whining rant from a shrew whose husband has died and is now with the Bright People. The shrew is complaining to Hilda, apparently a former friend or acquaintance who is now a Bright Woman, that she did everything for her husband, Robert, who remained sunk into himself until he finally had a nervous breakdown and died. She pushed him to move to a bigger house, to get a better job, to have better friends, etc. And now she is unwilling to meet him unless he is turned over to her to work on some more! ("But if I'm given a free hand I'll take charge of him again. I will take up my burden once more. ...") (p. 89)

In chapter 11, the narrator meets two Ghosts, first a mother who demands to see her son and says to a Bright Spirit who was trying to help her, "I don't believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of Love. No one has a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face." (p. 95)

Before hearing how this encounter turned out, the narrator was moved away by his "Teacher," and soon he met another ghost who was carrying – and arguing with – a little red lizard on his shoulder. The lizard apparently represented sensual pleasures, which the ghost was loathe to give up. The Bright One with him (also referred to as the "Angel" and the "Burning One) kept asking if he could kill the lizard, and finally the ghost agreed. When the Angel killed the lizard, it turned into "the greatest stallion I have ever seen," which the ghost mounted and rode off into the mountains.

In telling about the angry mother and the formerly sensual man in the same chapter, Lewis is contrasting the "risen body even of appetite" with the potential "risen body of maternal love or friendship." (p. 105) Query: Is Lewis too hard on women? Most of the ghosts who do not respond to heavenly entreaties seem to be women.

Chapters 12 and 13 describe one of the Bright Ones, a "Lady" at the head of a parade of joyous men, women, children and animals, all singing, dancing and scattering flowers. The Teacher tells the narrator that she is "one of the great ones" in heaven (although apparently an unknown on earth). The Lady meets a little dwarf of a ghost leading a tall "horribly thin and shaky" ghost with a chain. She greets the dwarf ghost with joy, calling him "Frank" and begging his forgiveness for any wrong she did to him on earth (when they were married). The dwarf seems ready to respond positively but then shrinks back, all the time letting the tall ghost at the end of his chain do the talking. When she mentioned that in Heaven she is in love, he cries out, "[Y]ou mean – you did not love me truly in the old days?" She responds

Only in a poor sort of way .... There was a little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you. (p. 113, emphasis by author)

Query: What is the relation between love and need? Can there be no true love between persons who need each other?

Although he seemed to be struggling "against joy," the dwarf just could not bring himself to accept what his former wife was saying. He took offense when she tried to explain that she loved him but did not need him. And then he started growing smaller and smaller, while the tall "Tragedian" at the end of the chain kept shouting at the Lady, until the dwarf just about disappeared. Still the Lady pleaded for him to "Let go of that chain" and to stop using pity to try to manipulate her.

At this point the dwarf ghost could no longer be seen and even the Tragedian (the tall shape at the end of the chain) disappeared. The Lady started walking away, and the other Bright Spirits came toward her, singing a song with phrases that sound like verses in Psalm 91.

Then come a half-dozen pages ostensibly as part of a conversation between the Narrator and his Teacher dealing with "Pity" (distinguishing between the "action of Pity," which will live forever, and the "passion of Pity," which will die; Hell ("All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world"); why no one except Jesus (who did it once) can descend into Hell; Time; Universalism, Predestination, and Freedom. (pp. 120-125) I did not understand all of this, but to some extent it deals with the impossibility of understanding eternal things while bound by the constraints of time.

Last chapter. And so it's all a dream. The Narrator is not dead, yet. As the Narrator tells him, "The bitter drink of death is still before you." He also warns the Narrator that if he tells anyone about it, he must make clear that it was only a dream. "Give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows." (p. 127) But Lewis is very clever. Despite this disclaimer, he has written a book that suggests what does or perhaps might happen after our physical death. That's what makes it a wonderful book for a discussion group (which it proved to be in March & April of 2017). (Note: The page numbers above refer to the 1946 edition.)

Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956) (paperback, 1980) (read 8/82)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Fascinating retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. The characters include Redival, the pretty daughter, and Orual, the ugly daughter of Trom, King of Glome; Batta, their nurse, and Batta's husband, Bardia, the captain of the King's guard; Istra (or Psyche in Greek) the stunningly beautiful daughter of the King by his new wife, who died in childbirth; the Fox, a Greek slave who educated the girls; the "god of the Grey Mountain," who is the son of Ungit, a "very strong goddess" who was a "black stone without head or hands or face." Istra is so beautiful the people of Glome at first take her for a goddess, then turn against her and blame her for causing a plague, and finally she is sacrificed to Ungit. Orual becomes queen after her father's death and rescues the kingdom from menacing enemies, but most of the rest of the story concerns Istra's fate in the hands of the gods.

A wonderful story which I must reread some day!

Changing Places, David Lodge (Penguin paperback 1975) (Jan. 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Touted as a humorous novel of academic life, this novel is actually a contrived, trashy, sophomoric story of two professors, one English and other American, who go on a six-month faculty exchange which they largely expend (as far as I read) in real or imagined sexual adventures. I read about half of this slim paperback and then threw it away.

Authors beginning with the letter "M"

Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (Vintage Books, paper, 1958, orig. 1930) (read January 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I read this short story only because it was on a list of "must-read" books listed in Writing a Novel, by John Braine. Now that I have read it, I am not sure why it was so highly recommended.

Gustave Aschenbach, a widower with a single adult daughter, lives alone in Munich. He is a successful writer, but is tired, burdened, and discontented by his sense of duty and his concentrated work. He feels a need to travel, to get away. First he travels to Pola, an island in the Adriatic, but soon decides that was a mistake; he packs up and heads for Venice.

There in the dining room of his hotel he notices a Polish family, with three plain-looking teenage girls and a younger boy, about 14, in charge of a governess. "Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad's perfect beauty. He face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture – pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity." (p. 25) The rest of the story focuses on Aschenbach's infatuation with this boy. He contrives to see him on the beach playing, and in the hotel dining room, and he even follows him discreetly when the family goes somewhere else.

There is more of a plot – a plague reaches Venice and the tourists start to disappear, but Aschenbach stays to keep his eye on the Polish boy – until finally Aschenbach collapses and dies in his beach chair. A "death in Venice."

So what is the point? It seems to be about homosexual longings of an older man for a young boy, sort of a Lolita in reverse, but it may be more about the power of beauty and sensuality to overwhelm duty and morality. There is no physical contact between Aschenbach and the youth, but then at the time this story was written heterosexual love was often not described in terms of physical intimacy.

Interesting description of how Aschenbach, who "began his day with a cold shower over chest and back" before writing for "two or three hours of almost religious fervour," wrote his two most famous books: "Outsiders might be pardoned for believing that ... they came forth, as it were all in one breath. ... [T]he truth was that they were heaped up to greatness in layer after layer, in long days of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours." (p. 10)

I wouldn't say that reading this story was a waste of time, but it didn't make me want to read any of the other seven stories in this Vintage Book collection of Mann's short stories.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Avon paperback, 1971) (read winter and spring 1990)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A strange surrealistic novel set in the village of Macondo, apparently in a South American country. It follows the bizarre fortunes of the Buendia family and the village of Macondo over a period of 100 years. I lost track of the many characters, with overlapping names. There are a lot of magic and supernatural occurrences -- gypsies float on magic carpets, one woman rises bodily into heaven, another eats dirt, etc. Not sure what the point of it all is, except that many of the characters end up living in solitude, one crazy and chained to a tree. A weird book, well-written, but not my kind of novel.

Partners, John Martel (Bantam paperback, 1988) (read August 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Novel about a woman associate, Rachel Cannon, who is hoping to become the first female partner in a prestigious San Franciso law firm. Very melodramatic in parts, stereotyped roles -- the main characters are all beautiful/handsome "winners," but the secretary wore "Red Cross shoes, black hair confined in a bun, and horn-rimmed glasses that hung on the back of her sad, pinched face." (p. 101) On the other hand, the plot, while somewhat implausible at times, unfolds dramatically and is very absorbing, especially toward the end. The book also interested me because of what it revealed about the workings of a large law firm and the preparation and trial of a major case, with depositions, interviews with expert witnesses, choosing jurors, etc.

Piano Tuner, The, Daniel Mason (Vintage Books, 2003, paper) (read spring 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A believable (mostly) novel about an improbable event: a British army surgeon, Anthony Carroll, stationed in the jungles of Burma in the 19th century, requests that a grand piano be shipped to him, which the British War Office reluctantly agrees to do, because Dr. Carroll has proved enormously successful at pacifying natives unhappy with British rule. Of course, the piano is soon badly out of tune and since no one there can tune it, Dr. Carroll requests that a piano tuner be sent from London to tune his piano ... which the War Office also agrees to, very reluctantly.

That this story can be told with a straight face and hold the interest of the reader is due largely to the skill of the author, who spent a year studying malaria on the border of Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma) after graduating from college, and then did a lot of research to come up with this, his first novel.

The shy, middle-aged piano tuner, Edgar Drake, is pretty well rendered, but toward the end of the book the story, in my mind, sort of peters out. It does not have a crisp, satisfactory ending. Overall, I would say this is a B+ novel, worth reading, especially for the descriptions of the setting and the historical background, but not in the first rank.

Crossing, The, Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 1994) (read Jan. '95)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A powerful, grim novel about a teenager from Texas before World War II, Billy Parham, who traps a wolf in the mountains and instead of killing it he decides to take it down to Mexico, where it came from, and let it loose in the mountains. Everything goes wrong. The wolf is taken from him by Mexicans, who are tormenting it with dogs when he shoots it himself to put it out of its misery.

When he goes back home he finds that his father and mother have been murdered by indians, who stole their horses. He finds his younger brother, Boyd, and they cross the border again to try to find their horses. They find them and temporarily get them back, but his brother gets shot, recovers, leaves with a girl they found, and later he is killed. Billy, who has returned to Texas, crosses the border again to find his brother, and ends up bringing back his bones to bury them in Texas.

A very sad, pessimistic novel, yet beautifully and powerfully written. The author is apparently fluent in Spanish and much of the conversation is either Spanish or a mixture of English and Spanish. Many enigmatic discussions with priests, gypsies, rebels, and assorted other characters, about good and evil, God, the world, and so on, most of which made little sense to me. Many stories of unbelievable cruelty. A very find novel, but no hope here.

Member of the Wedding, The, Carson McCullers (Bantam paperback, orig. 1946) (read Aug. 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A brief (150 pp.) intriguing novel about a 12-year-old girl from a small southern town who becomes obsessed with the idea that her brother and his bride are going to take her away with them when they leave after the wedding. They don't, of course, and she is dragged away sobbing "Take me! Take me!" The girl is called Frankie at the beginning of the book, F. Jasmine during the pre-wedding phase, and Frances after the disillusioning departure of the bride and groom.

The theme of the book is the intense alienation and loneliness of people who just aren't "connected" with others. The author writes beautifully. This would be a good book for a discussion group.

Amsterdam, Ian McEwan (Anchor Books paperback, orig. 1998) (read fall 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a sad, joyless novel, although well-written, as all of McEwan's books are.

Molly Lane, a witty bon vivant who was married to George but over the years had many lovers, suddenly fell ill, descended into madness and pain, and died quickly. Two of her former lovers, Clive Linley, a musician, and Vernon Halliday, publisher of a tabloid newspaper in London, were friends, despite their rivalry for Molly. They talk about how terrible it was for Molly to die the way she did, so suddenly and helplessly, and they make a pact that if either of them should see the other in that kind of a downward spiral, he would take the other to Amsterdam, where assisted suicide was not a crime, and arrange his euthanasia.

The plot is clever, but uninspiring. Vernon obtains some photos that Molly had taken of a much-despised politician, Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, dressed in drag. Vernon made plans to disclose Garmony's secret life as a transvestite by plastering the photos on the front page of his newspaper, the Judge. On the day before he was going to publish them, however, Garmony's wife beat him to the punch by disclosing them herself in such a way as to make Garmony seem like a victim and the newspaper's editor, Vernon, like the perpetrator of a crime against privacy and love. Asked about the editor of the newspaper, she said, "Mr. Halliday, you have the mentality of a blackmailer, and the moral status of a flea." (p. 135, emphasis in original)

A parallel story involves Clive's failure to complete a symphony he had been commissioned to compose to celebrate the new millenium. He was almost finished, and the British Symphony Orchestra was in Amsterdam for final rehearsals before its premiere, when he was emotionally thrown off-balance by an accusation that made it impossible for him to think clearly and complete the symphony.

To give an idea of McEwan's writing, here is a description of what Clive saw through the window of a Boing 757 waiting to take off for Amsterdam:

He had a window seat in an empty row, and through gaps in the fog he could see other airliners waiting competitively in ragged, converging lines, something brooding and loutish in their forms: slit eyes beneath small brains, stunted, encumbered arms, upraised and blackened arseholes. Creatures like this could never care about each other. (pp. 162-163)

However good a writer, McEwan's own sympathies for decadence and even suicide seep through this novel. Here is what George Lane, Molly's husband, says about the faces of the two-long time friends after they either kill themselves or are killed by each other:

They looked surprisingly at peace. Vernon had his lips parted slightly, as though he were halfway through saying something interesting, while Clive had the happy air of a man drowning in applause. (p. 191)

Enough said.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (Anchor paperback; orig. 2001) (read fall 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a really good novel, A- at least, but I forgot to write a review right after reading it, so these are just a few notes.

McEwan is a very polished writer, and the plot in this book is believable, scary, and completely absorbing. Briony Tallis, a young, very imaginative 13-year-old teenager, sees herself as a writer and has written a play, to be performed by her cousins who are visiting during the break-up of their parents' marriage. Although the play never is performed, Briony's older sister, Cecilia, falls in love with the son of the Tallises' cleaning, Robbie Turner (now in college, supported financially by Briony's father), and they have a tryst in the library which Briony interrupts. Seeing them over in a corner, Briony thinks Robbie is attacking her sister. Later Briony's cousin Lola is raped on the grounds; Briony sees a shadowy figure running away and concludes that it is Robbie, who, after all, had attacked her sister. So she tells the police that Robbie did it.

Next the story jumps ahead several years. Robbie has served time in prison for the rape that he did not commit, and he is now a soldier in France, heading for Dunkirk with thousands of other members of the British Expeditionary Force, seeking to escape the German invasion. Cecelia, now estranged from her family and still in love with Robbie, is a nurse in training, living in London. Briony, surprisingly, is also in training to be a nurse, and she communicated to her sister that she wants to be reconciled and she hints that she may have been mistaken in testifying that Robbie raped Lola.

The rest of the story plays out, alternating between Robbie's struggle to survive the horrors of war and his dreams of being exonerated if Briony recants, and Briony's life as a probationer nurse serving in a wartime hospital, along with her efforts to get a book published, to be reconciled with her sister, and (I think) to clear her conscience. The manuscript she has submitted to a publisher is based on her own experiences, and reveals the anguish and doubts in her own heart about what she has done. It is rejected by the publisher, but the rejection is accompanied by an encouraging letter critiquing the manuscript.

Briony's letter to Cecelia was never answered, but one day she goes to the address to confront her. Unknown to Briony, Robbie has returned from France and is visiting Cecelia. He comes out of the bedroom while the sisters are talking The whole scene results in a tense half-reconciliation, with Briony's agreement to go to their parents and explain everything, and to write out an extended retraction of her testimony, which she will take to a solicitor and sign it under oath.

The last flash-back chapter shows Briony in her old age, at her 77th birthday party, suffering from the onset of vascular dementia. She still hasn't published that first book, based with as much historical accuracy as she could remember, although she has published other books. Obviously her first book was an attempt to atone for her crime of sending an innocent man to prison. After the party she muses: "The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all." (pp. 350-351)

Does that mean that if we try to make up for our sins, we can do so? Or that even the attempt is useless. There is no hope. This is my third McEwan novel that I have read, and I don't sense that he has any kind of religious faith. But, as a brilliant writer, he sure can raise religious questions.

Child in Time, The, Ian McEwan (Picador paper, orig. 1987) (read August 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A very good short (220 pp.) novel about every parent's nightmare – child snatching. Stephen Lewis took his little girl, Kate, to the grocery store and while he was standing in line, thinking she was right behind him, someone made off with her. They never found her. He and his wife, Julie, were, of course, devastated. He sat around their apartment, unable to work (he wrote children's books), staring at TV game shows. She left him and moved into a house out in the country. His only other activity, that gave some structure to his life, was his participation on a government committee studying children's reading. This part of the novel is not too plausible, to me, especially when it leads to the Prime Minister of England wanting to talk to Stephen, ostensibly about his children's books but actually about Stephen's friend, Charles Darke, a favorite of the Prime Minister.

Charles and Thelma Darke are a bit strange. As a young senior editor, he helped Stephen get his first book was published, then left publishing and went into politics, where he was a rising star. She was a physicist, a teacher, who wanted to quit her job and write, which she does, and they move to a remote place in the country. When Stephen, at Thelma's urging, comes to visit them he finds Charles building a tree house and acting like a little boy. Apparently he has a strange disease that causes him to revert to childhood. What this has to do with the main plot, I'm not sure, but there is a theme about time (as indicated in the title) and it probably fits in there.

There are various episodes of Stephen looking for Kate, at first, and then thinking he's found her, but it's all a mistake. Gripping account of a truck rollover, and Stephen's rescue of the driver, pp. 93-99. Here's how he describes the condition of the cab: "He approached the cab warily, trying to make out where the door, or any other kind of opening might be. But the structure had folded in on itself; it resembled a tightly closed fist, or a toothless mouth held shut." (p. 96)

Without giving away the plot, I will say that it has a believable and very satisfying resolution. There are some weaknesses in this novel, and it's hard to follow in some places, but McEwan is a marvelous writer and overall I really enjoyed the book.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 2007) (read June 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A small novel of 200 pages, this is not one of McEwan's best. It tells the story of Florence, a classical musician, and Edward, a recent graduate of University College, London, with a degree in history, and their wedding night in 1961. They were both virgins and very nervous and unsure of themselves.

McEwan describes in minute detail their wedding night dinner at the hotel on the beach where they had gone for their honeymoon, and the thoughts and feelings of each of them as they approached the time to go to bed. They had planned a walk on the beach first, but that got side-tracked in the rush of emotions. Edward was eager but full of self-doubt; Florence really didn't want any of the physical side of marriage, but she loved Edward and wanted to please him. It was a supremely awkward evening.

Without spoiling the plot, let's just say that their wedding night was a disaster. Florence stormed out of the room and went for a long walk on the beach. Edward ultimately found her; they alternated between accusations and silences full of misunderstandings, and finally, unwillingly, Florence left him there on the beach, went back to the hotel, packed up, and left for home. That was the end of their marriage.

But the main point of this relatively simple story is how a single decision to act, or not act, can change the entire course of life. This was true for both Edward and Florence. McEwan sketches the rest of their lives and shows how, although they never meet again, they continue to think about each other and, Edward at least, realizes that his failure to stop Florence from leaving him on the beach – which he could have done with just a word! – cost him everything that he had dreamed of with her.

There's also a lesson here, perhaps unintended, about what it is to really live. Edward and Florence came together in the early sixties, just before the revolution in sexual ethics. McEwan writes about Edward's life after they split up, in the late sixties:

Who would have predicted such transformations – the sudden guiltless elevation of sensual pleasure, the uncomplicated willingness of so many beautiful women? Edward wandered through those brief years like a confused and happy child reprieved from a prolonged punishment, not quite able to believe his luck. (pp. 196-197)

But then in later years, Edward reflects:

What had he done with himself? He had drifted through, half asleep, inattentive, unambitious, unserious, childless, comfortable. His modest achievements were mostly material. (p. 199)

A sad story, really, although absorbing and well-told. McEwan is a wonderful writer.

, Ian McEwan (Random House, Inc.; Anchor Books, 2005) (read June 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See also a seoarate review of this book.

A wonderful novel, about one day in the life of an English neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. He gets up on Saturday morning, looking forward to his weekly game of squash, to visiting his elderly mother, to welcoming home his adult daughter, Daisy, who has been living in France, and to a family dinner with Daisy, his wife, Rosalind, his son Theo, and his father-in-law, John Grammaticus, a curmudgeonly poet.

But it doesn't turn out anything like he expected. On the way to his squash match he is confronted with a huge rally against the impending Iraq war; in trying to drive away from the crowds he clips the side mirror from a BMW that is trying to squeeze down the same small street. Unfortunately, the driver of the BMW is a street criminal and has two buddies with him. Henry manages to get away from their confrontation by noticing that Baxter, the other driver, has a neurological disorder that causes mood swings and will soon be fatal. Henry reveals to Baxter that he is a neurosurgeon and may be able to help him, which isn't quite true but it works.

However, later in the day, Baxter and one of his henchmen surprise the Perownes by crashing their dinner party and taking them hostage in their own home. With a knife at Rosalind's throat, Baxter orders Daisy to disrobe, which she does (incidentally confirming what Henry may have suspected, that she is pregnant), but Baxter is thwarted again, this time by Daisy reading a poem by Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach," which somehow touches him and gives Henry and Theo a chance to overpower him. They throw him down the stairs, giving him a serious head injury. And then Henry is called in to operate on him. He could have turned it down, and let an associate, perform the surgery, but Henry wants to do it ... although it's not clear at this point why. Not only does he successfully operate; he also does not want Baxter prosecuted.

Later we learn that Henry has been reflecting on his own mortality and sees that harming Baxter will really do nothing good, especially since he has only a little while to live, and not a very happy life ahead of him. In that sense, saving his life through surgery may even have been a kind of revenge.

Early in the novel, shortly after Daisy arrives, she and her father get into an argument about the Iraq war (pp. 190-199), culminating in a friendly wager about the outcome, in which Daisy's prediction of chaos and ongoing violence turns out to be the correct one (p. 198).

What's the significance of this novel? At many points Henry reveals that he is an atheist; he also has a very factual, scientific mind. He can't get the hang of poetry, and although Daisy is always urging him to read good books, he only reads the factual ones and has never finished a fantasy or other novel with unrealistic features. Are these things connected? Is the author saying that only a poetical mind can experience religious faith? Maybe not; neither Daisy nor John Grammaticus seem to be believers.

Overall, I enjoyed the book because it is so well written and I found it engrossing. But I also found it a bit depressing. There does not seem to be any kind of hope in this book, for individuals or the world in general. It's almost as if the author is saying, all that exists is this material world, and we are all part of it and therefore doomed to decay and die. Not very encouraging.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville (Library of America) (read winter, 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This great classic novel opens with the oft-quoted line, "Call me Ishmael." Ishmael, having little money and apparently not much education, loves the sea and signs on as a sailor – not a passenger and not an officer or a cook – on whatever ship he can whenever he finds himself "growing grim about the mouth." (p. 795)

Deciding to go on a whaling voyage, he heads for New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world, and there he meets a cannibal, Queequeg, who, although a pagan and a savage, is of noble blood. He had left his island home of Kokovoko, after having met visiting whalers, to see "Christian lands" in order to learn how to "make his people still happier than they were; and more than that, still better than they were." As he got to know the whalers, however, he was "soon convinced ... that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked." (p. 853)

The rest of the plot is fairly well known. Ahab, the captain, is crazy, with a monomaniacal fixation on finding and destroying Moby Dick, the great white whale. Starbuck, the first mate, is sane and sensible, but ultimately obedient to his captain, even though he fears – correctly – that it may cost him and the whole crew their lives. So intent is Ahab on getting Moby Dick that he gives up all human sympathies, even refusing to help a fellow Nantucket whaling captain whose 12-year-old son was missing in a whale boat after chasing Moby Dick. (pp. 1359-1362)

Ahab becomes more and more hardened to any pleas of conscience, but Starbuck, just before the final encounter with Moby Dick, cries out,

"Great God! but for one single instant show thyself," cried Starbuck; "never, never wilt thou capture him, old man – In Jesus' name no more of this, that's worse than devil's madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone – all good angels mobbing thee with warnings: – what more wouldst thou have? – Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, Oh,– Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!" (p. 1394)

The chapters in Moby Dick are generally very short (135 chapters in less than 700 pages). Memorable chapters: The Sermon, describing a sermon in a New Bedford chapel, preached by a former whaler, based on the story of Jonah (pp. 837-845); A Bosom Friend, about Ishmael getting to know Queequeg and worshipping his wooden idol with him, even though Ishmael was "a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church" (pp. 846-849).

Ishmael himself is very liberal and non-judgmental:

I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. ... All our arguing with [Queequeg] would not avail; let him be, I say; and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending. (p. 880)

Here's Melville's description of clam chowder at the Try Pots Inn in Nantucket: "Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt." (p. 863)

Melville really is a great writer, and now I know why this is generally considered a great American novel, if not the great American novel. His descriptions of whale killings are incredibly exciting; here's a short excerpt from one:

The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men ... (pp. 1098-1099)

And here's part of Melville's description of the "pagan harpooners" who stoke the "try-works," the on-deck furnace where the whale blubber is boiled down to the precious oil:

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with the huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander's soul. (p. 1246)

Like Les Miserables, this novel could certainly be improved, as a narrative, by omitting many chapters; e.g., chapter 32 on "Cetology," the study of whales, in which Melville describes and categorizes many different kinds of whales. (pp. 932-946) He spends a whole, albeit short, chapter speculating about the fact that the sperm whale has no nose. (Chap. 79, pp. 1163-1165) However, I must admit that many of these digressions are fascinating, and probably contribute to the majesty of this novel, although I cannot really explain how.

Darwin would be pleased with this observation in Moby Dick. In discussing what he calls a "peculiarity"– the fact that it is almost impossible to envision the form of a whale from its skeleton– Melville writes that this peculiarity "is also very curiously displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb. This fin has four regular bone-fingers, the index, middle, ring, and little finger. But all these are permanently lodged in their fleshy covering, as the human fingers in an artificial covering [like mittens]" (p. 1077)

Many things to ponder in this novel, and it certainly is worth a re-reading, although I may never get to it. But I will never forget life on the Pequod, the whaling ship from Nantucket, as seen through the eyes of Ishmael. The characters are memorable, especially Ahab and Starbuck, but also the "pagan harpooners," Queequeg and Daggoo; the "Gay Header" Tashtego; and the mysterious Fedallah, considered by Ahab as an omen, and the first to be killed by Moby Dick. Also "the little negro Pippin by nick-name, Pip by abbreviation," who jumps twice from a whale boat, almost drowns, and becomes insane, but is more or less adopted by Ahab as a kindred spirit.

Evening, Susan Minot (Vintage paperback, orig. 1998) (read November 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the story of young Ann Grant, who attends a wedding where she meets and has an affair with a handsome young doctor, but finds out during the affair – before they consummate it – that his fiancé, who is also at the wedding, is pregnant and that he will not leave her for Ann. After another forty some years, in which she has and loses three husbands, and bears four children, Ann – now Ann Lord – is dying of cancer.

Her mind is wandering, and among other things it wanders back to that affair, which was apparently the greatest thing that ever happened to her. She called it the "highest point" in her life (p. 242).

She looked across the room to all the things which had come to her over the years and by now ought to give her some satisfaction. The inkwell nestled in a bronze bird's nest, the primitive oil of a church she'd found in that junk shop, the French enamel saucers with the fly pattern ... they would last and not she. Is this what she would leave behind? The things in the house were not herself. The children would be left and they had come from her but they were not herself either. Nothing was herself but what had happened to her and the only place that was registered was inside. And even that was a kind of vapor. (p. 57)

But her daughter Constance said, "That's what she cared about, her house and her pictures and all her things. ... Let's face it, she was a material person." (pp. 129-130)

Her life seemed to be defined by others. When her second husband, Ted, died, "She did not know what to do. ... There was nothing to do but to wait. That was all she could do – wait to see what would happen, wait she supposed for someone else." (p. 77)

The author's style of writing is not exactly stream-of-consciousness, I don't think, but she uses very long run-on sentences to describe what's going on in Ann Lord's mind as she slips in and out of delirium. See, for example, how she describes Ann's mind wandering from her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, all the way up to the beach in Rockland, Maine, in one sentence. (pp. 103-104)

Ann Lord talking to her nurse, Nora Brown: "One could keep on having different love, if you had enough energy. It takes a lot of energy. A woman throws herself into it more than a man does, I think. She lets it take over. I let men take over my life many times." (p. 151)

Ann Grant, back in her room after her tryst with Harris, thinking about his decision to return to his pregnant fiancé, "He had made his decision. Later in life Ann would learn that when certain men made decisions no matter how much it might torture them afterwards they would stick with their decision. Men, she learned, would rather suffer than change their minds or their habits. They could develop elaborate systems for containing pain, sometimes so successful they would remain completely unaware of the vastness of the pain they possessed." (p. 241)

I think this is more of a woman's book. Ann seems to have lived her life based on her feelings, and that's all she has left. It is a very sad story.

Fine Balance, A, Rohinton Mistry (Vintage Books, 1997) (read December 2002)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A long (600 pages) interesting novel about family life in India in the 1970s. The principal characters are two tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprahash Darji; a college student, Maneck Kohlah; and a poor widow, Dina Dalal. Dina hires Ishvar and Om to work in her home illegally sewing dresses for an exporter. Maneck is a boarder, whose rent money helps Dina make ends meet.

All of the characters' lives are tragic. Dina's young husband, Rustom, was killed when a truck driver slammed into him while he was bicycling to get ice cream as desert for their third anniversary dinner, which they were celebrating with her bossy and over-protective brother, Nusswan and his wife Ruby. Ishvar and Om's father, Narayan, were born to a poor lower caste family of Chamaars, who were cobblers by trade. However, their father broke tradition and, instead of raising them to be cobblers, he apprenticed them to a tailor, Ashraf Chacha, who was a Muslim. When India was partitioned and Pakistan became a separate Muslim country, riots and persecution broke out against many of the Muslims remaining in India. In a dramatic scene, Ishvar and Narayan save the life of the Muslim tailor and his family by convincing a mob that the establishement was a Hindu tailor shop.

Narayan was murdered when he insisted on his right to vote. Ishvar and Om then fled to the city, where they eventually found work with Dina. They became good friends with Maneck also, and after grudging acceptance from Dina they began to live together more or less as a family.

The story does not have a happy ending, however. Ishvar believes it is his duty to find a wife for Om, and so they go back to their village to check out prospective wives. They never get to the wedding. They were rounded up with other villagers in a forced vasectomy campaign, but because Om insulted a government leader who had caused his father's murder years before, Om was emasculated. Also, Ishvar's operation led to infection and amputation of both of his legs, because government officials pressured the surgeons to forego sterilization of their instruments. Ishvar and Om end up as beggars on the streets.

The description of life in India is vivid, filled with beggers, violence, corruption, greed, and unbelievable cruelty. The theme is dispair; there is, ultimately, no hope, no redemption. Although very interesting and well written, the novel became a little unsatisfying toward the end. The philosophising started to be too obvious, the plot coincidences not too plausible, and some of the characters (especially Beggermaster) acted in unconvincing ways. Overall I would give this novel a B.

Beloved, Toni Morrison (Vintage Books, paper, orig. 1987) (read December 2008)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A powerfully written novel showing with brutal clarity the impact of slavery.

During her escape from the plantation, "Sweet Home," Sethe, a young slave, gives birth under horrific circumstances to her second daughter. She named her Denver, after the white girl who saved her life, Amy Denver. She manages to get to her mother-in-law's house in Cincinnati, known as "124," and lives there with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and little girl Denver until her mother-in-law dies. Although Sethe was going to meet up with her husband, Halle, he never made it to freedom.

However, another male slave from Sweet Home, Paul D., shows up at 124 and begins living with Sethe and Denver. Then a young black woman appears, and here's where the story gets a little spooky. She may be Denver's deceased older sister, Beloved, who was murdered by her mother, Sethe, to save her from a life of slavery.

Much of the novel is surrealistic and it's hard to tell what's really happening. Denver becomes emotionally attached to Beloved, who in turn seems to be wrapped up on love and admiration for Sethe, although she apparently also (not entirely clear) seduced Paul D. out in the cold room where he was then sleeping. Here's an example of the author's style, describing Denver's feelings when Beloved looked at her:

Denver's skin dissolved under that gaze and became soft and bright like the lisle dress that had its arm around her mother's waist. She floated near but outside her own body, feeling vague and intense at the same time. Needing nothing. Being what she was. (p. 139)

Slavery was brutal, but not all slaveholders were the same. Sweet Home was owned by a childless couple, the Garners, who had an enlightened view of how to treat slaves. They never beat them and Mr. Garner gave the male slaves a great deal of freedom, even allowing them to carry guns. He also let Halle, before he was Sethe's husband, buy his mother's freedom, and even drove her to Cincinnati. But when Mr. Garner died his widow invited her brother-in-law, the schoolteacher, to live on the farm with his two boys. They had very different ideas of how to treat slaves, and soon some of the slaves at Sweet Home were looking to escape. Most of them didn't make it, and the hardships the survivors suffered were horrific.

Although it may be a good literary technique, the style of writing in this novel made it hard for me to follow, with many flashbacks, frequent use of poetical or impressionistic language, including two "stream-of-consciousness" chapters (pp. 248-258) that were almost incomprehensible, strange metaphors (colors, for example), ghosts and apparitions, and many obscure, dreamlike passages.

But the overall impact of the book comes through. At the end, Sethe seems to slip deeper into insanity. When she and Beloved begin to reverse roles, with Beloved demanding and Sethe waiting on her, so much so that she lost her job, Denver realized that she had to break her mostly self-imposed isolation and go out and find a job. This leads to other "colored" women discovering the situation with Sethe and Beloved, and 30 of them descend on 124, praying and trying to figure out what to do, when Edward Bodwin, the white anti-slavery man who owned the 124 propery and had helped escaped slaves in many ways, rode into the yard to pick up Denver, the "new girl" hired to help take care of his sister.

Sethe and Beloved were on the porch, watching the women, but when Sethe saw a white man ride into the yard, she pulled out an ice pick that she had been using to make ice chips to cool Beloved, and tried to stab him. Essentially, that's the end of the story. Denver more or less grows up and is on her own, Paul D. finds Sethe and apparently is going to take care of her. And Beloved – the person or the ghost – disappears.

Very powerful, well worth reading, but not my favorite kind of novel.

Rumpole's Last Case, John Mortimer (Penguin Books, 1988, paper)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Semi-believable stories told by an English barrister with a strong sense of self-deprecating humor. Horace Rumpole, his wife Hilda (whom he calls She Who Must Be Obeyed), Mizz Liz Probert, his "pupil in Chambers", and assorted other characters work together -- and sometimes in opposition -- to ultimately win the case and see that some kind of justice is done.

Rumpole on Trial, John Mortimer (Penguin Books, 1992, paper) (read December 2008)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

More tales about the fictional barrister who plies his trade in Old Bailey and other criminal courts. The title story explains how Horace Rumpole, through a colossal misunderstanding, was almost disbarred for allegedly talking to a client during a break from the courtroom contrary to the judge's strict instructions. A fun read on a long flight.

Waiting for Teddy Williams, Howard Frank Mosher (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) (read January 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a readable, mildly interesting, poorly written novel. Good literature it is not. The main reason is because the characters are not really believable, and the things they do are silly and/or preposterous.

The plot: a little boy in Vermont, named Ethan Allen and called "E.A.", who is the son of a single mother, Gypsy Lee, who sings in barrooms and runs an "escort service," eats, drinks and sleeps baseball. He lives in a village or town that calls itself the Capital of Red Sox Nation, and he dreams of growing up to play for the Red Sox.

E.A. meets a mysterious stranger, who begins to give him tips about playing baseball, and eventually throws a ball or hits with him every day in "BP" (batting practice). The stranger is first called the "drifter" but later is identified as Teddy Willaims, who had "knocked up" Gypsy Lee as a teenager, resulting in E.A.'s birth. So Teddy, who was called "Mr. Gone and Long Forgotten" by Gypsie Lee, is E.A.'s father. E.A. also talks to (and gets some advice from) a statue of his namesake that overlooks the local ball field.

In one of the preposterous asides that doesn't seem to have much to do with the plot, the Allens' closest neighbor, Devel Dan Davis, who owns the biggest model bulldozer ever made, deliberately runs over and buries E.A.'s new baseball when E.A. mistakenly hits it onto the Davis property. Devil Dan also frequently threatens to bulldoze the Allens' barn. He regularly uses his bulldozer to do "great and irreparable harm to the environment." Finally,Teddy and E.A. trick Devil Dan into going out of town for a job and they steal his bulldozer and drive it off a cliff into 300 feet of water.

Before getting to the plot's climax, which of course involves E.A. pitching for the Red Sox in the final game of the World Series, the author takes a few gratuitous swipes at Christians. The pastor of the local Congregational Church is one of Gypsy Lee's regular customers. On a trip to the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, they meet up with a bus full of "church ladies" and a tractor-trailer from the "Christian Line Inc." in Georgia, and have some fun mixing it up (verbally) with the "Christian trucker" and the "burly church lady" who was the tour guide for the bus.

So much of this book is silly that it's not worth more of a review. I only continued reading to the end because it was a Christmas gift from Turner Scott.

Authors beginning with the letter "N"

Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov (Time Life Books, paper, orig. 1947) (read spring-summer 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Nabokov is so highly regarded as a writer that I thought I ought to give him another try, after being somewhat disappointed in Lolita. This novel is difficult to penetrate. Nabokov uses many esoteric words and a kind of dreamy surrealism to describe what is going on, and a lot of what he writes I only dimly understood.

The basic plot is about what happens to a country taken over by a man named Paduk, who is conventionally dull, not-too-bright, but somehow gains power to become a dictator. The protagonist, Professor Krug, was a boyhood acquaintance of Paduk, and has no respect for him at all. Krug is a big man, a brilliant intellectual, who very bravely or foolishly refuses to sign a paper, signed by the rest of the university faculty, designed to ingratiate Paduk.

Krug's wife has just died, and he takes their young son to get away from the family turmoil at the funeral. From there it seems a little disjointed to me. He visits an old friend, Ember, who is apparently translating, or re-working, Shakespeare's classic play, Hamlet, but while he is there a representative of the government shows up, with his girlfriend and thugs outside, and arrests Ember and takes him away.

The rest of the story plays out as a tragic farce. Krug's son, David, is taken away, apparently as a bargaining chip, but when Krug is arrested and refuses to sign anything until his son is brought to him, there is a tremendous scurrying around of the dim-witted officialdom, police, guards, officers, etc., and then the news is brought to him that David was, through a very tragic mistake, murdered. The officials then offer to give him a lavish funeral, and to allow Krug personally to torture and kill those who made the mistake, but it's too late – Krug has gone insane.

This novel confirms to me that Nabokov is a brilliant, difficult, and powerful writer. The story reminds me of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, based on Stalinist Russia. It shows what happens when diabolical evil gets control of a country, with both absurd and tragic results.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (Fawcett Crest, 1959; orig. pub. 1955) (read winter 1990)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Basically the story of a glorified child molester or sex pervert, who loves pre-pubescent girls, "nymphets." Humbert Humbert takes a room with a widow and her 11-year-old daughter; marries the widow, who is conveniently killed by a car, and then takes the daughter, Dolores aka Lolita, on an extended cross-country trip during which he holds her out as his daughter but sleeps with her regularly. Finally she skips out on him; he tracks her down after a time, finds her married and pregnant, and shoots not her husband but the guy who apparently helped her get away from him (a character I could not remember from the earlier part of the book).

Nabokov has a reputation as a great writer, but I would not say so based on his book. He is obviously an extremely well-educated man and a good writer, but I thought the book dragged and could have been much better written.

Half A Life, V. S. Naipaul ((Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) (read winter 2014)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A really interesting, absorbing novel about a young man in India, with a high-caste priestly background, whose father left that way of life and began to follow Mahatma Ghandi, living a life of poverty. While a student, he became close friends with a very low-caste "backward" girl, who attended the university on a scholarship. Although he did not actually marry her, he wound up supporting her and then living with her. Everyone assumed they were married. In the course of time, she became pregnant and gave birth to Willie, the protagonist of the story, and then to a little girl, whom they named Sarojini.

The rest of the novel describes Willie Chandran's life. Always full of self-doubt and yearning, he learned to write in a little mission school, and his writing ability ultimately led to a scholarship at a college of education in London. He learned a lot in London, and tried to fashion a new identity for himself, but he really didn't know what he wanted to be. He could write, however, and with encouragement he published a book of short stories that brought him some attention.

Then, in a sense, he followed in his father's footsteps by becoming involved with a fellow student, Ana, from a Portuguese colony in Africa. Eventually, at Willie's urging, she moved back to Africa with him and lived on the family estate. It was not a grand estate, but there he was on a social level above most of the others in the colony, except the pure-blooded Portuguese.

But the days of colonialism were drawing to a close. Willie stayed with Ana in Africa for 18 years, although he gradually grew tired of her. He had many sexual flings, which brought him less and less pleasure. One day he said to Ana, "I can't live your life any more. I want to live my own." (p. 127) But he really did not know what he wanted to be or do in life. Finally, he got in touch with his sister, Sarojini, who had married a German and was living in Berlin. He traveled to Berlin to stay with her, and there he told her the story of what had happened to him since he left India – his "half a life."

Naipaul is a really good writer, especially at describing the inner feelings of his characters and the often-remote and even exotic settings he places them in. There is, however, a kind of emptiness and futility in Half A Life. Willie experiences a lot of shame and a little success, and even glory, but he never comes to terms with himself. He is always looking for the "other half of his life."

Bird Artist, The, Howard Norman (orig. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994) (read fall 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A well-written curious novel set in a remote Newfoundland coastal village around 1900. Fabian Vas grows up as a bird artist, painting the local birds and submitting this work to magazines to scrape out a living.

The plot is simple but not too believable. Fabian has a local whiskey-drinking girlfriend, Margaret Handle, with whom he sleeps twice a week, but his parents decide to arrange a marriage for him with a distant cousin in Halifax. When his father goes off on a month-long bird shooting expedition to raise money for the wedding, his mother moves in with the lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Incredibly, when his father comes home and discovers the adultery he still plans to go with Fabian's mother to Halifax for the wedding, but before they leave on the trip to Halifax, Fabian shoots and kills Botho. Before the murder can be investigated the Vas family leaves on the wedding trip to Halifax, but Fabian's father jumps ship on the way, and he and his mother continue on to Halifax. As soon as the wedding is performed and a photograph of the married couple is taken, a constable, Mitchell Kelb, steps forward and arrests Fabian and his mother on charges of murder, the bride and her family take off, and ultimately a trial is held at Witless Bay, at which Fabian (on secret instructions from his father) blames his father for the murder and is aquitted. His mother subsequently commits suicide and Fabian then marries Margaret.

What to make of this novel? It is certainly readable and somewhat convincingly portrays a strange village society, with colorful names and unusual occupations. The author sure knows a lot about birds. But to me the plot is just not believable, nor are some of the characters, such as a the local preacher who seems like a mild, vague, liberal ethicist most of the time but during the trial he suddenly turns into a fire-breathing fundamentalist.

Authors beginning with the letter "O"

The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma (Little, Brown & Co., paper 2015) (read April-May 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A fascinating novel by a Nigerian now teaching in the United States about a family in a small Nigerian village, mainly the four oldest sons, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, their parents, and a vision-seeing madman, Abulu, who predicts that Ikenna will be killed by one of his brothers (see pp. 82-88).

Up to that time, the brothers seem very close, but their bonds begin to disintegrate, beginning with Ikenna. Although the family is Christian, as most others in that village were, evil creeps in and appears to overwhelm their faith. Despite their parents' strictness, and physical punishments, the boys start disobeying secretly and lying to them. When a nosy neighbor tells their mother that she saw them fishing in a forbidden river, Ikenna gathers his brothers together and told them they have to punish her for squealing on them. "I must have my pound of flesh and you must all join me in this because you caused it." (p. 40) Revenge is a powerful motivator in this story; even the father, a strong Christian, applauds revenge at the end. (p. 279)

The story pretty much goes downhill all the way, and the family suffers through the deaths of two of the boys and the capture and imprisonment of another. The mother goes crazy with grief. The youngest of the four, Benjamin, is the narrator and the story is told from his viewpoint.

The author is apparently a Christian and the novel not only depicts Christianity in a generally positive light but also contains many biblical allusions. For example, when they run to meet a helicopter landing with "M.K.O.," a candidate for the presidency of Nigeria, they sing a song of praise to him, with the words altered to substitute his name for the Lord's. "M.K.O., you are beautiful beyond description/ Too marvellous for words ...." (p. 70; cf. Acts 12:22-23) M.K.O. later was imprisoned and died from drinking poisoned tea. (p. 286)

On the impact of Christianity on traditional African religion: "Although Christianity had almost cleanly swept through Igbo land, crumbs and pieces of the African traditional religion had eluded the broom. Stories came from time to time from our village and from clansmen in diaspora, about mysterious mishaps – even deaths, owing to punishments from the gods of the clan." (p. 194) On the other hand, there does not seem to be much doubt that the family really believed in Christ. They just seemed overwhelmed with grief and torment. And the leader of their church, Pastor Collins, prayed fervently for them, although without, it seems, much success. (See pp. 257-58)

The author is fond of metaphors, and most of the chapters begin with one. Chapter 3, The Eagle. "Father was an eagle ...." Chapter 4, The Python. "Ikenna was a python ...." Chapter 7, The Falconer. "Mother was a falconer ...." Chapter 8, The Fungus. "Boja was a fungus ...."

Memorable passages: "Want and lack exploded in their minds like a grenade and left shrapnel of desperation in its wake, so that – in time – the boys began to steal." (p. 90, about the madman, Abulu, and his brother) In Chapter 13, entitled "The Leech": "Hatred is a leech: The thing that sticks to a person's skin; that feeds off them (sic) and drains the sap out of one's spirit. It changes a person, and does not leave until it has sucked the last drop of peace from them. It clings to one's skin, the way a leech does, burrowing deeper and deeper into the epidermis, to that to pull the parasite off the skin is to tear out that part of the flesh, and to kill it is self-flagellating." (p. 207)

This novel is eminently readable, thought-provoking, and a bit scary. One thing it tells me is that the journey from darkness to light is not easy and is fraught with danger. Every kind of crime I can think of – murder, robbery, rape, incest, necrophilia – it's all there, puncturing idealism and even making a dent in faith. It's like the author is saying, this is the way it is in this rotten world.

Far Side of the World, The, Patrick O'Brian (Norton paperback, orig. 1984) (read January 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Captain Jack Aubrey, the courageous British Naval officer commanding the HMS Surprise, is given a new assignment -- to head for South America to intercept an American frigate, the Norfolk, that was capturing British whaling ships during the War of 1812. On board, of course, is the ship's surgeon and inquisitive scientist, Stephen Maturin, with whom Jack often plays violin-cello duets in the evening.

Not very much fighting in this novel, but many adventures, including incredible storms as they made it around Cape Horn. Some of the adventures were caused by Stephen's landlubberly ways, such as falling overboard, when they were in the South Seas, without anyone noticing except Jack, who dove in to save him from drowning but could not rouse anyone on the ship with his cries. They float and drift until picked up by a South Seas vessel called a pahi, manned entirely by warlike women who threatened to kill and/or emasculate and eat them, but finally, after a disagreement among the leaders, put Jack and Stephen ashore on a little island.

At the climax of the book, the Surprise does come upon the Norfolk, but only to find it wrecked and beached on a deserted island as a result of a storm. Jack, Stephen and a small landing party from the Surprise are also stranded on the island, and after a tense standoff between the crews, the Surprise ultimately returns to rescue them and save the day for England.

This is the second Patrick O'Brian sea story I've read, and like the first one, it is very readable and exciting. Maybe I can read one a year until I get through all 20!

Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian (W. W. Norton & Co., orig. 1970, paper 1990) (read Jan. 2002)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The first in the popular series of sea stories based on exploits of the British Royal Navy in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Jack Aubrey, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, receives his first command, a relatively small brig or sloop named the "Sophie" carrying just 14 "four pound" guns. He begins a friendship with Stephen Maturin, a physician, who becomes the ship's surgeon though he has no surgical training.

In a series of sea battles with Spanish ships, Jack leads the Sophie, usually outnumbered and always outgunned, to victories over a number of Spanish ships, which gains the officers and crew prize money and prestige, but, for Jack, no promotion to the coveted rank of captain. Then he is surprised by several Spanish ships and, unable to flee or fight his way out of it, he has to surrender. This leads to a court martial, and although he is exonerated of any wrong, it is a bitter blow to him.

This is a real page-turner, very exciting, and I loved it, though usually I don't usually look for adventure stories to read. But Patrick O'Brian is a great writer; his books are reputed to be historically accurate; and there are about a dozen and a half more in this series. I probably won't read them all but I would definitely like to read more.

Post Captain, Patrick O'Brian (W.W. Norton & Co., 1990, orig. 1972) (read Jan. 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Another highly readable sea story by O'Brian, the second in his popular series of 18th century historical novels. Commander Jack Aubrey is promoted to captain, but because he doesn't have a ship (there aren't enough to go around for all the eligible captains), his title is "post captain." He does get temporary commands, however, and succeeds first in sinking one French ship and capturing another while commanding an ungainly experimental English ship, which sinks in the battle, and then Spain enters the wars and Jack, on another temporary command, joins three other English ships in destroying one ship and chasing and capturing another one from a Spanish squadron.

Both Jack Aubrey and his surgeon friend Stephen Maturin also fall in love during their time ashore while Jack is waiting for a ship. While neither marries, yet, Jack has lost his heart to Sophie Williams, a young woman thoroughly dominated by her overbearing and protective mother. Stephen is also apparently smitten, to Sophie's cousin, a feisty young widow named Diana Villiers. These budding romances disappear from the book after awhile, though, as the focus shifts to life at sea. Perhaps Sophie and Diana will reappear in later books.

I don't know if I will read all 20 of the novels in this series, but they certainly are readable, just the kind of books I like to read on cross-country flights.

Violent Bear It Away, The, Flannery O'Connor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1955, 1960) (read July 1982)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A strange, compelling novel about a wild backwoods "prophet" who farms, operates a still, and raises a grandnephew against the wishes of the boy's city uncle, who wants to purge him of all that religious foolishness and educate him to be a new man.

Culminates in the boy, Tarwater, drowning his city uncle's retarded child while apparently inadvertently uttering the words of baptism, thus fulfilling his great-uncle's anointing or charging the boy to be a prophet.

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1949; paper 2007) (read summer 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See separate review.

Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara (Modern Library, 1934, 1953) (read Feb. 1987)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Story of Julian English, president of a Cadillac dealership, at the time of the Depression, and how he ruins his life by his inability to maintain control of: (1) his money (he goes deeply in debt, borrowing more than he needs); (2) his emotions (he throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, who "practically owned the Gibbsville-Cadillac Motor Car Company" and then gets into a compromising situation with the girl friend of Ed Charney, a "mob" boss); (3) his marriage (his wife leaves him); and (4) his life (he commits suicide at the end). Acting as foil for Julian is Lute Fliegler, one of his salesmen, who is a basic honest decent person and who tries to help Julian by leveling with him about his conduct.

A good, though not great, book. I read it because O'Hara is recommended as an author who is especially good with dialogue. At first I thought the book drifted; the story all takes place in a period of about 48 hours from Christmas morning on. The major scenes are at holiday parties with a lot of drinking, with important flashbacks to reveal the early life of the significant characters. O'Hara takes an omniscient point of view, which is effective. The title comes from an ancient legend used by Somerset Maugham in a play, in which a servant meets Death in the marketplace in Bagdad and flees to Samarra, though the encounter with Death in Bagdad was only accidental for Death "had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra." In other words, running away from what appears to be death only to meet death (?).

Authors beginning with the letter "P"

Snow, Orhan Pamuk (Knopf 2004) (read winter 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely, this novel is well-written, but a bit strange too. I really enjoyed reading it, but would give it a B+ rather than an A. It is written from the point of view of an unknown narrator who finds notes left behind by his friend Ka, a Turkish poet who was living in Germany before he went back to Turkey, ostensibly as a journalist to investigate a series of suicides by the "head scarf girls" in the remote town of Kars, near the Russian border. Ka was shot to death by unknown assailants after he returned to Germany from Turkey.

Although he supposedly went to Kars to investigate the suicides by the "head scarf girls," he had another motivation. He had heard that Ipek, a beautiful woman he had known in his youth, was now divorced and living in Kars. He falls in love with her and eventually she falls in love with him; they frequently make love in his room in the hotel owned by Ipek's father; and they make plans for her to return with him to Germany.

When Ka is trying to talk Kadife, the sister of his lover, Ipek, into taking off her head scarf during a play, he says, "Listen to me: Life's not about principles, it's about happiness." "But if you don't have any principles, and if you don't have faith you can't be happy at all," said Kadife. (p. 312)

The reason for this attitude is apparently the futility of standing against the fanatical Muslims, on the one hand, and against the army and/or the MIT (apparently the equivalent of the FBI), on the other. Maybe the message is that it's hard to have principles when the only people who have principles seem to be unenlightened fanatics.

Some other unusual things about this book: It snows most of the time in Kars, during the time covered by the novel, and snow is probably a metaphor for something ... but what? Perhaps the way it changes the appearance of a place without really changing its reality? There is a minor revolution in Kars, when the local army unit cancels the municipal elections and takes power, but this does not seem to surprise many even though everyone apparently understands that as soon as the snow melts and the trains are running again, the governor will send in troops to arrest the revolutionaries. The government and the army have spies and agents everywhere; they track the movements of all strangers and other suspicious people.

Ka, the poet, is followed everywhere in Kars, and is both looked up to, as an intellectual, and despised, and even feared, because he lived in Germany and has connections there. Although he's a poet, Ka had not written any poems for some time before the story begins, but then they come to him, unbidden, and sometimes like dictation. He just grabs a pen and starts writing when a poem arrives. He never struggles to find just the right word, or make it rhyme, but sometimes he struggles to remember all the words of a poem that came to him, as in a dream.

Also, the newspaper in Kars writes up stories about events before they occur, as the editor thinks they will occur – and he is often correct, especially in the issue that predicts the death on stage of a famous actor. Television watching is ubiquitous and almost addictive. The head scarf controversy involves issues of religious freedom, social pressure, feminism, and probably others. Society is very polarized, with many supporting the military and its goal of a secular Turkey and many others supporting the radical Islamists.

The novel culminates with a play, entitled "The Spanish Tragedy," at the main theater, televised so the whole city can see it, with two dramatic highlights: Kadife's head baring and then shooting to death the director and principal actor, Sunay Zaim, who apparently arranged his own death as a final flourish to his life as a traveling actor.

As I say, this is an unusual novel, interesting to read but not easy to understand.

Lancelot, Walker Percy (Ivy Books, paper, c. 1977) (read 10/11/92)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A beautifully written novel that tells a disturbing story. An unambitious, dissolute lawyer, Lancelot Lamar, who married a rich Texas girl who settled down in a mansion in New Orleans, learns accidentally that his wife was unfaithful to him. Much of the novel is focused on his efforts to verify her adultery and then on his revenge, which occurs when he connects a gas line to the air conditioning vent during a hurricane, and the resulting explosion blows him out of the house and kills everyone else. It's all told in a long flashback, because Lancelot, the narrator of the first-person story, has been in a mental institution for a year. He is telling the story of what happened to an old friend, a psychiatrist priest (or vice versa), who never speaks.

At the end, I couldn't really tell if Lancelot was crazy or whether everybody else was crazy, which was undoubtedly what the author intended. Some of the ideas he relates to his priest psychiatrist friend are truly bizarre, but on the other hand, the conduct of the movie crew that Margot, his wife, has gotten involved with, and the reaction of the townspeople to them, are equally bizarre.

One thing I noticed was how often Percy used repetition as a literary device. Some things he mentioned three or four times, like Lancelot's football exploits in college, Margot's interest in renovating the mansion, her country Texas background, etc. I really read the book twice, once on vacation in August and again, more carefully, during the fall, and the second time through I could see much more of his skill. He is very good at showing mental illness, in keeping with his medical school background.

Last Gentleman, The, Walker Percy (Quality Paperback Book Club edition, orig. 1966) (read fall 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the story of Will Barrett, a southerner living in New York after two years at Princeton, who is referred to as "the engineer" throughout the book. Will has a "nervous condition" which is apparently episodic amnesia, and from time to time he forgets where he is and who he is. By chance Will meets a southern family, whose teenage son is in the hospital in New York with some kind of fatal disease. The father in this family, Chandler Vaught, is very rich, owning the second largest Chevrolet dealership in the country. When he sees how well Will hits it off with their son, Jamie, he hires Will to be Jamie's companion. Will accepts, primarily because he's fallen in love with Jamie's sister Kitty.

Eventually the Vaught family takes Jamie out of the New York hospital; they go back home, but after they are there for a little while Sutter, Jamie's older brother (who is a sort of failed doctor) takes off with Jamie. They go out west, and the family asks Will to find them and bring Jamie back. He finds Sutter working at some kind of dude ranch for women and Jamie dying in a nearby hospital. Will calls Jamie's older sister, Val, a Roman Catholic nun, and she charges him with the duty to get Jamie baptized, since he was born Baptist and the family later joined the Episcopal church and he never got baptized. Will doesn't really want to do this, but he rounds up a Catholic chaplain, and ultimately Jamie is baptized on his deathbed.

This summary omits a lot, but the point of the book, it seems to me is that Will Barrett, the "last gentleman", is the one who actually helps Jamie, not his family. Val the nun seems mostly interested in his soul and Sutter his brother seems mostly interested in his body or his disease, but Jamie just accepts him and cares for him.

Walker Percy is a wonderful writer and the characters in his novel seem real. He can capture a scene in just a few sentences and make it vivid and realistic.

Love in the Ruins, Walker Percy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971) (read 5/88)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Another Walker Percy novel featuring crazy people, golfers, physicians, and a subtle Christian theme. Plot a little implausible. Mildly humorous.

Moviegoer, The, Walker Percy (Knopf, 1967) (read 8/91)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Percy's first novel. A young stockbroker, Jack "Binx" Bolling, almost devoid of ambition (except that he likes girls and likes making money), is counseled by his 65-year-old "Aunt Emily" (who is really his great-aunt), a "quick, charming and above all intelligent woman," to go to medical school and do something with his life. Binx is a strange bird. His main interests are going to movies and watching television. He periodically gets in mind the idea of a "Search," but he doesn't exactly know what he is searching for -- the meaning of it all? He constantly grapples with dispair.

Another major character is his aunt's step-daughter Kate, a manic-depressive whom Binx is sometimes able to help, and whom he ultimately marries after she breaks off her engagement to a gregarious lawyer who had been instrumental in getting Binx into his college fraternity.

At the end of the novel, Binx is in medical school, still without any great ambition or answers to life, but he is married to Kate and helping her cope with life. I guess the message is that humans generally are pretty messed up, but even in their weakness they can help each other survive and make sense out of life.

Second Coming, The, Walker Percy (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980) (read 8/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Superb novel about Will Barrett, a widower, wealthy, early-retired Wall Street lawyer, and golf player, who begins falling down, apparently because of mini-strokes or seizures. This affects his golf game, causing him to slice the ball, sometimes into the woods. Once, when retrieving the ball, he stumbled across the ruins of a greenhouse, being lived in by a young girl who had escaped from a mental institution. From this initial meeting a sort of mutually beneficial friendship develops, in which she helps him when he falls down and he helps her in her readjustment to the world.

Percy is a really good writer. His characters are real and he deals with real questions, like God and eternity and belief and unbelief. But his plot in this book is a bit implausible at points; for example, where Will Barrett, who is slightly crazy, conducts an experiment to force God to reveal himself if He exists (p. 186 et seq.).

The title refers to Christ's Second Coming, which Will seems to believe in despite his protestations about being an unbeliever. He also believes "the Jews are a sign" in a muddled way.

See his description of an Episcopalian priest when Will asks him if he believes in God (pp. 136-139); Pascal's wager (p. 191).

Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy (Ivy Books, 1987) (paperback) (read 8/88)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Good novel, easy to read although the plot is a bit hard to follow at times.

Gift of Asher Lev, The, Chaim Potok (Knopf, 1990) (read fall 1990)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A continuation of the story of Asher Lev, born into a devout Ladover Hassid family, who is a gifted artist. Although art itself is suspect among the Ladovers, Asher not only draws and paints but goes so far as to express Jewish suffering by painting two crucifixion scenes, which horrify his parents and lead to his expulsion from the Ladover community in Brooklyn.

The sequel picks up the story when Asher is in his forties, has married a Jewish girl who escaped the concentration camps by hiding in a closed apartment for two years, and is living in the south of France with their two children, Rocheleh, who has asthma, and Avrumel. Asher returns to Brooklyn for his Uncle's funeral, bringing his wife and children to his parents' home and the main Ladover community for the first time. They plan to stay a week, but events -- including the urging of his parents and of the Rebbe (sort of the chief rabbi or pope of the Ladovers) and the unexpected discovery that his uncle had owned a valuable art collection which he left in care of Asher -- lead Asher and his family to stay on through the summer and then into the fall.

At first Asher does not understand why the Rebbe is so interested in having Asher stay in Brooklyn, since he sent him into exile years before after Asher revealed the crucifixion paintings. But gradually he realizes what the "gift" of the book's title is -- the Rebbe is old and infirm, and needs a successor. Asher's father is the logical choice, but he is also old, and Asher himself could not possible be a spiritual leader of the Ladovers. The Rebbe wants Avrumel, Asher's young son, to be next in line to be Rebbe -- first Asher's father and then when he dies, Asher's son. He is being asked to give his only son for his people! (What a remarkable Christian motif for the two Asher Lev books, first the crucifixion and then giving up an only son for the believing community.)

The "gift" also refers to Asher's artistic gift. After marriage the during the first years of having children, he has somehow become stalled, unable to continue his career. He does some drawings and has a successful showing of them, but the canvases in his studio remain blank. But then after the decision is made, either by Asher or somehow for Asher, when he agrees to leave his family in Brooklyn while he commutes to their home in France and work, he suddenly finds himself able to paint again. It's as if yielding his son as a gift has given him back his own gift, both to be used to glorify the Master of the Universe.

A beautiful and profoundly moving book. I read it a few pages at a time, so it wouldn't go be too quickly. Potok writes so well; his scenes are vivid and never overdrawn; his word choices superb.

I Am the Clay, Chaim Potok (Knopf, 1992) (read August 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This first non-Jewish novel by Chaim Potok traces the suffering of an elderly Korean couple who flee the invading Chinese from the north with a rickety cart and a few belongings. On the way they find an injured boy in a ditch; the husband wants to leave him there but the wife, who's only child died, insists on rescuing him. He recovers from his wound and eventually is able to help the couple survive and then return to their village. The woman dies, apparently because she's just worn out with work and hardship, and the boy, whom the old man now wants to keep, leaves for Seoul hoping to get an education. A good, well-written novel, although not in the same league with most of his others.

Old Men at Midnight, Chaim Potok (Ballantine, paper, 2001) (read Dec. 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This beautifully written novel consists of three loosely connected novellas, with a common character – Ilana Davita Dinn – and a common theme, the impact of the Holocaust.

In the first novella, "The Ark Builder," Davita is a young woman teaching English to a frightened 16-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. She discovers that young Noah had an artistic talent, drawing, that probably saved his life in Auschwitz, but he is haunted by memories of the horrible suffering endured by his family and other Jews, especially Reb Binyomin, the rabbi who recognized Noah's talent and put him to work helping to restore the old wooden synagogue that the Nazis later burned to the ground.

The second novella, "The War Doctor," was about a compassionate and humane Jewish doctor who helped a KGB interrogation officer, also Jewish, who in turn later tried to save the doctor's life during Stalin's purges. Davita's role in this story is slight. The former KGB interrogator, Leon Shertov, had been resettled in the United States, after close questioning by the CIA, and was now on a college lecturing tour. Davita was a teaching assistant at Columbia University, who welcomed Shertov to Columbia and escorted him to his assigned classes and seminars. She also persuaded him to write down some of the stories he had lived, especially about a "war doctor."

Shertov, the KGB interrogator, was ruthless and efficient, and rose in the ranks to become a colonel. The account of his survival as a Jew, and his work as an interrogator, gives a frightening picture of Russia under Stalin. Although he tries to help the war doctor who had helped him, Dr. Pavel Rubinov, a hand surgeon, he was unable to do anything for him until Stalin died, and then it was too late – Dr. Rubinov had died in his cell the previous night.

In the final novella, "The Trope Teacher," Davita is now a noted writer, I. D. Chandal, who buys a "Tudor" next to a house owned by an elderly and famous sociologist of war, Benjamin Walter. Benjamin's wife, also a scholar, is dying, and Benjamin is struggling to finish his memoirs. The hard part for him is remembering the early years of his life, and here is where Davita, aka I.D. Chandal, comes in. She encourages him to persist when he is ready to give up. Although his wife, Evelyn, is sick in bed upstairs, Benjamin keeps visiting Davita next door, and even has romantic aspirations toward her, but she seems to have more common sense and keeps him focused on his job of finishing his memoirs.

Although the characters are Jewish, and Benjamin's blocked-out years contain memories of his old "trope teacher," Mr. Zapiski, I found this story a little difficult to understand, or at least, difficult to relate to the other two. Benjamin was in the American army when it liberated a German concentration camp, where he found Mr. Zapiski dead with many other Jews, and Potok's descriptions of those scenes are memorable.

Potok is a wonderful writer, and while this was not his best book, in my opinion, it was certainly well worth reading. His writing is deceptively simple. He delves into weighty subjects with a very light touch. His characters are real people, not stick figures, and their stories are told by what they do and say.

Locusts Have No King, The, Dawn Powell (Steerforth Press, 1995; orig. 1948) (read January 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A well-written novel of life among the New York writing/publishing crowd in mid-20th century. Frederick Olliver, a serious author, shy and single, lives with Murray Cahill, an alcoholic who is separated from his wife. Fred is in love with Lyle Gaynor, who is the wife of a celebrated but crippled playwrite, but this affair is interrupted when a fluffhead named Dodo manages to capture Fred's attentions, somewhat against his better judgment.

Most of the action takes place in bars and drinking parties, where amoral friends and acquaintances share gossip and bemoan their troubles. Frederick finally succeeds in winning back Lyle, but only after her husband takes up with another woman and leaves New York. So the betraying wife is betrayed.

One of the minor issues in the novel is artistic integrity. Fred is persuaded to edit a popular and perhaps vulgar humor magazine ("Haw"), which pays him much more money than he derives from his highly regarded but poorly selling serious books, but he ultimately quits the magazine, presumably regaining a measure of integrity.

Dawn Powell is an excellent writer, but I have so little interest in the subject matter that I would give this book only a B or B-.

Good Priest's Son, The, Reynolds Price (Scribner paper, 2005) (read winter 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I began this novel with high hopes; it was highly recommended to me, and I had heard of the author. But ultimately I was disappointed.

The "good priest" of the title is Tasker Kincaid, a retired contankerous Episcopalian priest living in his old home in North Carolina. His son Mabry, somewhat of a prodigal son, is a private art conservator who has just returned from Europe, where for a client he buys a painting that may or may not have been painted over a Van Gogh original. Mabry's loft is in a building damaged by the World Trade Center "9/11" attacks, and since he can't get in it, he goes down to North Carolina to visit his father. Another complication is that Mabry has been having bouts of blindness and other physical problems that are probably symptoms of MS.

Those are certainly adequate facts for a good plot, but I was put off by the writing and didn't really enjoy the book.

The writing is a little too cute, for my taste, in parts at least. For example, Mabry banters with his daughter, Charlotte, in lines from Gone With the Wind, and Charlotte responds in kind, saying things like, "Aye aye, sir" (p. 190) and "I am your child, sir." (p. 192) She teases him about the possibility that she is illegitimate, and when he offers to test their DNA and adds that it would be a gigantic waste of money, she says, "I believe you. Let's clutch every penny we've got to our bosoms till we find good ways to spend them on each other." (p. 192) She also described her's mother's nurse as sporting "a genuine hundred-watt halo." (p. 195) Doesn't seem to me that a North Carolina girl, even after attending Mount Holyoke and living in New York City, would talk that way.

Later, at a critical time when Mabry's father has had a stroke, and Mabry himself is supposedly bone-tired and has gone to his father's house from the hospital to rest, he manages to banter with Gwyn Williams, an old girl friend; she teases him for being like Samson because he is bracing himself in the doorway of his father's rickety old house, and he says, "Step here please, Delilah." (p. 247) This kind of repartee just seems so out of place, given the circumstances.

I also think Reynolds tries too hard to explain what everyone's thinking, instead of just describing what they say and do. Describing the meeting of his daughter's partner, Malcolm, and his client's butler, Miles: "From the moment they'd met, they'd taken to each other and were slowly trying to figure why." (p. 210) Later he interprets a look on the face of his father's caretaker, Audrey: "He could see, from the set of Audrey's face, that she felt two ways – a little offended that he took such a dug-in air of command but also mildly amused that such a prodigal son had returned so boldly." (p. 240)

And he tends toward the melodramatic. When he's seeing the scene of the 9/11 disaster, he thinks: "... he couldn't think why he felt so exhausted and unshakably grim. Was it simply that death hung enormous above him or, suddenly now, in actual human thousands, at his feet? Was his country's inevitable doom somehow inscribed around him in the air they were breathing?" (p. 209)

Some of the writing is just plain awkward. "Taking the remains of his latest smile with him, Mabry got to his feet and walked to the mantel." (p. 275)

I may have gotten too annoyed with the book to properly appreciate it. I guess I'd give it a B-, or maybe a C+.

Shipping News, The, E. Annie Proulx (Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster, 1993) (read 11/00)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A well-written novel about a fat, undisciplined "loser" of a journalist, Quoyle, whose promiscuous wife leaves him with two young daughters. He moves from Maine back to Newfoundland, where his ancestors had lived, with his daughters and an aunt, where he eventually finds something like love in a woman named Wavey.

The title comes from the asssignment he was given when hired by the local newspaper, the "Gammy Bird." He had to report on the comings and goings of ships. The author has a clipped style, saying things like, "Gazed at the advancing clouds." But she gives vivid descriptions of life in that remote and wild northern seacoastal area. I enjoyed it very much.

Authors beginning with the letter "Q"

Authors beginning with the letter "R"

Imperfectionists, The, Tom Rachman (The Dial Press, 2010; paper, 2011) (read fall 2012)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Fairly good but overrated novel by a first novelist. About an English-language international newspaper published in Rome. I found it too confusing, but maybe that's because I like old-fashioned linear novels. This one jumped around too much.

No question but that Rachman can write. See, for example, his description of an overly-aggressive journalist who bullies a neophyte in Cairo. (pp. 133-154) I also liked the interview between Arthur Gopal, obituary writer for the paper, and Gerda Erzberger, an Austrian intellectual, at her home near Geneva. Gerda reflects about death and especially ambition:

I say that ambition is absurd, and yet I remain in its thrall. It's like being a slave all your life, and then learning one day that you never had a master, and returning to work all the same. Can you imagine a force in the universe greater than this? Not in my universe. You know, even from earliest childhood it dominated me. I longed for achievements, to be influential – that, in particular. To sway people. This has been my religion: the belief that I deserve attention, that they are wrong not to listen, that those who dispute me are fools. Yet, no matter what I achieve, the world lives on, impertinent, indifferent – I know all this, but I can't get it through my head. It is why, I suppose, that I agreed to talk to you. To this day, I'll pursue any folly to make the rest of you shut up and listen to me, as you should have from the start! (pp. 37-38)

I did finish this book, eventually, but did not find it too satisfying. Not a compelling plot, and it sort of dribbled to a conclusion. Some of the characters were developed, but not to the point where I really cared what happened to them. I guess I will give it a C+.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (Picador, trademark of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper, 2004) (read February 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a heavy, beautiful, wondrous novel, at least an A-. Not a page-turner, but engrossing and intriguing. I really enjoyed reading this book.

Rev. John Ames, the narrator, who wrote out all his sermons, tells about the only sermon of his that he didn't keep, which he wrote (but didn't preach) after seeing so many young soldiers die of Spanish influenza while they were getting ready to fight in World War I:

I said, or I meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers. And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord's judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into pears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God.

The reason he didn't preach it, explained, was because "my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was." (p. 42)

"I have always liked the phrase ?nursing a grudge,' because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts." (p. 117)

"I have not been writing to you for a day or two I have passed some fairly difficult nights. Discomfort, a little trouble breathing. I have decided the two choices open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord." (p. 126)

"How do you tell a scribe from a prophet ...? The prophets love the people they chastise ...." (p. 142)

Rev. John Ames, the narrator, remembers when he went to his friend Boughton's church to baptize his son. The child's name was to be Theodore Dwight Weld, the name of a famous preacher. But when during the baptism Ames asked Boughton, "By what name do you wish this child to be called?" he said, "John Ames." Ames was shocked: "It simply was not at all like Boughton to put me in a position like that. It was so un-Presbyterian ...." (p. 188)

Though the plot seems a little weak, there is a good resolution. Jack Ames, the narrator's nemesis and namesake, discloses a past that is both tragic and honorable, though he himself does not always act honorably. His father, "old Boughton," loves him without reservation and forgives, or is ready to forgive, every sin he has ever committed. Here is a re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son, only this time it is the prodigal who turns away from his father's house after he comes home, and the older brother – Rev. John Ames, the narrator – acknowledges that he is "one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained." (p. 238)

Home, Marilynne Robinson (Picador, trademark of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper, 2008) (read April 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A sequel to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, this is also another take on the parable of the Prodigal Son and another really great novel. Jack, the beloved but renegade son of a retired Presbyterian preacher, Robert(?) Boughton, comes back to the old family homestead in Iowa after 20 years of mysterious absence. Though only in his forties, he's weary and worn, and doesn't have much to show for his life.

Yet he wants to come home! Even though his reputation is not very good in the little farming community of Gilead – even though he carries a lot of shame and guilt – he still wants to come home. He finds his youngest sister, Glory, has also returned home, after breaking up with her fiancé, and is caring for their father. Glory, who did not know Jack very well, grows to really appreciate him and care for him, but he leaves home again anyway, when their father is dying.

Jack is an enigma. He seems clearly to be seeking forgiveness and redemption, yet he cannot believe he is or can be forgiven. During his absence he made a lot of mistakes; he also married a woman named Della and fathered a son, but she apparently rejected him, and all his letters sent to her from Gilead come back marked "Return to sender." Then two days before he is planning to leave, he receives a letter from Della, but he comments, "It doesn't really change anything." However, a few days after he leaves, guess who shows up at the Boughton's in Gilead, with Jack's son?

I won't spoil the ending, which is a bit inconclusive, but rather will comment on Marilynne Robinson's writing. It is so crystal clear, so fluid; she is almost uncanny in her ability to evoke a rural midwest setting of 60 or 70 years ago! This is one of those books that I know I could never write.

I don't think it is perfect. Jack's extended conversation with his father and Rev. Ames, his father's pastor friend, does not ring true to me. Jack sounds too much like a seminary student, asking pointed questions about predestination, grace, sin, and so on, and has too much Scripture conveniently memorized, for a black sheep son who's been living the life of a prodigal for 20 years. See pp. 219-228.

But all in all, this novel deserves an A, in my opinion. I loved it.

Authors beginning with the letter "S"
Lord Peter: A Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, Dorothy Sayers (Avon Books, 1972) (paperback) (read 8/82) 
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Detective stories by the English scholar and writer Dorothy Sayers, a.k.a. Mrs. Atherton Fleming, who is perhaps better known for her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Her Christian faith is reflected, perhaps, in the moral foundations of her stories, but not in details or moralisms; e.g., her hero Lord Peter is not discernably Christian in his habits or thinking.

The stories are set in upper-class England and are intellectual rather than emotional. They are characterized by good writing, sound plots, and great worldly sophistication in manners and conversation. I enjoyed them as leisure reading on a trip to Illinois and would not mind reading one of her novels someday.

Nine Tailors, The, Dorothy L. Sayers (Harvest/HBJ, orig. 1934) (read August 1987)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A classic mystery which I found very absorbing, although a bit difficult to follow completely.

Shakespeare, The Complete Works, William Shakespeare (Kittredge-Players Ed., Grolier Inc. & Kindle)(read 2012 - 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See separate review.

Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith (Random House, 1981)(read Fall 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An intriguing murder mystery, set in Moscow after Stalin died. Three bodies are found in Gorky Park, a relatively small park with an ice skating rink in downtown Moscow. Chief Homicide Investigator Arkady Renko takes over the case, but keeps hoping the KGB will take it away from him, especially when he discovers that one of the bodies was probably an American. But he has trouble even proving that, because the bodies, which were frozen under the ice of a Moscow winter, were mutilated, with the faces and fingers cut off, obviously to prevent identification.

Arkady's wife, Zoya, is a loyal and enthusiastic member of the Communist party. Arkady himself, not so much. If he weren't the son of a famous general, he would never have been appointed chief investigator in Moscow. Zoya leaves him for another man, and Arkady falls in love with a prime suspect in the murders, Irina, a beautiful young woman from Siberia. Her main goal is to escape the Soviet Union, and Arkady winds up helping her escape, although not in any way that he planned.

Although weak in some ways, Arkady is a brilliant and especially a dogged investigator. He is not easily discouraged. Before he finally finds the truth about what happened, he faces many hardships and threats — like gun barrels thrust in his face — and almost dies of wounds and various injuries. The way the author works it all out is pretty ingenious, but I won't give it away here.

Everyone drinks a lot of vodka in this novel, and Russian society is generally pictured as dissolute. Everything made is Russia — washing machines, for example, and clothing — is inferior to the same things made in other countries. Everyone is poor and pretty much at the mercy of the state except for government officials, who are all corrupt or corruptible. Bribery and other crimes are common, although some offenses are strictly prosecuted, like the illegal taking of eiders, a protected specie of duck valued for its soft down. An especially serious crime is the unlicensed exporting of sable pelts, which make the best fur coats. Russia has a near-monopoly on sables and wants to keep it that way ... but sables turn out to be central to the plot of this mystery.

I really enjoyed this novel, although I got lost following some parts; I even started over after reading a half-dozen chapters. But it's a compelling read, and I didn't want to quit. It also raises a lot of issues about human nature, morality, government, etc. For example:

Man was not born criminal but fell into error through unfortunate circumstances or the influence of negative elements. All crimes great and small could be traced to postcapitalist avarice, egoism, sloth, parasitism, drunkenness, religious prejudices or inherited depravity. (p. 75)

Apparently this was official Communist dogma. The book is rampant with cynicism, yet has a protagonist, Arkady Renko, who is fundamentally honest and seeks justice. He is flawed, too, but he realizes it, and does the best he can.

Strangers and Brothers, C.P. Snow (Scribner Library) (read June 1980)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the first of seven novels in the "Strangers and Brothers" sequence by Snow.

Engrossing story about a young English lawyer, George Passant, who is very bright and high-minded, but insecure about his lower middle class background and cut off from his spiritual roots (his father is a lay Methodist preacher, though nothing of his faith comes through). Passant believes in "freedom" and the "goodness of man" (p. 307), and he becomes the leader of a group of somewhat younger people, encouraging and defending them, and finally joins with two of them in some financial ventures which involve some shady dealings and immoral relationships.

The culmination is a criminal trial for fraud, in which Passant and his co-defendants, although actually guilty, are acquitted, but in the process they acknowledge their scandalous lifestyle. Afterwards, he blames the collapse of his ventures on "bad luck" and his enemies' jealousy, but the story reveals his great capacity for self-deception, and in the end he seems to be fighting against admitting this.

Although showing the spiritual bankruptcy of Passant and those who followed him, Snow only gives a

Everyone drinks a lot of vodka in this novel, and Russian society is generally pictured as dissolute. Everything made is Russia ? washing machines, for example, and clothing ? is inferior to the same things made in other countries. Everyone is poor and pretty much at the mercy of the state except for government officials, who are all corrupt or corruptible. Bribery and other crimes are common, although some offenses are strictly prosecuted, like the illegal taking of eiders, a protected specie of duck valued for its soft down. An especially serious crime is the unlicensed exporting of sable pelts, which make the best fur coats. Russia has a near-monopoly on sables and wants to keep it that way ... but sables turn out to be central to the plot of this mystery.

caricature of a spiritually-molded life as an alternative. Howard Martineau, a partner in the law firm, is considered to be eccentric on religious matters, and finally gives away his share of the firm and becomes some kind of wandering religious nut. Not very credible.

The book reminded me of Camus' The Stranger in the style of writing and the issues raised (and both culminated in a criminal trial). There is an interesting closing argument of defense counsel, focused on "faith and freedom." (p. 289)

First Circle, The, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (Bantam paperback, orig. 1968) (read spring 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The title comes from Dante's Inferno, As Lev Grigorich Rubin explains to a new prisoner who arrived at the "sharashka" from another Soviet prison, "you are, just as you were previously, in hell. But you have risen to its best and highest circle – the first circle." (p. 9)

Tough book to read, until you really get into it. Following the table of contents and note by translator Thomas P. Whitney are three pages identifying the characters – most with three Russian names – and these are only the main characters; there are many others, and many of them have nicknames as well. I found myself constantly flipping back to the beginning to check the list of names.

The sharashka, named Mavrino, was established to develop a special telephone for Joseph Stalin, real name Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, sometimes called "The Plowman."

Two of the main characters, Gleb Vikentyevich Nerzhin, a mathematician, and Lev Grigorich Rubin, a philologist, are having a discussion about happiness. Lev says, "At one of my prewar lectures ... I developed the melancholy notion that there is no such thing as happiness, that it is either unattainable or illusory. And then a student handed up a note written on a piece of graph paper torn from a tiny notebook: 'But I am in love – and I am happy! How do you answer that?'" Gleb says, "What did you answer?" And Lev says, "What can you answer?" (p. 37) In other words, some things can only be proved by experience, not theory.

Anton Yakonov, chief of operations at Mavrino, once was engaged to a girl named Aguiya. But she was a Christian, who took him to see "one of the most beautiful places in Moscow," the church of St. John the Baptist. She predicted that it would be destroyed; Anton said, "That's nonsense," but she was right. Years later he visits the site and finds just piles of stones. When she took him inside the church, where a litany was being sung in praise of the Virgin Mary, "for the first time Yakonov understood the ecstasy and poetry of the prayer. No soulless church pedant had written that liturgy, but some great unknown poet, some prisoner in a monastery; and he had been moved not by passing lust for a woman's body but by the higher rapture a woman can draw from us." (p. 129)

Stalin himself makes an extended appearance, including an account of his 70th birthday. See Chapter 18. (p. 85 et seq.)

A very funny (and insightful) chapter covers the interrogation of Bobynin, a zek engineer in charge of Laboratory Number 7, by the Minister of State Security, Victor Abakumov. (pp. 82-85)

In another funny chapter, entitled "Buddha's Smile," six prisoners are gathered for a "banquet" to celebrate the birthday of Gleb Nerzhin, and after drinking a little diluted homemade wine and eating some smuggled pastries, they are engaged in conversation when a zek electrical engineer, Andrei Potapov, offers to tell them a story that he and Gleb wrote – or would have written if they had had a pencil. He said they were both prisoners in a famous – and terribly overcrowded – prison, sleeping on top of and under bare planks, 75 to a cell – when one day they heard the sound of locks opening and a captain in white gloves, flanked with many lieutenants and sergeants, appeared in the doorway of their cell, number 72. The prisoners were ordered out of the cell, 50 were split off and sent into other rooms, and the remaining 25 were marched away.

Fearing the worst, they were astounded when they were given soap and showers, fed sumptuously (by prison standards), and provided with new clothes. Then they were returned to their cell, which had been transformed overnight into a light airy carpeted dormitory, with canvas cots instead of planks, windows they could see through, books on the shelves (including a Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud), and even a small bronze statue of Buddha, who appeared to be smiling.

About mid-day there was a commotion outside cell 72; an extremely agitated captain in white gloves ran in and announced reveille; the zeks dressed swiftly and made up their bunks; a round table was pushed into the cell and on it were spread copies of three magazines (including "Amerika"), two armchairs were rolled in, and then at the door of the cell they could hear the voice of the head of the prison saying cordially:

And now, Mrs. R_______, perhaps it would be interesting for you to visit one of our cells. Which one? Shall we say the first we happen to come to? Cell 72 here, for example. Open it up, Sergeant!

The story teller goes on to explain:

The widow of the well-known statesman, a perspicacious woman prominent in many good causes, who had done much to defend the rights of man, Mrs. R______ had undertaken the task of visiting America's brilliant ally and seeing with her own eyes how UNRRA aid was being used. Rumors had reached America that UNRRA food was not being distributed to ordinary people. And she also wished to see whether freedom of conscience was being violated in the Soviet Union. (p. 334)

The ensuing colloquy between Eleanor Roosevelt, accompanied by a secretary, a translator, and two venerable Quaker ladies, and the major general in charge of the prison is hilarious, but it makes an important point: how naive liberal do-gooders can be and how easily duped into believing what they want to believe. As soon as the charade of the prison inspection was over, the zeks in cell 72 were immediately returned to their former condition – even their filthy rags were returned to them – and nothing whatsoever was changed. Presumably Eleanor Roosevelt returned to the United States to report that all was well in the Soviet Union.

Basically, this novel is – like other Solzhenitsyn novels – an exposé of the Soviet prison system under Stalin. The "sharaska" that is the setting for this story is relatively benign, but it is still hell on earth. The living conditions are not as harsh, the food is a little more plentiful, and the physical cruelty is less, but the cumulative indignities heaped upon the prisoners sucks the life out of them. As Solzhenitsyn says:

Descriptions of prisons have always stressed their horrors. Yet isn't it even more appalling when there are no horrors? When the horror lies in the gray methodology of years? In forgetting that your one and only life on earth has been shattered? (p. 200)

No one is spared from fear in the Soviet system of that day – the highest officials tremble lest they say something out of line, or are insufficiently patriotic, or are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Families are torn apart when the husband/father is imprisoned. Not only is the prisoner physically removed, but correspondence and visits are extremely limited, sentences are long with a high probability of being extended, and the wives of prisoners try to conceal their relationship with the prisoners because otherwise they suffer ostracization and even loss of jobs and apartments.

Despite all this, the prisoners live on, showing the full range of human characteristics: bravery and cowardice, resilience, and conniving, faith, despair, and so on. They live with known and unknown informers in their midst; with some brutal, some sympathetic, but mostly indifferent guards; and with arbitrary and senseless regulations. The novel contains good descriptions of the physical details of prison life, the meticulous dehumanizing procedures involved when a new prisoner enters the system, designed to strip the prisoner of all individuality and all hope; for example, he never hears or sees another prisoner, even though the prison may be full, and he is repeatedly asked his name, date and place of birth, strip-searched, every conceivable cavity in his body is inspected, and every personal belonging taken away.

This book might almost be named "The Triumph of Evil," except there are some small victories of good over evil. Gleb Nerzhin, a 31 year old zek mathematician who hadn't seen his wife for a whole year, became friendly with Serafima Vitalyevna, known as "Simochka," a female guard. He set up a tryst with her in the lab when she would be on duty and everyone else away. But the day before they were going to meet, he was given an unexpected visit with his wife. It was a hard visit; she was suffering so much but trying to remain faithful. When they say goodbye she never knows if she will see him again. Nevertheless, when he comes to meet Simochka, he does not – as she expected – kiss her, but instead says,

Simochka, it would be a terrible thing if I didn't confess something to you .... Yesterday I – I saw my wife. I was allowed a visit. ... I – I love only her! You know when I was in the camps she saved my life. And above all she has killed her youth for my sake. You said you would wait for me, but it's impossible. I must go back to her alone. I couldn't bear to cause her .... (p. 513)

This is not an easy book to read – too complicated, for one thing – but it is truly a wonderful book. In leafing through the pages to write this review, I couldn't help but stop and reread page after page in many chapters, revisiting scenes already starting to fade from my mind, pondering the truths embedded in them. I should definitely reread this one.

Momento Mori, Muriel Spark (Time-Life Books, paper, orig. J.B. Lippincott Co. 1958) (read 1/02)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is an unusual novel about two groups of elderly people in London, one the residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward and the other a circle of friends of an aging author, Dame Lettie Colston, and her brother and sister-in-law, Godfrey and Charmian Colston. The plot revolves around mysterious telephone calls received, first, by Dame Lettie, and then later by various others in her circle. The messages are all brief and anonymous and contain this admonition: "Remember you must die."

Although the various recipients of the mysterious messages perceive them as coming from different callers -- a young man, a cultured gentleman, a foreigner, etc. -- there is never a resolution to the mystery. At least one person, Mabel Pettigrew, Charmian's new (and scheming) housekeeper, thinks the recipients of the calls are all either mistaken or making it up; a reitred sociologist says it might be a case of "mass hysteria," and a retired police inspector opines that "Death is the culprit."

Since there is no real answer to the question of who was making the phone calls, the novel is unsatisfactory as a mystery, although it does portray the elderly as no different than others in their pettiness, greed, and various other sins. I would probably not read another of this author's books.

All the Little Live Things, Wallace Stegner (Penguin paperback; orig. Viking Press, 1967) (read winter 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is not Stegner's best novel, by a long shot. Although it is a sequel to The Spectator Bird, it was written nearly a decade earlier.

The main problem with this book is that Stegner apparently got caught up in the cultural upheaval of the sixties, and much of the book is a rant against the youthful rebellion of those years. For example, starting on page 165 the protagonist, Joe Allston, spouts his philosophy in a conversation with Marian Catlin, his new neighbor with the perpetually sunny disposition. Basically, he believes the human race just evolved in a material universe to the point where humans have the ability to destroy themselves. He says "our technological tinkering will finally destroy all life," and "then patient old Mother Nature will start over ... through millions of experimental forms until she stumbles on something that will work ...." (p. 167) Although she is the foil for him, her own philosophy seems purely naturalistic as well, but with an optimistic slant.

The plot is also weak, in my opinion. Allston allows Jim Peck, a young idealistic drop-out – a caricature of a typical hippie of the sixties – to camp on his property, and then does nothing when Peck builds a tree-house, tosses his trash on the ground, syphons water from Allston's well and electricity from the power company, and invites his friends in for parties and some of them, eventually, to live with him, setting up some kind of a commune. I know those were strange times, but I lived through them, and it just doesn't ring true to me that someone with Allston's attitude would allow all this to happen on his property.

Marian Catlin, although inherently optimistic, is pregnant and dying of cancer. When she announces to Joe and Ruth that her cancer has returned and she only has two or three months to live, Joe rails at her for refusing to undergo radiation treatments just to protect the baby. He told her he didn't believe her husband, who was away from home, "would let her risk her life for a life that didn't yet exist." (p. 253) His concern for Marian, and especially his vocal opposition to her plan to avoid radiation treatments, also does not sound authentic. It would be a rare person indeed who would spout off like that about a neighbor's medical decisions, and a still rarer person who would accept it without telling him off.

The total rejection of any role for God in Stegner's worldview comes out very clearly in this novel. Although seeking for some comforting words to say, neither Joe nor Ruth even intimate that prayer might help, nor does Marian herself indicate any hope in that direction. Instead they talk about "last-ditch treatments" such as radiation, and when Marian rejects that for the sake of the baby, they go home feeling utterly hopeless, and Joe says, as soon as the door was closed, "Oh, God damn, God damn, God damn." (p. 254)

Probably because there's no room for the divine, Stegner turns Marian Catlin into a kind of secular saint, dying serenely, caring more about the people she's leaving behind than herself, in her total acceptance of death as the natural order of things. She says to Joe, in a private conversation near the end of her life, "Don't feel bad. I'm glad you love me, but I hope you and Ruth won't grieve. It's right there should be death in the world, it's as natural as being born. We're all part of a big life pool, and we owe the world the space we fill and the chemicals we're made of. ..." (p. 287) To me, this is sentimental drivel, as bad as that from any super-pious Christian.

Stegner knows there is evil in the world. But he rejects the Pollyannaish outlook of Marian Catlin – that "evil is only a groping toward good, part of the trial and error by which we move toward the perfected consciousness" (p. 342) – and has nothing to put in its place. He is revolted by the suffering that Marian herself went through, and cannot reconcile it with the notion that God or nature could ultimately be benevolent.

On the other hand, he also rejects the "drop-out" option, represented by Jim Peck's hippie rebellion and seeking after nirvana. Instead, Stegner (through Joe Allston) says, "There is no way to step off the treadmill. It is all treadmill." (p. 343) He sees the good in life, but also the pain, and pain and death are inevitable. I guess his final conclusion is that he will not embrace the pain and sorrow, but he will not evade it either. The memory of Marian Catlin will, somehow, encourage him.

I have to give this to Stegner – though I think his outlook on life is tragic, he sure can write powerful scenes. See, for example, his description of a mercy killing of a horse on a bridge, and the desperate efforts of Joe Allston, John Catlin, and two others to get the carcase off the bridge so the car carrying Marian Catlin to the hospital could go over it. (pp. 336-337) You can feel the tension, hear the shouting and neighing, and smell the sweat and blood. He is one great writer, even if this book is not his best. I guess I'd give it a B.

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner (Penguin paperback; orig. Doubleday, 1971) (read Summer 1996)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A wonderful novel! A 58-year-old amputee in a wheelchair, a former history professor named Lyman Ward, is living alone, with some help from neighbors, in a house build by his grandfather. He is writing a biography of his grandmother, a refined Quaker woman from the East who marries his grandfather, a mining engineer from the west. He takes her away from her cultured and refined friends to live in places like Leadville, Colorado, while he tries to make a success of a number of engineering projects.

The grandfather, Oliver Ward, is really a good man, generous, hardworking and forgiving, but his wife Susan, also a good woman, falls for the attention of a young friend and colleage of her husband's, Frank Sargent, mostly out of boredom and loneliness for cultured conversation. She meets with Frank secretly a couple of times, and although that's as far as they go, during the last meeting Agnes, Oliver and Susan's youngest daughter, falls into a canal and is drowned. Frank commits suicide. Oliver draws the right conclusions and never forgives Susan, although they eventually live together again.

One of the great things about this book is the parallel story of the life of the crippled man in the wheelchair, who was betrayed by his wife who divorced him and married a doctor, and then at the end of the story wants to return to Lyman, who doesn't want to have anything to do with her. But the last chapter draws it all together, and Lyman realizes that he is really is the same position as his grandfather, and wakes from a portentious dream wondering if he will be able, by the way he deals with his ex-wife, to be a bigger man than his grandfather was.

I loved this book. This is what a novel should be. Beautifully written, realistically evoking a time and place and atmosphere, filled with insights into human nature and the human predicament, particularly the need for forgiveness. Other themes touched on include marriage vs. cohabitation; scientific or rational values vs. artistic or romantic values; attitudes toward health vs. sick or crippled bodies, independence and dependence, etc. The characters are not stick figures; they are not all good or all bad; they seem just like real people in real human situations.

Big Rock Candy Mountain, The, Wallace Stegner (orig. Doubleday & Co., 1943; Penguin paperback, 1991) (read spring-summer 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

I really enjoyed this novel, one of Stegner's earliest, but it is not his best work. The negatives include some pretty predictable aspects of the plot, and overly-obvious philosophizing about life, death, family relationships, and other "big issues."

That said, Stegner is just a great writer. He can really get you emotionally involved in some of the scenes, which are graphic and powerful. He loves to describe the scenery of the west, the mountains, plains, weather, flowers, and so on, and his characters are well-drawn and utterly believable, even if they are sometimes a bit stereotyped.

The story is about Harry "Bo" Mason, a young impulsive stubborn guy who ran away from an abusive father in his youth and, sure enough, became an abusive father himself when he had a family. He meets and marries a young Norwegian girl from Minnesota, Elsa Noorgard, against her family's wishes, and starts the first of his many moves to get rich. (Norwegianisms, "kringler" & "mange tak", p. 46)

At one point he abuses her, and although he is really sorry about it, she leaves him and reluctantly goes back to face the "I told you so's" of her family. But Bo comes and gets her and she goes with him, to Seattle and then to Canada, where they live in mostly squalid places with their two boys, Chet and Bruce, while Bo seeks his fortune, first in lawful endeavors and then in bootlegging liquor during the days of Prohibition.

This life has its ups and downs -- Bo makes a lot of money, but also gets caught and punished -- but mainly Elsa hates the fact that they are always lying and covering up what Bo does for a living. It is anything but the respectable life Elsa dreams for.

Furthermore, Bo's violence breaks out against his boys, enough to embitter them both against him. Chet, who is an outstanding athlete like his father was, is also headstrong and stubborn, and he runs away when he is 17 to marry Laura, who is a classmate but a few years older. Bruce is weaker and more sensitive, but avoids his father as much as possible. Eventually he goes back to Minnesota for college and then completes law school there.

Elsa suffers a lot physically, as well as emotionally from her reaction to Bo's activities. In one accident her arm is terribly burned, and than later she gets cancer and dies. However, this is after her older son, Chet, dies from pneumonia. Bruce comes home after his first year at law school to help his mother through her final days, while Bo can't handle it and not only is away on a trip when she dies, but has started living with another woman. Elsa knows all about this, and forgives him, but it enrages Bruce so much that he wants to kill his father.

After his mother dies, Bruce goes back to law school. Then Bruce received word, just as he was graduating, that his father had shot and killed a woman and then killed himself.

Basically, this ends the book. It is pretty depressing. There is no redemption that I can see, except that Bruce does, after his father's death, realize his good qualities, and understands that now it is up to him to fulfill his parents' potentialities. His father's dreams of riches are summed up in the ballad of Big Rock Candy Mountain (p. 461). See also the following secular parallel to Lk. 9:23-25:

It was a curious thing that once he got away from Salt Lake for a day he could see how in a way his mother's life, which had shut her off from everything she wanted to have, had forced her to become what she wanted to be. The older she grew the richer she became in herself, and the older and more affluent the old man became, the more he deteriorated. He lost friends where she gained them, he weakened as she grew stronger, he lowered himself year by year ... (p. 522)

So why did I like this book? Because it was so well written, and because it made me reflect on the issues it raised even if I disagree strongly with what I understand to be Stegner's position on these issues.

Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner (Penguin paperback; orig. 1987) (read spring '95)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A really beautifully written novel about the life-long friendship of two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. Larry, the narrator, came from a working class family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, went to graduate school in Berkeley, taught for a year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (where he and Sally met the Langs), then went to work at a publishing house in Boston, but primarily Larry was always a writer. Sid, from a wealthy Pittsburgh banking family, is a big physically impressive guy who loves to write poetry, but he is dominated (as becomes very clear later in the story) by his wife Charity, who comes from an intellectual family of matriarchs.

Most of the scenes take place at Battell Pond in Vermont, where Charity's family had a summer place and where Charity and Sid develop their own family center after they are married. Charity has great plans for Sid, but he fails to get tenure at Madison, and ultimately succeeds at Dartmouth after some encouragement from Larry. But as life goes on we see how Sid really is thwarted from doing what he really wants to do -- write poetry -- by Charity's demands as she organizes his and everybody else's life.

Both of the men are burdened with their wives at the end. Half way through the book Sally Morgan comes down with polio, and for the rest of her life she struggles along on crutches, unable even to go to the bathroom by herself. At the end of the book, Charity is dying of cancer, and the closing scenes, really powerfully written, show how thoroughly she has dominated Sid. She has him organizing a final family picnic while she is taken away to die in a hospital by other women in the family. How the author makes this all both believable and compelling is a tribute to his genius.

I have never read a book that so clearly portrays characters who grow and develop in ways that are perfectly obvious as you look back from the end of the book, but hard to see as the story unfolds. The writing is just beautiful. Read more Stegner!

Shooting Star, A, Wallace Stegner (Penguin paper, 1996, orig. 1961) (read fall 2008)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the greatest book of a great writer! The story of a rich doctor's wife, Sabrina Castro, who is bored with life and her marriage and has an affair that drags her down and threatens everything important to her.

The thing about it is, Stegner doesn't give easy answers. Sabrina knows she is wrong; she's wracked with guilt; she's trying to escape, but at the same time her husband, Burke, is cold, self-righteous, superior; he feels no guilt and no shame. And she can't bear it.

What can she do? She knows she would go back to him if he would only love her tenderly and treat her as more important than his patients; if he would live with her. But he can't seem to do that, or even begin the process of making himself vulnerable. He is conscientious, hard-working, responsible, high-minded – all those things he should be, yet apparently without a genuine love for her and perhaps not for himself either.

I love Stegner's writing. For example, when Sabrina, after a drunken binge finds herself in a stranger's car in the mountains early in the morning, "Far off, an outboard exploded in a hot snarl and was throttled down. There was a whiff of woodsmoke on the air. Then she heard the slam of a door, a whining and barking of many dogs, and the growl of a man's voice talking and crooning in an unimpatient monotone." (p. 200)

His picture of Sabrina in the depths of sin and self-loathing: In talking to her best friend, Barbara, after Burke told her that he wanted a divorce, Sabrina let her read the letter Burke sent after she asked him to send her dog, Fat Boy, to her. Barbara said, "But ... didn't you say anything about the two of you? Did you just say please send Fat Boy?"

With a jerk Sabrina sat up; her eyes came around in a glance of scorn. "If I'd said anything I'd have had to say whether or not I wanted to come back. I was even thinking I might go, two days ago, but I wasn't going to write that to him. He should have come to me."

"Hutchie," Barbara said, "didn't he come to you, twice?"

"Oh, sure. Each time full of phony Christian forgiveness. He didn't want me, he wanted the gratification of thinking well of himself." (p. 362)

When Sabrina tells Barbara, "You know what's the danger of having money? It makes you too free." Barbara says, "That ought to be good," but Sabrina replies, "There isn't anything worse. Trying to be human in an atmosphere of absolutely free choice is like trying to sharpen an ax on a cake of soap." (p. 371)

When Barbara, after learning that Sabrina is pregnant from her fling with Bernard, tries to assure her that she is not evil, she just made a "painful mistake," Sabrina responded:

Since we're on the fascinating subject of me, let me tell you what I am. Did you ever have the feeling that your thoughts were absolutely vile, a regular witches' brew? Did you ever feel like committing some awful crime – not just one of those unmotivated literary murders, but something really monstrous? I wonder what it would feel like to be somebody the whole human race shrank from? (p. 372)

Bobbie McDonald, Sabrina's best friend, gives birth to a little boy. As her husband, Leonard, drives home after the birth, very early in the morning, here is what he is thinking:

When you had three children the novelty should have worn off, and yet his mind moved on tiptoe, oppressed with the wonder and indignity of what it meant to be born. To be repudiated into separateness by the mother flesh, or else to be dragged as this one had been, headfirst or butt-first or by the foot or with a doctor's thumb hooked in your jaw, onto an operating table smoking with light, and there, helpless and bloody, wrinkled, sightless, still voiceless, to be caught up on rubber-gloved hands, dangled by the heels, slapped, snipped, circumcised, washed, tagged. A patch on the navel, a slosh of silver nitrate against the possibility of your parents' indiscretions, a diaper against the certainty of your own, then a blanket, a nurse's nylon arm, and out you went one way, on the road to becoming one of the world's three billion identities, while your twilight-sleeping former home, your dark warm wounded refuge, was wheeled out another. By that time you had learned to bawl. (p. 376)

Apparently Stegner's heroes are humanists. Leonard McDonald says to Sabrina, "... I'll tell you what I believe in. In believe in human love and human kindness and human responsibility, and that's just about all I believe in. Old T.S. Eliot talking down his high-church nose at the decent godless people! I'll accept the godless if I can manage to be decent." (pp. 384-385)

After Sabrina finally accepts herself and her situation, and tells Leonard that she plans to stay with her mother, hopefully to be accepted as a daughter, have her baby there, and to learn to love others, she apparently hopes for a more enthusiastic response. "You don't believe in conversion," she said to Leonard. "You don't believe there's anything a person can do." "I believe in repairs," Leonard said, "Until they arrange a trade-in system it's the best we can manage." (p. 423)

And so, in the end, there is no redemption, no fresh start. Sabrina can patch up her life, try to be the daughter to her elderly mother that she never felt she was, and have her baby, not with her husband at her side, but at home with her mother and the servants. And that's about it. But, oh, Stegner is such a marvelous writer!

Spectator Bird, The, Wallace Stegner (Penguin paper, 1990; orig. 1976) (read Oct. 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Another excellent novel from Wallace Stegner, this one written in the mid-1970s, about a retired author's agent who has moved from New York City to a rural area an hour from San Francisco, exact location unspecified.

Joe Allston is almost 70, in reasonably good health, married to Ruth, "a wife who worries about him and who reads newspaper psychiatrists urging the retired to keep their minds active." (p. 7) Describing himself, he says, "Joe Allston has always been full of himself, uncertain, dismayed, dissatisfied with his life, his country, his civilization, his profession, and himself." (p. 23) He feels sorry for himself.

Joe and Ruth receive a postcard from an old friend, Astrid, whom they had known 20 years earlier when they took a trip to Denmark. Joe's mother was Danish, but he didn't feel as if he had a Danish heritage, or any other heritage for that matter. This stirred up some memories, so Joe looks up the diaries he kept during their trip to Denmark and, after some prodding from Ruth, he starts reading them aloud to her.

The story then flashes back and forth between the present, with Joe reading the diaries to Ruth, and the past, when they were actually in Denmark. They rent rooms from Countess Astrid Wredel-Krarup, who is related to most of the nobility in Denmark, but – in addition to the curious fact that a countess has to rent out rooms to tourists – they note that nobody ever calls or greets her when they are out walking with her. When they take her to the opera, not a single person greeted her (or them), and Joe is sure some of the people deliberately avoided her. Finally, they learn what they thought was the secret: her husband was a Nazi collaborator, and that's why she is despised (though she herself hated the Nazis). However, that's not the real problem, as Joe and Ruth will soon find out. ...

Astrid offers to take the Allstons to the family estate, even though she does not get along with her brother, Eigil, who was also a Nazi collaborator. But she likes Eigil's wife, and her grandmother still lives there, and nearby is another relative, a famous Danish writer, Karen Blixen. So they set out.

At the castle on the family estate, Joe and Ruth meet Manon, Astrid's sister-in-law, and Grandmama, and a Miss Weibull, a 40ish very pregnant woman. Count Eigil, Astrid's brother, was missing. However, he didn't stay missing, as least as far as Joe was concerned. He took a walk after dinner and met Eigil, and wound up liking or at least respecting him. Eigil asked him if he played tennis, and Joe borrowed tennis shoes and a racket and managed to win the second of two sets, although he nearly ruined his feet with blisters and could not continue.

Karen Blixen dropped a clue about the dirty secret at the heart of this book before they went to the castle. She described Astrid's father as the "Doctor Faustus of genetics," who could produce amazing results by breeding trees, flowers, hybrid fruits, and even game and hunting dogs. She said Astrid's brother, Eigil, had inherited his father's gifts, "because some of the experiments involved species that do not breed quickly like mice or guinea pigs, and so take many years." (p. 105)

Then after Joe and Eigil play tennis, he takes him on a tour of the estate and talks about how wonderful it would be if they could scientifically breed humans they way he breeds horses and cows:

Think what it would mean to the human race if we had an elegant and incontrovertible experiment to show the transmission of certain traits in human beings. You would be on the way to eliminating physical defects, heritable diseases, even ugliness. Mendel thought everything could be explained by peas. I know some people these days how think fruit flies will provide all the answers. But there is no alternative to experimenting with the animal itself. (pp. 151-152)

But Eigil shows his frustration:

And who would permit any such experiment now? Sentimental outrage, Lutheran horror. It would hurt no one, it would move the human race a quantum jump forward. But nej, nej, thou shalt not. They would crucify anyone who suggested it, especially since Hitler gave it racist and fascist connotations. (p. 151)

Although it may spoil the plot, I will say that Stegner brings together all of the facts – Astrid's ostracization; her brother and father's intense interest in eugenics, and their reputation for bedding peasant girls on the estate; Miss Weibull; the fact that Astrid's mother and father both committed suicide; and Astrid's intense dislike of her brother – to bend the reader toward a single conclusion. That conclusion is that father and son were conducting a vast controlled experiment to breed better humans beings by flouting the taboo against incest. And Astrid herself was probably involved.

Further thoughts on the book. I can't think of any book in which Stegner says nice things about Christians or the church. In this one he caricatures the Bertelsons, two old Swedes who immigrated to America in 1905 and are now going back to live out their retirement years. He says, wait'll old Bertelson finds out that "in modern Sweden the Lutheran Church has become nothing but a registry of births and deaths." (p. 34) Bertelson, however, died and was buried at sea, during the wild stormy voyage, and Joe thinks, "Not even the most foolish and bigoted member of Lutheran Christendom deserves to be wiped out like that." (p. 39) When Joe is visiting an old church in Denmark, "a wispy young man in a black robe and an Elizabethen ruff came into the vestibule from the church. He stopped, surprised: a Danish clergyman who finds anybody in his church these days is bound to be surprised." (p. 136)

Stegner is very quotable. Describing his former doctor:

Until he finally retired a couple of years ago he used to be my doctor, and he can still make me feel as if I am sitting there on the table, ridiculous in my shorts, waiting for the rubber hammer under the kneecaps and the steel handle against the soles of the feet, and the finger up under the scrotum (cough), and the rubber glove up the ass trespassing on my most secret prostate. (How's the urine? Good stream? Have to get up in the night?) ... It is hard to be relaxed around a man who at any moment might examine your prostate." (p. 12)

About an old man with a youthful spirit: "He says when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him." (p. 119)

And the final word: a very good novel. Not Stegner's best, I don't think, but at least a B+ in my book.

Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner (Penguin paper, 1990; orig. 1962) (read winter 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This such a strange book that I almost abandoned it after reading a few pages. I'm sure glad I didn't.

It is only strange because it combines several distinct types of writing within the covers of one volume. As indicated by the subtitle, "A History, A Story, And a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier," it is, as Stegner himself once remarked, "a librarian's nightmare."

Essentially "Wolf Willow" is about Stegner's boyhood in the Cypress Hills area of southern Saskatchewan, just over the border from Montana. So it's autobiographical, historical, geographical, and fictional.

If this doesn't turn off potential readers, my recommendation is to start by reading the two chapters toward the end of the book entitled "Genesis" and "Carrion Spring." They comprise a fictionalized account of a horrific blizzard that actually took place in the winter of 1906-07. It's a gripping account of cowboys surviving – barely – in driving cattle to shelter in unbelievably harsh winter weather. (It's best to read this next to a toasty wood stove while the winter wind is howling outside.)

Stegner is such a gifted writer that after reading those two chapters I turned back to the beginning and read a copious account of a part of the west that I have virtually no interest in. That's what a good writer can do to you.

Here's Stegner's description of his fears, frailties and physical condition as a young boy:

As for me, I was a crybaby. My circulation was poor and my hands always got blue and white in the cold. I always had a runny nose. I was skinny and small, so that my mother anxiously doctored me with Scott's Emulsion, sulphur and molasses, calomel, and other doses. To compound my frail health, I was always getting hurt. Once I lost both big-toe nails in the same week, and from characteristically incompatible causes. The first one turned black and came off because I had accidentally shot myself through the big toe with a .22 short; the second because, sickly thing that I was, I had dropped a ten-pound bottle of Scott's Emulsion on it. (pp. 130-131)

One point that Stegner emphasizes is that the Americans and Canadians had a much different approach to the Indians, and because the Americans tended to use force rather than parley, they stirred up much more violence. (See pp. 90-91) For example, whiskey was much more of a problem south of the border, because the Canadians, using the Royal Mounted Police instead of troops, quickly put a stop to the whiskey traffic, sat down with tribal leaders, explained the law and worked out agreements that were mostly maintained for the benefit of both sides. (See pp. 109-110)

So, "Wolf Willow" is not one of Stegner's best books, but I sure enjoyed reading it. And I highly recommend it.

Tell No Man, Adela R. St. Johns (New American Library, paper, 1966) (read June 1973)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a novel that purports on the first page to be a true story, but states on the reverse side of the title page that all of the characters in the book are fictitious.

It's the story of a top Chicago sales executive who has a sort of conversion experience, leaves his job to go to seminary, and then is sent to a pastorate in "Beach City," California. His message is to put Christ's teachings into practice, including the injunction to heal the sick and raise the dead. Conversion is apparently experienced as sort of a light invading the person from without.

The author is a journalist and sports writer, and I am not too impressed by this novel. Different characters talk in nearly identical fashion, and while there is a sense of excitement to it, the whole thing is not really too plausible and it has a very melodramatic ending.

It does have good points, however. It brings out something of the cost of really following Christ; it exposes much of the phony "churchianity" that we have today, and it does, in perhaps a limited way, bear witness to the power of the risen Christ.

Abide With Me, Elizabeth Strout (Random House Trade Paperback, orig. 2006) (read spring 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This novel about a minister in Maine, whose wife dies leaving him with two small children, was readable but not very exciting to me.

Trying to figure out the author's understanding of Christian faith. Most of the people in the church apparently don't really believe in God. There is a lot of scripture quoted in this book, mostly by Tyler Caskey, the minister, but I'm not sure how much of it is taken seriously. The head deacon, for example, Charlie Austin, is having an affair with a woman in Boston, which is not hard for me to believe, but it's not like he is a real believer who just gives in to lust; he seems to think Christianity is "stupid crap" (p. 223) and Tyler is a "smug jackass" (p. 224). He must be a church member, which means he must have said, at one point at least, that he believed in Jesus Christ, but the novel doesn't suggest that he is any different than he has always been, and there is no indication that Tyler sees any inconsistency in a man like that being the head deacon. The author lets us get inside Charlie, into his thoughts, but all I see there is a foul-mouthed man prone to violence. If the head deacon is like that, then I don't see where Christianity, or at least the church, makes any difference at all.

On a visit back to seminary with a beloved or at least respected professor, George Atwood, professor of systematic theology, criticizes Tyler because he admitted that when he says his little daughter's prayers with her, they don't include his deceased wife. (pp. 109-110) Since when to Protestant Christians pray for the dead? Then Professor Atwood suddenly says, "Bereavement is a sacrament." (p. 111) Hey what? Since when?

Tyler "saw the words he had written for a new sermon: ?God is on your side if ... you live your life as honestly as you can each day that goes by.'" (p. 124) Thinking about Mary Ingersoll, his daughter's teacher, who came to church only on Christmas and Easter: "The point in coming to church was to learn the Christian rules of behavior of love and understanding." (p. 135)

Laura Slatin, beautiful daughter of a wealthy Boston family, apparently married Tyler as an act of rebellion; her father gave her "the creeps," her sister hates her, and she thought her mother was an "idiot". (p. 176) The surprising thing, to me, is that there is no suggestion anywhere that Lauren was a Christian or even that Tyler was interested in whether she was a Christian or not. He seems to have expected her to be able to start a prayer group in his church, but when he suggested it, she said, "Oh, dear God, no." (p. 163) He tells Lauren that she can't gossip and then proceeds to gossip himself to Lauren. (p. 166) She finally finds a friend she can talk to, Carol Meadows, who is apparently a sincere Christian and tries to help Lauren, but all Lauren does is gossip and complain to her and then steals things from her home!

The peak of Tyler's religious experience was "The Feeling," which would cover over him at times of special joy. "And there were times, as he walked down the steps of a classroom building, and felt the sharp, cold winter air stab into his nostrils, that "The Feeling would come to him. Life, he would think. How mysterious and magnificent! Such abundance! With all his heart he praised God." (p. 159) "As he pedaled past farmhouses, large fields of young corn, seeing the winding stone walls that went off into the distance, he would feel The Feeling, and give thanks for God's beautiful, beautiful world." (p. 179) And finally, at the very end of the book, after he is recovering from his emotional breakdown in front of his congregation and is befriended and helped by his head usher, Charlie Austin, he realizes that what he experienced was "The Feeling," although it was "very different from the times before." (p. 293)

Lauren became ill after their second child was born, and then apparently committed suicide when Tyler did an "unthinkable, unimaginable thing" – he left the bottle of pills by her side while she slept. When he went back upstairs a few hours later, she was dead. (p. 187)

At the end of Book One (p. 148), Connie Hatch, Tyler's housekeeper, disappears. As Book Three opens, she's been gone three weeks, and Tyler misses her. Apparently the police were looking for her, for suspected theft. Tyler discovers that she's been sleeping in the church; he finds her and she confesses something that has been on her mind. When she worked in a nursing home she killed two pathetic old women by overfeeding them. She is looking for absolution, or at least understanding from Tyler, but he is in shock. Although he assures her that her confession to a minister is confidential, he finally calls her husband who comes and gets her. (pp. 213-217)

Rumors are floating around the congregation that Tyler is involved with Connie, especially after he visits her in prison. He prepares a "sermon of sternness" to excoriate his congregation, and the church was packed (although I don't know why) when he got up to deliver it, but then he had a "melt-down" in the pulpit and couldn't deliver it. He just started crying. This, of course, embarrassed everyone but apparently also brought at least some of them to their senses. Charlie Austin, of all people, goes with him to his office and comforts him. Also in this chapter Tyler is able to help his daughter Katherine get over her fears, and he tries, at least, to stand up to his domineering mother. (pp. 259-278) I found this chapter (chap. 10) and the account of Tyler's nervous breakdown believable, for the most part, and pretty compelling reading.

To recover from his emotional breakdown, Tyler goes, with his two daughters, to the home of his former seminary professor, George Atwood, and his wife, who apparently have all the time in the world to take care of them for a couple of weeks! When Tyler thinks of Connie in jail, he thinks that he should be there too, because he left the bottle of pills that his wife took to commit suicide. He knows this is wrong, but "he would do it again ... it was their final, private deed." (p. 285) There doesn't seem to be any explanation for this willingness to kill his wife; he mentions her "suffering those final days" but the rest of the story seems to be about bucking up in the face of adversity. He's forever quoting Bonhoeffer, who went to a martyr's death at the hands of the Nazis.

At the end of the book, when Tyler is moving from the house in which he lived with Lauren to a more comfortable house donated by a parishioner, he is in a meditative mood: "He understood again that his relationship to God was changing, as it would have to do." I guess this is in line with the author's religion or philosophy that life is change, but it implies to me that there are no final answers in faith; you can never come to certainty; never really feel "at home" spiritually.

I guess I'd give this novel a C or maybe a C+. It is well written, especially some of the descriptive scenes, but does not tell a story that rings true to me.

Authors beginning with the letter "T"
Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, by Daniel Taylor (Slant, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014) (read July 2016)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An amazing, funny, thought-provoking mystery: who killed Dr. Richard Pratt, chair of the literature department with brilliant, avant-garde ideas about language and literature. He was found dead in a pool of blood below a motel balcony after delivering a speech at the Midwestern Modern Language Association convention. Jon Mote, a university dropout with mental problems, was asked by Dr. Pratt's wife to "look into it" and see if he could find out who did it. He protested that he was not a detective or trained investigator, and that the police would not like it, but she said that since he was a former student of her husband's, he might be able to uncover something important. Since he was unemployed anyway, he reluctantly agreed. Oh, another thing about Jon Mote. Not only was he a mental case, he lived with his mentally deficient (Down Syndrome, I think) sister, Judy, on a houseboat. And he was in the process of getting a divorce. There. That's the plot, but the way the author works it out, with several possible suspects, is very clever. Along the way Jon ruminates about literature, truth, reality, God, and many other issues, all in the context of his troubled, fundamentalist upbringing.

To give the flavor of Taylor's writing, here's a sample:

How do I know who killed Pratt? And why, really, when you come down to it, should I care? He's dead. I'm sorry. But I'm going to be dead myself sooner or later, with no guarantee of later. Shouldn't I spend more time contemplating that fact and less time worrying about someone else's death? I mean, we all come blasting into this world like a kid flying out of a water slide, skip a few times on the surface of the water, and then under we go. Hello, watch out, goodbye! Arriving, going, gone. We invent notions of the afterlife or reincarnation in hopes that this isn't the only station on the track. But who can believe it? God knows I used to believe it. I want to believe it. I am ready to take a leap or two to believe it. But I just can't. Not now. Not in the world I live in. I mean, I want to believe that using the right deodorant will make me sexy, too, but the evidence is slim. (p. 146)

This novel wouldn't be for everyone, but I really, really enjoyed it.

Authors beginning with the letter "T"
Do We Not Bleed?, by Daniel Taylor (Slant, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017) (read Aug.-Sept. 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a great follow-up to Taylor's first novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist. Unlike the earlier one, which was set in academia and gently satirized academics, this one takes place in New Directions, a group home for the "cognitively disabled," and pokes fun at social workers and their jargon and procedures.

The title, "Do We Not Bleed," comes from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," so I guess Taylor wants us to identify the residents of the group home with the despised Jews of Shakespeare's London. But this is not an essay inviting readers to look down on social workers (and conversely to elevate group home residents). It's a novel, and Taylor knows how to tell a good story, with pretty believable characters and plot.

The hero, or anti-hero, is Jon Mote, a sort of accidental detective with his own mental health issues. He lives on a rusting houseboat and works at the group home, where his limited-capacity sister, Judy, is a resident. Judy loves him and thinks all his problems — and apparently all other problems — can be solved by Jesus. Jon, a divorced, lonely skeptic, is not so sure of that, or of anything else, but he loves his sister and comes to love the half dozen residents of the home under his supervision.

The crime in question is murder, of Abby Wagner, a pretty, normal-looking older teenager living in the group home, whose body is found in the woods near the home. A red tennis shoe with the initials "J.P.M." is found at the scene, and later a scarf she wore is found in the room of J.P. McCloskey, another New Directions resident, who is big and physically capable of killing her, but is a gentle soul who just wants to please everyone ... including the policeman to whom he confessed when questioned.

So it seems like an open-and-shut case, and after a brief hearing J.P. is hauled off to St. Peters, a high-security hospital, where he will be housed in the section for the criminally insane for the rest of his life.

Before reaching the final page — no, I'm not going to reveal whodunnit — we meet Zillah, Jon's exwife and still a friend; Cassandra Pettigrew, Executive Director of New Directions; Sister Brigit, a nun who ran Good Shepard, which was the name of the group home when it was a Catholic institution; and Detective Strauss, who is hot on the case.

Did I mention that this book is funny? Laugh-out-loud funny in some places. But is the humor at the expense of the group home residents, like the scene where they are falling all over the place trying to ride down an escalator? I don't think so, though maybe a bit. Just about everyone is a target, especially the social workers who work at New Directions, including Jon himself. It seems like a gentle good-natured humor that wouldn't upset any but the most politically correct, or maybe some uptight social workers.

The protagonist, Jon Mote, is a lapsed Christian who can't quite escape a haunting sense that maybe God isn't as non-existent as he thought He was. Here is one of Jon's ruminations:

I could almost get back to believing in God if he would just keep his distance. Like I said about Zillah and religion, it's this Christ stuff that's bothersome. God as transcendent is actually a lot easier for us moderns than God among us. He can be kept as a mental category, a concept. But have him running around getting himself crucified and then, oh my God, rising from the dead and you've ruined everything. You've made him something we have to deal with personally, like an annoying neighbor — or a spouse. (p. 141)

As you can tell, I liked this book a lot. I can hardly wait for Taylor's next one. Too bad his books are not (so far) available in paperback.


Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (orig. 1848, Penguin Books, paper, 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This classic 800-page novel is built on one major theme, human hypocrisy. The author reminds his readers that "Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions." (p. 89) The subtitle of the book is "A Novel without a Hero," but as the author remarks, "If this is a novel without a hero, at least let us lay claim to a heroine." (p. 340)

He is referring to Rebecca Sharp, a beautiful, intelligent, but very calculating girl, who was also referred to as "this rebel, this monster, this serpent, this firebrand" by Miss Pinkerton, the head mistress at a private English girls' school, who had hired her to teach French. Becky Sharp was from a lower class background; her father was an artist "with a great propensity for running into debt, and a partiality for the tavern," who married a French opera-girl. (p. 17) Becky herself had been a dancer, and "a model to the painters. ... She drank gin with the father ...." (p. 214) Disreputable, but oh, how clever! Most of the women hated her, but the men were charmed.

In the course of time, Becky married Rawdon Crawley, while her very nice, and very fragile, girlfriend Amelia Sedley married George Osborne, a spendthrift and dissolute man who loved her but was really incapable to being a good husband. George joined the English army and spent a lot of time gambling and carousing with other members of his regiment.

Captain Rawdon Crawley, Becky's husband, a son of Sir Pitt Crawley, a Baronet, was the younger brother of Mr. Pitt Crawley, a rigid, religious, strong-minded man who preached to the servants every evening. Rawdon's aunt, Miss Crawley, was the unmarried half-sister of Sir Pitt, and was immensely rich. She favored Rawdon and despised Pitt as a "puling hypocrite." (p. 106) Becky moved into the household as a tutor to Sir Pitt's daughters, but she soon managed to win the affection of just about everybody, including Sir Pitt and rich Miss Crawley. In fact, she more than won the affection of Rawdon — she snared him as a bridegroom because "the barbed shaft of love had penetrated his dull hide." (p. 151)

However, when Miss Crawley, who was liberal but not that liberal, learned that Becky had secretly married her nephew Rawdon, she swiftly denounced Becky and Rawdon and refused to have anything further to do with them.

Amelia Osborne, after having a baby boy ("Georgy"), followed her husband when his regiment was ordered to the continent to face the French under Napoleon. Amelia was lonely and sometimes almost hysterical during this time, but her husband's old friend, Captain William Dobbin, was also in George's regiment and befriended her. Captain Dobbin had always admired Amelia and tried to protect her, especially when her husband was neglecting her. Dobbin is thoughtful and honorable, the real hero in this novel, although he, too, is hypocritical at times, usually for good motives. He thought the world of Amelia, "the sweetest, the purest, the tenderest, the most angelical of young women." (p. 201)

Becky also had a baby, "little Rawdon," but while she never mistreated her son, she almost completely ignored him and put him in care of others. Motherly, Becky was not.

Amelia's brother, Joseph Sedley, a proud, grossly overweight civilian, liked to put on military airs until the impending battle of Waterloo, which occurred while he was living with many other English noncombatants (mostly women) in nearby Brussels. Then he hastily shaved off his military-style mustache, put on drab civilian clothes, and rode out of town to safety (after paying the prodigious sum that Becky demanded for two horses her husband had left behind in Brussels before he went off to battle).

Those horses also gave Becky the opportunity to get even with the haughty Lady Bareacres, who had snubbed and ignored Becky even though they were staying in the same Brussels hotel. Lady Bareacres, like Joseph Sedley, desperately wanted to flee the coming battle and sent her maid, then her husband, then even came herself to beseech Becky to sell her the horses. Becky humiliated her by rudely turning down every offer she made and then laughing in her face. (p. 365)

The rest of this highly entertaining story may be summarized by saying that Becky's husband, Rawdon, deserted her after he surprised her alone in a romantic setting with Lord Steyne, and, in addition, discovered that Steyne had given her a thousand pounds. The departure of her husband led Becky to wander about Europe, living by her wits, but not with any great success. She did reunite with her old friend, Amelia, now the widow of George Osborne, in an obvious attempt to woo Amelia's brother, Joseph.

But at this point two things happened: Amelia's long-time friend and admirer, William Dobbin, lost his patience with her and moved back to England, and Becky, apparently feeling sorry for her gentle friend, told Amelia that her deceased husband was not the paragon she believed, but actually was unfaithful to her (Becky said that he "made love to me the week after he married you." (p. 801) That set the stage for a happy ending; Amelia went back to England and apologized to Captain Dobbin, who then proposed to her and they were married.

Aside from the obvious theme of human vanity, this novel by Thackeray also mocks the human thirst for revenge and the scourge of war. As he says of the French who were defeated at Waterloo,

They pant for an opportunity of revenging that humiliation; and if ... [they get that opportunity], there is no end to the so-called glory and shame, and to the alternations of successful and unsuccessful murder, in which two high-spirited nations might engage. Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil's code of honour. (p. 374)

Becky herself is vengeful. When driving away from Miss Pinkerton's private English girls' school, Becky tells a horrified Amelia she would like to see Miss Pinkerton floating in the Thames River. "I wouldn't pick her out, that I wouldn't!" said Becky. (p. 16)

Part of the appeal of Vanity Fair to me is Thackeray's colorful language, especially the spoofy names he gives to various characters and places, such as "Sir Huddleston Fuddleston" (p. 92), the "Quashimaboo-Aid Society (p. 102), and the German "Hereditary Prince of Pumpernickel," who married "the lovely Princess Amelia of Humbourg-Schlippenschloppen" instead of a "Princess of the House of Potztausend Donnerwetter." (pp. 741, 742)

There is a lot of other humor in this book. When Becky first met Amelia's brother, Joseph, she immediately became interested in everything about India, where Joseph had been the "collector" of Boggley Wollah, an "honorable and lucrative post." At dinner with the Sedleys, Joseph, "his face quite red with the delightful exercise of gobbling," offered Becky some curry his mother had made. When asked by old Mr. Sedley, "Do you find it as good as everything else from India?" Becky said, "Oh, excellent!" even though she "was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper." "Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp," said Joseph. "A chili," said Rebecca, gasping, "O Yes!" She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported ...." But when she tried one, she found that "It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. 'Water, for Heaven's sake, water!' she cried." (pp. 30-31)

I almost didn't read this book, because I have so many unread books on my shelves. But I'm so glad I did. It is an incredibly good novel! Very exciting, very funny, and very insightful.

Tepper Isn't Going Out, Calvin Trillin (Random House, paper, 2001)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A mildly humorous novel that kept me reading and brought occasional smiles to my face, but otherwise is not really a memorable book.

The story is simple. A New Yorker, Murray Tepper, who lives with his wife, Ruth, in an apartment in the city, owns a blue Chevvie. He pays for garage parking, but has started driving to various locations in the city, in the evening and on weekends, to find a legal parking place where he can park his car and just sit there and read the newspaper. He always puts money in the meter, and he never parks in an illegal place, but this entirely lawful act begins to attract attention.

First, it's the cars that stop and honk and roll down the window and ask if Tepper is going out. The answer is always no; he still has time left on the meter. Some of the drivers are irate and yell or swear at him before moving on.

Then people on the sidewalk start knocking on the passenger side window and ask to talk to him. He is always cordial, invites them in, listens to their problems, responds with nothing very profound (such as, "There's always something"), but most go away feeling like they've been helped by talking to him.

Well, it gets a bit farcical. The mayor of New York, who is a law-and-order fanatic, has Tepper cited for violating an ordinance about creating a disturbance, and the ACLU steps in to defend him, and finally a federal judge enjoins the city from enforcing the ordinance against Tepper.

There is a lot of other stuff, also mildly humorous, about his work at Worldwide Lists, a marketing firm that finds or develops lists of potential buyers for various products, such as a lettuce dryer.

The novel ends with Tepper and his wife flying to England to live for part of the year, after selling his car. Not exactly a gripping conclusion. But then, the plot itself isn't exactly gripping. Mildly amusing, I'd say.

Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope (orig. 1857) (read summer 2012)   [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a sequel to The Warden, but to me is a bit disappointing. The same characters, plus some new ones, are involved, but the plot is rather silly: three different suitors, all clergymen of one kind or another, seek to marry Eleanor Bold, widow of John and daughter of Mr. Harding, the music-loving warden of an almshouse or "hospital" for 12 elderly men.

Eleanor, who has a very young son born of her marriage to John, rejects or repulses Mr. Slope, chaplain to the bishop of Barchester and the enemy of Archbishop Grantly, who was married to Eleanor's sister, Susan. Then she rejects Bertie Stanhope, a profligate ne-er-to-well who really doesn't want to marry her anyway, except for the money that her first husband left her. Finally, she marries Mr. Arabin, a clergyman from Oxford whom Archbishop Grantly invited to come to Barchester to take a small parish.

Along the way we meet many interesting characters, such as Mr. Quiverful, who has 14 children and desperately desires to take over as warden of the hospital, and Bishop Proudie, who is hem-pecked and brow-beaten by Mrs. Proudie, who really runs the bishopric.

While interesting enough to keep me reading, it was not good enough to make me want to read the rest of the Barchester novels. Among his other faults, Trollope has a bad habit of giving away the plot (as by forecasting that Eleanor would marry neither Mr. Slope nor Bertie Stanwell before they propose to her) and he uses a cutesy take-me-into-your-confidence style with his readers ("We must now take leave of Mr. Slope, and of the bishop also, and of Mrs. Proudie These leave-takings in novels are as disagreeable as they are in real life ....") (p. 490).

I'll rate this novel as a C+ or possible a B-.

Warden, The, Anthony Trollope (written 1855) (read spring 1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the first of the six Barchester novels, barely 200 pages long. The plot is simple. Septimus Harding, a mild music-loving clergyman of the Church of England, about 60 years old, gets a sinecure from his friend the bishop: an appointment as warden of an almshouse for 12 retired working men. He is beloved by them, but John Bold, a crusader for justice, raises a question about the justice of the warden getting paid 800 pounds a year when the will of the founder of the almshouse intended his money to go to the poor. This gets into the public press and so mortifies poor Septimus that he ultimately resigns the position, even though lawyers who are hired to represent him believe he will win. The story is complicated by the fact that Harding's older daughter is married to Archdeacon Grantly, a fiery defender of the church if not the faith, and his younger daughter is in love with John Bold, who instigates all the trouble.

Since this is the first of six novels, I assume I'll meet these characters again. Trollope creates wonderful characters, for the most part with both good and bad qualities that help us identify with them. The plot, while simple, was ingenious and it set up a real moral dilemma for the protagonist. I really enjoyed this short novel and look forward to reading the others.

Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (Warner Books, paper, 1987) (read August 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Superb murder mystery, extremely well-written, fascinating plot, and total-surprise ending. Somewhat erotic in parts. Believable atmosphere of big city police, corruption, gangs, courts, etc. Basic plot has Prosecuting Attorney charged with the murder of one of his associates, a female lawyer, found dead with her head bashed in and evidence of rape.

(2007 comment: If this is such a great book, why have I never read any more by Turow? Maybe I just don't like these kinds of books.)

Roughing It, Mark Twain (Signet Classic paperback) (read summer 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An early work of Twain's, ostensibly a factual account of his early years in California, Utah and Hawaii but obviously fictionalized and highly entertaining. Highlights include his description of the Pony Express, silver mines in Utah, Brigham Young and the Mormons, and some of his funny (exaggerated) stories of his adventures. He tells about the general lawlessness of the early west, describing some of the notorious outlaws; also his early days as a newspaper reporter and editor, his prejudices against the Indians, although at times he seems to feel sorry for them. I thought the funniest anecdote was the story of Scotty Briggs visiting the new young minister from the East to ask him to preside at Buck Fanshaw's funeral (p. 247 et seq.)

Overall, grade this one a B for light and enjoyable reading, not great literature. Clearly this is Mark Twain in his early days, with flashes of brilliance, a good deal of humor, and some pretty inartful writing too.

Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, The, Mark Twain (Kindle) (read fall 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

After the shock of encountering heavy Negro dialect and frequent use of politically incorrect words (mainly "nigger"), I started to enjoy this engaging story of twin brothers wrongly accused of murder in Dawson's Landing, a slaveholding town on the Mississippi River.

Pudd'nhead Wilson moved to Dawson's Landing as a new lawyer, but he was tagged with his derisory nickname after making a silly remark about a dog. Thereafter people did not take him seriously and he could not get any clients, so he offered his services as a land surveyor and accountant, with modest success, until he ended up successfully defending the two brothers in court, using a new and generally unheard-of forensic tool, fingerprints.

Although not one of Twain's best, Pudd'nhead Wilson is a good example of his story-telling ability. As he explains in a humorous "Author's Note" at the end of the book, he started out with an idea that gradually was expanded into two stories, one a tragedy and the other a farce. He finally ditched the farce and kept the tragedy, but a few characters from the farce were left in the story for no real purpose.

I'd rate this book about B-. Entertaining and worth reading, but not re-reading.

Earthly Possessions, Anne Tyler (Knopf, 1977) (read 12/86)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A 35-year-old housewife decides to leave her husband; while at the local bank getting cash for the trip, a bank robber grabs her as a hostage, and takes her on a trip that lasts the rest of the book. They go south to Florida, to look up an old buddy of the robber's, and on the way they pick up the robber's pregnant girlfriend. Every other chapter flashes back to the narrator's life; she was born into a strange family, married into a strange family that lived next door, and was always being taken advantage of -- the "victim" type, everybody's "mother." Her husband becomes the local preacher, but is lonely and alienated, as is the narrator, and just about everybody else in the book.

Great writing; true-to-life depiction of people; and scary likeness to Ruth Ann marrying into Chase family! But no real answers; that's just the way life is.

Authors beginning with the letter "U"

Gunnar's Daughter, Sigrid Undset, translated by Arthur G. Chater (Penguin paperback, orig. 1909, trans. 1936) (read June 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the first historical novel by Sigrid Undset, author of Kristin Lavransdatter. The story is set in Norway and Iceland at the beginning of the eleventh century, about three centuries before the setting of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The heroine, Vigdis, is the daughter of Gunnar, a wealthy and powerful Norwegian landowner. Gunnar welcomes and for several weeks hosts a visiting Icelander, Veterlide Glumsson, and his hot-headed nephew, Ljot Gissurson. Ljot is intrigued by Vigdis, and although she is interested in him she puts him off and he ends up forcing her to sleep with him, which leaves her pregnant. Then her father is mortally wounded by Eyolv, a neighbor who has spread rumors about Vigdis. Eyolv and his servant come and burn Gunnar's house to the ground, but not before Vigdis carries away and buries her father's gold and jewels. Then Vigdis personally tracks down her father's enemies and stabs them to death while they are sleeping.

Then the story splits. Ljot goes back to Iceland and marries Leikny, but although eventually he loves her and they seem to have a good marriage, he never forgets Vigdis. Meanwhile Vigdis stays at home, sad and despairing. She refuses to get married.

Christianity has just recently arrived in Norway and Iceland, as shown by a conversation between Ljot and Vigdis when they first get acquainted. She tells him,

... they say that my kinswomen were priestesses at the high place in the grove here; but that is a long time ago, no one knows much about it. Our thralls offer cocks and sheep there; but my father believes in nothing but his own power and strength, nor had my grandfather any other faith, as I have heard.

When Ljot replies that he was "once baptized a Christian," she says, "That is a strange faith" and continues:

He can surely be of little help, the White Christ, for I have been told he could not free himself, but was slain by his enemies in Blaaland ["Blue Land," the land across the sea]. (p. 7)

Nevertheless, Christianity has begun to make a difference. Ljot, for example, later refuses Leikny's plea to kill their crippled baby boy, Torbjorn: "That were an unseemly deed, since I am a Christian man," replied Ljot, "and I will never do it. God may help the boy and mend him." (p. 113)

But along with violence and vengeance, wealth is a predominant motif; Vigdis says of her illegitimate son, "all I desire is that my son may have wealth and be so placed that he shall not feel too deeply the lack of father and kin ...." She refuses to marry rich suitors, but recommends that they marry "the handsomest and richest maidens here" so that they and "rule together over the whole country-side." (p. 115)

As for vengeance, when Vigdis' son, Ulvar (from a word meaning "wolf"), learns how his father, Ljot Gissurson, had avenged his own father's death when he was just a boy of 13, he says he wants to meet him to show him that "he has a son who takes after him." But Vigdis replies, "If you take after him – and if you are son of mine, then the end of that meeting must be that you brought me Viga-Ljot's head and laid it in my lap." When Ulvar protests, "Never yet was such a thing heard of as a son slaying his father," she says, "Will you not avenge me, as I avenged my father?" (p. 127)

Without delving too much further into the plot, I will just say that this early effort by Sigrid Undset is dramatic and exciting, and foreshadows her later work. But it is also uneven, without fully developed characters, and somewhat melodramatic. Also, the similar and confusing names of some of the characters impede the reading; e.g., an endnote explains that "Arne Kollsson" is not to be confused with "Koll Arnesson"!

It still beats many modern novels I have read. I give it a B-.

Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (English translation by Charles Archer, Alfred A. Knopf, 1946; English translation by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Books, 1997, paperback)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is the best, most satisfying, truest novel I have ever read or ever hope to read! I can't believe how much enjoyment I've gotten out of this novel, or rather, three novels, because Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset, who won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly on the basis of this work. I've read it twice in the standard English translation by Charles Archer, and once in the 1999 modernized translation by Tiina Nunnally.

Although unknown to many Christians, Kristin Lavransdatter is a profoundly Christian novel. All the great Christian themes are in it – the joy and richness of family life; the insidious nature of sin, especially pride and self-will; the struggle between spiritual and physical desires (love of God vs. love of world); and especially God's merciful redemption and grace in the midst of loss and suffering.

The story, set in fourteenth century Norway, describes how a little girl surrounded by love, especially from her highly respected father, grew up to fall in love with a handsome rogue, reject the suitor selected by her parents, and strike out on a path that led through pain and suffering to ultimate joy and peace ... but at great cost. Kristin had a life-long desire to please God coupled with an even more powerful desire to please herself, and in an amazing way she discovered grace and redemption in the midst of her failures.

I know this doesn't sound like a man's book, but this author, Sigrid Undset, is a genius. Her characters, especially Kristin and the main men in her life, her father Lavrans and her husband Erlend, are so real. They act and react and think and scheme and regret and yearn just like we do today. And what happens to each of them over the course of the three novels vividly illustrates some deep biblical truths about life.

Consider just this one example. Toward the end of her life, after rebelling against her father, marrying the adulterous and impetuous Erlend, bearing him seven sons and then driving him away with her harsh unforgiving spirit, Kristin decides to enter Rein Cloister, a nunnery, to live out her days. But it was the time when the "Black Death" ravaging Europe had swept north into Norway, and the local population, including the nuns and others living at Rein Cloister, were falling like flies. I won't reveal the dramatic circumstances under which Kristin herself contracted the deadly disease (read the book!), but here are her recorded last words (in the older translation):

It seemed to her to be a mystery that she could not fathom, but which she knew most surely none the less, that God had held her fast in a covenant made for her without her knowledge by a love poured out upon her richly – and in despite of her self-will, in despite of her heavy, earthbound spirit, somewhat of this love had become part of her, had wrought in her like sunlight in the earth, had brought forth increase which not even the hottest flames of fleshly love nor its wildest bursts of wrath could lay waste wholly. A handmaiden of God had she been – a wayward, unruly servant, oftenest an eye-servant in her prayers and faithless in her heart, slothful and neglectful, impatient under correction, but little constant in her deeds – yet had he held her fast in his service ....

You know what? That's how I feel. And I guess that's why this book has touched me so greatly.

See my long summary and review of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Master of Hestviken, The, Sigrid Undset (single volume edition, Knopf, 1970; orig. 1928) (read winter-spring, 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a tetralogy; the individual volumes are entitled The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. Ingrid Undset is best known for her trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, which I consider the greatest novel ever written, or at least the greatest of those I have read.

Olav Audunsson, the only child of Audun Ingolfsson, was orphaned at age seven when his father died. But before he died, he asked his old friend, Steinfinn Toresson, to take in the boy because he had no one else, except two elderly relatives. Steinfinn not only agreed, but when he and the dying man had drunk too much at a farewell party, he promised that his own little six-year-old daughter, Ingunn, would be Olav's bride, and they went through a "wedding" in which Olav gave Ingunn a ring that had been his mother's.

Though he tried to change his mind the next day, Audun would not hear of it and reminded him that though he would be gone, "God would assuredly avenge it if he broke his word to a forlorn and fatherless child." (p. 17) Steinfinn thought about it, and remembered that Olav would inherit his father's considerable estate, including his ancestral seat of Hestviken, so he affirmed his promise to give Olav his daughter in marriage when the children were old enough. Then he took Olav home with him to Frettastein.

Although Olav Audunsson and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter were just playmates for the next several years, they always had a special attraction to one another and in time fell in love. Then, when Olav was 16 and Ingunn 15, the inevitable happened: after drinking too much while celebrating a victory to avenge an old grudge of his foster-father's, Olav wound up in Ingunn's bed for the night.

Afterwards he was full of shame for having betrayed his foster-father, who had taken him in and raised him. But that was not the end of it. Not only was he unable to keep from sleeping with Ingunn, but when the dying Steinfinn declined to approve their marriage, and said he would leave it to his surviving brothers to decide, Olav and his cousin Arnvid secretly searched the dying man's belongings to find the ring that had been given during the children's betrothal many years before, to have proof that they were indeed pledged to each other by their fathers. But he felt guilty for doing so, and at this point the author echoes a theme from Kristin Lavransdatter:

It dawned on Olav the while that he who has once left the straight path of honour soon finds himself in broken ground, where he may be forced to many a crooked leap. But he could see no other way. (p. 88)

After further adventures – Ingunn is seduced by an Icelander, Teit, bears a little boy named Eirik, and later Olav kills Teit – Olav goes to Hestviken to claim his estate, and then brings Ingunn home to him. But Ingunn is a mess, broken physically and emotionally. She has several miscarriages, is inept at any kind of work, and generally wallows in guilt and grief. Still Olav loves her, though he doesn't get much joy from her.

Olav himself is haunted by his sins. When the local priest, Sira Benedikt Bessesson, is dying and calls Olav to him, the priest in a sense confesses his own sins to Olav, but Olav cannot bring himself to confess the slaying of Teit. As the priest rambles about his life, he says he has "every day partaken of the remedy that surely heals the leprosy of sin," but he continues to sin and so, "we must bide in purgatory, bound hand and foot, until we are cleansed from our scabs and taints." (p. 387)

Yet Olav has a burning desire to love and please God. When he is visited by Arnvid, his boyhood friend and Ingunn's brother, years later, he bursts out:

You have never known what it is to live at enmity with Christ, to stand before Him as a liar and betrayer, every time you enter His house. I have – every day for – ay, – twill soon be eight years now. Hereabouts they believe me to be a pious man – for I give to the church and to the convent in Oslo and to the poor, as much as I am able, I go to mass as often as I have the means to come thither, and two or three times a day when I am in the town. Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy mind and all thy heart, we are told – methinks God must know I do so – I knew not that such love was within the power of man until I myself had abandoned His covenant and lost Him! (p. 441)

But it is all to no avail. The one thing he must do to get right with God – confess the slaying of Teit – he cannot bring himself to do, because it would make Ingunn the ostracized wife or widow of a "secret murderer and caitiff." (p. 442. "Caitiff" means one who is base, cowardly, or despicable.)

Olav then says he has promised God that he would treat Ingunn's son Eirik as his own son.

"Think you," asked Arnvid, "that it avails you to offer God this and that – promise Him all that He has never asked of you – when you withhold from Him the only thing you yourself know that He would beg of you?"

"The only thing?" – but that is everything, Arnvid – honour, Life, maybe. God knows I fear not so much to lose it in other ways – but to lose it as a caitiff –"

"Nevertheless, you have nothing that you have not received of Him. And He Himself submitted to the caitiff's death to atone for all our sins."

Olav closed his eyes. "Nevertheless, I cannot –" he said almost inaudibly." (p. 443)

One thing I notice about this novel, as compared with Kristin Lavransdatter, is more emphasis on the church – the only church there was in those pre-Reformation days – the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, when Olav journeys to England, where the language and customs were strange, he finds much comfort in attending mass and listening to the priest's Latin:

The voice of the Church was the same that he had listened to in his childhood and youth and manhood. He had changed – his aims and his thoughts and his speech, as he grew from one age into another – but the Church changed neither speech nor doctrine; she spoke to him in the holy mass as she had spoken to him when he was a little boy, not understanding many words, but nevertheless taking in much by looking on, as the child takes in its mother by following her looks and gestures, before it understands the spoken word. And he knew that if he journeyed to the uttermost limits of Christian men's habitation – folks' form and speech and customs might indeed be strange and incomprehensible to him, but everywhere, when he found a church and entered it, he would be welcomed by the same voice that had spoken to him when he was a child; with open hands the Church would offer him the same sacraments that she had nourished him with in his youth, and that he had rejected and misused. (p. 552)

Similarly, there is more emphasis on the Virgin Mary in this book, and Olav calls upon her, "as a lost child calls for its mother," to save him when he is severely tempted by a young married woman who looks a lot like Ingunn did. (pp. 570, 573)

Finally Ingumm gave birth to a healthy baby, Cecilia, but she never really recovered from the ordeal. When her health continued to decline, Olav cared for her night and day, along with their faithful housekeeper, Torhild. When he is unable to get enough sleep, Torhild invites him to sleep the small house she had been given at Hestviken, while she and her children slept in one of the lofts. This happened a number of times until one morning when she came to the house Olav reached out to her and pulled her, unresisting, into bed with him. And of course she became pregnant and gave birth to a little boy. This was the final blow to Olav's pride and increased his guilt immeasurably. He not only had killed Eirik's father but now had committed adultery while his wife was sick and probably dying.

One rare gift that Undset has is her ability to penetrate the secret motivations of the heart. While Olav is in England, visiting churches, struggling inwardly, he was suddenly "forced to see what manner of man he was and what was his sin." He had thought of himself as the worst of sinners, for his murder of Teit and other deliberate offenses, but now he saw that he had "the pride of the sinner, which is even harder to break than the self-righteousness of the righteous." He heard the voice of Jesus say, "See then who thou art. See that thou art no greater a sinner than other men. See that thou art as small a sinner!" (pp. 584-585) As he later reflects,

He had been sustained by the secret pride that his sins were not those of cowardice and ignominy. And now he saw that these great sins were a load that he had allowed others to put upon him, because he had never been strong enough to admit it when he had taken a false step through weakness and cowardice and thoughtlessness. (p. 588)

I also like Undset's ability to describe a scene so vividly that you can vicariously experience it. Here is part of her description of a Christmas Eve service:

A draught of wind whistled through the church on Christmas Eve, levelling the flames of the candles in the lustrous choir whenever the storm came down with full force – the vault above was darkened, and then the heavy doors shook and the window-shutters rattled – as if the spirits of the tempest flung themselves with all their might against every barrier in their fury to thwart the sacred ceremony that was proceeding in the choir. There was a howling and piping about the corners of the building, a vast droning in the ash trees on the ancient burial mounds beyond the churchyard fence. Through the roaring dissonance of the storm the singing of the mass sounded strangely still and strong – like the smooth streak of a current in the midst of a rough sea. (pp. 654-55)

Olav's main problem is himself. He cannot get over his sin, and is obsessed by it. After Eirik made his surprising decision to enter the convent of the Minorites, and Cecilia has been betrothed and will soon be gone, Olav feels his loneliness keenly. During the mass in the church when Eirik is admitted to the Minorites as a novice, Olav suddenly realizes that the command to love others as himself, which he had always tried to do, carries this meaning too – "that a man must also love himself." (p. 795)

The rest of the story tells about Cecilia getting married to Jorund Kokbeinsson, who turned out to be a scoundrel and was murdered by one of the servants; Eirik being asked to leave the convent and coming back to Hestviken, and his failed romance with Gunhild followed by his unlikely marriage to an older, outcast relative of Gunhild, Eldrid; and finally, Olav's descent into dementia and ultimate death. With the agreement of his wife, Eirik decided to go back to the convent, where he did well for a time, but a pestilence wasted the land, killing many family members and more than half of the monks. Eirik was then transferred, with three young friars, to the convent at Nidaros, but after a rough trip across the mountains, Eirik died a few days after his arrival.

I thoroughly enjoyed this long, meandering, and somewhat confusing novel, but in my opinion (not the author's) it does not come close to measuring up to her masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter. Still, I became absorbed in the lives of the main characters, and often pondered what was happening to them and why. I guess I just really like Sigrid Undset's writing.

Roger's Version, John Updike (Knopf, 1986) (read 1/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Plot: theology professor gets sexually involved with 19 year old niece while his second wife does same with young computer whiz who came to professor seeking grant for computer project to prove the existence of God.

Updike is undeniably brilliant -- the research into arcane computer science and theology must have been enormous -- and is full of insights about human beings, a wonderful writer, especially in describing settings and people. And yet, it seems to me, he is woefully weak in some ways. His preoccupation with sex warps everything and tends to make his characters unrealistic; they can't all be spending nearly every waking moment thinking about sex. His description of Christians, from the erudite and cynical faculty of the divinity school to the eager, brash fundamentalist computer genius just doesn't ring true, based on what I know of myself and other Christians. Other weaknesses in this novel include a wandering point of view; the story is seemingly told from the professor's point of view, but he describes scenes he can't possibly visualize. If it's all the professor-narrator's imagination, this is not made clear.

Authors beginning with the letter "V"

Authors beginning with the letter "W"
Book of the Dun Cow, The, Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Harper & Row, 1978) (read August 1984) 
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A delightful fantasy in which Mundo Cani, the dog of sorrows, comes to live with Chauntecleer the Rooster, who is lord of all the other animals. The problem comes when angry and hateful Wyrm, the giant serpent who had been imprisoned under the earth by God with the animals as his keeper, threatened to break out. He did this by seducing another rooster, Sennex, who was king of another land, into believing that "you can be born again as your own son." But the "son" that was born -- Cockatrice -- grew a serpent's tail, killed Sennex, and began to rule in his place, ultimately fathering thousands of evil serpents and bringing destruction upon the land.

However, one hen named Pertelote escaped, wound up in Chauntecleer's kingdom, and became his bride. The rest of the story tells how Chauntecleer had the animals prepare for war; how they won the first battle against Cockatrice's serpents, with John Wesley Weasel as the hero of that bloody battle; how Chauntecleer himself won the second battle against a flying foe, Cockatrice; how Chauntecleer gave up hope when the third battle opened up against Wyrm himself; and finally how Mundo Cani dove into the pit and stabbed Wyrm in the eye to blind him and keep him underground, though in saving the animals Mundo Cani too was buried forever.

Why is this book entitled, "The Book of the Dun Cow?" The Dun Cow appears from time to time in the book, especially near the end, but is always a sort of shadowy figure. When Chauntecleer was recovering from his battle with Cockatrice, he "saw the rangy, pointed horns of the Dun Cow and her liquid eyes, so soft with sympathy. They were in pain, these eyes, and the Rooster knew them very well." But later Pertelote and Mundo Cani, whom Chauntecleer saw with the Dun Cow, seem to deny that they know anything about her.

The author is a Lutheran minister, and the book clearly has many Christian themes in it. Mundo Cani is obviously a Christ figure, and I think the Dun Cow is something like the Holy Spirit. But there is much, much more here, and this would be a good book to discuss in a group. Highly recommended for all, from junior high age up.

All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren (Bantam paperback; orig. Harcourt, Brace 1946) (read spring and summer 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Really good novel about Willie Stark, governer of a southern state, and his ruthless rise to power and inevitable fall. The plot is good, though I thought it dragged a bit with a lengthy flashback into the academic career of the narrator, who is the governor's press agent and "gofer." The thing that really impressed me about this novel was not the plot but the writing. The author was a poet, and this is reflected in the dazzling language he uses. The language is great and the characters he creates really come alive.

Listen to this description of a car leaving a paved road and turning onto a gravel road:

Sugar-Boy turned off on the gravel and we sprayed along with the rocks crunching and popping up against the underside of the fender like grease in a skillet. We left a trail of dust for the other car to ride into.

And here's his description of Tiny Duffy:

"If the wind was right, you knew he was a city-hall slob long before you could see the whites of his eyes. He had the belly and he sweated through his shirt just above the belt buckle, and he had the face, which was creamed and curded like a cow patty in a spring pasture, only it was the color of biscuit dough, and in the middle was his grin with the gold teeth."

As Willie Stark said of Tiny, "And it ain't any secret that Tiny Duffy is as sebaceous a fat-ass as ever made the spring groan in a swivel chair."

Montana 1948, Larry Watson (Washington Square Press paperback, orig. 1993) (read July 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A brief, simple novel about two brothers, one the good-looking athletic smart war hero who grows up to be a doctor and the other, less-talented, who goes to law school but instead of practicing law is elected to his father's job as sheriff. The story is narrated by the sheriff's 12-year-old son, David.

Because David's mother also worked, the family hired an Indian housekeeper/babysitter named Marie, who lived with them during the week. When Marie became sick David's father called for his brother to examine her, over her vehement objections. Turns out that Marie didn't want Frank, the doctor, to examine her because he has been molesting Indian girls.

Marie dies, under circumstances implicating Frank (on the day she died, David saw him leaving the backyard and walking toward town along the railroad tracks when no one was home). David's father arrests him and, to spare his feelings, confines him in their basement instead of across the street in the jail. The story ends when Frank commits suicide, which not only precludes a trial but also results in suppressing news about the murder and his molestation of Indian girls.

An enjoyable, well-written, easy-reading book.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, orig. 1945) (read spring 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

The author states the theme of this novel in his brief preface to the 1960 revised edition: "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters."

The subtitle of this novel is "The sacred and profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder," and Charles is the narrator, but initially the story is about his friendship with Sebastian Slyte, the younger brother in an upper class English family. It takes place mostly in the early 1920s, although it opens and closes during World War II.

The matriarch of the family, Lady Marchmain, is charming, cunning, and tries to control everyone. The father, the Marquis of Marchmain, was separated from Lady Marchmain and is living in Italy with a mistress. The older brother, the Earl of Brideshead a.k.a. Bridey, is an insufferable bore. Brideshead is also the name of the family homestead, which is also referred to as Marchmain House. And Sebastian is an alcoholic. There are also two daughters, Julia, in love with Rex Mottram, a Canadian wheeler-dealer, and Cordelia, a school girl.

The Flyte family is Roman Catholic, or at least Lady Marchmain is a devout Roman Catholic and the rest of the family, except for Lord Marchmain, are nominally Catholic. This is very important to the story.

When Julia, the older daughter, meets the worldly Canadian, Rex Mottram, and wants to marry him, her Catholicism almost derails the marriage. Waugh has a very funny description of the travails they went through to try to get married in the Catholic Church, and of their ignominious failure, resulting in a "squalid wedding ..." in the Savoy Chapel, "where divorced couples got married in those days." (pp. 173 et seq.)

Waugh is a very fine writer. I loved reading descriptions like this one of Rex Mottram: "(In his kindest moments Rex displayed a king of hectoring zeal as if he were thrusting a vacuum cleaner on an unwilling housewife.)"

After her mother dies, Cordelia, now 15 years old, explains to Charles about the ties that, loosely, bind the family to God. Noting that her father, brother, and sister were all "gone" (from the Catholic faith), she says, "But God won't let them go for long, you know." Then she recalls a Father Brown story her mother had read aloud to the family, in which the detective says he caught a thief "with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread." (p. 200) And this is the way, she implies, that God will ultimately bring back to Himself all who have gone astray.

After marrying and having three children, Charles meets up with Julia again, still married to Rex but no longer in love with him, and they begin a two-year affair. When they return to visit Brideshead, Julia's brother, Bridey, announces that he is getting married, to a Catholic widow, and Julia asks why he didn't bring her with him to Brideshead. Bridey says,

I couldn't ask her here, as things are. It wouldn't be suitable. ... You must understand that Beryl is a woman of strict Catholic principle fortified by the prejudices of the middle class. I couldn't possibly bring her here. It is a matter of indifference whether you choose to live in sin with Rex or Charles or both – I have always avoided inquiry into the details of your ménage – but in no case would Beryl consent to be your guest. (p. 257)

Julia leaves the room sobbing, and later, after much emotional hand-wringing and comfort from Charles, he expresses surprise that just a few words from her brother could set her off like that. He says, "Of course it's a thing psychologists could explain; a preconditioning from childhood; feelings of guilt from the nonsense you were taught in the nursery. You do know at hear that it's all bosh, don't you?" She says, "How I wish it was." (p. 262)

After Lady Marchmain's death plans were made for Bridey and his future wife to occupy the Marchmain House, and Julia and Charles got court dates to get divorced from their spouses so they could be married. At that point Lord Marchmain, whose health was declining, dropped a bombshell. He sent word from Italy that in view of the international situation, he had decided to come home to the ancestral manor to die.

That not only scrambled the rest of the family's plans, it also set up the death scene that dominates the last part of the book and brings to a focus the author's theme of grace extending – and capturing – people that are very different in some ways. Julie begins to separate from Charles; she still loves him but can't get away from the fact that he is not Catholic and doesn't share her concern about her father dying without being administered the last rites of the Church. He says, "It's such a lot of witchcraft and hypocrisy." And she answers, "Is it? Anyway, it's been going on for nearly two thousand years." (p. 294)

The first time the family brings Father Mackay to see Lord Marchmain the dying man refused to see him. He said, "I am not in extremis, and I have not been a practising member of your Church for twenty-five years. Brideshead, show Father Mackay the way out." (p. 296) But when he is really dying, and practically comatose, Father Mackay comes again, speaks to him about his need for forgiveness and makes the sign of the cross over him, but there is no response from Lord Marchmain. The priest tells him to "[m]ake a sign, if you can," to tell God he is sorry for his sins. Still nothing from Lord Marchmain. Finally, the priest gives him absolution and anoints him with holy oil, while the others – even Charles – are all praying that he will make a sign to show that he accepts God's forgiveness. Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead, and Charles was afraid he was going to try to wipe off the smudge of oil, but instead he brought his hand down to his breast, and then to his shoulder, making the sign of the cross. (pp. 305-306)

This is the "twitch upon the thread," when God reels in his wayward son, Lord Marchmain. It is the climax, but not quite the end of the story. Julie and Charles, so madly in love, break up. She cannot be divorced and remarry, especially someone who is not Catholic. "What will you do?" Charles asks her. "Just go on – alone." she says. "I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy." (p. 307)

What to say about this absorbing tale? It seems to me that Waugh conveys much truth about God's forgiveness and expansive grace, and the overriding importance of "getting right with God" before death. But it also seems that grace is, in Waugh's view, in some sense earned or deserved. At the very end, when saying goodbye to Charles, Julia wonders aloud why she should be able to take this step (of not getting married to Charles) that she sees as critical to her salvation. She says it may be because of the prayers of others, "or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won't quite despair of me in the end." (p. 308)

Still trying to earn salvation.

Losing Battles, Eudora Welty (Random House, 1970) (read 8/88)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Novel of rural south in '30s. Excellent.

Harlequin, Morris West (Pocket Books, paper, orig. 1974)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

An interesting "page-turner" raising but not necessarily resolving some interesting ethical issues. George Harlequin is head of a Swiss bank which becomes the object of a "takeover" attempt by a computer company headed by an evil genius. Harlequin hires a legitimate investigative service to work for him, then hires an illegitimate service (Israeli agents) which fights crime with crime.

In the course of events, Harlequin's wife is murdered and he almost goes off the deep end, vowing to kill Basil Yanko, the head of the computer company who had his wife murdered. Because he can't prove Yanko's crimes, Harlequin agrees to accept 25 million dollars in settlement and to, in effect, negotiate a surrender. However, at the signing of the agreement Yanko is tricked (by a photographer who drugs Yanko's drink) into confessing to the crimes. In a final reversal, Harlequin shreds the written confession and gives it to his colleague (and the narrator of the story), Paul Desmond, for a wedding present.

In the midst of all the high society figures, with hard drinking, big money, etc., West places a Christian as sort of a counterpoint; Francis Xavier Mendoza, owner of a ranch or vineyard in California, who offers another alternative, which seems like simplicity and "oneness." (see pp. 307-308)

I enjoyed the book, which is just good recreational reading.

Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton (Dover Publications, Inc., paper, orig. 1911) (read fall 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

What a gem this little novella is! I really liked it, mainly because the ending (which I won't give away) was a complete surprise to me.

Just 75 pages long, this story was first serialized in Scribner's Magazine. It's about a poor New England farmer, Ethan Frome, who lives in Starkfield, Massachusetts, apparently in the Berkshires. He is married to a sickly whiny wife, Zenobia ("Zeena"), and he struggles to make a living with a sawmill on a small run-down farm. Apparently he married Zeena out of obligation, because she took care of his parents before they died.

Into their lives comes Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin from Stamford, who was destitute and needed some place to live. She was sunny and outgoing, the opposite of Zeena, but was not really a servant and, although she was willing to help, she was not much good at housework. So Zeena grumbled.

However, Ethan was enchanted with her, and looked forward to the few times he could be alone with her, like when he went into town to pick her up after a social affair at the church. The story comes to a head when Zeena announces that Mattie has to go, because the doctor wants Zeena to have someone with her all the time, and they can't afford both Mattie and a hired girl.

As I said, great ending to the story ... you'll have to read it for yourself. The author has a gift for describing New England and New Englanders, especially in the laconic way they talk, although apparently the rest of her novels deal with New York society, not simple New Englanders.

It's a small book, but I'd give it an A- at least. This would be a good book for a discussion group, not only because it's so brief but also because it explores some universal themes, like love and loyalty, marriage, sacrifice, and the effect of ill health on people's outlook on life.

Descent into Hell, Charles Williams (Eerdmans, orig. 1937) (read August 1983)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Wow! This is a weird one! The surface plot of this novel is not very complex, or even very much of a plot. The cultural elite of a modern suburb of London have pursuaded Peter Stanhope, a local resident who is a famous poet and playwrite, to allow them to produce his most recent play. They allocate the parts, learn and rehearse their lines, and then put in on. But during this time strange things happen to various people ....

Pauline Anstruther, one of the characters, has a "certain thing of terror in her own secret life;" with growing frequency she had been meeting herself. The apparition (doppelganger) had never actually come close to her, or spoken to her, or touched her, but she was terrified of what might happen when it did. She is delivered from this terror by an act of "substituted love" when the author of the play, Peter Stanhope, offers to carry her fear.(!) See Chap. 6. "The Doctrine of Substituted Love," especially p. 95 et seq.

Mr. Lawrence Wentworth, a local inhabitant who was not in the play, was a famous military historian who, frustrated in his desire to have a local woman, turns inward to love (?) an image of the woman, who ultimately turns out to be himself, and this narcissism leads him to hell (apparently the "Descent into Hell" of the title).

Many other strange and wonderful things are in this book, which deals with the world of the dead almost as much as with the world of the living. Though I found it difficult to read and understand in parts, I really enjoyed it. It teems with ideas, Christian ideas, and would be well worth rereading.

Place of the Lion, The, Charles Williams (Eerdmans, orig. 1933) (read spring 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This is a strange book. I read another Charles Williams novel, Descent into Hell, and thought it was fairly good, but this one is wierd. I read it twice, because I couldn't get the hang of it the first time.

Essentially, the story deals with a young scholar, Demaris Tighe, who is very self-centered and obsessed with her work, a study of medieval theological ideas. The story develops with ideas, or principles, or "thought-forms" having enormous energy and somehow they take possession of, or are expressed in, animals and even people. Those who seek the power of these principles become overwhelmed and destroyed by it, while those who -- respect? worship? -- the principles are made stronger. ???

I think I should read it a third time to understand it better, but I won't because it's not that good a book.

Bonfire of the Vanities, The, Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987) (read May 1990)  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

A big (659 pages) realistic novel about the greedy, both rich and poor, in New York City. Sherman McCoy, an up-and-coming young investment banker making a million dollars a year, is involved in a freak accident in the Bronx after picking up his mistress at the airport. A young black boy hit by Sherman's $48,000 car is in a coma and later dies. The plot shows how the mighty are fallen, and the fallen are about as bad as the mighty.

Main attraction of the book for me was the author's detailed description of the criminal justice system in a big city, with its wholesale processing of black and Latin American criminals. Not entirely credible -- the defense lawyer participates in a fraud upon the court without batting an eye; the tape said to be inadmissible in evidence is probably admissible -- but very graphic and well written. The repulsive description of the judge spitting on p. 44 in incredible.

The author has a wonderful ability to describe scenes in persuasive detail, and the plot in this book was believable, but the ending was a let-down. It seemed like a cop-out; the author just tied everything up by adding an epilogue containing a newspaper article written a year later.

[Go to fiction]
NONFICTION  Titles beginning with the letter A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Titles beginning with the letter "A"
Age of Reformation, The, E. Harris Harbison (Cornell U. Press paperback, 1955) (read 7/83) 
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An excellent survey of the turbulent sixteenth century, which included primarily the Protestant and Catholic reformations and to a lesser extent the development of Christian humanism, the rapid expansion of capitalism and the steady breakdown of medieval and feudal institutions. The author calls the sixteenth century "the watershed between the Middle Ages and modern times." (p. 133)

In detailing the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the author points out that the heart of the problem was money: "The papacy of the early sixteenth century was only one step ahead of bankruptcy a good deal of the time." Money was squeezed out of the clergy by "simony," or the sale of spiritual offices, and out of the laity by the sale of "indulgences," a remission of (at first) the "penance" or temporal penalty for sin and later, as it came to be believed, the divine forgiveness of sins and even release of souls of the dead from Purgatory. (p. 39)

The author summarizes the four central Protestant beliefs: (1) salvation by faith rather than by works, (2) the authority of the Bible interpreted by the consecrated conscience, (3) the priesthood of all believers, and (4) the service of God in secular as well as clerical callings. (p. 53) He notes the impact of the translation of the Bible into the common tongues of Europe. (p. 58)

The rest of the book traces the development of the "left wing" of religious reform, the Anabaptists and their persecution (p. 63); the English reformation brought about more as a matter of state than of religious beliefs (p. 68); the rise of John Calvin with his strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God and his systematizing of Protestant thought (p. 74), and the Catholic reformation (or counter-reformation) (p. 81) spearheaded by the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola.

Aims of Education and Other Essays, The, A.N. Whitehead (Macmillan, 1929)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

I only read the first of the ten essays in this collection, which is entitled "The Aims of Education." The essays are all on some phase of education in the sense of intellectual development.

Whitehead strenuously warns against "inert ideas," which he defines as "ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations." (p. 2) He enunciates two educational commandments: "Do not teach too many subjects," and "What you teach, teach thoroughly."

"There is only one subject matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations." (p. 10)

"The essence of education is that it be religious. Pray, what is religious education? A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence."

America: What Went Wrong? Donald Barlett and James Steele (Andrews & McMeel, 1992) (read winter 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

An exploration by two journalists into the reasons for the economic decline of the United States, which can be summed up by the word "greed" or "avarice." They explain, in anecdotal newspaper style, how corporate raiders borrow money to buy corporations and then dismantle the corporations, shift some divisions to foreign countries for cheaper labor, and sell off assets and other divisions of the company; how deregulation wrecked many businesses and made fortunes for some and impoverished others; how some people can get rich and others poor through bankruptcy; how politicians shape the "government rule book" to favor themselves and the rich, and so on. Very discouraging book, although easy to read, with lots of charts and graphs.

American Childhood, An, Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1987) (read winter 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Autobiographical account of the author's childhood in Pittsburgh. Interesting, because she is such a good writer, but not exceptional.

American Evangelicalism, James D. Hunter (Rutgers U. Press paperback, 1983) (read August 1985)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a readable sociological study of evangelicals, using a "sociology of knowlege" methodology, defined as the relationship between human knowledge and social structure. The author's goal is to analyze the relationship between conservative Christianity and "modernity," and to find out why evangelicals seem to be thriving in the most modern country in the world, which is a paradox because of the demonstrated correlation between modernity and the decline of religious faith.

Hunter defines evangelicals doctrinally as believing in (1) the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, (2) Christ as divine, and (3) the efficacy of Christ's life, death, and physical resurrection for salvation. He says evangelicals are characterized behaviorally by "an individuated and experiential orientation toward spiritual salvation" and by "the conviction of the necessity of actively attempting to proselytize all nonbelievers." (p. 7)

There is a wealth of interesting data on evangelicals in this book, and an excellent historical survey (Chap. 3). Some of his data, such as that generated from surveying books by selected Christian publishers, seem questionable to me.

Hunter shows how evangelicals have changed and compromised its positions in a number of areas over the years, apparently as a result of the collision with the world view of modern society, but points out that in general these compromises have not touched doctrinal or even moral beliefs.

American Law, Lawrence M. Friedman (W.W. Norton & Co., 1984) (read summer 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A survey of the entire American legal system written for lay readers by a legal historian who teaches at Stanford University. Very readable. Broad orientation, emphasizing relationship of law to society and morals. Apparently believes with Grant Gilmore that law reflects society, rather than vice versa, although he points out that it is more of a symbiotic relationship; law may take its cue from society, but in turn law influences society (see Chap. 14, esp. pp. 254-255). Interesting chapter on "Legal Culture: Legitimacy and Morality" (p. 218 et seq.)

Titles beginning with the letter "B"

Back to the Basics of Young Life, John Miller (privately published, 1991) (read summer 1997)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Anecdotal account of Young Life's "basics" by one of the earliest staff members, which is partly autobiographical and contains a concluding chapter on heaven which does not have anything directly to do with Young Life. Not particularly well-written, but quite interesting to me because of the subject and the people he mentions. Strong emphasis on "closet time" as the secret of a successful Young Life leader.

Basic Christian, Roger Steer (InterVarsity Press, 2009) (read 2016)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Inside Story of John Stott," this biography is readable but not well-written. However, the subject, John R. W. Stott, is fascinating. Although he died in 2011, two years after this biography was published, Stott wrote some 70 books, which continue to explain and promote his solid-center brand of evangelical Christianity.

"Solid-center" but not unchanging. To me, one of the most impressive things about his life is that Stott was always open to learning and growing. He started out with a very narrow view of Christianity but, while he never abandoned the centrality of Christ and the cross, he grew to have a much broader view of what it means to follow Christ. According to the author, Stott believed that "Jesus was conservative in his attitude toward Scripture and radical in his interpretation of it." (p. 224)

In October, 1940, when World War II was raging and Stott's father, a physician, had just been evacuated from France, John entered Cambridge University as a 19-year-old undergraduate. He was devout, arising at 6:00 a.m. for an hour-and-a-half of Bible study and prayer, and deeply convinced that God had called him to a pastoral ministry and that he should seek exemption from military service as a divinity student. This ruptured his relationship with his father, an agnostic, who barely spoke to him for two years. (pp. 45-48)

In 1950, when John was just 29 years old, he was appointed rector of All Souls church, by the King of England, on the recommendation, first, of the All Souls church council, and then of Clement Atlee, the Prime Minister (because it was a "Crown living" church). (pp. 78-83) Interestingly, although some in the congregation questioned his youth, the members of the church council (apparently all lay persons) agreed that they were looking for "a fine preacher; a capable man of affairs to deal with the restoration of All Souls; one who loved the poor and loved to work among them ...; and finally, a young man, who could win the affection and confidence of young people ...." (p. 79)

John was himself a personal evangelist, asking at least some of those who came to him with questions or needs to become a Christian by following three simple steps: (A) Admit (or Acknowledge) your need of Christ, (B) Believe that Christ died for you and (C) Come to him. (pp. 67-71) He also prepared his congregation to do the work of evangelism. (pp. 95-96)

One of the ways John Stott became the leader of evangelicals in the Anglican church was his reviving of the "Eclectic Society," originally founded by John Newton in 1783. This was a group of evangelical clergy under the age of 40 (John was 34 at the time) who met twice a year for "fellowship, prayer and discussing matters of common interest and concern." Meetings of the society, which grew to over a thousand members, were private, which meant that members could be "entirely free in debate, even questioning the received orthodoxies of the time." (p. 100)

When John Stott became president of the Evangelical Alliance of Britain, he said to a group that "some evangelicals, like myself, believe it is the will of God to remain in a church that is sometimes called a 'mixed denomination.' At least until it becomes apostate and ceases to be a church, we believe it is our duty to remain in it and bear witness to the truth as we have been given to understand it." (p. 134) But he also thought that "denominationalism is hard to defend." (p. 191)

Stott also cared for the poor, not just in his words but in his deeds. He often slept in a camp bed in his study while a homeless man was sleeping in his bedroom. (p. 94) Other social concerns: racial segregation (p. 122), mental illness (p. 141), affluence and poverty (p. 197).

Stott's iron discipline, I might say rigidity, was famous. During his university years he posted a sign on his door that said: "Working 8: a.m. — 8 p.m. Please do not disturb unless absolutely necessary." (p. 50)

John Stott readily disagreed with some who espoused different theological views, yet he was able to disagree on the issue and still embrace those who, in his view, held wrong and even harmful views. For example, when Desmond Tutu, Dean of Johannesburg, said the Apostle Paul was "confused" and "sometimes didn't know what he was talking about," Stott strongly and publicly disagreed with him, yet the two men became good friends and Stott was an "ardent supporter of Tutu's struggle against apartheid." (p. 171) He also cautioned against "caricaturing our opponents' positions — of building a straw man and then demolishing it," and he developed four principles as a personal guide to dealing with controversy." (p. 243; not sure I agree with the first one: "he never initiated a conversation or correspondence on a controversial matter, but only responded to somebody else's specific questions.")

Examples of how Stott changed his views over the years. He gave up pacifism as the only possible view for a Christian and saw the validity of the "just war" tradition. (p. 48)

On the existence and nature of hell, Stott did not think that the imagery Jesus and his apostles used (lake of fire, outer darkness, second death) was meant to be taken literally, for, as he pointed out, fire and darkness exclude each other. He believed that "the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment." (pp. 226, 228) He did not like the "appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but will inevitably perish," but he said he could not be a universalist. Rather, he cherished "the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved ... even while I remain agnostic about how God will bring it to pass." (p. 227)

Other themes of interest: the distinction between fundamentalism and conservative or evangelical Christianity (pp. 101-103); evangelicals' reluctance to embrace social action (p. 163); Stott was, according to the author, "[u]nique in his ability to persuade evangelicals to embrace a new balance between evangelism and social action" (p. 282); he found himself "in reaction against excessive evangelical dogmatism;" Stott disagreed with "at least some forms of the theory of evolution," but he was open to the idea that "evolution may have been the mode which God employed in creating." (p. 186)

On the divisive issue of homosexual or gay relationships, Stott, a lifelong bachelor, stated unequivocally that the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is sexual abstinence. He also said that, as a bachelor, "I think I know the pain of this." Yet he acknowledged that the church had failed to show love to homosexuals, the great majority of whom, as he saw it, were not responsible for their disposition. He believed that at the heart of homosexual disposition was "a deep loneliness, the natural human hunger for mutual love, a search for identity, and a longing for completeness." He thought they ought to be able to find these things in the local church family. (pp. 210-11; see also pp. 239-241)

Stott thought Christians should do "double listening," listening both to the Word and to the world. In fact, he wrote a book about it, "The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening." (p. 237)

Stott's final summation of God's purpose for us as Christians: "God wants his people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God." (p. 271)

It's hard for me to understand how the author, a historian and biographer and a contributor to Oxford University Press's New Dictionary of National Biography, could write a book that is, at some points at least, strangely organized. For example, in one short chapter, there are two pages about Stott's adventure as a young clergyman of dressing like a tramp and sleeping under a bridge and eating at a soup kitchen with other down-and-outers; then a few paragraphs (with no transitional language) about his leading children's church at St. Peters and witnessing to their parents, who were mostly professionals; suddenly a page and a half of his outreach to unchurched, lower-class youths, and finally an account of the death of the pastor of All Souls and Stott's appointment as the interim "priest-in-charge" of All Souls and St. Peters. All this in one chapter of slightly more than five pages! (pp. 72-77)

Another rambling, disjointed chapter, entitled "Approaching Renewal," jumps from an opening paragraph about Stott being appointed a chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen, to an extended discussion about how to interpret the Bible, to accounts of his visits to Keswick Conventions and Urbana Missionary Conventions, an encounter with charismatics, and — for good measure — an isolated paragraph about racial segregation in Rhodesia! (pp. 119-129) Still another chapter is nothing but a book review — of Stott's favorite book, The Cross of Christ, with nothing biographical in it. (chap. 24, pop. 216-220)

With all these flaws, is the book worth reading? I say yes, absolutely. It does reveal a remarkable Christian leader, and is filled with nuggets of information, thought-provoking ideas, and personal challenges.

Basic Christianity, John R. W. Stott (InterVarsity Press, orig. 1958) (read fall 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The title says it all: This is an explanation of the basic things that Christians believe. John Stott is a smooth, clear writer, very logical. The perspective is historical, which means that it relies heavily on what the Bible says. In the preface he writes, "So our starting-point is the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth." (p. 8)

After an introductory chapter entitled, "The Right Approach," the author divides the book into four parts: (1) Christ's Person; (2) Man's Need; (3) Christ's Work; and (4) Man's Response.

Part 1. Christ's Person. Stott says three aspects of Christ's life point to his divinity: the claims he made, the character he displayed, and the resurrection. He says, "The most striking feature of the teaching of Jesus is that he was constantly talking about himself." (p. 23) Furthermore, he made extravagant claims about himself, that he was the Truth, the Light of the world, and so on. He claimed to be able to forgive sins. Paradoxically, he insisted on humility in others! (pp. 21-34)

As to his character, Stott surveys what Jesus said about himself (that, for example, he was without sin); what his disciples said about him; what his enemies conceded (they criticized him as blasphemous and irreligious for breaking the Sabbath and not following religious practices, and for the bad company he kept, but they could not prove that he did anything wrong); and what we can see for ourselves. (pp. 35-45)

Stott makes a strong case for the resurrection of Jesus, pointing out that (1) his body disappeared, with no satisfactory explanation; (2) the grave clothes were undisturbed; (3) Jesus was seen by many people after he was put to death; and (4) the disciples were changed from being despondent, disillusioned, and near to despair when he died to being courageous and joyful witnesses proclaiming his victory over death. (pp. 46-60)

Part 2. Man's Need. In discussing the problem of evil in the world, Stott points out that in the nineteenth century, it was widely believed that human nature was good and that evil was the result of bad environment. Yet the twentieth century, for all of the progress made in education and government welfare, has been filled with wars, atrocities, political oppression, racial discrimination, violence and crime. (p. 62) Hmmm. Must be something wrong with human beings themselves.

He then reviews the Ten Commandments, as interpreted by Jesus, and shows how far short of God's standards we fall. (pp. 65-69)

The first part of Stott's discussion of sin is entitled "The Fact and Nature of Sin." The second part is "The Consequences of Sin," in which he discusses (1) our alienation from God because of our sin – God is totally pure and righteous and good, and we are not, which means we cannot be in relationship with him; (2) our incorrigible self-centeredness, which makes us a slave to sin; and (3) our conflict with other people, brought about because we are all self-centered and put our interests first. (pp. 71-80)

Part 3. Christ's Work. Stott is not talking here about any of the good works Jesus did during his life; he is talking about his death and what that meant. Christ's death, which was predicted in the Old Testament and was willed by God the Father, achieved reconciliation with God, or atonement, for sinful humans. It made it possible for us to be in a close relationship with God, who is sinless and pure. Stott shows how the Old Testament sacrificial system foreshadowed the death of Christ. From the earliest example of sacrifices in the Bible, when Abel brought lambs from his flock and offered them to the Lord, until the final pages of the book of Revelation, where countless multitudes sing, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain," the message is that sin must be punished or atoned for. That's why Jesus died. (pp. 81-86)

It is true that Christ suffered and died as an example to us (1 Pet. 2:21), but his death was much more than a shining example. This is shown by the agony of estrangement he felt in the garden ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"). It almost looked like he was afraid to die; that would hardly be a good example. But in fact Christ was suffering because he was taking the sin of the world upon himself, and he could not do that lightly, without suffering. (pp. 86-97)

Stott then makes clear that forgiveness for our sins, which Christ accomplished on the cross, is not the same as salvation. Forgiveness erases the sordid past; salvation begins a glorious future. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is being "born of the Spirit." After having their sins forgiven, the struggle for Christians is between the "flesh" – our inherited self-centered nature – and the "Spirit." The result of the Spirit working in many Christians is the church of Jesus Christ, the world-wide fellowship of believers. Although the church has often fallen short, it foreshadows our future life in heaven. (pp. 98-105)

Part 4. Man's Response. Salvation is a gift, but it comes with a price. Eh, what? That doesn't make sense. Stott explains it this way. Christianity is not mere acquiescence in a set of true propositions; it includes a requirement that we give up sin and follow Christ. Jesus offered men salvation, but demanded their submission. Stott says "the demand was a total as the offer was free." (p. 107) To take up the new life in Christ we must be willing to give up the old one, because we cannot live two contradictory lives. Jesus promises to lead us to a full and abundant life, but if he leads us, we have to follow.

I wonder if it's like offering someone a pair of skis with the promise of gliding freely over miles of snow. There's no sense answering, thanks for the skis, but I'm not going to put them on and learn how to ski. I want to be able to glide freely over miles of snow without going through all that.

Stott points out that Jesus never lowered his standards to take in wavering would-be disciples. The Rich Young Ruler wanted eternal life on his own terms, but he went away sorrowful. The key Scripture is Mk. 8:34-38, where Jesus says anyone who wants to come after him must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. This involves true repentance, restitution where appropriate, and crucifying our own interests and desires. What if we just cannot renounce particular sins in our lives? Stott says "we must be willing to let them go as we cry to God for deliverance from them." (p. 110; emphasis by author)

Finally, we must confess Christ before others, which includes baptism. (p. 116) What about Nicodemus? Wasn't he a secret Christian? What about Christians in countries where confessing Christ could lead to death or imprisonment?

A separate chapter under this part of the book emphasizes the need for each person to make a decision to invite Christ to be his or her Lord and Savior. Stott presents it as a rather mechanical process, using Rev. 3:20 to set the stage for the decision either to "open the door" to Jesus or leave him standing on the outside knocking. He characterizes this decision as (1) a definite act, (2) an individual act (not something parents or teachers can do for you); (3) a unique act ("You can take this step only once"); (4) a deliberate act (of the will, not emotions); (5) an urgent act (don't delay); and (6) an indispensable act (without this you will not be a Christian). (pp. 126-127)

Well, I beg to differ. Although Stott's formula may be the best way, at least for some people in some cultures, to become Christians, there are many genuine (as far as we can tell) Christians who cannot point to a definite decision at a single point in time (like me). Of course, that doesn't mean that such a decision was never made; it may have been made and forgotten, or overshadowed by other things. But in my opinion it is the present fact of believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, not how that belief was arrived at, that is determinative. Remember, the Philippian jailer's whole family was baptized by Paul because "he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family." (Acts. 16:30-34). Few of the descriptions of people becoming Christians in the New Testament mention any "decision" for Christ; rather they say, in effect, that when they "believe" they are ready to be baptized. See, e.g., Acts 19:2, 4-5, 9 (Paul in Ephesus).

The final chapter is entitled "Being a Christian," and it is divided into two parts, Christian privileges and Christian responsibilities. Stott says the unique privilege of Christians is to be related to God, and he says this relationship is intimate, assured, and secure. (pp. 130-136) If the great privilege of Christians is relationship with God, the great responsibility is growth, which means growth in understanding and growth in holiness. In this section he includes personal growth through Bible study and prayer; baptism and involvement in a local church; and evangelism and service to others throughout the world. (pp. 136-142)

This is a wonderfully clear presentation of Christianity as seen through an evangelical lens. It will not appeal to everyone, even those open to the faith, because of its heavy reliance on Scripture, somewhat dated illustrations, and overly-narrow focus. But it is a great starting point, and I'm sure it has been used by God to bring many to faith in Jesus.

Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition, J. Daryl Charles (InterVarsity Press, 2005, paper) (read 2005-06)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is an annoying book, but very helpful for me to read. The book is annoying because, although he tries to be fair to the pacifist position, he "wears his heart on his sleeve" and makes a lot of gratuitous slurs against pacifists and misrepresents or exaggerates their views. Perhaps the fact that he comes from a pacifist (Mennonite) background has caused him to over-react. It is not a temperate, even-handed discussion of the issues, but rather a thinly-veiled polemic against pacifism.

The theme of the book is that the historic, mainstream position of the Christian church has not been non-violence, or pacifism, but "just war" theory. Although the title mentions "jihad," he does not devote much time to talking about Christian versions of jihad, such as the Crusades, but rather puts up a strong defense of the use of force by Christians to achieve, or restore, justice, within the constraints of classical just war thinking.

Here are some examples of what seems to me like the author's bias:

In the Introduction, he writes, "While religious leaders and some within the academy piously remind us that we must seek to understand what motivates terrorists who engage in mass murder, we must also reconsider the meaning of justice." (p. 15, emphasis added). Why "piously"? Isn't the author betraying his prejudice here?

He refers to a column written by Philip Yancey after 9/11, in which Yancey raises (to my mind) some cogent questions about where America might have fallen short, which Charles dismisses by saying, "It seems that Yancey is struggling with guilt for being an American." (p. 14, fn. 7)

Under a subheading "PRESUMPTION AGAINST WAR OR AGAINST INJUSTICE," he criticizes Roman Catholics and others who have "a presumption against war and force in general rather than a presumption against injustice." (p. 17, emphasis by author). I would say that Christians certainly should have a presumption against war and force, that is, they should presume that there are peaceful alternatives and explore those first, and only turn to war and force as a last resort. Furthermore, why are these opposed to each other? Shouldn't we have both a presumption against war and a presumption against injustice?

His political stance is clearly revealed in this sentence: "Two presidential candidates, we are told, are equally noxious as they vie for several thousand uncontested votes in the state of Florida, even though the lawyers of the one candidate engage in six weeks of legal (and illegal) street-fighting to overturn the election's outcome." I'm not sure what "street-fighting" is in this context, but apparently George Bush's lawyers did not engage in it!

He says that both religious and secular pacifism share the common assumption that "coercive force is always unjust and immoral." (p. 79,l fn. 33)

He criticizes some recent books from religious publishers that he says make the argument that power is inherently evil. I have not read the books he cites, but strongly doubt that that is their unqualified argument. He says that although these books also talk about spiritual powers, "their critique inevitably exends to governing powers, and alas, to the U.S. government and its purported imperialistic foreign policy. Not surprisingly, their critique is quite selective and politically partisan, bereft of any prudential considerations for responsible policy-making in civil society." (p. 87, fn. 1) Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

Opponents of the author's views are described as having "a general disdain for politics and power – that is, until the secular opponents of power are ushered into political power, at which point there is a curious conversion of beliefs! Power politics, all of a sudden, is something to be preserved at any cost." (p. 88). This is the kind of gratuitous slur that makes it hard to take this book seriously. He does not give any examples of this "curious conversion of beliefs;" he just lets the charge fly.

"... The typical pacifist today is less interested in serving others than in making a political statement or sabotaging established foreign policy." (p. 100)

He dismisses any possibility of relative pacifism, which might support the use of force under some circumstances, by saying that such a position is "flawed" and "deviate[s] from the church's traditional teaching. Either we are called to be nonviolent all the time or we are called to act justly and discriminate between what is just and unjust use of force." (p. 101; emphasis by author)

He says the idea that "mercy trumphs justice" is a "sentimental understanding of forgiveness." (p. 108) I thought it was the heart of the Gospel, although he probably does not mean it in an individualistic sense.

He says people should not get "different deserts for committing the same moral wrong," because that is a "travesty of justice." (p.109) That would mean that the hardened criminal and the first-time youthful offender should receive the same sentence for stealing a car.

One of the most disturbing parts of this book is his justification of preemptive wars. (pp. 112 et seq.)

There are also some strange gaps of logic in this book, as where he says the pacifist assumption about "human nature" is that "humans should work to abolish war." That does not tell us anything about human nature. It tells us rather about an ethical demand: what humans "ought" to do, like saying that all people "ought to obey the law."

He refers to a "universal consensus" among Christians, which seems like an oxymoron (a "consensus" is general, not "universal" agreement). (p. 88)

His primary theological basis for justifying armed force taken from the Gospels is the negative inference to be drawn when John the Baptist was asked by some soldiers what they should do, and he did NOT tell them to get out of the army. (pp. 37, 51) Pretty weak evidence.

He criticizes those who would have the church separate itself from the world because they "downplay the implications of Romans 13:1-7 while elevating Matthew 5:38-39 as the embodiment of Jesus' 'love-ethic'." (p. 90)

As for the direct words of Jesus about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, Charles relegates them to purely personal disputes and allows that individual Christians may choose to be pacifist. He also draws a distinction between Romans 12, where Christians are forbidden to take vengeance, and Romans 13, where rulers are said to wield the sword to punish evil doers.

At many points he seems to be saying that waging war is the same as having an armed police department fighting crime. But that does not seem like a good analogy to me. It might justify going after Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but certainly not invading Iraq. The police respond to crimes committed by ascertainable individuals; they do not prepare to destroy or conquer groups of people, even criminals.

He sets up a false dichotomy in the part of his Introduction entitled "Presumption Against War or Against Injustice." There is no logical inconsistency in having a presumption against both war and injustice, but he makes it sound like you have to choose one or the other. (p. 17) Actually, the "just war" theory itself exhibits a presumption against war; war is to be a last resort, after all other attempts to solve the problem have failed. And, in fact, just a few pages later he says, "Assuming the Christian fundamental inclination to prevent conflict and avoid bloodshed wherever possible, are there ever situations in which it is better to use lethal force or go to war than permit terror and heinous evil to go unimpeded and unaccountable?" (p. 29, emphasis added) That sounds an awful lot like a presumption against war to me.

He examines the attitude of the early church about war, and finds the evidence mixed. In the first few centuries, many, probably most Christians, did not serve in the military but some did.

The first of the church fathers to develop the just war theory were Ambrose and Augustine. He says "Augustine rejects self-defense, with one exception: the soldier who acts in self-defense and in defense of others." (p. 40) Both Ambrose and Augustine rejected self-defense, but they "believed it to be the obligation of Christian love to defend and protect the innocent third party." (p. 41, emphasis by author).

For Augustine, war was "both a plague and at times a necessity." (p. 43)

Thomas Aquinas further developed the just war theory in the middle ages, although some of the quotations attributed to Aquinas seem to rationalize war against those who "deserve attack on account of some fault" and against "pagans and Jews," not to compel them to believe but rather "to compel then not to hinder the faith of Christ." (p. 46)

One of the points I agree with is the distinction between choosing not to defend ONESELF with force, and choosing not to defend ONE'S NEIGHBOR with force. That is certainly not loving the neighbor. As the author says, "While the Christian is free to endure abuse personally, the presence of one's neighbor alters the moral equation ...." (p. 52) The same thought is later expressed by the Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey, which Charles sums up by saying, "While people are free to forego self-defense, they are not free to ignore the plight of the innocent third party." (p. 73, emphasis by author).

On the criterion of "last resort," he quotes John Calvin as saying, "certainly we ought to make every other attempt before we have recourse to the decision of arms." (p. 54)

The Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius said there are six requirements for a just war: (1) just cause, (2) sovereign authority, (3) formal declaration, (4) proportionality, (5) reasonable chance of success, and (6) last resort. (pp. 64-65)

One modern writer on the subject who sounds like someone I would like to read is Jean Bethke Elshtain, particularly her book entitled Just War Against Terror.

Among the points I agree with in this book is his comment on our scriptural duty to honor and respect those in authority. He says respect is important because "faith seeks to work within the context of cultural conventions. In this sense Christian faith is not countercultural. Ethically, it may be countercultural. But socially, it is committed to live itself out in common social discourse. Christian faith then seeks to work within and through accepted social customs. It acknowledges dual responsibilities, to humans and to God, even when the one is transcendent and commands our ultimate allegiance." (p. 86)

He says two things must be reaffirmed concerning the governing authorities: "First, they function foremost to restrain evil and protect the commonweal. ... Second, those with governing power receive authority to perform this function from the sovereign God." (p.86)

Another good point. "Governing authority is neutral and can be used for better or for worse, for good or for evil. While society does not rest on power, it needs power to subsist. By what standard then is governing power considered legitimate? To the extent that it promotes justice and seeks to counter injustice. In the end this litmus test is eminently moral." (p. 88, emphasis by author)

He makes the argument, which I agree with, that being a pacifist is necessarily parasitical; i.e., pacifists necessarily depend on non-pacifists doing the "dirty work" of using force to defend and protect everyone – including pacifists. (pp. 92-93)

However, when he essentially says that military service is the same as civilian law enforcement (p. 92), I am not so sure. I think there are some significant differences; for example, the commission of a crime triggers the use of force by police, but engaging in war is a political decision that may have no relation to any "crime" committed against us.

Just war theory is divided into two groups of criteria. One groups is used in deciding whether to go to war (ius ad bellum) and the other in deciding how to conduct war (ius in bello). The first group includes three core criteria: (1) just cause; (2) proper authority; (3) right intention. To these are often added: (4) last resort; (5) reasonable chance of success; (6) proportionate means; (7) peace as ultimate aim. The just war criteria for conducting war are (1) noncombatant immunity, and (2) proportionality. (pp. 132-136)

Apparently referring to present-day America, he says that "[w]hen a whole people – and everything in that culture – is full of putrefaction and moral rot, it is only a question of time as to when the system collapses ...." (p. 139)

He disparages the idea of "winning the hearts and minds" of potential terrorist recruits. He says that's not the business of government, which should "protect society by rewarding good and punishing evil." (p. 160)

He says that "many in Western culture who are bereft of moral reasoning choose to identify with the marginalized and by extension the terrorists." (p. 151) According to this reasoning, the Roman Catholic clergy in Brazil who "identify with the marginalized" are therefore "bereft of moral reasoning." In a footnote he says it is important to debunk the "shallow relativism" that hides behind the "freedom fighter" mentality, which he calls "nonsense." So much for the freedom fighters in Hungary who rose up against the USSR.

I began this book with a strong suspicion that although professing to explore the middle way – just war – between pacifism and jihad, the author would be leaning a lot more toward jihad, at least with respect to the United States. I finished the book convinced of that bias. This doesn't mean it wasn't helpful to read. I learned a lot. But I don't agree with many of the author's interpretations or conclusions.

Part of the problem is the way he defines the various possible Christian views of war. He limits pacifism to a total absolutly-no-war-under-any-circumstances viewpoint, while Jihad is the other extreme, war for any purpose. That leaves his view of "just war" taking up almost the whole range of views – one who would never go to war except in direct defense of an invasion, for example, would be embraced under his broad view of just war theory. Similarly, one who would wage war for any reason, using any means except nuclear arms, would also be in the just war camp. This, of course, gives him lots of room to bring all of American foreign policy within "just war" boundaries. In other words, he quotes all the classic definitions of "just war," but his interpretations and applications show that he is really very far over toward the right, much closer to the Jihad position than the pacifist position. I guess I could say that my views are just the opposite – much loser to the left, pacifist position. So we are both just war believers!

Biblical Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1997)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled, "The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible," this is a great overview of what Christians call the Old Testament from a Jewish perspective. My impression after slowly reading through all 600 pages is one of admiration and sympathy for the serious and yet hopeless commitment to literal obedience to the Torah and the 613 "commands" that Jewish sages have discerned in its pages.

In fact, the author all but admits that some commands are impossible to keep literally, such as those dealing with the Ark of the Covenant or the Temple in Jerusalem, which are no more, and that some are not exactly impossible, but are, in effect, changed to be more palatable, such as the command to show no pity but cut off a woman's hand if she grabs the genitals of a man fighting with her husband (Deut. 25:11). p. 589-90.

The last of the 613 "commands" is a good example of what seems like illogic and impossibility. In Deut. 31:19, God tells Moses to write down what he has heard from Him. The author, however, explains that "Jewish tradition" understands that to be a command that "each Jew should write a Torah scroll during his lifetime." Why should that be a universal command any more than God's instruction to Moses to confront Pharoah or part the Red Sea? And if it is a command to every Jew, why is it not obeyed? The author says "Jewish tradition considers a person to have fulfilled this commandment by contributing money to have a Torah scroll written, or even by purchasing religious books, which one will use to acquire knowledge of Torah." p. 592. Thus a dubious commandment is created and then side-stepped by "Jewish tradition." What was it that Jesus said about the traditions of men vs. the commandments of God?

On life after death, the author cites the story of Saul consulting the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28) as "a prooftext for the biblical belief in life after death." But then he says the Hebrew Bible "barely delves into the questin of whether or not life in some form goes on when the body dies." (p. 218) Discussing Psalm 1:6, he says "this verse conveys Judaism's view of the fate of the wicked in the next world." (p. 333)

Born Again, Charles W. Colson (Chosen Books, 1976) (read 8/1983)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Fascinating autobiography of the "hatchet man" for President Richard Nixon, from his days as a crew-cut Marine lieutenant through his rise in political importance to the position of Special counsel to the President of the United States, followed by his downfall in the Watergate scandal and then his spiritual rebirth and the beginnings of his prison ministry. The book ends with his release from prison.

Instrumental in Colson's conversion was Raytheon's President Tom Phillips, who witnessed to him and gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity; Doug Coe and Senator Harold Hughes of International Chrisitan Leadership, and other Christians in Washington.

Brief History of Time, A, Stephen Hawking (Bantam Books, 1988) (read summer 1992)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The author, a brilliant theoretical physicist who is almost totally crippled by Lou Gehrig's disease (motor neuron disease), says he wrote this book to give laymen's answers to questions such as: Where did the universe come from? How and why did it begin? Will it come to an end, and if so, how?

His opening anecdote is great: "A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.' The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

Although I couldn't understand everything in this book, the writing style is clear if undistinguished (he loves ending paragraphs with exclamation points, particular when referring to so-and-so who won a Nobel prize in nineteen something-or-other). Among his important points are these:

1. The concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. (Interestingly, he credits St. Augustine with first pointing this out. Augustine's view was that time was a property of the universe that God created and thus did not exist before creation.)

2. He points out that there is a fundamental paradox in the search for a complete unified theory that describes everything in the universe. By definition, such a theory govern everything, including human actions, so that rather than being rational beings free to observe the universe and draw logical conclusions from what we see, we really would be governed by this unified theory and thus the outcome of the search for this unified theory would be determined by the theory itself ... and it might be the wrong conclusion or no conclusion at all. He says the only answer he can give to this problem is based on Darwin's principle of natural selection -- the individuals who are better able than others to draw the right conclusions about the world around them will be more likely to survive and reproduce "and so their pattern of behavior and thought will come to dominate." (p. 12)

3. Einstein's theory of relativity put an end to the idea of absolute time, just as Newton's laws of motion had already put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. Time is simply one of the four coordinates to "space-time." Light is bent by gravitational fields. Time appears to run slower near a massive body like the earth. "In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving." Thus if a twin takes a long trip in a spaceship at nearly the speed of light, he would return much younger than his brother who stayed on earth. As I understand it, the idea seems to be that space and time are not really absolutes but simply part of the structure of our universe. Thus it is meaningless to talk about either space or time outside the limits of the universe (e.g., heaven?)

4. The theory of general relativity means that space may be finite without any edges or boundaries, and the theory of quantum mechanics means the same for time -- i.e., that time has no beginning or end. He says the present evidence suggests that the universe will probably expand forever. Time had a beginning at the "big bang" (p. 46). The "big bang" theory was proved by Hawking in 1970 but he later changed his mind when he realized the effects of quantum mechanics.

5. Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle" is a fundamental, inescapable property of the world." (p. 55) Quantum mechanics, which "introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science," is based on the uncertainty principle. Although I do not really understand this, the idea is that it is impossible to measure very tiny "particles" with waves of light, because the light itself will disturb the particle; see pp. 54-55. Later Hawking says that the task of science has been redefined to be "the discovery of laws that will enable us to predict events up to the limits set by the uncertainty principle." (p. 173)

6. Chapter 5 on "Elementary Particles and the Forces of Nature" I do not understand at all. When I was in high school I learned that the smallest particles of nature, smaller than atoms, were protons and neutrons, but since then even smaller particles, called "quarks," have been discovered, and these come in at least six "flavors" and each flavor has three "colors." He talks about particles having "spin," about a particle called a "gluon," about "antiquarks," and other mysteries.

7. A "black hole" is what is left when a star, burning up its hydrogen and other nuclear fuels, cools off and contracts to a point, with a density so great that no light can escape its gravitational field. He describes a hypothetical black hole as having "the mass of a mountain compressed into less than a million millionth of an inch, the size of the nucleus of an atom!" (p. 108)

8. The universe began as a "big bang" and has been cooling and expanding ever since. Hawking explains the critical rate of expansion that occurred immediately after the big bang: "If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size." (pp. 121-122) Interesting "theological" speculation about the beginning of the universe on pp. 122-123. He says "the earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself only one of about a million million galaxies in the observable universe." (p. 126) Hawking's idea about the beginning of the universe is, as I understand it, that no Creator is needed, since "the beginning of time would have been a point of infinite density and infinite curvature of space-time." (p. 133) Space and time, however, are finite but without boundaries, either a beginning or an end. This is very difficult to understand, but Hawking apparently sees it as a way of disposing of any need for God. (See last para. on pp. 140-141)

9. Time is not absolute. This was shown by the discovery that the speed of light appeared the same to every observer, no matter how he was moving, unlike, for example, the speed of a car in another lane of traffic. Thus time is "a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it." (p. 143) Imaginary time is time that runs backwards. The "arrow of time" is what distinguishes the past from the future; in real life time always runs from the past to the future. Hawking distinguishes between three arrows of time: the thermodynamic arrow, which is the direction of time in which disorder increases (entropy); the psychological arrow, the direction of time in which we remember the past and not the future (which is essentially the same as the thermodynamic arrow); and the direction of time in which the universe expands rather than contracts (cosmological arrow). When the universe starts contracting, as it eventually will (under the no-boundary theory), Hawking originally thought that psychological time (along with the other arrows of time) would run backward, so that people would grow younger rather than older, but he says he made a mistake. The mistake seems to be that there will be no psychological arrow of time when the universe begins to contract because it would be impossible for humans to survive under the conditions that will prevail in the contracting stage of the universe. (See pp. 149-152)

10. In his conclusion Hawking says that the combination of quantum mechnics with general relativity suggests "that space and time together might form a finite, four-dimensional space without singularities or boundaries, like the surface of the earth but with more dimensions." (p. 173) This no-boundary theory pretty much rules out any role for God; He could still choose the laws that the universe obeyed, but "there may well be only one, or a small number, of complete unifed theories ... that are self-consistent and allow the existence of structures as complicated as human beings who can investigate the laws of nature and ask about the nature of God." (p. 174) When he gets to the question of why the universe exists, he says that's the province of philosophers, but they have been unable to keep up with the advance of scientific theories. He concludes that if a complete theory of the universe is discovered, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, and "then we would know the mind of God." (That's what they thought in Babel too.)

Titles beginning with the letter "C"
Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster (Harper & Row, 1978) (read 1991-92) 
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Subtitled "The Path to Spiritual Growth," this is not a devotional book but a guide to the devotional life; more specifically, a guide to practicing a dozen "spiritual disciplines," which he categorizes as the "inward" disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, study); the "outward" disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, service), and the "corporate" disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, celebration).

I started this book once before but got stuck on the first discipline, meditation. It certainly is not "natural" for me, and the suggestions he makes, for example, about posture and "centering down," are helpful for separate attempts at meditation but don't seem to lead to a pattern or habit of meditation for me.

Overall, though, I got a great deal out of this book and believe it is one to read over and over again. Although perhaps organizing and expressing them in a new way, the author is not creating these spiritual disciplines, but rather sharing the distilled wisdom of spiritual giants down through the ages. There are also many references to Scripture, although it is not a biblical study of devotional practices.

Foster is a very good writer. He frequently captures things in short pithy sentences. He is also very sensitive to the dangers of prescribing spiritual exercies, especially that of turning them into laws: "Law-bound Disciplines breathe death."

Centuries, Thomas Traherne (Harper & Bros. 1960)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a collection of short meditations, written in the seventeenth century and therefore in old English, divided into "centuries" or groups of one hundred. It has been compared to The Imitation of Christ.

I found most of it obscure and hard to follow; such words as "felicity" and "contentation" plus the frequent use of Latin phrases kept me from gaining all that the author was trying to say.

Simplicity is a dominant theme. He speaks of the "burden and cumber of devised wants." (p. 16) He also speaks highly of the value and benefits of praise. (p. 155)

Cheaper By the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (HarperCollins, Perennial Classics, paper, orig. 1948) (read Jan. 2008)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A wonderfully entertaining story of Frank Gilbreth, an industrial engineer and "efficiency" or "motion study" expert, and his wife Lillian, a psychologist and also an industrial engineer, and how they raised twelve children – six boys and six girls – by applying (to some extent) their efficiency principles to the household.

Frank Gilbreth was big, loud, boisterous, self-important, and a barrel of fun. He was strict about a lot of things with his children, but they knew he loved them. He had a great sense of humor, and laughed as hard when the joke was on him as when it fell on others. He died in 1924, probably prematurely because of his weight and lifestyle, and Lillian than carried on their consulting business alone.

He said he believed in God, and made sure the kids went to Sunday School, but he couldn't stand clergymen. "Show me a man with a loud mouth, a roving eye, a fat rear, and an empty head, and I'll show you a preacher." (p. 58) He would drive Lillian and the children to Sunday School and then sit outside in the car, reading The New York Times.

Written by two of the couple's twelve children, the book is a breezy read, a little bit corny ("Dad had enough gall to be divided into three parts" p. 1; "The moving finger bobs, and having bobbed, moves on" Anne said, after bobbing her hair), and probably exaggerated to better entertain the reader. But there is no doubt that the Gilbreths were a remarkable family, and it's just plain enjoyable to read about them.

Serious literature? No. But highly recommended for plane trips or other times that call for light reading.

Christ in the Psalms, Patrick Henry Reardon (Conciliar Press, paperback, 2000) (read fall 2002-Feb. 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The author, a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church, discusses each of the 150 psalms in order, a page and a half to two pages for each. As the title suggests, he focuses on what the Psalms say about Jesus, and sometimes the connection is very tenuous (but, as he points out, sometimes the New Testament writers also found the Psalms to refer to Jesus in ways not readily apparent from the text). Nevertheless, many of his insights are really good, and I enjoyed this book very much as I read it day by day in conjunction with reading through the Psalms. While he spends too much time on the liturgical and monastic usages of the Psalms for my taste, he has a deep evangelical respect for the Word and for the truth of the gospel.

As to the difference in the numbering of the Psalms in the Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint text, see the page facing the last page of the book.

Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, Roland Bainton (Abingdon Press, 1960)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Readable and scholarly historical treatment of Christian pacifism and other Christian views of war and the military. Although Bainton is a pacifist and argues strongly for his position in the last two chapters, he is very fair in his treatment of opposing views.

Generally speaking, Christians have taken three attitudes towards war: pacifism, the just war, and the crusade. Chronologically they emerged in that order. The church was pacifist until the time of Constantine; in the 4th and 5th centuries Christians took over from the classical world the doctrine of the just war; and the crusade arose in the high middle ages. (p. 14)

"Actual peace on a wide scale was achieved in antiquity only by conquest." (p. 31) "War is more humane when God is left out of it." (p. 49) Augustine's view of the just war "continues to this day in all essentials to be the ethic of the Roman Catholic Church and of the major Protestant bodies." (p. 99) "Christian pacifism is not a strategy by a witness." (p. 248)

Biblical references for the crusade, p. 56; for the just war, p. 57; for pacifism, p. 61 et seq. Example of a conscientious objector revolted by mass slayings of Moslems by Hindus and ready to accept martial law as preferable to sheer chaos. (p. 40) This example justifies the military acting as a police force, however, with no intent other than to restrain violence.

Christian Family, The, Larry Christenson (Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1970)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a very old-fashioned treatment of the subject, with heavy emphasis on authoritarian discipline. It has many good, common-sense ideas, however.

The author, a Lutheran pastor in southern California, relies heavily on a book published by a German pastor and professor of theology in 1854. Query: Was this the kind of authoritarianim taught in Germany which led to the Nazi atrocities?

The first half of the book deals with "God's Order" -- for the family, for husband and wife, for children. The wife is to be submissive, and to live under the authority of her husband, and the husband is to live under the authority of Christ. Children are to obey their parents. These are God-appointed roles.

Many of the ideas in this book seem right in their generality, to me, but not to the extent to which the author takes them. For example, he carries the subordinate position of the wife so far as, apparently, to bar any women in positions of responsibility or authority in the church (pp. 45-46). Similarly, children are to offer unquestioning obedience, and there is no suggestion that the obedience of a 6 year old might be different than that of a 16 year old. The "rod" is to be used first (p. 103) and is apparently the primary means of discipline.

Good paragraph on unanswered prayer on p. 153.

Christianity and History, Herbert Butterfield (Fontana Books, 1957; orig. pub. 1949) (read August 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

I found this difficult to read. The first part of it, about historiography and Christianity, was almost incomprehensible, probably because I am not a historian. The author thinks that idealists generally overestimate human nature: "It is easy to make plans of quasi-political salvation for the world if we can have human nature as we want it to be, and presume on a general change of heart in our fellow men." (p. 57) The worst sin of all, the one that "locks people up in all their other sins, and fastens men and nations more tightly than ever in their predicaments," is self-righteousness. (p. 58) "It is essential not to have faith in human nature. Such faith is a recent heresy and a very dangerous one." (p. 66)

As to judgment in history, the author says it "falls heaviest on those who come to think themselves gods, who fly in the face of Providence and history, who put their trust in man-made systems and worship the work of their own hands, and who say that the strength of their own right arm gave them the victory." (p. 82)

I liked the last chapter, entitled "History, Religion and the Present Day," in which Professor Butterfield points out that church history as such -- the impact of religious leaders and the church as an institution -- has been overrated in history, while "that more intimate thing, the inner spiritual life of the Church," has been underrated. "It is impossible to measure the vast difference that ordinary Christian piety has made to the last two thousand years of European history." (p. 171) "If people would turn, however, from politico-ecclesiastical history to the intimate life of the Church thorughout the ages, and the spiritual work done by humble men over the face of the continent for fifteen hundred years, they would find it the most moving spectacle that history presents, and would see how the spread of piety does mean a growth in charity." (p. 177)

He also points out that adding a religious motive to other issues makes conflict more bitter and uncompromising, since it provides an excuse for treating enemies as subhuman (p. 178); and that "the policy of ridding the world of aggression by the method of total war -- of the war for righteousness -- is like using the devil to cast out the devil" (p. 184).

Christian Primer, Louis Cassels (Doubleday & Co., paper, 1964)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Terrific handbook on the "basics" of the Christian faith, written at about a mature high school level. The author is a professional journalist, and the book reflects this in being extremely readable. It would be ideal for teenagers or adults without more than a high school education.

He tries to touch all the bases, from believing in God to living the Christian life. The book contains a brief but helpful bibliography in the back, and an excellent table of contents.

A "modern parable explaining the incarnation" is particularly good. (pp. 18-20)

The only questionable part doctrinally is his discussion of eternal life for all vs. final judgment and punishment. (pp. 78-80)

"Christian love is not a vague feeling of affection for someone. It is rather a condition of the heart and will which causes us to seek the welfare of others -- including people we don't particularly like, and even people who have done us wrong." (p. 83)

The book contains an excellent table of contents and a brief but helpful bibliography in the back.

Class, State, and Crime: On the Theory and Practice of Criminal Justice, Richard Quinney (David McKay Co., 1977)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Although Quinney is a well-recognized criminologist, with a dozen books and numerous scholarly articles published in criminology and related fields, to me this book is simply a political tract with criminology as the pretext for writing it. On p. 2, for example, he says, "Justice in capitalist society, today as always, is an ideological and practical instrument in class struggle."

His philosophical/political viewpoint is Marxist. He emphasizes "the material conditions, the real basis of society" (p. 26); "the material basis of reality" (p. 27); "crime is basically a material problem" (p. 31); "Our analysis thus begins with the material conditions of social life" (p. 32; emphasis by author); "Marxism ... locates the problems of the age in the material conditions of our time" (p. 148).

Quinney is not, in this book at least, much concerned with garden-variety crimes such as murder, robbery, assault, etc. Rather he is more concerned with "crimes of domination" by capitalist society, which he breaks down into "crimes of control," "crimes of government," and "crimes of economic domination."

Quinney matter-of-factly uses words that to most American readers appear inflammatory and loaded -- e.g., he talks about the "repressive means of domination" by capitalist society, and the "repressive means of securing the capitalist order." (pp. 46, 48)

His ultimate goal is not socialism but communism: "The class struggle continues in the transition [from capitalism] to socialism, and beyond to the beginnings of communism." (p. 152) He similarly refers to "the eventual transition to communism." (p. 152)

What is Quinney's view of human nature? He says "the transformation of human nature and social order never ceases" (p. 152), criticizes James Q. Wilson's view that "wicked people exist" (p. 14), and talks about "an alternative order, on based on a different conception of human nature" (p. 17),but never gets around to defining what he means by human nature.

All in all, this is a book I would not read unless prompted by other reasons (campus visit of author). The book is apparently being revised, but it would have to be totally rewritten to be palatable to me.

Clown in the Belfry, The, Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) (read winter 2000)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Writings on Faith and Fiction," this collection of essays, sermons and miscellaneous writings by Frederick Beuchner is a mixed but mostly enjoyable bag. In the first chapter, entitled "Faith and Fiction," Beuchner tells about writing Godric (pp. 22-25), which I enjoyed so much, and this is followed with a Bibliography of "religious writings" that he says have been particularly helpful to him: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, about the whiskey priest who is "a kind of saint;" King Lear, Shakespeare's greatest play; The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky; G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday; The Wizard of Oz or Rinkitink, E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle, and "the three greatest of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books: The Magician's Nephew, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Last Battle, read in that order; E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, particularly the chapter on prophecy; and for poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

He discusses the "stewardship of pain" in connection with the parable of the talents (pp. 94-100). The chapter from which the title of the book come, "The Clown in the Belfry," is based on the 23rd Psalm. And I especially liked the chapter entitled, "The Truth of Stories," about why Jesus, who is the truth, used parables -- stories -- to reveal the truth about us.

Collection of Essays, A, George Orwell (Harvest paper, orig. 1946) (read winter 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

I bought this book (used) for one celebrated essay, entitled "Politics and the English Language." This short essay critiques current (i.e., mid-twentieth century) writing, especially political writing, as being vague and essentially dishonest. He quotes five examples of bad writing and says that, apart from their "avoidable ugliness," two qualities are common to all of them: "staleness of imagery" and "lack of precision." (p. 158)

"This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." (p. 159)

He parodies the kind of writing he is talking about by taking a well-known passage from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9:11) and translating it into modern English. (p. 163)

He criticizes stale and mixed metaphors, saying, "The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash ... it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking." (pp. 164-165) Orwell himself uses vivid metaphors: he says modern writers tack phrases together "like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house" (p. 159); such a writer may know more or less what he wants to say, but "an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink" (p. 165).

"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?" (p. 165)

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms ...." (p. 167) He says to "let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about." (p. 169)

This one essay was definitely worth the price of the book. I should read the essay over periodically (have already read it twice) and maybe it will improve my writing.

As for the rest of the book, some of the essays are very good, and reflect Orwell's uncompromising honesty. He believes in left-wing politics, but is scathing in his criticism of the Communist movement of the 1930s, which attracted so many writers and intellectuals who had no real conception of the horror of life under Communism. Citing Auden, he says "Mr. Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot." (pp. 238-239)

"The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual." (p. 241)

In the final essay, on "Why I Write," he says that, apart from the need to earn a living, there are four great motives for writing: (1) sheer egoism, the desire to seem important; (2) esthetic enthusiasm, the perception of beauty, either in the external world or in words and their right arrangement; (3) historical impulse, the desire to see things as they are and set them down for the use of posterity; and (4) political purpose, using "political" in the widest possible sense to mean the desire to push the world in a certain direction. (pp. 312-313)

Reading this book leaves me with a very positive impression of George Orwell. He was not a Christian, but he was courageous and truthful, and a wonderful writer. Outstanding guy.

Common Law, The, Oliver W. Holmes, Jr. (Little, Brown, 1881)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Fairly readable discussion of common law (and earlier law - Jewish, Greek and especially Roman and German tribal law), development of major fields of law, including criminal law, torts, bailments, contracts, and successions.

Holmes says that originally all forms of legal procedure were grounded in vengeance (p. 2); i.e., our law has a moral basis - someone is to blame.

Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, D. McNeill, D. Morrison, H. Nouwen (Doubleday, 1982) (read 2/83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

How to live compassionately in our world? This is the question the authors set out to answer, believing that living compassionately is the essence of the Christian life. I found it very rewarding.

The authors are all Catholic priests and college teachers, and the book bears this Catholic imprint; e.g., little recognition or emphasis on evangelism or conversion. Nevertheless there is much truth here. The book is poignantly illustrated with drawings by Joel Filartiga, a physician serving the poor in Paraguay, whose 17-year-old son was kidnapped and tortured to death by the police in 1976.

"The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean `to suffer with.'" (p. 4) We must "suffer with" those who suffer. Why should Christians want to do that? Not because we are masochists, but because this is where we find God; i.e., we should not identify with the poor because it's good to be poor, humble and persecuted, and not even to bring about individual or social change, but solely because there "our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose the way of servanthood to make himself known." (p. 31) Further, we must be obedient servants, obedience meaning total attentiveness to the Father's will, not heroic self-sacrifice. (p. 37)

The compassionate life is "a life together," and the Christian community is important for a number of reasons. Christian community is defined as people "gathered together in voluntary displacement." (p. 63) Strong emphasis on "patience" as an indispensable element in Christian discipleship. (p. 92) Patience is neither "fleeing nor fighting" but entering fully into "the turmoil of human existence." (p. 94) "Patience dispels clock time and reveals a new time, the time of salvation." (p. 99) (Personal insight: Whenever I am impatient, it is because I am dissatisfied with the present time -- minutes, hours -- that God has given me!)

Conscience of a Liberal, The, Paul Krugman (W. W. Norton & Co., orig. 2007, paper 2009) (read fall 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Krugman, a Princeton economist, argues that liberal politics is what we need to rescue the nation from its current morass. This is a really good book, and I learned a lot from it. But that doesn't mean I agree with all of it, and some things he says have already been contradicted by events since it was written (the book was first published in 2007). He certainly did not envision Donald Trump becoming President.

To encapsulate his message: The main problem in the United States today is inequality among the citizens, which is as great as it ever has been. He says the solution is political, arguing that the best years we've experienced — when most people were contented if not happy — were between the coming of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the onset of "movement conservatism" under Ronald Reagan. During those years, which he calls the "Great Compression," taxes on the rich were very high, union membership was strong, and most people felt like they had a real stake in the nation. We had, he says, a middle-class society. He also notes that during those "Eisenhower" years, the Republicans had basically accepted the welfare state (Social Security, unemployment insurance, etc.) and the two major political parties were not that far apart.

Since the Reagan years, inequality has grown exponentially, with most of the wealth going to a very small number of people. What caused this widening gap between the very wealthy and the average citizen? Mainly those sneaky Republicans learned how to win elections by appealing to latent racism (Reagan denouncing "welfare queens"), especially in the south. Krugman says, "The GOP's electoral dominance from 1980 to 2004 can be explained almost entirely in five words: Southern whites started voting Republican." (p. xv)

The super-rich also started pouring tons of money into elections to demonize liberals and elect conservatives and conservative — Krugman would say "reactionary" — ideas. For example, the repeal of the estate tax, which only affects very wealthy people. (See p. 48) His discussion of progressive taxation, which at one point reached 91% for those in the highest tax bracket, is especially revealing. (p. 47)

"Money is the glue of movement conservatism, which is largely financed by a handful of extremely wealthy individuals and a number of major corporations, all of whom stand to gain from increased inequality, an end to progressive taxation, and a rollback of the welfare state — in short, from a reversal of the New Deal." (p. 10)

Krugman identifies universal, single payer health insurance as the next step in a "new" New Deal. He points out that "in 1946 Truman proposed a system of national health insurance that would have created a single-payer system comparable to the Canadian system today." (p. 67) That effort failed, largely because of opposition of the American Medical Association and by southern Democrats, who feared that a national health insurance system would force the region to racially integrate its hospitals. (p. 68) Later Krugman devotes a whole chapter to "The Health Care Imperative," which to me is very compelling. (p. 214 et seq.)

One of the strongest features of this book is Krugman's citation of historical and research studies, with accompanying easy-to-understand graphs. Of course, I'm not knowledgeable enough or interested enough to track down all his citations, so I have to take them on faith. But Krugman did not win the Nobel Prize in Economics by being shady with facts. His main points seem right to me.

Some other interesting, maybe provocative, quotes:

Supply-side doctrine, which claimed without evidence that tax cuts would pay for themselves, never got any traction in the world of professional economic research, even among conservatives. (p. 119)

Indeed Nixon's actual policies, as opposed to his political tactics, were not at all what movement conservatives wanted. In domestic affairs he governed as a moderate, even a liberal, raising taxes, expanding environmental regulation, even seeking to introduce national health insurance. In foreign affairs he showed equal pragmatism, opening a dialogue with Communist China while simultaneously continuing to fight the Communist China-allied North Vietnamese. (p. 122)

"There is ... a strong circumstantial case for believing that institutions and norms, rather than technology or globalization, are the big sources of rising inequality in the United States." (p. 141) By institutions he means, e.g., the collapse of the labor union movement; by norms he means, e.g., the "shame factor," which used to limit outrageous salaries to CEOs but now accepts them (in this country; not so much in Europe). (pp. 141-142)

See also his explanation of the difference between "average" income and "median" income. ("If Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average wealth of the bar's clientele soars, but the men already there when he walked in are no wealthier than before. ... The median income in the bar, unlike the average income, doesn't soar when Bill Gates walks in.") (p. 125)

Krugman makes the dubious claim that in 2007 the Justice Department in the Bush administration "had, in important respects, been taken over by the Christian right." He says "the Civil Rights Division had largely shifted its focus from protecting the rights of minority groups to protecting the evangelizing efforts of religious groups." (p. 191) I would say that while protecting the rights of minority groups is important, the First Amendment indicates that protecting freedom of religion (including the freedom to evangelize) is even more important.

While I really appreciated this book, and learned from it, Professor Krugman is not entirely fair-minded about some things. He says, for example, that voter fraud by movement conservatism has been rampant (pp. 194-95), but never mentions fraud by Democrats, especially in big cities. His explanation of the difference between "liberal" and "progressive" politics seems simplistic ("You're a liberal, whether you know it or not, if you believe that the United States should have universal health care. You're a progressive if you participate in the effort to bring universal health care into being.") (p. 268)

He also says movement conservatism has a "monolithic unity of view enforced by the funders," which the progressive movement doesn't have. (p. 269) Really? How about abortion? Or gay marriage? And he sets up false comparisons: "On health care reform ... there's no way to achieve a bipartisan compromise between Republicans who want to strangle Medicare and Democrats who want guaranteed health insurance for all." (p. 272) But, of course, that misstates the real position of most Republicans and probably most Democrats.

Krugman's personal testimony: "I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. That makes me a liberal, and I'm proud of it." (p. 267)

Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell (Wm. Morrow & Co., paper, 1987) (read summer 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

See separate review.

Craft of Writing, The, William Sloane ((W.W. Norton & Co., 1979) (read 1/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Not exactly a how-to book on writing, but rather a series of chapters on miscellaneous aspects of writing, mostly fiction although one chapter is devoted to nonfiction. The book was actually put together by the author's wife after his death, from notes left by him and other material, including letters written to writers while the author was an editor for a publisher.

"The first sentences of a novel are a contract between the writer of fiction and the reader who commences to read him." (p. 44)

Talks about "foreshadowing" -- early scenes that imply what is coming -- and the importance of character development; the characters shouldn't be the same at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. Dialogue must characterize, but it must do more than that; each character should speak in his or her own way; they shouldn't all talk alike.

Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice, Charles E. Silberman (Random House, 1978)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

An excellent readable book on criminology, from a generally liberal perspective. As the title suggests, the book is divided into two parts, the first examining the roots of our violent, crime-infested society, and the second analyzing our criminal justice system.

As to the crime problem, it's real; according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the chance of being the victim of a major crime nearly tripled between 1960 and 1976. Why so much crime? Our history of crime and violence (Ch. 2. "As American as Jesse James"); demography (ratio of youths, who commit more crimes, to adults increased by 39% in the 1960s); dramatic increase in the availability of guns; racism and poverty, especially in view of the emphasis on material success; and the power of organized crime.

Silberman says the long run solution is "the elimination of poverty, inequality, and racial discrimination as significant factors in American life" (p. 169), but in the mean time we have to make do with the institutions we have, the police, courts and prisons. He is generally sympathetic (but also critical) of policemen; as to the courts, he makes a clear distinction between juvenile courts, which he condemns as giving too much punishemnt and not enough rehabilitation (see p. 358), and regular criminal courts, which he finds work surprisingly well. (p. 255)

The main problem with the courts (as well as with other criminal justice institutions to a lesser degree) is not that they don't achieve justice, but that they don't appear to achieve justice. (pp. 255, 298) Even plea-bargaining he finds to be a serviceable institution which tends to accomplish rough justice. But he has scathing criticism of defense lawyers. (pp. 302-305)

Prisons seem to him to be the toughest problem. The very nature of imprisonment is "an assault on the inmate's sense of self" (p. 384) and threatens the sense of manhood of male prisoners (p. 385), but he really doesn't offer any alternative except trying to make prisons better. He says no approach to rehabilitation seems to work -- one-to-one psychotherapy, group therapy, social work counseling, education, vocational training, "or any other approach that has yet been tried." Then why punish? He prefers the idea of "just desserts" -- i.e., "justice" or "fairness" requires punishment as a way of "restoring the equilibrium that is broken when someone commits a crime." (p. 189) Silberman also thinks our present sentencing system, although "untidy," works pretty well through its "diffusion of discretion." (p. 295)

Interesting comment on family and marriage as "correctional institutions." (p. 67)

Cross of Christ, The, John R. W. Stott (20th Anniversary Ed., IVP Books, 1986, 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is the evangelical scholar John Stott's classic work on the cross of Jesus Christ. It is, like his other books, clear, well-written, fair to contrary views, but rigidly argued, like a good legal brief.

The book is divided into four parts: (1) Approaching the cross, (2) The heart of the cross, (3) The achievement of the cross, and (4) Living under the cross. Each of these parts contains three chapters, except the last, which has four. Very tidy, very logical.

Stott stakes out his basic view in the preface to the original edition: "... the cross is at the enter of the evangelical faith ... it lies at the center of the historic, biblical faith ...." (p. 13) Further, "he died for our sins" affirms that " Jesus Christ, who being sinless had no need to die, died our death, the death our sins had deserved." (p. 68) Then at the end of the book, he writes, "But the gospel is in essence the good news of Christ crucified." (p. 334) It seems to me that Stott plays down the resurrection, perhaps to enhance his argument that the crucifixion is central to the gospel. I would say that a more balanced view of Scripture is that "the gospel is in essence the good news of Christ crucified and risen."

On the inspiration of Scripture, Stott recognized that there are factual discrepancies that cannot be completely resolved. See, e.g., the synoptic Gospels saying that the Last Supper occurred on Thursday while the Gospel of John says it was on Friday. (p. 74)

Stott agrees with psychiatrist Karl Menninger's book "Whatever Became of Sin" and his view that many former sins have become crimes and others have dissipated into sicknesses or assumed to be the responsibility of society as a whole. He also quotes Menninger's conclusion that the reinstatment of sin would lead inevitably to "the revival or reassertion of personal responsibility." (pp. 92-93)

On free will: "... [W]ithin reasonable limits we are free agents, able to make up our own minds and decide our own actions." (p. 95) On the "wrath" of a loving God, see the views of C.H. Dodd (p. 105), which Stott does not fully accept (pp. 106-107).

The main problem I have with this book is not its primary thrust, which seems essentially correct to me, but all the quibbling about subsidiary arguments. In the preface Stott draws a distinction between "objective" and "subjective" understandings of the atonement and says, in effect, that the objective view is true and the subjective view is false. He writes, " ... the meaning of the atonement is not to be found in our penitence evoked by the sight of Calvary, but rather in what God did when in Christ on the cross he took our place and bore our sin." (p. 15; emphasis by author) He is also highly critical of a "noted Methodist New Testament scholar" who refers to the death of Christ as "vicarious," "redemptive," "reconciling," "expiatory," "sacrificial" and especially "representative," but cannot bring himself to call it "substitutionary." (p. 16)

My answer is, so what? Aren't these contrasting views both true, at least to some extent? Or, if not, what difference does it make? Are more people drawn into the kingdom by those who espouse the objective view? Do they lead more Christian lives? Is God more pleased with them because they've got their theology exactly right?

Other problematic assertions by Stott. "The Bible everywhere views human death not as a natural but as a penal event. (p. 67, emphasis by author) Really? What about the patriarchs who were "gathered to their fathers," sometimes after blessing their children? See also his discussion of the relationship between Christ's sacrifice and ours, in which he voices "real and grave objections" to various interpretations. (pp. 260-66)

In chapter 4 on "The Problem of Forgiveness," Stott emphasizes God's "wrath" and concludes that "forgiveness is for God the profoundest of problems." (p. 111) I would say rather that, for human logic applied to God, forgiveness is the profoundest of problems. I rather doubt that God struggles with this as a "problem."

In evaluating and mostly praising St. Anselm's view of the cross, Stott notes that Anselm's "presentation reflects the feudal culture of his age, in which society was rigidly stratified, each person stood on the dignity which had been accorded him ...." (p. 120) Later Stott writes, "The weakness of Anselm's formulation [about substitutionary atonement], due probably to his cultural background in medieval feudalism, is that he overemphasized the humanity of Christ ...." (p. 157) It seems to me that it would be good to remember that every human view reflects the culture of the age, and that our viewpoint is not necessarily correct just because our culture is the latest in a long string of human cultures. Maybe Stott's cultural background influenced his theology. He seems a bit too confident of his own theology and dismissive of the views of other theologians, sometimes on exceedingly fine points. See, e.g., his critique of Anselm and Abelard. (p. 217)

Five ways in which theologians have their sense of what is necessary before God is able to forgive sinners (pp. 124-127). About "divine self-consistency" (p. 128). "Grace comes from God; glory is due to God. The whole of Christian theology is encapsulated in that epigram." (p. 331)

Discussion of "images of salvation:" "propitiation" (p. 166 et seq.), "redemption" (p. 173 et seq.), "justification" (p. 179 et seq.), and "reconciliation" (p. 189 et seq.). Stott says each of these images highlights a different aspect of our human need. "Propitiation underscores the wrath of God upon us, redemption our captivity to sin, justification our guilt, and reconciliation our enmity against God and our alienation from him." (p. 199) At the end of this discussion, he says, "I am not of course saying that it is necessary to understand, let alone articulate, a substitutionary atonement before one can be saved. ... [But] the better people understand the glory of the divine substitution, the easier it will be for them to trust in the Substitute." (p. 199) For another example of tilting-at-theological-windmills, see Stott's discussion of the nature of the relation between the death and resurrection of Jesus. (p. 233)

Frankly, I doubt that this kind of theological articulation is very important. In my opinion, very sophisticated people are likely to turned off by Stott's tilting at the slightly variant interpretations of other theologians, and very simple people are much more likely to be converted by simple preaching of the Gospel without bringing in Stotts' reasoning. (Of course, it is also possible that my own theological understanding is so weak that I cannot appreciate Stott's detailed exegesis.)

In Chapter 8, Stott says, "By his past forbearance toward sinners God had created a problem for himself." (p. 206) The solution to this "problem" was for God to "temporarily" leave sins unpunished and then later punish them by condemning them in Christ. (pp. 206-207) But "temporarily" means "for a time." Isn't God beyond time? Maybe Stott would answer that, from a human standpoint (i.e., during human history), God temporarily did not punish sins. But even this raises questions. Didn't Adam and Eve get punished by being exiled from the Garden? Didn't David get punished for his adultery by the death of his child? Weren't the Israelite continually being punished (and then forgiven) for their idolatry? My guess is that Stott is referring to punishment after death.

Stott criticizes Peter Abelard, who quoted Jesus' words, "her sins are forgiven because she loved much" (Lk. 7:47), saying that Abelard "misunderstood the text, making love the ground of forgiveness instead of its result." (p. 213) But grammatically Abelard was correct. For other grammatical inconsistencies, see Stott's discussion about living in sin after we have "died with Christ." (He seems to say that we cannot conceive what is possible; p. 270)

Chapter 9, The Conquest of Evil. What are the "works of the devil" from which Christ frees us. Stott thinks there are four: the law, the flesh, the world and death." Didn't God give the law to his people? Doesn't God love the world? I don't think Stott is very persuasive here. Ralph Winter believed that sickness and disease are works of the devil, and I can think of a lot more. What about racism, and militarism, and lust, and ...? Stott himself recognized that "all use of indiscriminate weapons (atomic, biological and chemical) and all indiscriminate use of conventional weapons (e.g., the saturation bombing of civilian cities) are outlawed by this text [Rom. 13:3-4] and deeply offensive to the Christian conscience." (p. 298, emphasis added)

Chapter 10, The Community of Celebration. Stott's view of what the church should be. "a new community whose members would belong to him, love one another and eagerly serve the world" (p. 249); "whenever Christian people come together it is impossible to stop them from singing. The Christian community is a community of celebration" (pp. 251-52). He believes that singing praise to God is a distinguishing feature of Christianity.

Chapter 11. Very persuasive argument that the command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk. 12:31) does not mean that we are commanded to love ourselves. (pp. 268-69) "Self-love is a fact to be recognized and a rule to be used, not a virtue to be commended." (p. 269) When he says "a rule to be used" Stott means it is a "rough and ready, practical guide to neighbor-love." (p. 268) This strikes me as true. On self-love, see also p. 278.

Stott refers to those of "us who have been cushioned by affluence, saying "we still regard security as our birthright and 'safety first' as a prudent motto. Where is the spirit of adventure, the sense of uncalculating solidarity with the underprivileged? Where are the Christians who are prepared to put service before security, compassion before comfort, hardship before ease?" (pp. 280-81) Ouch. That hurts. He also says the cross "is a revelation of God's justice as well as of his love:"

That is why the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as with loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation itself. Good Samaritans will always be needed to succor those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands. Just so Christian philanthropy in terms of relief and aid is necessary, but long-term development is better, and we cannot evade our political responsibility to share in changing the structures than inhibit development. Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices that spoil God's world and demean his creatures. Injustice must bring pain to the God whose justice flared brightly at the cross; it should bring pain to God's people too. (p. 285, emphasis added)

Chapter 12, Loving our Enemies. I find this statement problematic: "Although the followers of Jesus never have the right to refuse forgiveness, let alone to take revenge, we are not permitted to cheapen forgiveness by offering it prematurely when there has been no repentance." (p. 289, citing Lk. 17:3) But what is the alternative? I assume the person who has sinned against us but refuses to repent is an enemy. But we are commanded to love our enemies. How do we love someone we refuse to forgive? Shouldn't we forgive in that situation for our own sake, and leave the non-repentance to God? Also, didn't Jesus pray to the Father to forgive those who were nailing him to the cross without showing any signs of repentance?

John Stott argues that civil disobedience is a biblical concept (citing Daniel, Peter and John), and says, "We have a duty to criticize and protest, agitate and demonstrate, and even (in extreme circumstances) resist to the point of law-breaking disobedience." (p. 300) He also points out that the state is not obligated to demand the highest penalty allowed by law in punishing crimes, for "The God who laid down the ?life for life' principle himself protected the life of the first murderer (Gen. 4:15)." (p. 301)

Chapter 13, Suffering and Glory. Stott suggests six ways in which the cross of Christ "speak[s] to us in our pain." (p. 306 et seq.) He cites the story of Joni Eareckson, who became a quadriplegic as a teenager in a diving accident. (p. 307)

John Stott is a clear, powerful writer. Consider this paragraph, with its vivid verbs and judicious use of alliteration:

Of course, any contemporary observer who saw Christ die would have listened with astonished incredulity to the claim that the Crucified was a Conqueror. Had he not been rejected by his own nation, betrayed, denied and deserted by his own disciples, and executed by authority of the Roman procurator? Look at him there, spread-eagled and skewered on his cross, robbed of all freedom of movement, strung up with nails or ropes or both, pinned there and powerless. It appears to be total defeat. If there is victory, it is the victory of pride, prejudice, jealousy, hatred, cowardice and brutality." (p. 223)

Despite my nitpicking, this is an excellent book, and I believe I've learned a lot from it.

Culture of Disbelief, The, Stephen L. Carter (Basic Books, 1993) (read spring 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

See also another review of this book.

The author, a Yale Law School professor, says the prevailing cultural climate in the United States is not so much hostile to religion as indifferent and disdainful. It denigrates religious faith as something private and inconsequential, at best a kind of hobby. The culture is open to the views and arguments of Christians and other religious believers only if they are separated from their religious foundation and couched in rationalistic or secular terms. Thus he subtitles the book, "How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion."

Carter points out that while polls consistently show that large percentages of Americans pray, read the Bible, and go to church, public expressions of their faith are frowned upon, especially if it involves giving a religious basis for a taking a particular position on public policy. In other words, you can say abortion is wrong because scientifically a fetus is a living human being and all human life should be protected, but you cannot say that abortion is wrong because God doesn't like it.

As a constitutional law scholar, Carter believes the current trend has tilted too far in the direction of finding an "establishment" of religion and away from finding a need to protect the "free exercise" of religion. He says, "The consistent message of modern American society is that whenever the demands of one's religion conflict with what one has to do to get ahead, one is expected to ignore the religious demands and act ... well ... rationally." (p. 13)

Carter attributes some governmental interference with religion to prejudice against minority religions. For example, he thinks that the Supreme Court outlawed the Mormon practice of polygamy because of "anti-Mormon fervor." However, if the Mormons were allowed to have multiple wives, how could monogamy be legally upheld or bigamy laws enforced? Wouldn't the Equal Protection clause make the ruling apply to all? Presumably Carter would apply a "heightened scrutiny" test and find that the government does have a compelling interest sufficient to justify banning polygamy, but he doesn't indicate this. (See pp. 28-29) Besides, this is a relatively easy case, as is the "animal sacrifice" case he mentions. What if a religion required human infant sacrifice? Or something weird but lawful, like aborting every other pregnancy?

He talks about the need for government to respect the autonomy of religions and religious organizations. In fact, he says the central issue is "religious autonomy." (p. 149) Example, Orthodox Judaism and some Christian churches refuse to allow women to be clergy. This might be terribly upsetting some people who believe in the full equality of women, but Carter says the government should not (and in fact is prohibited by the Constitution) from intervening. The reason is because "A religion is, at its heart, a way of denying the authority of the rest of the world ...." (p. 41) He says this is a "radically destabilizing proposition," central not only to the civil resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr., but also to Operation Rescue, the activist anti-abortion group. (p. 41).

Carter is against mere "toleration" of divergent religious views; he says they must be accorded "respect." "[R]eligious pluralism and equality -- never mere 'toleration' -- should be essential parts of what makes American democracy special." (p. 21; emphasis by author) Query: What does equality mean in practice? Must every minority religion have its holy days declared public holidays if Christmas is? Or do we solve the problem by eliminating Christian holidays, thus exalting secularism?

He apparently does not believe in Jewish conversion. (pp. 93-94) He says creches have no place on public property. (pp. 94-95). Interesting discussion of why Christians voted for Ronald Reagan, who talked the language of faith but who, after winning the election, "exhibited an interest in corporate worship approximating zero," unlike his predecessor, born-again Jimmy Carter, who attended church services regularly, prayed in public, and practiced his religion by declining to serve alcohol at many White House functions. pp. 97-98)

The problem of guaranteeing the "free exercise" of religion has become much more difficult in a welfare state, where people look to government for many benefits and even necessities of life. Carter says courts and society should "accommodate" the free exercise of religion by placing no burdens upon it except those that are "absolutely essential." (See esp. Ch. 7, p. 124 et seq.) The state must have a "compelling interest" to overcome religious tenets. (p. 132)

In discussing the First Amendment, Carter points out how the Supreme Court has tended to treat freedom of religion as basically the same thing as freedom of speech; i.e., the freedom to communicate religious beliefs, which he thinks distorts the promise of the First Amendment. (p. 130) To really carry out the intent of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the state must do its utmost to accommodate various religious views, especially those of minority religions. And the religion itself – not the state – should define what constitutes religious practice. Thus, for example, churches should be able to hire Christians, at least for all jobs related to their faith, in spite of anti-discrimination laws. (pp. 141-142).

Carter stresses the importance of the "autonomy of religions." "[T]he autonomy of the religions is, at bottom, what makes them worth protecting ...." (p. 147) See esp. middle paragraph on p. 149. Also, churches as independent intermediaties. (p. 134)

At some points, Carter struggles to have it both ways. He thinks the government has a right to coerce Christian schools into not discriminating on the basis of gender or race by withholding tax benefits or accreditation that go to other schools, but he would allow them to discriminate based on sexual orientation, at least until "societal consensus has been reached that a form of discrimination is wrong[; after that] religious organizations, when they consume the largess of the welfare state, will not be allowed to engage in it." (p. 154) So the autonomy of the religious is sacrificed at the will of a "consensus" of society, which is another way of saying that religion is subordinate to society.

"I should make clear that I am no creationist -- not, at least, in the popular sense." (p. 161) He give some qualified approval to Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial (p. 166, n. 26).

Although Carter is undoubtedly at least moderately liberal in both theology and politics, he criticizes liberal theory that says, in effect, that religious people can introduce into public debate moral propositions based on religious conviction as long as they support them in secular terms. He insists that faith-based moral propositions can be set forth with religious justification, and that the propositions themselves – not their source – should be listened to. For example, the fact that the Catholic Church is pro-life does not disqualify Catholics from opposing abortion, and those who are pro-choice (the author says he is "moderately pro-choice") should counter the pro-life argument but not reject it merely because of its religious base. "What is needed is not a requirement that the religiously devout choose a form of dialogue that liberalism accepts, but that liberalism develop a politics that accepts whatever form of dialogue a member of the public offers." (p. 230)

On the abortion question, he says it is ridiculous to say that the definition of human life is a religious issue which the state cannot decide. The state decides this issue all the time, when it enforces homicide laws, for example, or inheritance laws. (p. 234)

Carter says that since "religion tends to be a positive not a negative force in people's lives, we should think it a good thing when people convicted of serious crimes turn to religion in prison." (p. 270) But what if the religion that the inmate turns to advocates killing whites (or blacks, or Jews) or Satanic rituals involving real human sacrifices?

Carter really believes in prayer (pp. 184-185, 191-192) and calls himself a "believing Christian" (p. 79) and a "committed Christian." (p. 47). He is an Episcopalian (p. 79).

Summary: An excellent book, especially in it's emphasis on religious autonomy and the need to protect it so that Christians and other believers are not disenfranchised socially or politically. I do think it is somewhat inconsistent at points, and never really comes to grips with the question of whether, for the well-being of the nation, all practices of all religions, no matter how harmful, must be accorded the same freedom.

Culture of Narcissism, The, Christopher Lasch (W.W. Norton & Co., 1978)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A superb analysis of the American "psyche of the seventies." We have, says Lasch, a "narcissistic society," which is one that gives "increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits." (Preface, p. xvii)

In some ways this is mostly a moral tract, somewhat rambling, with not too much empirical support for the conclusions reached. But my "gut reaction" is that so much of this book is true -- this is the way it really is! He analyzes the concept of narcissism, and its relationship to the "awareness movement" of current psychology. He shows how we have moved in the direction of narcissism in our concept of "making it" ("From Horatio Alger to the Happy Hooker"); contemporary theatre; sports; schools; family life; sexual relationships; our dread of old age; and politics.

"To live for the moment is the prevailing passion -- to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity." (p. 5) The current era is characterized by "the waning of the sense of historical time;" i.e., we rob the past of meaningful lessons by calling all history "nostalgia," and because we have no interest in the past we also have no interest in the future.

Although the "ethic of pleasure" has replaced the "ethic of achievement," he says "this hedonism is a fraud; the purusit of pleasure disguises a struggle for power." (p. 66)

He criticizes the call for "non-competitive" sport (p. 107).

"When elders make no demands on the young, they make it almost impossible for the young to grow up." (p. 141 fn.)

Crisis of higher learning. (p. 145 et seq.)

Talks about the "collapse of authority" in the family, in which parents have abdicated in favor of the "experts." (p. 154 et seq.)

We want to substitute therapy for authority; thus authorities pose as advisors, "resource persons" and friends. (p. 182)

This is a book to reread!

Titles beginning with the letter "D"

Darwin on Trial, Phillip E. Johnson (Regnery Gateway, 1991)(read 6/91)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

(For other reviews of books about evolution, see Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth R. Miller; Language of Science and Faith, The, Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins)

A remarkable book on evolution by a law professor at Boalt Hall, also a member of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, who challenges "Darwinism," or "fully naturalistic evolution," not on scientific grounds (he admits he is not a scientist) but on the grounds of logic, reasoning and evidence. He is not a defender of "creation-science," a term he uses to refer to "young earth, six-day special creation." He does not address any conflict between the Biblical accounts and scientific evidence. The question he investigates is "whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism."

Chap. 2. Natural Selection. Darwin's three propositions: (1) The species are not immutable (new species have appeared by natural process called "descent with modification"); (2) This process accounts for all life, since all living things descended from a common ancestor; and (3) This process was guided by natural selection or "survival of the fittest." The explanation that evolution occurs by the natural selection of random variations is a tautology; in effect, the fittest survive because those who survive are, of course, the fittest. Natural selection can also be presented as a deductive argument, which Johnson shows is falacious, or as a scientific hypothesis: that "natural selection (in combination with mutation) is an innovative evolutionary process capable of producing new kinds of organs and organisms." He finds no evidence to support this, and that leads him to a fourth way in which natural selection can be formulated: as a "philosophical necessity," which basically means, natural selection must be true because non-naturalistic answers are ruled out a priori and there is no other acceptable naturalistic answer.

Chap. 3. Mutations Great and Small. Discusses problem of how complex organisms, such as eyes and wings, could have evolved, since to be useful at all many constituent parts must have evolved simultaneously. "Bird and bat wings appear in the fossil record already developed, and no one has ever confirmed by experiment that the gradual evolution of wings and eyes in possible." (p. 36)

Chap. 4. The Fossil Problem. Says "Darwin's most formidable opponents were not clergymen, but fossil experts." (p. 45) The reason for this is basically because there is virtually no evidence of any transitional forms between the species, as we would expect to find if the various species developed by evolution. Not only are there no living examples of intermediate types, but there is almost nothing in the fossil record which shows any of these so-called intermediate or transitional types. What the fossils really show is that: (1) species and groups of species appeared suddenly rather than at the end of a chain of evolutionary links, (2) species remain in "stasis" -- fundamentally unchanged for millions of years, and (3) species that have disappeared from the fossil record have done so suddenly, in mass extinctions, rather than by gradual obsolescence. "In short, if evolution means the gradual change of one kind of organism into another kind, the outstanding characteristic of the fossil record is the absence of evidence for evolution." (p. 50)

Chap. 5. The Fact of Evolution. Darwinists insist that evolution is a fact, like the force of gravity. Stephen Jay Gould said, "Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome," but as Johnson points out, the analogy is spurious, since "We observe directly that apples fall when dropped, but we do not observe a common ancestor for modern apes and humans." (p. 67) A lot of confusion results from using the term "evolution" to cover both "microevolution," or changes within species, and "macroevolution," the development of new species. Nobody doubts that some microevolution occurs; e.g., creation-scientists themselves claim that all the races of humans come from one ancestral pair, Adam and Eve. But this does not logically support macroevolution; i.e. conceding tiny changes within a specie in no way shows how that specie can jump to become an altogether different one, no matter how many millions of intermediate tiny changes one proposes.

Johnson also mentions another argument used by evolutionists, the fact of observable "imperfections" in living creatures. For example, why should "terrestrial salamanders ... go through a larval stage entirely within the egg, with gills and fins that are never used, and then lose these features before they hatch?" This shows inheritance from some common ancestor, say evolutionists, not creation by God, who would presumably make each of the species perfect and distinct. Johnson says this merely substitutes speculation and rhetorical questions for empirical investigation.

Chap. 6. The Vertebrate Sequence. According to evolutionists, the sequence goes: fish to amphibians; amphibians to reptiles; reptiles to mammals and birds; and apes (one species of mammals) to humans. From fish to amphibians, for example, means that a fish species developed the ability to climb out of the water and move on land, while evolving amphibian features, such as the peculiar reproductive system of amphibians, more or less concurrently. What Johnson says, basically, is that there is little or no evidence that any of these transformations actually took place, although there are a few oddball cases that would fit the theory of evolution. He is willing to make some concessions to evolutionists, for example: "Possibly birds did somehow develop from dinosaur predecessors, with Archaeopteryx as a way station ...." (p. 79) He also lapses into some less-than-objective language: "Propagating the story [of human descent from apes] requires illustrations, museum exhibits, and television reenactments. It also requires a priesthood, in the form of thousands of researchers, teachers, and artists who provide realistic and imaginative detail and carry the story out to the general public." (p. 83)

Chap. 7. The Molecular Evidence. In pp. 86-89 the author reviews and summarizes the first half dozen chapters before discussing the impact of new scientific research into the molecules of organisms. Species and larger groups can be classified by analyzing and comparing the molecules inside the biological cell, but the results are controversial and the differences do not seem to correlate with differences in physical characteristics. "One thing the molecular evidence does confirm is that the groups of the natural order are isolated from each other, which is to say they are not connected by any surviving intermediate forms." (p. 92) Johnson concludes that the molecular evidence "fails to confirm either the reality of the common ancestors or the adequacy of the Darwinist mechanism." (p. 99)

Chap. 8. Prebiological Evolution. This chapter deals with how life first evolved from nonliving chemicals. The basic idea propounded by science is that the right chemicals and energy came together in a "prebiotic soup" and produced a living organism. This has never been confirmed experimentally. Johnson says that most scientists assume that life originated spontaneously and thereafter evolved to its present level of complexity, and have turned to philosophy or even computer simulation to support it. Johnson points out that when scientists describe what they actually find about life, rather than what it should be, they "practically all stress the appearance of design and purpose, the immense complexity of the simplest cell, and the apparent need for many complex components to work together to sustain life." (p. 110)

Chap. 9. The Rules of Science. In this chapter Johnson tries to show how scientists retain a monopoly on "truth," mainly by defining truth or reality as what science can show. Since the existence of God is beyond scientific proof, He does not exist. He says scientific naturalists do not intend to deceive but are "so steeped in naturalistic assumptions that they are blind to the arbitrary elements in their thinking." (p. 116) Very interesting discussion of Thomas Kuhn"s theory of "paradigm shifts," which define the agenda for scientific research by setting a certain world view, which lasts until it becomes clear that some problems will never be solved until a major shift in thinking occurs. (pp. 118-121)

Chap. 10. Darwinist Religion. In this chapter Johnson is the least objective and the most emotional in his arguments. He refers to science teachers who are considered "traitors" in the war between scientific organizations and creationism, and to "a posse of scientific heavyweights" organized to condemn a booklet by the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of evangelical scientists. "Darwinist evolution is an imaginative story about who we are and where we came from, which is to say it is a creation myth." (p. 131) It seems to me that Johnson implies a conspiratorial view of scientists in this chapter; they are scheming together to exclude God from society and culture. Basically they do this by turning evolution into a religion, something to be worshipped as ultimate truth.

Chap. 11. Darwinist Education. This chapter begins with a very interesting account of how an exhibition of Darwin's theory that opened in 1981 in the British Museum of Natural History was relatively open about the fact that Darwin's theory is "one possible explanation" of "why there are so many different kinds of living things." It even contained a poster with the statement, "Another view is that God created all living things perfect and unchanging." However, because of protest from many scientists this exhibit was changed to a more pro-Darwinist stance. Johnson summarizes the problems of Darwinism and points out that by omitting any reference to these, even the original exhibit "was more a coverup than a candid disclosure of Darwinism's difficulties." The fact that what doubts the exhibit did express were quashed by the science establishment shows that Darwinists do not want to trouble people's minds with the notion that Darwinism might not be true. The last part of this chapter describes the way California is encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools. Johnson finds the policy set out for California schools and textbook publishers contradictory, but believes that in the long run it may hurt Darwinists since more people will learn how little support Darwinism finds in the scientific evidence.

Chap. 12. Science and Pseudoscience. This final chapter tries to explain why Darwinism became more of a religion than a branch of true science. Johnson explains the teaching of Austrian Karl Popper about the difference between "science" and "pseudoscience," which basically emphasizes the falsifiability criterion for true science. Johnson concludes that Darwinists took the wrong view of science "because they were infected with the craving to be right." (p. 154)

Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future, Richard Bernstein (Knopf, 1994)(June 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Read Part I or 146 pages of this 346 page book, and didn't finish it because it (1) was due at library and (2) is interesting but repetitious. The author, a self-proclaimed liberal, has accumulated lots of anecdotes -- horror stories -- of political correctness run wild, some from the world of business but most from campuses. He is in favor of multiculturalism in the sense of appreciating cultural differences and respecting them, but he sees what is happening as a repressive political program designed to enforce a uniformity of belief about what is virtuous.

The author points out that multiculturalists tends to make a religion of "difference" and exalt race, ethnicity and sex as the sole components of identity. White males are all viewed as privileged, whether they come from wealthy, educated backgrounds or impoverished backgrounds. Women, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, etc., are all victims. And so on.

Divided By God, Noah Feldman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

For another review, click here.

According to the author of this book, a law professor at New York University, the major division in America is not about religious belief or affiliation, but rather about the role that religious belief should play in politics and government. The book is subtitled "America's Church-State Problem – And What We Should Do About It."

He starts by looking at constitutional history, finding evidence for the views of both those who assert, on the one hand, that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the Constitution only prohibits the federal government from preferring one denomination over another, and for the views of those who believe that America was founded as a secular nation with a strong and impregnable wall of separation between church and state. He says the most important idea that influenced the First Amendment was from John Locke: liberty of conscience – that the government had no authority to govern the individual's choice of religion. This was a revolutionary idea, embraced most clearly by Roger Williams in the founding of Rhode Island.

Feldman makes the point that "establishment" had negative connotations for everyone in colonial America (p. 42), but it meant different things to different people. The Congregationalists in New England were against an established church, but they did not think the establishment principle was violated by requiring citizens to pay taxes to support pastors as long as the minorities, such as the Quakers and Baptists, could either opt out or designate which sect received their tax moneys. The framers of the constitution "understood perfectly well that nonpreferential support for religion could and probably would be understood as an establishment of religion," but the First Amendment was drafted so that it would not apply to the states ("Congress shall make no law ...."). (p. 48) The First Amendment "guaranteed two things. The Establishment Clause guaranteed that the government would not compel anybody to support any religious teaching or worship with which he conscientiously disagreed. The Free Exercise Clause guaranteed that the government would not stop anybody from worshiping or practicing his religion as he chose." (p. 49)

Feldman thinks both modern secularists and values evangelicals misinterpret the First Amendment. The framers of the Constitution were not concerned with protecting the state against religious influence, nor were they particularly concerned with keeping religious symbolism out of the public sphere. (p. 51) On the other hand, evangelicals are wrong to think that therefore Christian values should infuse all the activities of the state, because the government simply lacks authority in religious matters. (pp. 51-52). An interesting example is Sunday mail delivery. In 1810 Congress created a national postal system which provided for seven-day mail delivery. In 1828 a proposal to end Sunday delivery failed, at least partly because that would involve the government in taking a stand on which day is the Sabbath! It was not until 1912 that Sunday mail delivery was stopped. (pp. 55-56)

In the early 1800s, public schools began, funded by taxes, and one of the main purposes of these schools was to inculcate moral values in the lower classes (wealthier people had private schools). This was the start of the American civil religion of "nonsectarianism," which claimed there were moral principles shared in common by all Christian sects (p. 61) but which was actually Protestant Christianity. Legislatures refused to fund Catholic schools, although accepting Catholic taxpayers' money and using it for public schools to which Catholics did not want to send their children. Reading the King James Bible in public schools became an important symbol.

Although defeated, the Blaine amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed a ban on states using tax moneys to support religious schools. This involved the federal government in two major areas previously thought not to be the federal government's business, local schools and, in the case of the Mormons, regulation of marriage. This proposed constitutional amendment was pushed by Republicans partly to embarrass Democrats, who were more dependent on largely Catholic workers, into appearing that they supported taxation for sectarian purposes. Although the Blaine amendment fell just short of the two-thirds vote necessary in the Senate, in time more than half the states enacted their own versions of the Blaine amendment. (p. 86) The antipathy toward governmental funding of religious schools did not carry over to religious charities, like hospitals and orphanages. (p. 97) But when it came to polygamy, the Mormon Church, which had nowhere near the political clout of the Catholics, ultimately yielded to the federal government's prohibition, and even changed their theology. Ironically, today's mainstream Mormons tend to be steadfast supporters of legislation defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (p. 108).

Chapter 3 details the rise of secularism, which he traces back to Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. This "cast grave doubt on the biblical account of the creation of life." (p. 111) What he calls "strong secularism" had the goal of fully replacing religion by reason in all areas, including belief, education, and politics. (pp. 114-115) Some public lecturers on secularism, especially Robert G. Ingersoll, became famous.

Chapter 4 discusses the origins of Fundamentalism and the Scopes "monkey trial," which was interpreted to be a victory for Clarence Darrow and science, but actually resulted in conviction of the high school science teacher, John Scopes, and popular rejection of "strong secularism," with the public following William Jennings Brian who championed the truth of the Bible.

Chapter 5 explains how the courts became involved, for the first time, in church-state disputes, starting with the Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to salute the American flag. Feldman says that the "extension of the Free Exercise Clause to the states ... fundamentally transformed the face of church-state relations in America. For the first time in its history, the Supreme Court assumed the responsibility – and the power – to draw the boundary between permitted government action and guaranteed religious liberty." (p. 153) This dispute was mixed with patriotism, since it was at the beginning of World War II, and with the plight of the Jews in Europe. The result was "legal secularism" (government was secular and neutral in religious matters) and "Judeo-Christian" values (replacing "nonsectarian" Christianity, in order to incorporate Jews into national life). He notes the importance of Will Herberg's book entitled Protestant – Catholic – Jew, which effectively elevated Judaism to become part of an acknowledged religious triumvirate, alongside Catholics and Protestants. Although the framers of the Constitution viewed the First Amendment as protecting individual conscience from government intrusion, not to protect minority religions from government, the courts came to turn it completely around, holding that government must protect religious minorities in schools and other official government activities from other religions. He says legal secularism succeeded because the courts led the way, seeing for the first time one of their goals as protecting the rights of vulnerable minorities. (pp. 182-183)

Legal secularism was not the last word, however, in the ongoing dispute over religion and government. Beginning in the early 1970's, evangelicalism began to make an impact. This was much more, says Feldman, than the old fundamentalism repackaged. Instead of "sporadic local outpourings of the spirit inspired by camp revivals or the visits of itinerant inspirational preachers, modern evangelicals can boast a highly developed network of organized churches that deliver a wide range of religious and social services." (p. 189) This evangelicalism was fueled by the sexual revolution and the rise of the counterculture in the late 1960s and early ?70s. It was symbolized by the election of Jimmy Carter, the first modern president to speak openly about being born again in Christ. Jerry Falwell's founding of the "Moral Majority" emphasized the moral worth of the evangelical position, not its religious truth. (p. 192) This enabled evangelical Protestants to unite with Roman Catholics, spurred on by the Supreme Court's decision on abortion. This "cautious alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants ... fundamentally transformed the public conversation about religion and government in America." (p. 197) The intellectual leader of this new values evangelicalism was Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square, a Lutheran pastor who converted to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. (pp. 197-199)

The election of Ronald Reagan resulted in a steady stream of conservative judicial appointments, which resulted in slowly changing the jurisprudence surrounding church-state relations, although the Supreme Court, thanks to new appointees Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Sandra Day O'Connor, managed to preserve Roe v. Wade on the basis of precedent. (p. 201) The author shows how Justice O'Connor became the key to the Supreme Court's opinion in this area. Her position, usually as the swing vote in 5-4 decisions, came to be embraced as the law of the land in subsequent cases. "The appeal of Justice O'Connor's approach lay in its reformulation of legal secularism's doctrine of government neutrality toward religion in terms of individual equality. ... The goal of government in its engagement with religion should not be secularism; it should be equality." (pp. 203-204) This led to some pretty fine hair-splitting: e.g., the creche displayed on public property in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was constitutionally permissible, but the creche in the courthouse in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was not.

By making equality the core Establishment Clause value, evangelicals basically turned the tables on the legal secularists, which had depicted itself as protecting religious minorities, like Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses. Evangelicals started describing themselves as minorities, discriminated against by powerful government institutions that were refusing to treat them equally when it came to government support. Thus, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the university's student activities fund, collected from mandatory student contributions, were distributed to all except religious organizations. Professor Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago Law School, relied on the "viewpoint discrimination" doctrine of free-speech law to argue, successfully, that religious organizations should not be discriminated against in the distribution of public funds. "McConnell had briliantly turned the Establishment Clause on its head. ... McConnell had convinced the Supreme Court to adopt a position almost squarely the opposite of the original intent of the Establishment Clause." (p. 209) This success led to a subsequent decision upholding school voucher programs.

Feldman sums up this chapter by saying that the current situation is a stalemate, resulting from a series of contradictions. Victories by legal secularists have largely removed religion from public spaces, while successful efforts by values evangelicals have broken down the once-strong barriers between the state and organized religion. Legal secularists can claim victories in decisions on cultural issues (racial, ethnic and sexual diversity mandates; gay rights and same-sex marriage) but evangelicals have been winning the war over institutions and economics (government funding of some religious activities, opposition to redistributive economic and social policies, such as health care reform).

In Chapter 7, Feldman sums up: legal secularism maintains that religion must be removed from the public realm so that all can participate on equal terms, while values evangelicalism insists that only shared values, derived from religion, can sustain a national community. (p. 220) He finds both of these positions wanting. Legal secularism, requiring political discourse to be secular, systematically excludes from the political conversation all citizens who base their political choices on deeply held religious beliefs. For example:

Asked why he thinks all people are equal, a legal secularist is likely to respond that it is just a basic commitment that he holds. His answer, then, may not differ greatly from that of the believer who holds that God created all people equal. Both the secular and religious arguments depend upon the foundations of particular belief systems. Why, then, should religious beliefs be excluded from the debate while secular beliefs are allowed to remain?

(p. 225). He says, "Aspiring to inclusiveness, legal secularism instead generates exclusion of citizens who draw heavily on their religion for political guidance." (p. 227)

However, values evangelicals is not the answer, says Feldman, because "the inclusive promise of values evangelicalism founders on the rock of shared values." He says the actual disagreement between adherents of various religious traditions is so great that "a preference for religion generally turns out to be self-contradictory." (p. 229) In other words, values evangelicals stress what Christians have in common with other religions in order to press their common-values approach, but because there really are deep and unbridgeable differences between faiths (e.g., the divinity of Christ), they end up, ironically, espousing in public life the kind of relativism that they profess to abhor. He uses the example of tuition vouchers as a way of solving this problem, but says that if fully implemented, a voucher approach would allow support of teachings that values evangelicals would certainly reject as immoral and unacceptable. (pp. 231-232) For example, what about vouchers to attend a school teaching racial hatred?

In chapter 8 Feldman reveals his answer to America's church-state problem. In a nutshell, he advocates a strong emphasis on religious liberty and an equally strong emphasis on institutional separation of church and state. He says this will avoid the extreme positions of countries like France, which is legally a secular nation, and many Muslim countries, where there is no real separation between religion and government. On a practical level, this will mean "greater latitude for public religious discourse and religious symbolism, and at the same time ... a stricter ban on state funding of religious institutions and activities." (p. 237) Rather than the Lemon test that all state action must have a secular purpose, he would substitute "two guiding rules that historically lay at the core of our church-state experiment before either legal secularism or values evangelicalism came on the scene: the state may neither coerce anyone in matters of religion, nor expend its resources so as to support religious institutions and practices." In other words, "no coercion and no money." (p. 237)

My problem with this is that it ignores the development of distributive justice in our country, sometimes called the welfare state. It is one thing to say "no money" for religious activities when tax money was largely collected for the police and fire departments and other institutions of government, and the people expected to provide out of their own pockets to support non-governmental activities. It is quite another thing when a substantial proportion of tax money is used to "give back" in order to achieve distributive justice; for example, in student loans or grants to help students get an education. Shouldn't a student be able to obtain this kind of government financial help whether he or she goes to a secular school or a religious school or even a seminary? For another example, was Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, in which the university's student activities fund, collected from mandatory student contributions, were distributed to all except religious organizations, wrongly decided by the Supreme Court? It would seem so under Feldman's solution, yet it seems so self-evidently unfair to collect equal amounts of money from X number of students and turn around and redistribute that money to, say, 95% of those students, leaving out only those who join student organizations that are religious in nature.

Notwithstanding that objection, this is a really good book, well-researched, clearly written, and incredibly fair to both sides. I learned a lot from it and will highly recommend it.

Divine Yes, The, E. Stanley Jones (Abingdon Press, 1976)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is the great Methodist missionary's last book, written by him but arranged and edited by his daughter and her husband after Jones suffered a major stroke.

As one who has read many of his books, I can say that this one has many of the flaws of his other writings, with its sweeping generalizations, pungent quips, and hackneyed expressions, but it has few if any new ideas. In it he comes across as mildly boastful, though he claims that in his nearly 90 years of service he "had endeavored to be a faithful and humble witness to Christ in every situation." (p. 30) He does have an enormous ego, but on the other hand, he was also blessed with many gifts, which he used for a long, remarkable ministry.

His stroke occurred just after he finished his tenth evangelistic tour of Japan, during which he spoke 154 times in 45 cities, resulting in more than six thousand Japanese signing cards making a decision for Christ. (p. 27). Just a few months before he had finished writing his 28th book, The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person. After his evangelistic tour in Japan, he wrote that he "looked forward to a gentle descent into my nineties and perhaps beyond with nothing but gratitude for what God has wrought ...." (p. 30)

Actually, I did not finish reading the book. Although his daughter and son-in-law obviously tried to pull together a coherent summing-up of Jones's ideas, there are so many loose ends, so many broken threads of logic, so many murky passages, that I just gave up on it. I would not recommend this book.

Titles beginning with the letter "E"

Emerging Order, The, Jeremy Rifkin, with Ted Howard (Putname's, 1979) (read June 1980)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

What happens when the irresistible force (liberal ethos of unlimited growth) meets the immoveable object (finite nature of earth as a habitat)? The solution posited by this book is a "second Protestant reformation," based on a new covenant of stewardship, spearheaded by the two major spiritual forces today, charismatic and evangelical Christians.

Modern industrial society is built on the liberal ethos of unlimited material growth; the new age of scarcity and economic contraction has doomed liberalism. Up til now, there was enough economic growth to give everyone more and more - i.e., the pie was getting bigger, so each slice was bigger. But now growth is stopping (see ch. 3) and therefore painful decisions of redistribution are needed.

The author traces the "age of materialism" back to Calvin (p. 19), for whom hard work and success demonstrated the person's "election;" he also discusses Francis Bacon, who first saw science as a way to control nature; John Locke, who developed the concept of society based on self-interest and property rights; and Adam Smith, who created an economic order based on self-interest.

But the modern notion of "progress" contradicts the second law of thermodynamics - that matter and energy are always changing from usable to non-usable forms, or from low entropy to high entropy. The result: pollution (see pp. 69-75).

The goal is the ideal "steady state,"which will require change in focus from materialism to spiritualism. Charismatics and evangelicals offer the best prospect of that happening. See ch. 6, 7, on evangelical history.

There are many good insights in this book. The main problem I had with it is that the author seems to treat Christianity merely as a sociological and psychological force. He discusses Christian doctrines as if they were not merely shaped by, but were the product of historical situations. It sounds like he's saying, "There is a crisis upon us, we need to change from materialism to spiritualism, so Christians will need to change their doctrines and bring about a new reformation to save us."

He confuses "evangelism" with "evangelicalism" (p. 170); consistently spells "prophecy" with an "s"; seems confused as to what "speaking in tongues" really is (p. 227); and in general sounds like an outsider who think he's "figured out" Christianity.

Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly (Persea Books, 1983, paperback reprint; orig. pub. 1938) (read 2/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A strange book, which I read because it was recommended for aspiring novelists. Ostensibly it's a book by a literary critic on the subject of how to write a book that will last ten years. Much of the book is about style rather than content. He contrasts two styles: (1) "the realist, or vernacular, the style of rebels, journalists, common sense-addicts and unromantic observers of human destiny", and (2) the "Mandarin," which is "the artificial style of men of letters or of those in authority who make letters their spare time occupation". (p. 45) Politically, the author is left-wing, and he ties the vernacular style to left-wing writers and the Mandarin style to rightwingers. Basically he seems to be saying that neither style is correct or better; each has its good and bad points, and that styles come and go; neither style guarantees success or permanency.

The last part of the book is autobiographical, all about the author's abusive education in English schools including Eton. Much of this I didn't understand.

Titles beginning with the letter "F"

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, Kenneth R. Miller (Cliff St. Books, HarperCollins, 1999) (read winter 2012)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

See separate long review. For other reviews of books about evolution, see Darwin on Trial, Phillip E. Johnson; Language of Science and Faith, The, Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins

Flying Scotsman, The, Sally Magnuson (Quartet Books, 1981) (paperback) (read 1982)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Biography of athlete-missionary Eric Liddell, whose story was told in the movie "Chariots of Fire." Not especially well written, but easy to read and I found it very inspirational. Liddell was one of God's real saints, with a deep compassion for people, a consistent holy life, a notable sense of humor, and of course, great athletic ability. After an outstanding University running career, he trained for the 100 meter dash in the 1924 Olympics, only to find that that event was to be held on Sunday. Refusing to run on Sunday on biblical principles, Eric ran instead in the 400 meter event and won the gold medal in a spectacular race, setting a new world record of 47.6 seconds. A year later he left for China to serve as a missionary, where he was a faithful but apparently not particularly successful teacher. He died in a Japanese internment camp at the age of 43, loved and mourned by all. His last words were, "... it's complete surrender."

Full Circle, David R. Mains (Word Books, 1971) (read April, 1973)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Excellent account of Circle Church, an experimental evangelical church in Chicago. The church grew out of the disillusionment of the author and some of his friends concerning the typical evangelical church.

The heart of the book seems to be in chapter 3, "Why do we have church anyway?" Mains insists that we must first answer this question, and arrive at a basic philosophy of the local church, before we should go on to work out the methodology of the church. He says the primary reason for a church (i.e., a congregation, not a church building) is for "valid spiritual interaction," for people who are believers to interact with each other about their common faith, and to interact with God together. This interaction consists of the church speaking to God through corporate worship and prayer, and God speaking to, and through, the local church by means of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

For a definition of "worship" see pp. 52 et seq. For a good discussion of gifts of the Spirit, see pp. 59 et seq. For a helpful diagram showing how a local church functions, see pp. 69-70.

Circle Church has two hour-long services on Sunday morning. The first, at 9:30, is The Service of Worship and Instruction (see summary paragraph on p. 97), and the second, at 10:45, is The Service of Interaction (mainly discussion groups, including important Pastor's Class where sermon is discussed). Church government is discussed in chapter 8.

Future Shock, Alvin Toffler (Random House, 1970; Bantam Books, 1971, paper) (read March 1973)

The thesis of this book is simple: the world around us is changing so fast, primarily through technology, that we human beings are finding it more and more difficult to adjust to the changes, and this produces "future shock," which the author calls a disease.

Well-written and very readable. Thoroughly documented, although still full of conjecture and to some extent based on doubtful premises.

Toffler is not so much concerned with the fact that life is changing as with the accelerating rate of change, which he says has as many consequences as the content of change. His major points include:

    (1) the "death of permanence" - nothing is permanent anymore;

    (2) the transience of life in nearly all aspects today - the "throw-away society." Man's relationships with things as well as with people are becoming more and more brief and fleeting; (see pp. 73. 93. 122)

    (3) organizations are bureaucracies are breaking down, not becoming more and more stifling (pp. 126, 136, 142);

    (4) information turnover: we are using up more ideas and images more and more rapidly (see p. 158 re: changes in child-raising information);

    (5) "novelty," or the large percentage of new things being uncovered or introduced into society, making everyone feel like a stranger; nothing's familiar any more;

    (6) ethical questions about birth technology (p. 199);

    (7) diversity and "overchoice" (p. 263).

See also Chap. 11 - "Fractured Family" (p. 238).

See my note on p. 237 re: change to "psyche" economy.

Titles beginning with the letter "G"
Gates of November, The: Chronicles of the Slepak Family, Chaim Potok (Knopf, 1996) (read summer and fall, 1997) 
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True story of a Russian Jewish family, the Slepaks, during the twentieth century. The father, Solomon Slepak, was a dedicated Communist who rose very high in the ranks of the Communist Party and never seemed to suffer for being Jewish. Early in his life he emigrated to the United States but his sympathy for workers and his revolutionary consciousness only grew stronger there and he made the decision to return to Russia and join the revolution. He remained steadfast in his belief that Communism was the true faith all his life, even after the disclosures about Stalin's crimes.

The son, Volodya Slepak, was raised as a Communist and became a successful scientist and engineer, but with his wife Masha he became disillusioned and decided to leave what was then the Soviet Union. It proved impossible, of course, since he knew "state secrets" and would not be allowed to leave. So Volodya and Masha because "refuseniks"; they participated in one of the first public demonstrations against Communism and Volodya became a marked man, fired from his job and succeeding jobs he managed to get, and ultimately sentenced to five years exile in Siberia for hanging a protest banner from their balcony. His wife joined him there, but kept returning to Moscow so she could keep their residency permit; otherwise they would not be allowed to live in Moscow on their return.

Ultimately, after much suffering, and after Masha's mother was allowed to emigrate to Israel, along with both of their sons, Volodya completed his sentence and returned with Masha to Moscow. But they continued to participate in refusenik activities, became internationally known, and were finally allowed to leave.

Chaim Potok, who obviously empathizes with the younger Slepak family, tells the story beautifully and it reads, especially in parts, like a novel. Well worth reading.

George MacDonald: An Anthology, C.S. Lewis (Macmillan, 1978) (read 1981-82)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

365 paragraphs from the works of George MacDonald, assembled by C.S. Lewis.

I found some of them intriguing, insightful or provocative, but many others either obscure or unintelligible, which undoubtedly says more about me than either MacDonald or Lewis!

Gifts of the Jews, The, Thomas Cahill (Doubleday imprint, paper, 1998) (read winter 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

For another review of this book, click here.

Subtitled "How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels," this is a wonderfully readable summary of the Old Testament and how its central story – the history of the Jewish people – has had such a deep impact on all of modern life.

The Jews invented western culture, says Cahill. Before the Jews, "reality seemed to be a great circle, closed and predictable in its revolutions." (p. 8) It all started when "Avram" heard a mysterious voice, telling him to leave his home and his clan and go to an unknown destination. And "Avram went" – "two of the boldest words in all literature. They signal a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the long evolution of culture and sensibility. Out of Sumer, civilized repository of the predictable, comes a man who does not know where he is going but goes forth into the unknown wilderness under the prompting of his god." (p. 63) What would those who followed all the other ancient religions and philosophies have said about Avram? That he was crazy. (pp. 63-64)

On deliverance from Egypt: "This story of deliverance is the central event of the Hebrew scriptures. In retrospect, we can see that all the wanderings of the forefathers and foremothers and their growing intimacy with God have led up to this moment; and looking down the ages from this shore, we can see that everything that happens subsequently will be referred back to this moment of astonished triumph." (p. 121)

On the historicity of the Bible: see pp. 126-129.

"There is no document in all the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. Of course, there are ethical guidelines from other cultures. But these are always offered in a legal framework (if you do that, then this will be the consequence) or as worldly-wise advice (if you want to lead a happy life, you will be sure to do such-and-such and avoid so-and-so). Here for the first – and, I think, the last – time, human beings are offered a code without justification." (p. 140)

On the Sabbath: "No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation)." (p. 144)

On God's requirement of justice: The message of Amos. (p. 214)

Impact of the exile: the beginning of individualism. Citing Jeremiah's aphorism that "Everyone who eats unripe grapes will have his own teeth set on edge," Cahill says this marks a change in focus from the tribe to the individual. "... the idea of the individual – the single spirit – begins to take hold, an idea that makes its way with great difficulty into this world of groups, tribes, and nations, in which all identity and validation comes only from solidarity with a larger entity." (p. 230)

The story of the Shulamite and her lover in Song of Solomon: "Throughout the Bible there have been innumerable marriages and sexual relationships, but here for the first time is a reciprocal relationship – a relationship ?face to face,' with much of the mystery, drama, power, and pleasure of Israel's face-to-face relationship with God." (p. 233)

The story of Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth: This is another example of "face-to-face reciprocity," which Cahill says "has both pain and exaltation and the suggestion that, behind the scenes, God is at work, bringing his purposes to fulfillment." (p. 236).

Summary of Old Testament on pp. 237-241. Abram "did something no one had ever done before him: he put faith in this Voice and upended his whole life, becoming in the process a new man with a new name and an individual destiny, a destiny that was only his, a personal vocation, not something written in the stars – something no one before him had ever imagined possible." Moses, like Abraham, heard a Voice and was willing to put his trust in it. Following the Voice, making individual choices, leads to time becoming real; a real future is possible. Because all outcomes have not been predetermined, the present is full of adventure, and when the present is past, that creates history. Thus life is not like the movement of a wheel, as all other societies had imagined; it is not cyclical, coming around again and again. Rather, each moment is unique and unrepeatable; life is a process, it is going somewhere, and because it is not preordained, individuals are free to imagine progress.

Cahill says most of our best words – new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews. (p. 241)

Cahill's argument for faith in God: pp. 250-252.

This is really a great book. The author is obviously a believer but just as obviously not a conservative or orthodox believer in many ways, such as his view of scripture. But his insights are remarkable, and strike me as true. This would be a great book to give to unbelievers, especially unbelieving Jews. It doesn't go into the implications of Jewish prophecies about a Messiah, or suggest anywhere that the Jewish religion is incomplete without Christianity. But I learned a lot from it.

God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow (Norton, 1978)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is an incredible book - an eminent scientist, acknowledging himself an agnostic, says flatly, "Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy." (p. 14)

He notes and is intrigued by the emotional and negative reaction of scientists as the evidence in support of the expanding universe and the "Big Bang" theory began to pile up. The older theory, which scientists preferred, is the "Steady State" theory, which holds that the universe had no beginning and is eternal. This is no longer held by any serious scientists. (pp. 14-16)

He quotes Einstein and other scientific minds as making statements with "a strange ring of feeling and emotion," which he attributes to the fact that scientists "cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained." (p. 113)

The book also contains mini-biographies of Einstein and another scientist, Edwin Hubble, seven pages of galaxies and stars in color, many photographs of scientists, telescopes, etc., an Epilogue outlining the proof that the universe is not only expanding and began at a specific point in time, but also that it is not cyclical; that is, it will not expand to a certain point, contract, explode and begin all over again. It also has a fascinating Supplement entitled "The First Billion Years," containing such provocative statements as "After the first three minutes, nothing much happened for the next million years." (p. 129)

The last chapter in the book, just before the Epilogue and the Supplement, is entitled "The Religion of Science," and concludes as follows:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

Good News About Injustice, Gary Haugen (Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) (read winter-spring 2011)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The author, founder of the International Justice Mission, says that in 1994 he was a "suburban American lawyer who rode a bus to work during the week and taught sixth-grade Sunday School on the weekend." He was awakened to the pervasiveness of injustice in the world by his post-law school experiences as a trial attorney in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which culminated in his appointment as director of the U.N. genocide investigation in Ruwanda, where in the space of about six weeks in 1994 nearly one million women and children had been hacked to death.

So, what could he, as a Christian, do about this atrocity? It was too late to stop the killing, and he couldn't bring the dead back to life, but he cites Scripture to show that God cares about bringing those who perpetrate violence to justice. (pp. 46-50) As he notes, "In any case, seeking justice is a straightforward command of God for his people and part of Christ's prayer that his Father's will be done ?on earth as it is in heaven.' (Matthew 6:10)." (p. 47)

This book was an eye-opener for me. It seems strange, in retrospect, that although I am a lawyer, I never thought much about the need for justice among the oppressed of the world (as distinguished from justice in individual cases). And it also seems strange that as a Christian, I never really considered what the Bible says about justice, especially as a mission priority. This book is filled with references and quotes from the Bible about justice and injustice. Haugen concludes that, with the possible exception of idolatry, the sin that makes God the most angry is injustice. (p. 101)

The book starts by analyzing injustice, which "always involves the abuse of power." (Preface by John Stott). Haugen says that most of the time injustice has two components, violence and deception, although sometimes just one or the other is present. (p. 140) He reminds us that God's method of dealing with injustice, like his method of doing almost everything in the world, is to use people. But we are not alone in the battle against injustice; God promises that He will not call us to a ministry that He will not empower. (p. 120).

Part of the problem for anyone who wants to work for justice is that the needs just seem overwhelming. We can only take in so many reports of atrocities without experiencing "compassion fatigue" and giving in to despair. What we have to do, says Haugen, is cultivate a "compassionate awareness," (p. 52 et seq.) although just how to do that is a bit unclear to me.

He also reminds us that there are powerful reasons why Christians do not need to despair over the world's injustice. For example, remember the cross – we do not have a God like the Buddha, serene, inscrutable, above-it-all, but rather God is revealed in Christ crucified, the God who himself suffers and enters into our pain. (p. 130, quoting John Stott) And ultimately, we have the hope of eternity – this world is not all there is; God is going to bring about justice and He is going to comfort and help the victims of injustice ... but it may not be in this life. (p. 132, et seq.)

This book really made me think about the role of the police and law enforcement. On the one hand, the police are the "most pervasive criminal presence in the lives of the global poor," (p. 58), either because they are poorly trained, unmotivated, and inept, or because they are actively involved in the oppression of victims. On the other hand, Romans 13 says we are to submit to those in authority. Haugen interprets this to mean that "We are to render to them their due, pray for them and submit to their authority as they exercise it in accordance with God's will." (p. 148)

What we really need in order to fight global injustice, says the author, is hope, and hope is grounded, for Christians, in what God's word reveals about his character. He says there are "four solid truths" about God's character that will give us hope: God loves justice and hates injustice; God has compassion for those who suffer injustice; God judges and condemns those who perpetrate injustice; and God wants those who suffer injustice to be rescued/delivered. (p. 83) As a case study in injustice, he cites the Old Testament story of King David and the prophet Nathan in 2 Sam. 12:1-4.

Haugen has some practical things to say about how Christians can be involved in the fight against injustice. He says we need to intervene for the victims, and he defines intervention as "the process by which the isolation of the weaker individual is overcome and legitimate power is introduced on the side of the weaker brother or sister." (p. 171) Intervention has four aspects or objectives:

      (1) victim rescue, bringing victims of injustice "out of places of great darkness and harm to places of safety." (p. 173)

      (2) perpetrator accountability, which is not the same as vengeance; rather, it provides "a healthy deterrent for other men and women tempted to commit the same crimes." (p. 178)

      (3) victim aftercare, which helps to prevent victims of injustice from being victimized again (for example, by teaching girls a trade so they can earn a living in some other way than prostitution) (p. 179); and

      (4) structural transformation, which helps alleviate the conditions that lead to injustice; for example, through such means as microcredit lending, police training, and property rights seminars. (pp. 184-185)

In the final chapter, entitled "The Body of Christ in Action," the author sketches the roles that various categories of Christians can play in the fight against injustice. Missionaries, even short-term missionaries, should develop eyes to see and ears to hear about injustice, and tell the story to those who can provide help and rescue (pp. 223-224). Christian professionals, including not only lawyers and investigators (pp. 226-227), but also international business professionals (pp. 228-229), Christian scholars, researchers and field workers (pp 224-226), and even writers, producers, artists and media professionals, can use their special communication skills to "tell the story" and bring hope to many (pp. 229-231). Finally, of course, ordinary Christians, can promote justice by engaging in the "three E's" – educate, which he says will change the political landscape and help raise the money needed (p. 232); explore the opportunities to help, especially through the International Justice Mission (p. 233); and engage in the battle (pp. 233-236), through prayer and active involvement in IJM.

This is a wonderful, much-needed book. It is well-written, with a logical analysis of the problem of injustice. It is dramatic but does not manipulate the emotions. I think it should be read by every Christian.

Great Code, The, Northrop Frye (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981) (read 1991-92)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

See also Frye's Words with Power: Being a Second Study of The Bible and Literature.

Subtitled "The Bible and Literature," this is a remarkably insightful book from a scholar at the University of Toronto. His goal is to study the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic, examining the imagery and narrative in the Bible and showing how it forms a unified structure, a complete "mythological universe," which has provided the framework for Western literature, at least until the eighteenth century. His emphasis is on the Bible as an "imaginative influence" on our literature and our culture. He says the structure of the Bible is unique; "no other book in the world, to my knowledge, has a structure even remotely like that of the Christian Bible." (p. 80)

Frye refers to three modes of writing that have occurred historically:

1. Hieroglyphic or poetic. This means basically that words are used as signs or metaphors; words themselves have power. All words are concrete; there are no verbal abstractions. This type of writing is found in Greek literature before Plato, in pre-biblical cultures of the Near East, and in much of the Old Testament. Example: Jephthah's vow, that cannot be broken.

2. Hieratic or allegorical. Words are primarily the outward expression of inner thoughts or ideas. This leads to abstraction and logic and syllogistic reasoning. It also involves metonymic language, which Frye says "is, or tends to become, analogical language, a verbal imitation of a reality beyond itself that can be conveyed most directly by words."

2. Demotic or descriptive. This approach "treats language as primarily descriptive of an objective natural order." The growth of science on a basis of inductive observation spurred the change to demotic language. Because reality is based on what can be perceived by the senses, God does not exist in this phase of language.

The Bible doesn't comfortably fit within any of these three phases of language, according to Frye, but rather is really a fourth form of expression, which he calls "kerygma" or proclamation. Kerygma is a mode of rhetoric, and a vehicle of revelation.

In the chapter entitled Myth I, Frye says the Bible is a myth in a "secondary sense" -- and he says: "Mythical, in this secondary sense, therefore means the opposite of 'not really true': it means being charged with a special seriousness and importance." He appears to have a profound skepticism as to whether the Bible is historically true or accurate, and he regards such questions as irrelevant and of no importance.

The chapter entitled Typology I describes "types" and "antitypes". I don't understand it completely, by a "type" is apparently a foreshadowing of something coming, and an "antitype" is the realized form of what was foreshadowed. Thus Adam is a type of Christ, and Christ is the antitype of Adam. Frye is interested in typology "as a mode of thought and as a figure of speech," not as having doctrinal value.

Frye describes a sequence of seven main phases in the Bible: creation, revolution or exodus (Israel in Egypt), law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, and apocalypse. He says each phase is a type of the one following it and an antitype of the one preceding it. (p. 106)

He notes a feature of the Bible which he says is of great importance in considering its "revolutionary aspect" -- its strong emphasis on "metaphors of the ear as compared with those of the eye." (p. 116) For example, many passages record individuals or groups hearing God speak, but "any suggestion that God has been seen is hedged about with expurgation and other forms of editorial anxiety." He says the words of Christ are recorded with great care, not not his physical appearance. Cf. his second and final coming, when "every eye shall see him." This is revolutionary because "[t]he word listened to and acted upon is the starting point of a course of action: the visible object brings one to a respectful halt in front of it." (p. 117) He ties this in with the Bible's hatred of idolatry, which is based on "a revolutionary impatience with a passive attitude toward nature and the gods assumed to be dominating it." (p. 118)

Frye says the idea of the "saving remnant" is a "curiously pervasive theme in the Bible." (p. 119)

Great Teachers, Houston Peterson, Ed. (Random House, Vintage Books, 1946)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a collection of reminiscences by students of "great" teachers, some of whom are well-known (James Mill, Woodrow Wilson, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and some of whom I had never heard of.

Most of these teachers taught in the last century (or earlier) and thus teaching conditions and even students were much different. The various accounts are, for the most part, interesting, but not all instructive as to their methods or even their personalities. Most are adulatory, but the one on Woodrow Wilson is sharply critical.

Grief Observed, A, C. S. Lewis (Faber Paperbacks, 1961) (read Sept. 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Years ago I read this brief, profound, unsettling book by C. S. Lewis, and now I have reread it several times. It is a record of how Lewis experienced and dealt with the grief that accompanied and followed his wife's death of cancer.

Lewis says grief feels like fear, or suspense, or waiting: "just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness." (p. 29)

Although, like the author of Ecclesiastes, Lewis eventually finds a sort of peace with God about his wife's death, it does not come easy. He asks hard questions, very hard questions, like, "What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'?" He cites the false hopes that were raised by X-rays, strange remissions, and "one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle." He even points to Christ's last words on the cross, which "may have a perfectly clear meaning" (that God the Father had really forsaken him?). (pp. 26-27)

Lewis is sometimes considered the "patron saint of evangelicals," but he was no evangelical himself (in the conventional American sense). He believed in praying for the dead (p. 21), in Christians suffering in Purgatory after death (p. 41), and he was a smoker (p. 29) who especially liked cigars (p. 23) and frequented pubs. (p. 13)

Some nuggets: "Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it." (p. 49)

"Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never even become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?" (p. 51)

The one notion in this book that really bothered me was Lewis' willingness to entertain the idea – maybe even to believe it – that the suffering of Christians does not end at death. See especially pp. 24-25 and p. 35: "I never believed before – I thought it immensely improbable – that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat. It would be wishful thinking with a vengeance to take up that belief now."

But although Lewis alludes to Scripture at some points in the book, on this question he does not discuss what Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross ("Today you will be with me in Paradise") nor the comforting promises in the book of Revelation, such as this announcement about life in the new Jerusalem: "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." Rev. 21:3-4 (NIV).

C. S. Lewis may be revered among evangelicals, but his books are not divinely inspired. At least, not completely. But they are always worth reading, and this little gem is no exception.

Guide to Church Property Law, A, Lloyd J. Lunceford, General Editor (Reformation Press, paper, 2006) (read Aug. 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Theological, Constitutional and Practical Considerations," this is a reference book on church property law for lay people. It discusses only hierarchical and semi-hierarchical churches, not purely congregational churches. In addition to the theological material, which seems sound to me, there is a chapter on general constitutional principles that govern church property law and specific chapters on three denominations, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalean.

The fundamental constitutional principle is that civil courts are not allowed to interpret church doctrine in settling property disputes. They may defer to a religious denomination's own procedures for deciding such disputes, or they may adopt a "neutral principles" approach, applying the state's trust, property, and corporations law.

While the book obviously slants toward allowing local congregations to keep church property if they separate from the denomination, it points out that courts frequently decide the other way, and it counsels negotiation and settlement wherever possible.

The chapter on "Sample Case Law From Selected State Courts" cites my A.L.R. article, 52 A.L.R.3d 324 (1973). (pp. 37, 235)

Titles beginning with the letter "H"

Habits of the Heart, Robert N. Bellah et al. (U. of Cal. Press, 1985) (read 8/88)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Individualism and Commitment in American Life, this is a sociological examination of American attitudes toward values and lifestyles. In a way it is a commentary on Tocqueville's early survey on American life. It points out that many people really have no reason for their values; they do what "feels" right. They deplore excessive individualism because it precludes commitment and therefore community. Good discussion of role of religion.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf 2009) (read spring 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a remarkable, sobering book. The authors, a husband-and-wife team of journalists for the New York Times, investigated and clearly describe in this book the myriad ways in which women and girls are routinely humiliated, beaten, raped, and enslaved in many parts of the world.

Chapter 1, entitled "Emancipating Twenty-First-Century Slaves," is about sex trafficking, which they say is truly modern day slavery. They conservatively estimate that there are three million women and girls worldwide enslaved in the sex trade. These are not voluntary prostitutes, or even those coerced to sell sex by economic necessity, but are those who have been forced, through rape, threats, and violence, to engage in sex with customers. (pp. 9-10)

They note that, paradoxically, the countries with the most straitlaced and sexually conservative societies, such as India, Pakistan, and Iran, have disproportionately large numbers of forced prostitutes. (p. 6)

The authors do not reveal their own religious commitment, if any, but they are impressed with some Christian missions and relief organizations. In telling the story of Sunitha Krishnan, a tiny Indian woman who fights against sex trafficking. They write,

Sunitha worked closely with a Catholic missionary, Brother Joe Vetticatil. He has died, but a picture of him hangs in her office, and his faith left a powerful impression on her. "I'm a staunch Hindu," she says, "though the way of Christ inspires me." (p. 58)

Even what appear to be purely secular works are sometimes fueled by Christians. For example, a 23-year-old American woman, Harper McConnell, who has a critical role in Heal Africa, a large hospital in the Congo, and who started a school for children awaiting treatment and a skills-training program for women awaiting surgery, was sent there by her church in Minnesota. (p. 90)

Kristof and WuDunn point out that in the poorest countries of Africa the diplomats, UN staff, and air organizations are mostly in the big cities, but in the remote villages and towns where help is needed most, "the people you almost inevitably encounter are the missionary doctors and church-sponsored aid workers." (p. 142) They particularly note the importance of Pentecostals, because Pentecostal churches typically encourage all members to speak up and take leadership positions. "Just as important, Pentecostalism and other conservative evangelical denominations discourage drinking and adultery, and these are both practices that have caused tremendous hardship to African women in particular." (p. 143) Evangelicals like Franklin Graham, Senator Sam Brownback, and Rick Warren also come in for praise for their efforts on issues like AIDS, sex trafficking, and poverty.

The authors have some strong negative feelings about conservative Christians on one issue, however: family planning, including the use of condoms and, less directly, abortion. What they call the "God Gulf" in American foreign policy is the "gag rule" that bars the use of American funds to any group that counsels women about abortion options. A particular target of American conservatives has been the UNFPA (United Nations Family Planning Agency?) that, according to this book, has effectively reduced abortion rates, even in China, but also made a "disgraceful mistake in 1983" by awarding its Population Award gold medal to the head of the Chinese family planning program who presided over a brutal family planning crackdown involving forced abortions. (pp. 132-133)

Their main point in criticizing pro-life conservatives is that some of their positions in reproductive health have actually hurt those whom they are trying to help and actually result in more abortions. An obvious example is the free distribution of condoms. Does it encourage promiscuous sex? Probably to some extent – the authors say "there may be an element of truth to that." Does is reduce the number of abortions, and maternal deaths? Absolutely – the authors say "condoms unquestionably also save lives." (p. 136)

As to abstinence-only programs, the authors say the evidence suggests that "they slightly delay the debut of sexual activity," but after that delay, "kids are less likely to use contraception. ... the result is more pregnancies, more abortions, more sexually transmitted diseaes, and more HIV." (p. 137). After describing a rebellious, pretty, flirtatious 14-year-old South African girl named Thabang, they write, "There's no question that the local schools should encourage abstinence for girls like Thabang. But those programs shouldn't stop there. They should explain that condoms can dramatically reduce the risk of HIV transmission, and they should demonstrate how to use condoms properly." (p. 140) Isn't that like saying to a 14-year-old, "You can't drive the car yet, but the keys are on the counter and I'll show you how to start it?"

However, the authors also write, "It appears that the most effective contraceptive is education for girls ...." This is based on the fact that there is "a very strong correlation between rising education levels and declines in family size." (p. 135)

Education, the authors believe, is the single most important way of helping women and girls in poor societies, and through them helping the whole society. One method, currently being used very successfully in Mexico, is seems like bribery – the government pays families to send their kids to school. The poor get cash grants, ranging from $10 per month for a child in third grade, to $66 per month for a girl in high school, in exchange for keeping the children in school, getting them immunized, taking them to clinics for checkups, and attending health education lectures. The money goes from the central government (to reduce local corruption) to mothers, not fathers (because then it's more likely that the money will be used to benefit the children). (pp. 173-174)

Apparently this approach is being experimented with in New York City. To me this seems vaguely troubling, because it seems to undercut individual responsibility. Is it the government's job to feed people? Well, maybe under some circumstances. Then what other responsibilities does the government take over?

The authors cite China as a textbook example of how the lives of females can be elevated. They say that a century ago, "China was arguably the worst place in the world to be born female. Foot-binding, child marriage, concubinage, and female infanticide were embedded in traditional Chinese culture." Now it is one of the best. And the reason is because although the coming of communism after the 1949 revolution led to millions of deaths by famine or repression, it did accomplish one good thing. Mao brought women into the workforce and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and he abolished child marriage, prostitution and concubinage. The authors reflect:

So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot-binding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths or cultures. (pp. 206-207)

China still has problems, of course. Prostitution has returned with the rise of the market economy, although it is generally by voluntary choice of the women involved, and even worse, the one-child birth control policy together with convenient access to ultrasound testing has resulted in routine aborting of female fetuses and a sex ratio of 116 boys babies for every 100 girl babies.

Another surprising example is Rwanda, which emerged from the 1994 genocide and implemented policies that empower and promote women, and as a result has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, and – with the highest ratio of female legislators in the world – is one of the "least corrupt, fastest-growing, and best-governed countries in Africa." (pp. 211, 212)

The book closes with an evangelistic plea: Get involved! The last chapter is entitled "What You Can Do," and an appendix lists and briefly describes many groups that specialize in supporting women in developing countries.

This is a terrific book that many Christians should read, along with everyone else in this rich surfeited country.

He Sent Leanness, David Head (Macmillan, 1962) (read 1982-83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A slim (62 pages) book of "prayers for the natural man," filled with humorous insights into the self-centered and hypocritical way we often pray. The title is taken from Ps. 106:15: "And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul."

An excellent (and serious) "postback" ( p. 49) discusses the "natural man," who is distinguished from the "spiritual man" in I Cor. 2:14. The natural man, according to the author, may be a "Christian" and may even pray, but he is spiritually asleep.

The prefatory "Prayer of the Author" is really great, concluding with the petition that "amid all the congratulatory applause, the writer may remain conspicuously humble." (p. 9)

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016) (read 11/16)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A fascinating, flawed "memoir" by a 31-year old graduate of Yale Law School who grew up in a hillbilly family from Kentucky and spent his formative years in a "rust belt" steel town in Ohio. He admits in the Introduction that it is "somewhat absurd" for him to have written this book. But he does have a purpose.

Essentially, he wants to explain why it is almost impossible for children who grow up in circumstances similar to his to achieve the "American dream," even if they are very intelligent, as the author obviously is. He describes the town where his family grew up, Jackson, Kentucky, as not only poverty-stricken (with all of the obvious signs, such as dilapidated houses, boarded-up stores, crumbling infrastructure, etc.) but also inhabited by proud and often mean-spirited people.

Vance himself owes his survival, he says to his grandparents, "Mawmaw" and "Papaw," who moved from Jackson to the small town of Middletown, Ohio, which had a growing industrialized economy. Although they were rough and could be mean (Mawmaw swore all the time and packed a gun, although she also read the Bible every night!), they provided consistent love and guidance for young J.D. His father was not in the picture, and his mother was a drug addict who went through multiple husbands/lovers, although she also bought J.D. books, took him to the library, and tried to encourage him to get an education.

While in much of the book the author describes his fairy-tale journey from rags to riches (Middletown high school to the Marine Corps to Ohio State University to Yale Law School, to a judicial clerkship), he includes commentary from scholarly or journalistic sources to illustrate his views (e.g., "Mawmaw carried the emotional scars of nine lost children for her entire life. In college I learned that extreme stress can cause miscarriages ...."). (p. 39)

The author says that "the Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially [Mawmaw's]. We never went to church, except on rare occasions in Kentucky or when Mom decided that what we needed in our lives was religion. Nevertheless, Mamaw's was a deeply personal (albeit quirky) faith." (p. 85) Later he says that he was "exploring, however uneasily, the Christian faith that I'd discarded years earlier." (p. 237) Although there is some evidence that he tried to help the poor (for example, by buying Christmas presents for a needy child through a Salvation Army program), the author's vision of the "American dream" seems largely materialistic. He also comes through (to me) as very self-centered. He also talked a lot about "social capital," which seems to mean using connections with others to get ahead; i.e., "Love your neighbor for what you can get out of it."

On the other hand, he did meet and marry a woman, Usha, who helped him through some residual rage he had from his background. He even went through some counseling because he recognized that he still had problems.

Despite its weaknesses, I would not dismiss this book too quickly. J.D. Vance really shines a light into the dark world of Appalachian poverty and explains how intractable it is. He thinks government programs can help, and are necessary, to a point. But he's a political conservative, not a liberal "throw-money-at-the-problem" liberal. Reflecting on his drug-addicted mother, he pointed out her love for her children and her attempts to be a good mother, and then says, "But Mom deserves much of the blame. No person's childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card ...." (p. 232)

That sounds to me like Vance's prescription for helping the kind of people he grew up with is a combination of wise government assistance and increased personal responsibility.

Honey For a Child's Heart, Gladys Hunt (Zondervan, 1969)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life," this is an excellent book, both as a source of ideas and a reference work on children's reading.

Imaginative word game described on p. 16 ("How does a summer night sound? How does a rainy day feel?")

Christian parents must give kids more than just "facts of the Gospel." Good books will help train a child's character, give high ideals, encourage integrity, largeness of thought, creative thinking, imaginative wondering (p. 21). Right priorities are a necessity (pp. 26-27).

Author disparages "Disney-style versions" of classic children's stories. She recommends regular family readings of all kinds of books, but especially the Bible (daily after one meal). Highest rated authors are C.S. Lewis (Narnia books); J.R.R. Tolkien (trilogy); A.A. Milne (Winnie The Pooh); Paul white (Jungle Doctor series); Patricia St. John.

The back of the book contains a bibliography of "books your children should have the opportunity to enjoy," divided into three very broad age groups and five classifications of content or kind of book. Consult often!

How to Read the Bible as Literature, Leland Ryken (Zondervan, Academic Books paperback, 1984) (read fall 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Very helpful on the various types of literature in the Bible and how understanding the type of literature can give better understanding of the content of the Bible. The discussion of biblical poetry was especially helpful to me. The author confirms one insight I came to a long time ago, which is controverted by many Bible scholars: many of the parables are allegorical and can be interpreted that way.

Hungering Dark, The, Frederick Buechner (Harper & Row, 1985, paperback) (read off and on 2004-2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Buechner, the graceful writer who wrote the novel Godric, has grouped some scriptural meditations around two themes: the "search" and the "sought." The search, of course, is about God reaching out to us, and I suppose the sought are all of us humans. Buechner has such a nice writing style and such a good eye for detail that these essays are easy to read. Yet none of them struck me with such force that I can remember what they said after finishing the book. Maybe some of its truth seeps into my subconscious and benefits me that way. I would certainly read more by Buechner, but can't really say this is a great book or even a very good book. I do think it's a book worth reading, but then, there are a lot of books worth reading.

Titles beginning with the letter "I"
If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland (Graywolf Press, St. Paul, 2nd Ed., 1987) (read fall 1989) 
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Quite unusual book about writing, not techniques and tips but motivation and inspiration. Excellent. Read again. Author says "everybody is talented, original and has something important to say" (p. 3) but the creative impulse is often suppressed by criticism, self-doubt, etc.

In Defense of the Corporation, Robert Hessen (Hoover Institution Press, 1979)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The stated purpose of this book is to defend the concept (not necessarily the practices) of the modern corporation against its many foes, particularly Ralph Nader. (Prologue)

I found it quite unconvincing. One of his basic ideas is that there is no qualitative difference between individuals doing business alone, partnerships, and corporations - regardless of size! Thus General Motors should be treated exactly the same as a Mom and Pop convenience store, no better and no worse. (p. xvii)

He rejects the "concession" theory of corporations - that they exist only because the government lets them - and tenders what he calls the "inherence" theory - that corporations have the same inherent rights as individuals. He defends limited liability of corporations as the result of an "implied contract" between the corporation and its creditors (pp. 17-18), which ignores the distinction between implied-in-fact and implied-in-law contracts.

There are a few good parts to the book: see his discussion of corporate charters vs. general incorporation laws (ch. 3) and some of his attacks on Ralph Nader (ch. 5, 6). But his last chapter is a wild, free-swinging emotional attack on Nader that approaches paranoia.

Much of the book is shrill, illogical, emotional and generally non-academic in tone. He compares the Roman Catholic Church with giant business corporations (pp. 107-108); suggests that federal chartering of publishing corporations would somehow violate the First Amendment (p. 108), but doesn't explain why state regulation doesn't do this; says that if the government can require accuracy of advertising, then it can certify the truthfulness of "college lectures, church sermons ...." and concludes with an absurd paragraph based on the owners and officers of corporations being a minority entitled to insist on their rights like other minorities. (p. 115)

Quotes Ayn Rand's definition of political power and economic power. (p. 110)

Finally, this book has glaring omissions. There is no discussion of a corporation's moral accountability (e.g., Nestle's), no discussion of the finite nature of the planet and its resources, etc.

Iron & Silk, Mark Salzman (Vintage Books, Random House, c. 1986) (read May 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A Yale honors graduate with a degree in Chinese Language and Literature went to China to teach English at a medical school for two years, and wrote this charming little memoir about his experience. Since he had been intrigued with Chinese martial arts since he was 13, many of the episodes in the book involve his training under various martial arts masters in China. He was also very much interested in calligraphy, and was able to take some lessons from Chinese experts.

Salzman is a graceful writer with a good sense of humor. The individual stories or episodes in this book are full of human interest and are often quite humorous. Two characteristics -- his ability to speak Chinese and his warm friendly disposition -- enabled him to meet many Chinese other than his students and education officials. For example, he had a fascinating encounter with some fishermen and their families.

Iron John, Robert Bly (Addison-Wesley, 1990) (read Mar.-Aug. 1991)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "A Book About Men," this book examines what men are like in 1990 and suggests what they should be like, based largely on the author's interpretation of folk tales, including the story "Iron John." Essentially, Bly seems to be saying that men have become too soft or feminized. What he is advocating is not a return to blustery machismo, but a sort of middle ground which emphasizes true masculine qualities. He also says we are missing an important step in the process of turning boys into men: the initiation, which includes a clean break with the mother, then a wound from or in the company of older men, and thereafter life in the father's world (or men's world). Fathers have disappeared as a living force in the home, says Bly, and that hurts both sons and daughters. He also talks about "the longing to live with the King" (p. 117 et seq.) which I would equate with Augustine's lament about our hearts being restless until they find their rest in God.

The Iron John story, and Bly's application of it, goes essentially like this:

An ancient hairy man is found at the bottom of a pond and is imprisoned in a cage the castle courtyard. The King gives the key to the Queen. ("every modern male has, lying at the bottom of his psyche, a large, primitive being covered with hair down to his feet" -- modern man has to go down to meet the Wild Man in the depths of his psyche to get beyond the "sanitized, hairless, shallow man.")

The King's eight-year-old son is playing in the courtyard with a golden ball he loves, and it rolls into the Wild Man's cage. He asks for it but the Wild Man refuses to give it back unless the boy opens the cage. At first the boy refused, then said he couldn't open the cage because he didn't have the key. The Wild Man said the key was under his mother's pillow. The boy got the key, let the Wild Man out, then cried out for him not to leave or he would be beaten, so the Wild Man put the boy on his shoulders and walked into the forest. (Bly makes some kind of a Freudian connection with the key being under the mother's pillow, and emphasizes that the boy has to steal it because the mother won't give it to him; then she'd lose her little boy. Also, that going off with the Wild Man indicates that clean break from his parents that a boy needs.)

I won't summarize the rest of the story (it's separately printed as the last chapter in the book, pp. 250-259). Although there are many sound ideas here, I don't buy it lock, stock and barrel as gospel. The author's basic approach is to draw eclectically from many old myths and stories, and also from modern psychology and current events, and to draw conclusions rather arbitrarily from those stories he likes. This includes the Bible; he's high on Mary Magdalene and some aspects of Jesus and rejects others. The book is highly anecdotal, which makes it readable but the anecdotes are slim support for some of his conclusions.

"Eventually a man needs to throw off all indoctrination and begin to discover for himself what the father is and what masculinity is. For that task, ancient stories are a good help, because they are free of modern psychological prejudices, because they have endured the scrutiny of generations of women and men, and because they give both the light and dark sides of manhood, the admirable and the dangerous. Their model is not a perfect man, nor an overly spiritual man." (p. 25)

"Many women today say, 'The earth is female.' A man told me that when he hears that, he feels he has lost the right to breathe." (p. 43)

"[T]he amount of hair allowed suggests how far the instincts are curtailed and the spontaneity curbed." "the real pruners of extravagance, the fundamentalists who favor crewcuts or shaved heads" (p. 46) This may fit the current era, but certainly not the past -- the old fundamentalists had long hair and beards when avant-garde students had crew cuts.

Refers often to the "Great Mother" as a kind of separate female deity. In some places talks about Greek gods not as mythological ideas but as if they are real; see discussion of Hermes on p. 143. Makes somewhat absurd political statements, such as, "When forces in the Unites States opposed to any spiritual kingship killed the Kennedys and [Martin Luther] King in mid-career, it was a catastrophe for the men of that generation." (p. 111)

Talks about the "warriors inside American men" which he says "have become weak in recent years." (p. 146) "When a warrior is in service, however, to a True King -- that is, to a transcendent cause -- he does well ...." (p. 151) "Conscious fighting is a great help in relationships between men and women." (p. 167) "The adult warrior inside both men and women, when trained, can receive a blow without sulking or collapsing, knows how to fight for limited goals, keeps the rules of combat in mind, and in general is able to keep the fighting clean and to establish limits." To me this is nonsense, or at least sub-Christian. "When the Church and the culture as a whole dropped the gods who spoke for the divine element in male sexual energy -- Pan, Dionysus, Hermes, the Wild Man -- into oblivion, we as men lost a great deal." (p. 249)

I Stand By the Door: The Life of Sam Shoemaker, Helen Smith Shoemaker (Word Books, 1967)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Not especially well-written, but nevertheless interesting and valuable account of Sam Shoemaker's life. Distracting cross-references back and forth and numerous flashbacks make it a bit difficult to follow.

But Sam Shoemaker was a great man of God, and this comes through! He was somewhat conservative politically as well as theologically, but he apparently had a great personal warmth and charisma, and an uncanny ability to present Christ in one-on-one counseling situations.

"The person God uses is always blessed as well as the one with whom he is used, on the principle that a pipe carrying water gets wet itself on the inside." (p. 26)

Christian groups, at least those for fellowship and growth, should grow organically, not organizationally. (See last paragraph, p. 60)

"Individuals and small companies are the secret of the awakening of our parishes." (p. 172)

Principles behind the functioning of small Christian groups (pp. 172-173); interrelationship of church and "new movements." (p. 173)

Witness of church janitor (p. 176) and personal testimony of Don James (p. 197 et seq.)

Titles beginning with the letter "J"
Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey (InterVarsity Press, 2008) (read 2008-2009) 
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Kenneth Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for 40 years, is absolutely the best commentator on the parables of Jesus, and his earlier books on the parables, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, are classics. He is able to bring out wonderful insights from his understanding of life in the Middle East, insights that make sense when the background is explained, but otherwise are just beyond the apprehension of westerners.

In this book Bailey has a lot to say about the parables, sometimes going beyond his earlier books, but he also covers a lot of other material in the gospels. Major sections are devoted to The Birth of Jesus, The Beatitudes, The Lord's Prayer, Dramatic Actions of Jesus, and Jesus and Women, in addition to Parables of Jesus.

Although he is a scholar, and uses (and explains) words and phrases from other languages, his writing is clear and uncluttered, with good illustrations and a sense of drama.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. He wrote that the Syro-Phoenician woman who approached Jesus in Mk. 7:24-30 "pleads to be given the small pieces of bread, which, after the meal, are thrown to the dogs." (p. 384, footnote omitted) What that passage actually says is, "She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter." I wrote to Dr. Bailey about this and he replied: "Jesus was speaking metaphorically and he likened her request for healing for her daughter to 'the children's bread.' She picked up that metaphor, reused it and requested a 'crumb' for her daughter." (Letter from Kenneth E. Bailey, April. 30, 2009) I think it's more likely that he just wrote about her from memory, somewhat carelessly.

Another thing that I found slightly disconcerting is Dr. Bailey's tendency to (I think) let his imagination run away with him in ways that further his interpretation but may not be supported by the text. For example, pointing out that there are several ways of interpreting a word and then choosing the one that suits his purposes. Often he does this by pointing out that Arabic, Syriac or Coptic versions have consistently chosen that interpretation, which makes it more likely to be correct – to me that's entirely legitimate and very helpful. But at other times the choice seems a bit arbitrary.

Also, in his discussion of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, he describes Lazarus in ways that seem pretty speculative to me. He says Lazarus "was kind, gentle and lived in quiet harmony with the animal world around him, regardless of the harshness of his environment." (p. 386) Again, "Lazarus responded to his pain with patience, longsuffering, gentleness and implied forgiveness. He made friends with the wild dogs and inevitably showed gratitude to his friends in the community who carried him each day to the rich man's gate." (p. 394) Well, maybe. Or maybe Dr. Bailey is just embellishing a story Jesus told, romanticizing poor Lazarus.

Finally, in his discussion of what he calls the Parable of the Noble Vineyard Owner (Lk. 20:9-18), better known as the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers, Bailey concludes that the judgment in this parable is much milder than in the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7, in which God says the vineyard will be destroyed. Bailey says in this parable in Luke, the "vineyard is not destroyed, rather a change to a more faithful leadership is promised." (p. 426; see also p. 424) This does not seem completely accurate to me, since this parable actually has a double-fold judgment: (1) the tenants will be killed, and (2) the vineyard will be given to others.

But these negative comments are minuscule, not worth putting on the scale. Kenneth Bailey's books are simply wonderful!

Jews, God and History, Max Dimont (Signet paperback, 1962) (read summer-fall, 1979)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A sprightly, very readable history of the Jews, from the earliest records of Abraham leaving Ur to the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Dimont's style is anecdotal and chatty, and he makes sweeping generalizations and freely draws conclusions that are perhaps not always warranted by the historical evidence.

But there is no doubt that this is an enjoyable and generally accurate account of Jewish history. It especially focuses on the considerable achievements of the jews, both individually and as an ethnic group, and is perhaps somewhat boastful in tone. However, he tries to be very fair to various interpretations and conflicting viewpoints; e.g., he stresses that Christians have not always persecuted and discriminated against Jews, and points out that Jews were not always in the right. Also, though the psychological roots of anti-semitism may have been in the Middle Ages, it did not really begin until modern times.

One of the helpful features of this book is that each of the major divisions begins with a parallel time chart ("Here's When It Happened"), comparing what was happening in the non-Jewish world when events in Jewish history unfolded. It also contains an 11-page bibliography.

Joyful Community, The, Benjamin Zablocki (Penguin Books, 1971, paper)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

An excellent sociological study of one of the outstanding Christian "intentional communities," the Bruderhof. Written by a sympathetic Jew, who seems to have understood much of the Christian foundation of the community, but perhaps missed a few crucial things.

The Bruderhof, or "Society of Brothers," was founded in Germany in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold, and now is located in three "hofs" in the United States, with headquarters at Woodcrest, New York. The community is characterized by much joy but no freedom (in the individualistic sense). It practices total sharing of material goods, but has a strong emphasis on the family and allocates separate times for family meals and outings. It is also characterized by outstanding singing with a tremendous variety of songs; by the fact that it welcomes newcomers from all backgrounds, and in fact sees this as part of its mission; and by frequent cycles of crisis and victory.

See "First Law in Sannerz" (no gossiping) (p. 58); distinction between "communion" and "community" (p. 64); marriage relationship and children (pp. 119, 123); collective behavior energy (p. 151); "world-view resocialization" (fundamental change in world-view) (p. 247); effect of ego-destruction (p. 277); loss of freedom (pp. 280, 287-288, 311); and "segmentation" of communes (p. 311).

I think the Bruderhof misses the mark (1) in assuming that the early church was communal (see p. 329) and (2) in totally negating the ego and individualism.

Just Courage, Gary A. Haugen (IVP Books, 2008) (read fall 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The subtitle of this book by Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, is "God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian." It seems to me it is for all Christians, not just the restless.

He starts out with a great illustration. When he was a 10-year-old boy, his father took him and his two older brothers on a hike up Mount Ranier. They stopped to rest at the Paradise visitor's center, and then his father suggested they hike further up to Camp Muir, the base camp used by climbers heading for the summit, even though signs at the visitor's center level warned about the dangers they could encounter. Gary refused to go further, saying he wanted to stay at the visitor's center, so finally his father and brothers went by themselves. It was a long afternoon, even though the visitor's center was warm and comfortable and there were many interesting things to see there.

Finally they returned, tired and a bit bruised, but exhilarated. Gary stubbornly insisted that it was his favorite day of the whole vacation. But years later, remembering that day, he concluded that he had been "Totally safe — but totally stuck." (p. 16) And, according to Haugen, that's where many Christians are in their Christian life.

He also quotes from "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill (1859): "Christians ... seem to have the amazing ability to say the most wonderful things without actually believing them." (p.9) Mill also wrote that Christians are "not insincere when they say they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. ... They have a habitual respect for the sound of them ...." (p. 13)

One problem for Christians today is simple ignorance, or lack of awareness. Haugen writes that many Western Christians

have no vivid picture of what life is like for hundred of millions of people in our world who live in crushing, spiritual darkness, humiliation and despair. They just don't realize that there are millions of people crying out every day to be rescued from aching, urgent hunger; from degrading and hopeless poverty; from the ravages of painful disease; from torture, slavery, rape and abuse. (p. 32)

He also says that when Jesus calls us "the light of the world,"

we picture ourselves more as a nice nightlight that will comfort the kids and keep us from stubbing our toe on the way to the bathroom than as a brilliant light saber that is heroically contending with the great evil of the world and driving out deep swathes of darkness. (p. 33)

But maybe we don't want to know more about the tremendous evils in the world. The idea of confronting them is scary. We need a "pathway to courage," according to Haugen, and he finds it in the Scriptural call to "seek justice" (Isaiah 1:17) or to "do justice" (Micah 6:8; Mt. 23:23). And while it may be difficult to define justice in the abstract, we can easily understand specific forms of injustice. "The sin of injustice is defined in the Bible as the abuse of power — abusing power by taking from others the good things that God intended for them, namely, their life, liberty, dignity, or the fruits of their love or their labor." (p. 46)

Haugen distinguishes between solving human problems with charity and solving them with justice. Charity is good, and necessary, but often the "familiar remedies of food, shelter, schools or medicine" do not meet the root cause of suffering, because it's caused by aggressive human violence; e.g., the young boy is illiterate because he is held as a slave in a brick factory and can't go to school, and the teenage girl has AIDS because she has been forcibly infected with the disease while held captive in a brothel. (p. 49)

How do Christians from rich countries connect with very poor people in undeveloped countries? What do they have in common? In chapter 8 Haugen says one bridge between people in such disparate circumstances is parental love. Desperately poor people love their children just as much as wealthy westerners. But they are often powerless to do anything to help them when the children or the whole family is ensnared in deep trouble. He shares three examples of how his organization, the International Justice Mission, helped a poor, powerless parent: a Cambodian woman whose 16-year-old daughter was lured and then entrapped into a brothel; a widow in Zambia whose property and small business was stolen from her; and a couple with three small children who were all enslaved in a brick factory in south Asia. Of course, this is all a plug for IJM, but it is also a lesson. The chapter is entitled "The Witness of One," and the "one" in each case is a caring Christian willing to do something to help.

As the title of the book indicates, Haugen believes Christians need courage to act justly. But the good news is that, according to him, we all have a yearning to be brave, because God implanted that within us, and what we need to do is train to be brave. He points out that inwardly we can't help but admire an act of bravery, while we look down on cowardice ... even our own. (pp. 103-105) He says there are three steps that will help. First, do less, reflect and pray more. He writes:

Many of us say that Jesus has rescued us from judgment and sin and death — but actually we are quite busy trying to save ourselves. What sometimes looks like confident hard-charging activity in the world is frequently just nervous energy generated by what terrifies us. The fear that God won't accept us without our merit badges. The fear that people won't love us if we don't get As on our projects. The fear that life isn't significant if its worth can't be measured in the quality and quantity of our things. (pp. 105-106; emphasis by author)

The second step is to "Search the promises of Scripture and take a risk." The question is, Am I being brave, or am I being safe? He uses many examples, such as the parable in which the servant reported that he had successfully safeguarded what the master had entrusted to him, and the master's response was, "You wicked, lazy servant." (Mt. 25:26) Haugen says, "Courage comes in doing a brave thing." (p. 108)

Finally, "Embark on the lifelong journey of spiritual formation and renovation." (p. 108) Haugen says Jesus wants us to realize that it's a choice whether to be brave or to be safe, but in making that choice, "Jesus wants us to know that he takes care of us so well that it is actually safe to be brave." (p. 109)

The last chapter, "Would you rather be safe or brave," is a very powerful indictment of ... me. I would rather be safe. Haugen has convinced me that God's calling is for me, and all Christians, to be brave — to be brave in doing, among other things, the work of justice in this fallen world. How will I respond?

This is a really important book, written by a young, insightful Christian leader. Mostly he discusses injustices in foreign countries, and the work of the International Justice Mission, but his teaching on hope, courage, and obedience are really for all Christians and apply in all situations.

Just Generosity, 2nd Ed., Ronald J. Sider (Baker Books, 2007) (read winter 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A comprehensive, fact-laden survey of poverty in America. The first part, Poverty amidst Abundance, contains a powerful indictment against the way America treats its poor. The research is deep, as indicated in copious footnotes, but the language is, for the most part, dispassionate, not inflammatory.

Sider argues that there are four broad causes of poverty: (1) structural causes; (2) personal decisions and misguided behavior; (3) sudden catastrophes; and (4) permanent disabilities. (p. 42 et seq.)

He demonstrates that not only are 37 million people in the United States poor in the midst of enormous wealth, they are becoming poorer while the rich grow richer. (p. 50) The United States has the greatest income inequality of all developed nations. (p. 54) The disparity is even more striking when comparing wealth as distinguished from income. "Measured by the distribution of wealth, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is greater today than at any time since 1929." Wealth distribution is more equal in Europe than in the United States. (p. 54)

"If we want to be biblical ... we must submit to scriptural norms even when they contradict our inherited biases and ideological preferences." (p. 60)

What is economic justice? Sider says it is more than just procedural justice (unbiased courts, honest weights and measures); it includes distributive justice (the fair distribution of wealth, resources, and power). (p. 66) In other words, justice looks at outcomes. He says biblical justice has a "crucial restorative character." (p. 67) It "gives special consideration to disadvantaged groups by providing basic social and economic opportunities and resources." (p. 67)

Sider insists that God is "especially attentive to the poor and needy" but is not biased. (p. 68) One illustration he gives is a family with a son struggling to get by with D's and a daughter easily making A's. He said loving parents in that situation do not devote equal tutorial time to both; rather, they spend a lot more time with their son because his needs are greater, but that does not mean they are biased against their daughter. (p. 71) Good illustration.

He says Scripture speaks of God special concern for the poor in at least four ways: (1) repeatedly it says that God works to lift up the poor and oppressed; (2) sometimes God tears down rich and powerful people (citing Lk. 1:46, 53; Jas. 5:1); (3) the Bible says that caring for the poor is almost like helping God (e.g., Mt. 25:40); and (4) God demands that his people share his concern for the poor and treat them in the same generous way that God treats them. (pp. 68-70)

Good summary of distributive justice - restoration to community. (pp. 72-74)

In commenting on the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25): "There is no hint here of a sacred law of supply and demand that operates independently of biblical ethics and the lordship of Yahweh." (p. 77)

Sider is not a socialist or communist. He says the "principles of Jubilee challenge both unrestricted capitalism and communism in a fundamental way. ... Jubilee affirms not only the right but the importance of private property managed by families who understand that they are stewards responsible to God." (p. 78) See also this key paragraph:

The central normative principle that emerges from the biblical material concerning the land and the sabbatical release of debts is this: Justice demands that every person or family has access to productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified participating members of their community. (p. 81)

Sider does not believe that the government should be the primary source of help for the poor. "Any policy or political philosophy that immediately seeks governmental solutions for problems that could be solved just as well or better at the level of the family violates the biblical framework that stresses the central societal role of the family." (pp. 86-87) Does this apply to the common practice of "spending down" so that relatively well-off old people qualify nursing homes paid by Medicaid?

According to the author, the Bible provides at least three norms pertaining to distribution of resources to meet basic needs: (1) all who can work should have the opportunity to do so; (2) great inequalities of wealth, which lead to oppression, should be avoided; (3) those who cannot work should receive from the community "a liberal sufficiency of the necessities of life provided in ways that preserve dignity, encourage responsibility, and strengthen the family." (p. 91)

Twelve principles summarizing biblical norms for a just society. (pp. 116-117)

Sider presents overwhelming evidence that "[s]ingle parenthood and divorce lead to more poverty, more crime, and more illegitimacy, resulting in a descending spiral of chaos and agony." (p. 159) He says that contemporary social science confirms biblical norms favoring a two-parent family. (See esp. pp. 159-162)

His conclusion at the end of Chap. 5, Broken Families and Rising Poverty: "Based on a fair-minded reading of the research, it is obvious that restoring stable, wholesome two-parent families must be at the heart of any effective policy to overcome poverty in the United States. Being pro-family is not a conservative agenda; it is a crucial component of any rational search for justice for the poor." (p. 171)

In a chapter briefly sketching some of the secondary issues – important but not as important as the ones he discusses fully – Sider mentions the importance of safe neighborhoods (pp. 254-257), just tax policies (pp. 258-261), Social Security reform (pp. 261-267), savings and capital for the poor ("private property is so good that everybody ought to have some") (pp. 268-269), metropolitan area problems, including segregated suburbs and exclusionary zoning (pp. 270-271), and perhaps the one that is most difficult for evangelicals to embrace, community organizing. (pp. 271-273)

No one, Christian or not, has absolutely perfect insight into the problem of poverty. But in my opinion Ronald Sider comes closest to expressing a biblical, authentically Christian, understanding of both the problem and what Christians should do about it. This is an enormously important book. If read with an open mind – and an open Bible – this book could revolutionize conventional Christian thinking (or refusal to think) about the issue of poverty in America.

Titles beginning with the letter "K"

Killing of Bonnie Garland, The, Willard Gaylin (Simon & Schuster, 1982) (read fall 1983)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

An excellent book exploring the basic policy questions involved in criminal justice by looking at the aftermath of a particularly brutal crime, the hammer killing of a sleeping Yale coed by her jilted boyfriend/lover.

Dr. Gaylin is surprised and disturbed at what happened to the killer. The Roman Catholic community at Yale rallied around him, started a defense fund, and managed to have him released into custody of the Christian Brothers in Albany, where he even attended classes at the State University under an assumed name while awaiting trial for murder. The victim, on the other hand, was mourned briefly and then sort of forgotten by all except her grieving and vindictive parents.

Where does forgiveness fit into a system of criminal justice? And is retribution -- public vengeance -- really appropriate in this modern age? These are the questions Dr. Gaylin examines as he traces the aftermath of the killing. He looks closely at the response of the Roman Catholic community at Yale, finding it long on compassion and forgiveness and short on justice; at the "hired gun" nature of the psychiatric testimony introduced by both sides at Richard's trial; and at the adversarial nature of criminal trials, which requires "killing the victim again" so as to lessen the guilt of the killer.

He concludes that forgiveness must not displace responsibility, and that retribution rather than rehabilitation should be the primary goal of our criminal justice system. Crime deserves punishment, entirely apart from the beneficial effect punishment may have. Quoting at least twice Karl Menninger's rhetorical question, "Whatever became of sin?", Dr. Gaylin says we took the wrong road when we began "to approach questions of right and wrong sociologically and psychologically." He is very critical of the psychic determinism inherent in Freudian psychology, and says it is antithetical to our concept of justice, which is based on individual responsibility. His conclusion seems to be that by giving undue compassion to the criminal we erode the crucial moral values that hold the community together.

Titles beginning with the letter "L"

Language of Science and Faith, The, Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins (InterVarsity Press, 2011) (read 9/11)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

(For other reviews of books about evolution, see Darwin on Trial, Phillip E. Johnson; Finding Darwin's God, Kenneth R. Miller.)

The authors, Karl Giberson, a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, and Francis Collins, a geneticist who headed the Human Genome Project and is director of the National Institutes of Health, are certainly qualified to write this book from a scientific point of view. They are also strong Christians, which gives them the necessary faith background.

But it is a book that will shake up many Christians, and has certainly provoked and changed my thinking.

First, a few preliminary comments. This book came about because one of the authors, Francis Collins, wrote a best-selling book, The Language of God, that explained how he found harmony between his science and his Christian faith. The letters and emails from readers raised many questions not answered in his book, so he did two things: (1) he founded the BioLogos Foundation, with a website dedicated to reconciling science and faith (and addressing his readers' concerns), and (2) he collaborated with Karl Giberson to turn the questions and answers from his first book into this book.

Apparently Giberson did most of the synthesizing and writing, and he is a graceful writer – this book is very clear and easy to read. (However, he or his editors have apparently succumbed to the modern tendency to mix plural and singular nouns and pronouns; e.g., "... we should check to see if the scientist is an authority on the topic on which they are speaking." (p. 33, emphasis added))

Although this is a popular treatment of science and theology, and the notes in the back of the book are helpful, the authors toss off some statements without citing any source, such as the alleged view of St. Augustine, "who couldn't imagine why God would use a human work week to accomplish the creation." (p. 69)

Also, while the authors are quite critical of many of the "anti-evolutionists" for their lack of appropriate scholarly qualifications (see pp. 33-34, pointing out that many of the scientists who question Darwinism "are not trained in biology," or are emeritus professors who "finished most of their education a half-century ago, before the developments of the past few decades provided so much support for evolution"), it does not appear that either Giberson or Collins have scholarly qualifications for many of their statements about interpreting biblical language. For example, they state with respect to the word used by Jesus for what can squeeze through the eye of a needle, "However, a close look at early manuscripts finds the correct word for camel, not rope." (p. 93) They confidently discuss the language and interpretation of ancient Hebrew words. (pp. 98-100)

As to the contents of the book, the authors believe that "God has provided two distinct, complementary and reliable revelations – the Bible and the natural world." (Preface, p. 8) The basic question the authors are addressing is "how to understand evolution as the way that God created life." (p. 114) What they are advocating is theistic evolution, which is "the belief that God created life using natural processes, working with the natural order, in harmony with its laws." (p. 19) They accept the premise that "the biological theory known as evolution is a reliable explanation for the development of the diversity of life on our planet," (p. 19) and state flatly, "There has been no scientific discovery since Darwin – not one – which has suggested that evolution is not the best explanation for the origin of species." (pp. 21-22)

In explaining evolution, they begin with the assertion that all current species of life have descended from common ancestors; in fact, "all the life that has ever existed on earth is descended from a single-celled life form that lived almost four billion years ago." (p. 30) This rules out any intervention by God to create a separate species, such as homo sapiens.

The authors explain, in a way that makes sense to me, how new species occur, a process called "speciation." As I understand it, this means that mutations or changes randomly occur to the DNA in the population of a species. Some of these mutations are beneficial, in the sense that they make the organism better able to reproduce or to survive, and these are naturally more likely to be carried forward in the DNA of the species, while mutations that make the organism less able to reproduce or to survive are, of course, less likely to continue. Thus gradually – over millions or billions of years – a species is likely to change to possess the beneficial characteristics, and given enough time an entirely new species may be created, especially if the population is geographically isolated from other related populations. (pp. 35-37, 44-48) As the authors explain:

Over long periods of time the reproductive enhancements powered by beneficial mutations – as well as nature's selection against detrimental mutations – led to the diversity of living things today. This is the theory of evolution in a nutshell – the BioLogos worldview – and the grand story of the creative world that God brought into existence. (p. 37)

They say the decoding of the entire DNA sequence of humans (the "Human Genome Project") "has established conclusively that the data fits a model of evolution from a common ancestor." (p. 43) They use a particularly interesting example. Most mammals do not need to have vitamin C in their diets, because they produce their own. But primates, including humans, require vitamin C in their diets or they get scurvy. Their explanation is that the human (and other primates) genome "has a degenerated copy of the gene that makes the enzyme for synthesizing vitamin C." What this proves, according to the authors, is that the human genome could not have been created by God independently of that of the other animals, because that argument "means God inserted a broken piece of DNA into our genomes." Their conclusion: "This is not remotely plausible." (p. 43)

Is this convincing? If speciation results from the "better" mutations surviving to create a new species, doesn't that indicate that the non-primate mammals (since they don't need a dietary supplement) evolved from primates?

Fundamental to their explanation is time. Given enough time, the tiniest of incremental changes will result in new species, defined as an inability to breed with the former species. The authors use another example that seems flawed to me. They say it would have been impossible to imagine how Henry Ford's primitive Model T could have "evolved" into Toyota's Prius hybrid, but the incremental changes – first running board, windshield, etc. – did in fact lead to the Prius. (pp. 45-46) My problem with this analogy is that, first, looking ahead is harder than looking back; it certainly is not difficult today to see how the Prius evolved from the Model T Ford. And second, I'm not so sure that the visionary tinkerers who created the Model T and other early automobiles couldn't have envisioned today's cars, just as comic books in the fifties depicted the space travel that we have today.

No, humans did not come from monkeys. This is an oversimplification, which forms the basis of popular (i.e., uneducated) opposition to evolution, as in the Scopes trial. It misses a key point: evolution says that both humans and monkeys descended from a common ancestor, which (or who) was as different from monkeys as he, she, or it was from humans. (pp. 50-51)

The chapter entitled, "Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old" is mildly interesting as an elementary science lesson, but I don't see how it raises any controversy with Christian faith because as far as I know, nothing in the Bible says anything about how old the earth is. It is really a matter of indifference to me that the earth, according to science, is about 4.5 billion years old and the universe is about three times as old, or 12 to 14 billion years old.

But I guess I'm in the minority. The authors of this book say that "young earth creationism" (the belief that creation took place less than ten thousand years ago) is what a majority of evangelicals believe. (pp. 68, 77) It would be interesting to know how they determined that. Apparently "old earth creationism" (interpreting the "days" in Genesis as long periods of time) is not as popular among evangelicals (pp. 70-72), although it certainly makes more sense to me than young earth creationism. One important point the authors make is that young earth creationism, and belief in the literal six days of creation, was not the view of many early Christian thinkers, including Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Wesley. Rather, it is a relatively recent development dating from the publication of a book entitled The Genesis Flood in 1961. (pp. 72-79)

Chapter 3, entitled "How do we Relate Science and Religion," contains an important section about interpreting Scripture. (pp. 91-103) They say that to understand all Scripture, not just the first two chapters of Genesis, we must use standard methods of biblical interpretation, which involve asking five questions:

    (1) What kind of language is being used (figurative, symbolic, historical, scientific, or straightforward narrative)?

    (2) What kind of literature is it (song, poem, letter, first-person narrative, etc.)?

    (3) Who is the expected audience? This includes taking into account cultural context, symbolism, and the audience's familiarity to existing Scripture and other writings.

    (4) What is the purpose of the text? The authors suggest that Genesis is a polemical text challenging other world views about creation, worship, monotheism vs. polytheism, etc.

    (5) What relevant extratextual knowledge exists (from, e.g., science, history, and linguistics)? For example, the biblical writers had no concept of a planet called "earth" and that what the Hebrew word translated "earth" in the creation stories means is actually "land."

In asking how this approach can help us understand Genesis, they point out that the first two chapters contain two irreconcilable stories of creation: "Clearly, the order of creation differs in these accounts, and only an unreasonable interpretation that mutilates the text can resolve the differences." (p. 101)

Since according to the authors, God just arranged for the process of evolution, "once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required." (p. 115, quoting from Collins' earlier book, The Language of God). Doesn't that mean that everything is pre-determined? What happens to free will? The Authors answer is, essentially, that God created a universe (including life through evolution) that has some flexibility or "wiggle room" for human decision making. They point to the modern theories of "quantum uncertainty" and "chaos theory" and say these theories (which I do not understand) make it impossible for science to ever provide a "complete and detailed explanation of nature's behavior." (p. 118) They say, "It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation." (p. 119)

In Chapter 5, entitled, "Science and the Existence of God," the authors land a solid blow against the proponents of "intelligent design," who "highlight the remarkable features of nature and fashion them into arguments for the existence of a designer." (p. 132) What they fail to mention, however, is that there are incredibly well-designed features of the natural world that appear to have no purpose other than to inflict pain or induce death, such as the AIDS virus, or the bacteria that wiped out a third of the European population during the black plague. If God is the "intelligent designer" behind nature, is He responsible for the sinister aspects of nature as well as the beneficial aspects? (pp. 129-134)

The Authors answer seems to be that, while there is no conclusive proof about this, evolution supports the idea that "God created the world with an inbuilt capacity to explore novelty and try new things, but within a framework of overall regularity," and this is analogous to the gift of freedom that God has bestowed on humans. (p. 136) This argument is based on the observation that "many processes in nature exhibit a genuine unpredictability that looks ... like freedom." (p. 134, emphasis in original)

They say that the problem of evil in the world – why the Holocaust? – is ultimately insoluble, but that evolution mitigates the problem. Basically, this is the God-gave-us-free-will argument. Since God chose to use evolution and the processes of natural selection as his means of creating the universe and everything in it, He is off the hook for bad outcomes. He did not program evolution to produce only good outcomes, because then we would have no freedom, no creativity, not even the ability to love. (pp. 136-140)

While the existence of God cannot be proved – they even cast doubt on the common-sense notion that everything, including the universe, must have a cause – the authors argue that, given what we observe about intangibles like love, courage, heroism, and so on, the existence of God is more plausible than his non-existence. They share a very interesting quotation from the noted mathematician and atheist, Bertrand Russell, who concludes that only a philosophy based on "unyielding despair" can be true. (p. 149)

The chapter entitled "Why Is Darwin's Theory So Controversial?" (p. 151 et seq.) contains an interesting account of the history of Christians' reaction to Darwin over the years. In brief, apparently there was a lot more openness to evolution in the early years than developed in the twentieth century (see especially views of B.B. Warfield, p. 158). In other words, Christians' attitudes have become more narrow and hardened.

However, the part of this chapter that particularly interested me is the author's discussion of the origin of life, which the authors call "a genuine scientific problem that is nowhere near being resolved." (p. 161) Basically, the authors seem to believe that science will eventually be able to explain how it happened, though they make clear that however it happened, God is behind it all. (pp. 169-175) The idea, which seems so obvious to me, that "God must have intervened to bring life into being," is not categorically ruled out, but they caution readers "not to jump to this all-too-easy-solution." Their view is that "God's original and elegant plan for the universe may well have included the potential for life to arise without necessarily requiring later 'supernatural' engineering to jumpstart the process. In this vew, God's sustaining creative presence undergirds all of life's history from the beginning to the present." (pp. 174-175)

The chapter about the "fine-tuning of the universe" (pp. 176 et seq.) points out that the laws of physics have certain extremely precise properties that turn out to be absolutely necessary to result in a universe that can sustain life. One example is the strength of gravity, which is so precise that if it were a bit stronger the "big bang" could never have occurred (it would have been the "big crunch" say the authors), but if it had been a tad weaker the rapidly expanded universe would have distributed the atoms so widely that they could not have been gathered into stars and galaxies. (p. 182)

They say this fine-tuning is a "pointer" to God being behind it all, though of course it is not proof. And they explain some of the ways of explaining this phenomenon without invoking God, such as the cosmological theory called inflation, which I do not understand from their brief explanation. (pp. 187-188)

In discussing evolution and human beings, the authors summarize what is apparently their view, that "God can certainly create humans through an inevitable process that appears entirely random from within the system." (p. 199) They say, "God can influence the evolutionary process to ensure his intended results, in whatever ways he wants." (p. 205) They certainly do not accept any kind of literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, since "[h]uman beings are mainly water, not dust, and there is no process by which an adult person can be made quickly from a rib." (p. 206) However, while I agree that the creation "processes" described in Genesis are probably symbolic, I disagree that God cannot make a fully grown human out of dust or a rib, just as his Son could make delicious wine out of plain water.

The authors point out some very implausible aspects of the Genesis accounts (Where did Cain's wife come from? Who would populate the city Cain built and named after his son, according to Gen. 4:17?), and say that genetic evidence "points to a population of several thousand people from whom all humans have descended, not just two." (p. 209)

Striving mightily to reconcile Scripture and science, the authors offer, in the final chapter, their "Grand Narrative of Creation," in which God uses evolution to produce everything from the universe itself to its most advanced product, human beings. Their ultimate conclusion will no doubt be acceptable to the most liberal Christians as well as to many agnostics and atheists:

Eventually the most advanced of the life forms on the planet, human beings, become deeply religious. ... The religious impulse developed into one of the deepest aspects of our complicated understanding of ourselves. (p. 221)

My conclusion: This is a very important book. It has shaken and changed what I believe about creation. I am sure that the authors are correct in most of what they say, especially about the way the universe began (except I believe God started it off) and about biological evolution of non-human species.

However, unlike the authors of this book, who seem to resolve every possible conflict between biblical revelation and science by what the latest scientific discoveries indicate, I think God's revealed Word is just as true, correctly understood, as the teachings of science. And where there is a real conflict, I am not willing to just automatically assume that there must be a way of interpreting Scripture to make it consistent with the scientific evidence. Sometimes I think we have to say, based on the clear authority of Scripture, that science, if not exactly wrong, has not yet discovered the truth on this point that has been clearly revealed in the Bible.

I will just mention a couple of examples, which the authors either do not discuss or fudge with generalities. First, while the details can certainly be disputed, it is clear that in both of the Genesis creation accounts, the creation of humans is depicted as a separate, discrete step, not as just another species lumped in with God's creation of the animals. Another aspect of the biblical accounts that support this separation is that God created humans (but not animals) in his own image.

Second, if humans are but the most recent stage in evolution, does this account for the birth of Jesus? According to the Bible, Mary was divinely impregnated by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, and yet Jesus was fully human. How can that possibly be reconciled with the kind of evolution embraced by the authors of this book? They do not discuss this issue.

So, maybe I am wrong but where there does not seem to be any way to reconcile biblical truth with scientific truth, I will stick with the Bible. It seems to me that God did use evolution to accomplish most of his purposes, but He never surrendered his sovereign right to intervene in any aspect of creation, and I think he exercised that right in the creation of humans and especially in sending Jesus to earth.

Last Lecture, The, Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow (Hyperion, 2008) (read July 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The author, a popular professor at Carnegie Mellon University, learned that he had terminal cancer, and was asked to deliver a last lecture summing up whatever wisdom he had to impart before leaving the classroom forever. With the help of a writer friend, he produced this engaging little book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

The best thing, he says, is to start out with good parents. He says he "won the parent lottery." They were bright, creative, and compassionate people, and they passed on those values to their son, Randy. He says he considers his father to be the most "Christian" man he had ever met, although he writes, "[u]nlike my mom, he didn't easily embrace organized religion. (We were Presbyterians.)" (p. 24)

Randy Pausch was certainly a remarkable human being, so full of life and curiosity, brainy but probably not a genius, and very much interested in other people. I think one of his secrets was his remarkable ability to detach himself from situations and observe what was going on, especially how other people were handling it; for example, the oncologist who delivered the news that his cancer had metasticized to his liver. It seems like he was very unselfconscious.

The chapters in this book are very short, some consist of only a few paragraphs. And, of course, they are uneven in quality. Some are just great, so very insightful. For example, he has a three-page chapter about tips for working in groups, entitled, "Start By Sitting Together." (pp. 142-144) Many church groups could benefit from this. Among his tips are to make sure you can pronounce everyone's names, try for optimal meeting conditions (no one hungry, cold or tired; meet over a meal if you can because "food softens a meeting" (his emphasis)). The best one: "Let everyone talk: Don't finish someone's sentences. And talking louder or faster doesn't make your ideas any better." (p. 143)

Reading this book as a Christian, I often sensed a "tragedy behind the tragedy." For such a superb human being to be cut down in the prime of life, leaving a wife and two young children, is certainly tragic. But Randy Pausch seemed strangely unaware that there might be a future life after his earthly one, or that any preparation might be called for. Even his brief, positive mention of his parents' "very personal" faith and his apparent church membership was devoid of any reference to eternity. His pastor counseled him that he needed "emotional insurance" as well as life insurance. (p. 187). This does not necessarily mean, of course, that Pausch himself was not a believer. Indeed, he says "I didn't discuss my specific religion in my lecture because I wanted to talk about universal principles that apply to all faiths ...." (p. 186). (The problem with that, in my opinion, is that universal principles, no matter how true, have almost no redemptive value.)

But what does this book say to the person who does not have the outstanding personal qualities that Randy Pausch possessed? He touts being optimistic and says we all have to make a decision whether to be a "fun-loving Tigger" or a "sad-sack Eeyore" (p. 180), but I am not so sure that people can just decide whether they want to be optimistic or pessimistic. I am a little bit like Pausch; for me, it's always "brighter up ahead." But I think that was given to me, from a very early age or even before I was born. I never made a decision to be optimistic. And it might be discouraging for people who are not born with a sunny nature to read that they should decide to be optimistic.

The ending of this book could have been a real tear-jerker, as he discusses his dreams for his children (six, three, and one and a half years old) and leaving his wife, Jai. But no doubt with the help of Jeffrey Zaslow, he not only manages to avoid excess emotion but actually says some important, practical things about how to leave a young family behind. It is very sad, of course, but a fitting end to an exceptionally well-done Last Lecture. I very much enjoyed reading this small book.

Law of the Land, The, Charles Rembar (Simon & Schuster, 1980) (read 6/83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Evolution of Our Legal System," this is a well-written history of our legal system, from its beginning in medieval England to the present day. After a somewhat enigmatic prologue and epilogue in chapter 1, the story begins with an explanation of the earliest English forms of lawsuits -- "trial by battle" and "appeal" (in its earlier sense of a criminal proceeding brought by a private citizen, not today's meaning of review by a higher court). Chapter 2 also discusses the doctrine of stare decisis. Chapter 3, entitled "Taxonomy," covers the major distinctions between criminal law and civil law, common law and statute, common law and equity, substance and procedure, plus various other legal concepts. Chapter 4 covers outmoded legal procedures: the hue and cry, the feud, ordeal and compurgation.

The rest of the chapters cover the development of more modern legal concepts, such as trial by jury, writs, early forms of action (trespass, etc.), legal fiction, pleading (especially interesting), procedural rules, equity, evidence and the rights of the accused.

I liked the book and hope to get back into it. The author is clearly a very intelligent man, a lawyer and a scholar, and a very good writer, though at times he strains to be clever. Some of his interpretations are questionable.

Let Justice Roll Down, John Perkins (Regal Books, 1976) (paperback) (read ?/1982)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Autobiographical account of John Perkins' struggle to establish a black Christian witness in Mississippi during late sixties and early seventies. Though born in Mississippi in a share-cropping family, Perkins moved to California to new job opportunities, then a tour of duty in the Army, marriage, children, and finally salvation through a church in California.

Perkins had a vision of God calling him to return to Mississippi; he did so with a reluctant wife, and they began vacation Bible schools for black children. This ultimately developed into the Voice of Calvary ministry, encompassing evangelism and Christian education, social action, and community development. However, when they got involved with voter registration drives and other civil rights activity, local opposition increased to the point where Perkins was one night arrested and tortured by white Mississippi policemen.

That's the high point -- or low point -- of the book; from there it describes subsequent legal proceedings and vindication, and sums up the Voice of Calvary ministry.

Easy reading with a good message for evangelicals.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans (Houghton Mifflin Co., orig. 1941) (read summer 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Three Tenant Families," this book is a classic description of the sharecroppers of the south during the Great Depression. Accompanying the text by James Agee are about 60 hauntingly beautiful photographs by Walker Evans, mostly of plain, weary, beaten down people and buildings.

Agee and Evans went to Alabama to write an article about sharecroppers in the deep south for Fortune Magazine. They were able to live for a few weeks with one family and get to know two other families nearby. James Agee tried to write with great precision, to match the scrupulous accuracy of Evans' camera, but the result, in my opinion, is mixed. The book he ultimately published (Fortune rejected his manuscript) is powerfully but erratically written, heavy with adjectives and redundant, archaic expressions, almost quaint and in parts difficult, even impossible to understand. He describes the rough pine cabin he lived in with a sharecropper family, and the contents, down to the last pin in a drawer. He described his own ambivalent feelings in great detail.

I skipped over parts of this book, but begain reading again and read to the end. I probably read at least two-thirds of the book. In parts it is remarkably powerful writing, but much of the book is an accretion of multitudinous details about people, clothing, buildings, furnishings, animals, etc.

Read this book to understand rural poverty, particularly in the south during the Depression. It really describes grinding hopeless poverty.

Limits of Power, The, Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan Books, 2008) (read spring 2009)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

See separate review.

Living By Fiction, Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1982) (read fall 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Essentially philosophy predicated upon fiction. Dillard explores the "meaning of things" by looking at fiction, especially contemporary fiction. I think I would need some technical training in literary criticism to understand this book; much of it was over my head due to my unfamiliarity with concepts used and with modern fiction. Her somewhat disappointing ending to the questions summed up in the title of the last chaper, "Does the World Have Meaning?" is "I am sorry; I do not know." She is, however, a very intelligent woman and an excellent if whimsical writer, well worth reading.

Living Faith, Jacques Ellul (Harper & Row, orig. pub. in French in 1980) (read fall 1993)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Strange, powerful, passionate book by a French Christian intellectual. He draws a basic distinction between "faith" and "belief," which I think is erroneous or at least not a consistent distinction, and then says faith in Jesus Christ is everything. The book opens with an extended dialog between "Monos" (a Christian, or more of a Christian) and "Una" (a skeptic) about the meaning of faith. It is not easy to follow, and many of the references are to French or continental philosophical or theological disputes.

There are many good insights in this book, and perhaps it is worth rereading, but it is also a little frustrating to read because the author, who apparently sees himself as a modern-day prophet in the line of Jonah, tends to speak in absolutes and take extreme positions. For example, he says that politics is diabolical and satanic, literally (p. 235).


Longitude, Dava Sobel (Fourth Estate Limited, paper, orig. 1996) (read spring 2015)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a work of nonfiction that reads like a detective story. The mystery: how could oceanic navigators in the 18th century determine exactly where their ship was after it left port, so it could avoid perils (like barely submerged rocks) and arrive at the right destination?

Determining latitude was not a major problem, because the sun, moon and planets pass almost directly overhead at the equator, so measuring the angle of these celestial bodies from the ship would reveal how it was far north or south of the equator – that is, its latitude.

But determining its longitude – how far east or west – was another matter altogether, because there is no fixed starting point (no "prime meridian") like the equator. The prime meridian is purely arbitrary. At least two promising solutions were thoroughly explored. The first relied on the position of stars and planets, somewhat like finding the latitude. The second – and ultimately successful – solution was based on time.

To over-simplify: the navigator resets his ship's clock to local noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and then compares that to the time at the home port (or another place of known longitude) at the same moment. Since the earth takes 24 hours to complete one full revolution of 360 degrees, that means in one hour it rotates 15 degrees. So if, for example, it is noon on the ocean but 9:00 a.m. at the home port (like when it is noon on the east coast of the United States but 9:00 a.m. on the west coast), the ship has traveled 45 degrees. Translating that into miles (or nautical miles) requires knowing the latitude; at the equator each degree of longitude equals 68 miles, while at the north or south pole it is virtually nothing.

So all the 18th century navigators needed was a clock accurate enough to continue to tell the home port time during the whole voyage, which at any point could be compared with the ship's current time. However, nobody had ever designed and built a clock that would remain sufficiently accurate at sea. Clocks ran faster or slower as they were affected by normal temperature changes (which thinned or thickened the clock's lubricating oil and expanded or contracted its metal parts), by a rise or fall in barometric pressure, or subtle variations in the earth's gravity. This inability to accurately determine longitude often had disastrous results; in 1707, for example, four British warships ran aground and nearly 2,000 men were drowned.

The hero of the story? An English clockmaker, John Harrison, a "man of simple birth and high intelligence." As explained by the author:

With no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, Harrison nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning, that were made from materials impervious to rust, and that kept their moving parts perfectly balanced in relation to one another, regardless of how the world pitched or tossed about them. He did away with the pendulum, and he combined different metals inside his works in such a way that when one component expanded or contracted with changes in temperature, the other counteracted the change and kept the clock's rate constant. (p. 9)

It took him "forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval" (p. 10), but finally he earned the prize of £20,000 that had been offered by Parliament for a successful solution to the longitude problem.

This relatively short book (175 pages) is well-written and fascinating even to one, like me, who otherwise has no particular interest in the subject. Great read!

Love and Will, Rollo May (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1969)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a very profound and, I believe, important book about the psychological problems of modern man. I did not understand all I read, and hope to read it at least once more.

In discussing "love" and "will," which the author says in the forward are "conjunctive processes of being – a reaching out to influence others, molding, forming, creating the consciousness of the other," he delves into the subtleties of the various kinds of love: sex, eros, philia and agape (p. 37) and says, among other things, that modern man has overemphasized sex at the expense of eros, and that the new sexual freedom has in itself created much anxiety. He devotes two chapters to his concept of the "daimonic," which he defines as "any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person." (p. 123) Thus, for May, loneliness and alienation can become forms of demon possession. (p. 162) He discusses the concept of "will" along with such things as "wish" and "intentionality" in the last part of the book.

Good discussion of apathy and its relation to violence. (pp. 30-31; also p. 14)

May describes our world as "schizoid," which he defines as "out of touch; avoiding close relationships; the inability to feel." (p. 16)

Fear of death; we repress death the way the Victorians repressed sex. (p. 106)

Titles beginning with the letter "M"
Man, the Manipulator, Everett L. Shostrom (Bantam Books, paper) 
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Excellent book on lay psychology. Not expressly Christian but at least humanist in approach.

A "manipulator" is defined as one who "exploits, uses, and/or controls himself and other as things in certain self-defeating ways." (p. xii) The author makes clear that some people manipulate by being a "nice guy" or by giving in, while others are manipulators in more obvious ways. Two basic categories: top dog and underdog.

A "manipulator" is contrasted with an "actualizer," defined as one who "appreciates himself and his fellow man as persons or subjects with unique potential – an expresser of his actual self." (p. xii)

Diagram of manipulative types, with explanation of each one. (p. 12) Diagram of actualizing types, with explanation. (p. 28).

Fundamental characteristics of manipulator: deception, unawareness, control, cynicism. Fundamental characteristics of actualizer: honest, awareness, freedom, trust. (explained p. 23 et seq.)

In disciplining a child, we should separate our feelings about the child from our feelings about his actions. (p. 87)

Process of actualization therapy. (p. 160 et seq.)

"... actualization cannot be striven for, but rather one becomes actualizing at that moment when he fully surrenders to the awareness of his own manipulations." (p. 163)

Master, The, Bryan MacMahon (Poolbeg, 1992) (read 1/00)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

Not so much an autobiography as a smorgasbord of reminiscences by a grade school teacher in Ireland who apparently became quite well known because he developed into a writer and story teller and ballad-maker and what not, though I had never heard of him.

The part of the book I enjoyed the most was his description of teaching a classroom of young boys in an appallingly crude village schoolhouse. He has a great story in there about hiring a baby elephant from a touring circus to make a grand entrance into his school room at the stroke of 12 noon, just as he had told the kids (to help them appreciate stories) that he was a magician and could make an elephant appear. (pp. 38-41) A whole chapter is devoted to the way Catholic doctrine was transmitted, by rote, although the schools were supposed to be non-sectarian. MacMahon was always bothered by the "rigidity of faith," but he says he looks "upon my church not alone as a vehicle for my faith but also as a fuitful source of my culture. To me, the turning year is meaningless if not viewed through the focused lens of Christianity." (p. 100)

The book was not too well organized, and filled with digressions and interesting ideas and events, like the teaching of the Irish language after it had apparently been abandoned and even forbidden to teach, and his trips to the United States. Overall, though, I did enjoy it.

Megatrends, John Naisbitt (Warner Books, 1982, 1984) (read 8/84)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Ten chapters, each supposedly describing a major trend or direction shaping our lives in the 1980s. This is popularized social science research into the future, based on a somewhat unorthodox method: content analysis of thousands of local newspapers.

According to Naisbitt, the top ten trends reflect transitions from (1) an industrial society to an information society; (2) limited technology to high technology but with a human response (high tech/high touch); (3) a national to a global economy; (4) short-term considerations and rewards to long-term; (5) centralization to decentralization, building things from the bottom up; (6) institutional help to self-help; (7) representative democracy to participatory democracy; (8) hierarchical structures to informal networks; (9) industrial north to south and west sunbelt; and (1) either/or limited personal choices to multiple options.

The book is interesting, easy to read, and does have some good insights. However, overall most of it seems rather obvious to one who reads the papers reasonably regularly. I finished with the feeling that the really big issues -- the life and death issues of war and peace, hunger and plenty, belief and unbelief, etc. -- were not touched by this trendy cumulation of facts and ideas.

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins, orig. 1952) (read ??? and again summer 2008)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

C. S. Lewis's logic and simple explanations are very persuasive, although some of the contents of this book, based on World War II radio broadcasts, are somewhat dated.

The revised and amplified (by whom?) version published in 2000 contains four "books". Book 1 is entitled "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." I think this is the best part of the whole book, and the least affected by the passage of time.

Book 2, "What Christians Believe," is also really good on the really basic things that all Christians believe. He more or less dismisses the various theories Christians have come up with to explain difficult concepts, and just talks about the central concepts themselves; e.g., "The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start." (p. 54)

Book 3, "Christian Behaviour," delves into the way Christians live out their lives, and here the usefulness of Lewis's ideas are more affected by changes in attitudes of Christians over time. See, for example, his discussion of Paul's injunction that wives must obey their husbands. (pp. 112-114)

Interestingly, one of his ideas on marriage and divorce seems relevant to today's controversy over same-sex marriage:

My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not. (p. 112)

Lewis is not a pacifist; he points out that while there are two Greek words that mean "kill", only one of them means "murder", and that's the one Jesus uses in all three gospels when he says "Thou shalt not kill." But his notion that Christians in the military, who according to Lewis have a right to kill, also "have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage – a kind of gaiety and wholeheartedness" seems strange to me. (pp. 118-119) There must be a pretty fine distinction between that and his conclusion that "We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating." (p. 120)

In discussing faith, Lewis distinguishes between two meanings of the word. The first is belief – accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity – but it also involves continuing this belief regardless of subsequent feelings. He writes, "Now Faith ... is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." (p. 140) The second or higher meaning of faith is what I would call trust. This involves giving up on your own efforts to save yourself and accepting the fact that God has done everything necessary for salvation and gives it to you. As Lewis says, "It is the change from being confident about our own efforts to the state in which we despair of doing anything for ourselves and leave it to God." (p. 146) It is the opposite of the state in which we are still trying to score points with God, hoping that He will count our good points and ignore our bad ones.

Book 4 is entitled "Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity." Here is where Lewis delves into "Theology," or the "science of God." But he says theology is practical, and he tries to explain some of the points of Christian theology in practical terms. For example, he talks about the difference between Christ being "begotten, not created" (pp. 157-159) and he does it, as in the rest of the book, by using simple analogies.

For a good illustration of the difference between individual sinful acts and the condition of sinfulness, see pp. 192-193.

According to Lewis, what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples, "Be ye perfect" is "The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less, but I will give you nothing less." (p. 201) Very interesting chapter on this point. (pp. 201-206)

Lewis argues that the world cannot neatly be divided into Christian and non-Christian. He writes:

The world does not consist of 100 per cent. Christians and 100 per cent. non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will maybe led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ's birth may have been in this position. (pp. 208-209)

C.S. Lewis apparently believed in some kind of evolution. (see p. 218) But he may be just accepting it as a springboard to explaining the "new man in Christ" in the last chapter of this book. In an interesting illustration, he notes that thousands of centuries ago "huge, very heavily armoured creatures were evolved," and that if anyone had been watching at that time, he would probably have expected that these creatures (dinosaurs) were going to get heavier and heavier armor. But this didn't happen; the "stream of Evolution' took a sharp bend, and produced "little, naked, unarmoured animals which had better brains: and with those brains they were going to master the whole planet. They were not merely going to have more power than the prehistoric monsters, they were going to have a new kind of power." (p. 219) In the same way, the "new man in Christ" has already appeared in Jesus and in his followers, and this new man is not just an improvement over ordinary people but is radically different in fundamental ways.

This is a book to be read again and again. The writing is clear and deceptively simple; the ideas are profound. Lewis may not be right on everything, but he had a surer grasp of spiritual truth than most other Christians I've read.

Mightier Than the Sword, C. Edward Good (Word Store, Charlottesville, VA, 1989) (read 1997-1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Very good book on improving legal writing. Good explanation of grammar. The tone is annoying, as the author tries to be too cutesy, but I learned a lot from this book.

Miracle of Dialogue, The, Reuel L. Howe (Seabury Press, 1963) read 1970)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Excellent book on interpersonal communication! Howe defines dialogue as "the serious address and response between two or more persons, in which the being and truth of each is confronted by the being and truth of the other." (p. 4)

Communication occurs when there is a "meeting of meaning" between two or more persons. (p. 23) The barriers to communication, which prevent dialogue from taking place, are primarily caused by man's ontological need -- the need and concern that each individual feels for his own being. Our anxieties cause us to affirm our own being, many times in ways that threaten the being of others. For example, we are quick to justify ourselves, to be defensive, etc. (See p. 24 et seq.)

He draws a fundamental distinction between dialogue and monologue. In monologue a person is concerned only for himself and, in his view, others exist to serve and confirm him (p. 36; see further description of monological man on pp. 36-37) The dialogical person is an open person, one who is known first by his willingness and ability to reveal himself to others, and, secondly, by his willingness and ability to hear and receive their revelation. (p. 71)

"Too many ministers and teachers reveal a need to be right ...." (p 73, 93) Five elements in dialogical crisis. (p. 95) Qualities of the dialogical teacher. (p. 137 et seq.)

More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix, Brian D. McLaren (Zondervan paperback, 2002) (read summer 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

For another review, click here.

This author, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, MD, has written an intriguing book on evangelism. The basic thesis of the book is that Christians generally do not need more training or better methods of evangelism; what they need to do is get busy and made friends with people around them and draw them into Christianity by loving them and exposing them to authentic Christian living. He says that the present "postmodern" generation does not buy "formula" Christianity, exemplified by the "Four Spiritual Laws."

McLaren, a former college English professor, is an excellent and persuasive writer. He has a very broad definition of evangelism, so broad that it might even be applied to other religions, although he makes clear that his interest is in Christian evangelism. I like how he points to Jesus' model of evangelism:

... Jesus was short on sermons, long on conversations; short on answers, long on questions; short on abstractions and propositions, long on stories and parables; short on telling you what to think, long on challenging you to think for yourself; short on condemning the irreligious, long on confronting the religious. (p. 15)

He says this is "evangelism that flows like a dance." Evangelism requires Christians who are friends, not salesmen. According to the author, contemporary or "post-modern" people are looking for a church that is "open-minded, diverse, and accepting." (p. 48) That seems pretty far from the typical evangelical church, which is more likely to be "close-minded, homogeneous, and judgmental."

As an example of the "spiritual friendships" that he says are the way to evangelize he points to the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, along with a very funny anecdote about a pastor and an Australian couple. (pp. 55-57) McLaren notes Peter's admission, "But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean" and says we should be very careful about how we label people, such as referring to them as "lost," "unsaved," and the like. Although accurate, such labels tend to elevate us and denigrate the person referred to. He says that "careless language sabotages spiritual friendships."

McLaren deemphasizes "punctiliar" salvation – pinpointing the date when a person becomes a Christian – and sees salvation as more of a process than an event. It seems more consistent with what Jesus did on earth, but what about Peter preaching in Acts?

All in all, this is a great book on a difficult subject. I think it would be especially useful as a guide for a discussion group.

Moral Decision, The, Edmond Cahn (Indiana U. Press, 1955, 1981) (read 1983/84)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Right and Wrong in the Light of American Law," this books attempts to find the moral principles that are embodied in American law. The technique is somewhat unusual. Instead of looking for court pronouncements of "moral rules" adopted by the law, or found in the law, Cahn chooses actual cases and uses the facts and rulings in those cases to illustrate moral guides or rules. He refers to the law as a "rich repository of moral knowledge which is contiually reworked, revised, and refined." (p. 3)

The book is divided into three parts: "The Legal and the Good," comparing law and morals generally; "Moral Guides in the American Law of Rights," covering such subjects as life, disability, and death, family and sexual relationships, business ethics and duties owed to government; and "Moral Guides in the American Law of Procedure," discussing such matters as due process, compromise, evidentiary questions, and the meaning of judicial decisions.

The author does not appear to believe in a divine origin of morals, though he does think morality is very important. Reason appears to play the most significant role in determining and applying moral standards or guides, according to Cahn. I did not find the book easy to read, but it was helpful to see how the subject could be discussed in an inductive way from a nonchristian standpoint.

Mustard Seed Conspiracy, The, Tom Sine (Word Books, 1981) (read 1984)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

How North American Christians should live in view of a future that appears to be full of problems. Sine is a "futurist" but not particularly an alarmist. He takes a very positive view; though the problems are almost overwhelming, we as Christians have overwhelming resources, and can make a difference.

The book contains questions for discussion and action at the end of each chapter, and would be a good study book for a church group. Overall, I find myself in full agreement with its message, although I don't seem to be able to live it out very well.

Titles beginning with the letter "N"
Nation of Victims, A, Charles J. Sykes (St. Martin's Press, 1992) (read winter 1996) 
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This is a book about victimism -- how today everyone, or nearly everyone, is a victim and therefore deserves pity regardless of character, accomplishments, etc. It is filled with anecdotal evidence of victimism as well as political and psychological correctness, which lead, in the author's opinion, to "The Decay of the American Character" (subtitle of book).

I think there is a good deal of truth in what the author has to say, although the case is overdrawn and certainly many of the examples he uses are not typical of what happens today. I do think it would be a good book for college students to read, along with the "politically correct" books and ideas that are pushed at them today.

Next Christendom, The, Philip Jenkins (Oxford U. Press, 2002) (read summer 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This University of Pennsylvania Professor of History and Religious Studies has written a book that says basically two things: (1) the future of Christianity is in the Third World churches, not in the dying churches of Europe or the somewhat more vital churches of the United States, and (2) the nature of that future Christianity will be conservative, evangelical and probably charismatic. He derives these conclusions largely from studying the statistics, both of church membership and population trends. The churches that are growing are in the Southern Hemisphere (I don't think he uses the term "Third World") and the churches that are declining are in the West. The populations of the "southern" countries are exploding while the populations of western countries are shrinking or stable, or at least not growing very much.

This is a well-written, well-documented study that is worth reading, but of course it is not (and does not claim to be) the final word on the future of Christianity. (See detailed handwritten notes in book.)

Night, Elie Wiesel (Hill and Wang, paper, orig. 1958; new trans. 2006) (read fall 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

If there was ever a book proving the Christian doctrine of human depravity, this is it. Humans are not essentially good with a few bad apples; humans are essentially evil with, fortunately, ample grace and redemption.

This slim book of little more than a hundred pages records the author's experiences as a young Jewish teenager in the clutches of the Nazis. His whole family perished, including his beloved little sister Tzipora. He stayed with his father through several concentration camps until his father just could not go on living through beatings and sickness and starvation. Elie survived, barely.

The images in this book are far too searing to be pondered. The brutal murder of children, torn from their families, collected in cattle cars, machine gunned into mass graves and thrown into furnaces, is almost beyond comprehension. How could Germans do such things? And yet, are they so unique? Are there not many other examples through history, on a smaller scale perhaps, of human brutality and mass murder?

The book also includes the author's very eloquent acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, on December 10, 1986. In it he mentions that he has emerged from "the Kingdom of Night" and says, "... I have faith. Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation." (p. 120) Contrast this with his earlier statement that the flames of the crematoria had "consumed my faith forever." (p. 34; see also his indictment of God on p. 67.)

This is a wonderful book, one that should be taught in schools and read by all. It not only bears witness to a tragedy that should never be forgotten, but it does so in spare, beautiful language (at least in this new translation).

Titles beginning with the letter "O"

On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner (Harper & Row, 1983) (read 8/83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A "how-to" book, but not a typical one. John Gardner, author of Grendel, October Light, and other novels, plus short stories, poetry, children's books and literary criticism, states that his goal in this book is to "deal with, and if possible get rid of, the beginning novelist's worries." He is not interested in just helping aspiring writers get published at any cost; rather, he wants to encourage the writing of "serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive." His definition of good fiction is fiction that sets off a "vivid and continuous dream" in the reader's mind.

The book consists of four chapters. By far the longest -- half the book -- is Chap. 1 on "The Writer's Nature." Here he deals with such things as "verbal sensitivity" (pp. 2 et seq.) which he says is important, but not necessarily indispensable; too much may in fact hamper novel-writing); the writer's "eye" for seeing things "sharply, vividly, accurately, and selectively." (pp. 19 et seq.) i.e., "show" rather than "tell" the characters' feelings); and the "intelligence" of storyteller (pp. 34 et seq.), usually involving such qualities as wit, obstinacy, childishness, tendencies toward oral or anal fixation, good visual memory, a mixture of playfulness and earnestness, patience, cunning, psychological instability, recklessness, impulsiveness, improvidence, and "an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories."

The other chapters cover the writer's psychological need to be published; why editors at publishing firms are all "incompetent and crazy" at some times and "the bravest, most wonderful people on earth" at others; why an agent is "all but indispensable" to a young novelist but unnecessary and probably unavailable to poets and short story writers (he also explains how to get an agent); why college teachers are "likely to find more time for writing than almost anybody else except the full-time hobo;" what to do about "writer's block;" and finally, the importance of faith (in oneself, basically) to the creative process.

On the Crest of the Wave, C. Peter Wagner (Regal Books, 1983) (read early 1984)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The subtitle of this book is "Becoming a World Christian," and its purpose is to enlist Christians in the work of missions today. It is popularly written, anecdotal, with short simple sentences. Wagner says we are in the "springtime" of Christian missions; the "wintertime," of course, was during the sixties, and there was a great decline in the missionare endeavor then, especially within mainline churches.

The book emphasizes the need to study and learn about missions, and points out that a great deal of "missiology" is being taught today, such as at Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission, where Wagner teaches. He describes, in simplified terms, the difference between E-1, E-2 and E-3 missions (E stands for evangelism; E-1 means monocultural evangelism, or sharing Christ within the missionary's own culture; E-2 and E-3 are evangelizing other cultures, with E-2 being a related culture and E-3 an unrelated culture). He also notes that we have come "full circle" with third world Christians now forming their own mission agencies and sending out missionaries.

One Writer's Beginnings, Eudora Welty (Harvard U. Press, 1984) (read 8/88)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Slim autobiography by Eudora Welty. Interesting, but not especially helpful for learning what makes a great writer.

Out of Concern for the Church, John A. Olthuis et al. (Wedge Pub. Foundation, Toronto, 1970)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a collection of five essays about the church, or, more specifically, about the low spiritual state of the evangelical church, particularly the Christian Reformed denomination. The authors are all affiliated with that denomination and with the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto.

The essays are "heavy" both in content and writing style. They are very much intellectually-oriented, and betray their Dutch or Christian Reformed background. In that sense, they are quite parochial.

But they have some important things to say. The essays are not content with surface observations, but penetrate into the basic issues of our society, whether economic, political, or whatever.

See pp. 57-58 on the nature of the church.

The last essay deals with the important question of whether there is a dichotomy between natural/spiritual, reason/faith, etc. The author says we have assumed that there were two realms from creation, and this has led to the perennial problem of what a Christian is supposed to do in the "world" as distinguished from the "church."

Titles beginning with the letter "P"
Parables of Grace, The, Robert Farrar Capon (Eerdmans paperback, orig. Zondervan 1985) (read fall 1995) 
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See the review below of The Parables of the Kingdom. This one is more of the same, a lot of explaining away the obvious point to reach the author's own pet conclusions. I am now weary of his type of commentary and don't think I'll try to locate the third volume in this trilogy on the parables, which is apparently out-of-print.

Parables of Peanuts, The, Robert L. Short (Harper & Row, 1968)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Surprisingly profound treatment of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, largely from a neo-orthodox point of view. The author intersperses Peanuts cartoons with many quotations from theologians, philosophers, poets, etc. Among his favorites are Barth, Camus, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer.

"Man's total commitment to his god, to whatever gives meaning to his life, also accounts for the defensiveness he has for this god – especially if it is a weak one, as all false gods ultimately are." (p. 90)

Chap. 7 presents the case for universalism, that all men will ultimately be saved, regardless of whether they believe in Christ. "Both the Christian and the non-Christian, all, are destined for eternal life with God. But there is a basic difference: the Christian knows it." (p. 140) The author cites Scripture for this view, but the passages he cites are very selective and often out of context. No classical orthodox theologians are cited as holding this view, only neo-orthodox theologians and novelists, etc.

Good illustration of how it is possible to say that "the Spirit of God must flow to all the world through this one tiny, historical point" on p. 182 (blackout of 1965).

Parables of the Kingdom, The, Robert Farrar Capon (Eerdmans paperback, orig. Zondervan 1985) (read August 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

One of a trilogy of idiosyncratic commentaries on the parables of Jesus, characterized by an exceedingly breezy writing style (e.g., "If I may try your patience just a bit, let me do it by throwing you a long, slow curve."); a professed high view of Scripture as "the Word of God" and "inspired by God" ("there can be no better commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself" (p. 106); and (seemingly) unorthodox interpretations. The author is an Episcopalean priest with special interests in cooking and gardening (although these are not reflected much in this book).

I like this commentary, in spite of its annoying colloquialisms, gaps in logic and questionable conclusions, for the fresh way it has of looking at very familiar passages of Scripture. It does make me think. For example, he talks about God mystifying us by acting with "left-handed power," rather than "straight-line" or right-handed power, a metaphor he says is from Luther (p. 19). That is, suffering and surrender as the way to victory, rather than overpowering strength.

He says the parable of the Sower is the "great watershed of all Jesus' parables" (p. 64), but then seems to reject it's most obvious teaching, that only some of the seed survives. Although at some places he seems to deny it, he seems to argue mostly for a kind of universalism. He has an unfortunate habit of trying to fortify his arguments by setting up straw men and then knocking them down.

Peril By Choice, James C. Hefley (Zondervan, 1968, paper)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Biography of John and Elaine Beekman, Wycliffe Bible Translators to Chol Indians in Mexico. Pictures of Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, pp. 51-57. Impact of Gospel on living conditions of natives, pp. 170, 219-220.

Persons and Masks of the Law, John T. Noonan, Jr. (Farrar, Straus & Giraux, 1976)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Professor Noonan's main contention seems to be that the law has focused almost entirely on rules, and that it should pay a lot more attention to the persons who make, interpret, and are governed by the rules.

After an opening chapter on "The Masks of the Participants," in which he especially takes issue with Holmes' conception of the historical development of legal rules, he discussed several specific situations or cases illustrating his thesis, including the Palsgraf case, and then concludes with a chapter entitled "The Alliance of Law and History," which I didn't understand very well.

Point of View For My Work as an Author, The, Soren Kierkegaard (Harper & Row, orig. translation by Waler Lowrie 1939) (read winter 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

In this unusual little book, Kierkegaard purports to explain the great purpose behind all his writing: how to become a Christian. He says this was the purpose for his "aesthetic" works as well as his "religious" works; they were all part of a grand plan, inspired by Providence, to win "Christians" in "Christendom" back to Christianity. He says evangelizing those who live under the illusion that they are already Christians is quite different than evangelizing pagans. The latter can be approached directly with the Gospel, but what we might call cultural Christians must be approached indirectly. We have to totally identify with them, even make them think they are Christians, before we can share true Christianity with them.

"In all eternity it is impossible for me to compel a person to accept an opinion, a conviction, a belief. But one thing I can do: I can compel him to take notice." (p. 35)

He says that although a deception is "a rather ugly thing," it is necessary to use deception to "bring into the truth one who is in an illusion." (p. 40) Apparently he means that he must agree with the person under the illusion to gain his confidence and then he will be able to show him the truth of Christianity by a dialectical or Socratic method. He says, strangely, that Socrates was not a Christian but "he has become one" (?); however although he calls Socrates his teacher, "I have only believed, and only believe, in One, the Lord Jesus Christ." (p. 41)

In the first of "Two Notes Concerning My Work as an Author," which were published in 1859 along with "The Point of View For My Work as an Author," Kierkegaard argues that only the "individual" can understand religious truth, never the "crowd." He emphasizes that he is not talking about "temporal, earthly, worldly matters," in which the crowd "may have competency, and even decisive competency as a court of last resort." (p. 110) In this connection he cites 1 Cor. 9:24 ("Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize." NIV) He says this is not meant in a comparative sense – that one beats out all the others, who cannot get the prize – but rather it means that every man can be that "one", but the goal is only attained by one as an individual, never by a crowd. He says "a crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction." (p. 112)

In his second Note, he reemphasizes the point that only the "single individual man" can be "edified" – it is impossible for a group to be edified. (p. 127) In fact, he says on his tombstone he would like inscribed "That Individual" and says "if that is not now understood, it surely will be." (p. 129) He says it was his "task as a humble servant" to provoke the crowd into becoming the individual, and to do this "without authority." He says this is the way he has lived his life; although he has "had acquaintance with countless people, but always has stood alone." (p. 131) But he does not call himself a "witness for the truth," because he did not have to work for his living and he "had too much imagination and far too much of the poet about him" to be called a witness for the truth. (p. 131) He also contrasts Christianity, in which the "individual" is the decisive category, with pantheism where "all doubt has ultimately its stronghold in the illusion of temporal existence that we are a lot of us, pretty much the whole of humanity, which in the end can jolly well overawe God and be itself the Christ." (pp. 133-135)

Finally, in a postscript to the "Two Notes" Kierkegaard acknowledges that "the Truth itself, Jesus Christ, had disciples," as did Socrates, so why does he appear to go beyond them in celebrating the single individual? His answer is that it is partly his imperfection and partly the "singularity of his task" of "liberating Christianity from some of these battalion-Christians" like parsons and other church dignitaries.

This book is very difficult to understand, but it is certainly thought-provoking and worth re-reading, perhaps after reading some of Kierkegaard's other books.

Portraits of a Radical Disciple, Christopher J. H. Wright, Ed. (IVP Books, paper, 2011) (read May, 2015)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The subtitle of this flattering, fascinating book is "Recollections of John Stott's Life and Ministry." Stott was one of the giants of evangelical Christianity in the 20th century, the brilliant pastor of All Souls Anglican Church in London, and the author of more than 70 books, including Basic Christianity. He was the main Bible expositor at six of the triennial Urbana Missions conferences. He died in 2011 at the age of 90.

This volume is a collection of three dozen mostly short chapters written by people who knew him and in many cases worked with him. (My wife and I were among the dinner guests at John Stott's home once in the early 1960s.) Here are a few of the important things it revealed to me:

First, although Stott was a pastor in the Church of England, which was liberal when he began his pastorate and has become more liberal over the years, he never lost his focus on evangelical Christianity. Of his 70 books, he claimed that the one he valued the highest, and the one he put the most into, was The Cross of Christ, published at the height of his powers in 1986. In this book he makes a passionate argument for the centrality of the cross to the Christian gospel.

And this was not merely theoretical for Stott. He was both a one-on-one personal evangelist and a powerful evangelistic preacher, especially in missions he led at Cambridge and other universities. Literally hundreds of students came to follow Jesus through his ministry.

Second, he changed and broadened his views on many non-central tenets of the faith. For example, his initial attitude toward those with emotional problems was that "all this introspection is positively pathological." But over time he began to reject the usual evangelical attitude that "more prayer and Bible study would solve such problems." Mainly through his initiative, a Christian counseling center was established in London, called "Care and Counsel," designed for people who were struggling with emotional problems that were hindering their spiritual and emotional growth. (pp. 44-45)

Other issues often disparaged by evangelicals, which John Stott embraced and encouraged, were Christians and the arts (pp. 190 et seq.), Christian environmentalism (pp. 178 et seq.), and a whole range of social issues. Here is just one extended paragraph by Peter Kuzmik of Croatia, who is both the director of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Croatia and a professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary:

I have watched closely John's concern about growing militarism and the arms race, about death and destruction, about injustices and exploitation in the economic order of the world, about the violation of human rights and discrimination, but above all his pain about the plight of the poor and the weak. His concern for the well-being of every human being (insisting that all are made in the image of God) was obvious even in the way he treated people we met on the street or waitresses in various restaurants. John encouraged many of us to evangelize, because people everywhere were lost apart from Christ's saving work. He himself was a passionate evangelist, fully aware of the deep consequences of human falseness both for individuals and human communities. He strongly believed in the liberating power of the gospel and responsible freedom under the lordship of Christ. At the same time, he constantly encouraged us not to give up dreaming of a world in which hatred would be replaced by love, revenge by forgiveness, war by peace, slavery by freedom, and enmity by reconciliation. (pp. 155-156)

Third, if you're not going to believe exactly the same 70 years after you become a Christian, what standard do you follow in adopting changes to make sure you are still on the right path, that you are not going "off the deep end"? For John Stott, there was a very clear answer. Whatever he believed had to be based on the Bible. It could not be based on changing fashions in the world, or emotions, or personal preference, or any catechism or other human document.

For example, John Stott came to believe that those who are not saved are not tortured in the flames of hell throughout eternity; rather, they are punished by being totally destroyed. Quoting Revelation 14:11, which reads: "And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever," Stott went on to argue, "The fire itself is termed ?eternal' and ?unquenchable', but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ?rises for ever and ever.'"

The ultimate annihilation of the wicked, Stott added, "should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment." But he acknowledged that his opinion of hell was not based on his emotions alone.

"Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal conscious torment] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it ... my question must be ? and is ? not what does my heart tell me, but what does God's word say?" Stott said. (Although mentioned in the book, the subject of future punishment I've described in these three paragraphs are from an article about Stott in "The Christian Post" dated July 28, 2011.)

He had a passion about developing a "Christian mind," and led discussion groups focusing on "how to grapple with the Bible and the modern world ? and how to put them together." He and his friends "read novels, watched films, scanned magazines and tried to unpick their assumptions and worldviews." (See especially pp. 88 et seq.) "He enjoyed a good movie, liked Woody Allen, relished a good concert, loved walking the streets of London and was very fond of chocolate (in disciplined amounts with a good cup of coffee!)" (p. 110)

He had amazing self-discipline and endurance. He frequently rose at 4:30 a.m. and went to bed around 10:00 p.m., but always took a half-hour (exactly) to rest after lunch.

Finally, a couple of personal notes about John Stott. He was an avid bird-watcher, and traveled to many places in the world just to find particular birds. Frequently he stayed a couple of extra days at the end of foreign speaking engagements just to look for exotic or rare birds.

He had a great sense of humor. One time in Lima, Peru, he was with a small group trying to cross a very busy avenue. Suddenly, in a brief moment in which there was a short interval in the flow of cars, he jumped across the two lanes of traffic and reached the other side. When his companions were able to join him, he said triumphantly, "Do not forget ... that I live in London and in that city there are only two kinds of people: the quick and the dead." (p. 140)

One of the contributors to this book related the following anecdote. At a retreat for bishops and clergy, Stott told a story of a parish priest who always drank a glass of milk at the pulpit before he started preaching. "One Sunday some naughty choirboys removed some of the milk from the glass and filled it up with whisky. So, when the priest went to the pulpit he tasted his glass of milk, hesitated a bit, licked his lips and sipped a little more, and then drank the whole glass, after which he exclaimed, ?What a cow!'" (pp. 145-146)

I really enjoyed this book. Although it is sort of a hagiography and no doubt emphasizes all the positive things about him, nevertheless, I was inspired by it. It brought me back to my evangelical roots, while at the same time showing me that a famous evangelical leader like Stott was not narrow-minded and rigid but was really alive to the whole world and lived joyfully in it as a Christian.

Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World, Frank C. Laubach (Revell, 1946) (read Nov. 1973)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A brief, simple, persuasive book about prayer. Although not too profound, it does have many good points to make. It was written at the end of World War II, and while it should therefore be quite dated, it really seems to fit our 1973 situation just as well.

Basically the author says that millions of Christians must begin to pray and pray without ceasing if we are going to survive as a world. He points out that prayer can be brief, informal, and even non-stop in a sense. His explanation of how prayer works to affect other people whom we pray for (p. 53 et seq.) is somewhat novel. He says it's like radio beams which are always in the air but only received by those who are tuned in. We should therefore broadcast our prayers so that those who are "tuned in" may pick up what we are sending. This is how we help God by praying. (?)

In Chapter 4 he lists a number of prayer "experiments" such as bouncing prayers off the backs of people's heads when sitting behind them (p. 74) and seeing how they respond by turning around or brightening up or giving some other recognizable signal that shows that the prayer has been received.

All in all, a bit gimicky and superficial, but helpful as an encouragement to constantly pray and grow in prayer power.

Prayer -- The Vital Link, William J. Krutza (Judson Press, 1983) (read 3/83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Not an especially inspiring or insightful book on prayer, although it does have some good suggestions. Not well written, with awkward metaphors and sometimes ridiculous language ("Ah, yes, the prayer aerator has been working well. Keep it plugged in!"). Heavy emphasis on technique; on such things as avoiding cliches, on being as specific as possible, on learning as much as possible about people for whom we pray.

The author points out that "most praying centers on personal economics, personal comforts, and personal physical well-being." (p. 9) He wants "to dispel ambiguity by developing the clearest possible formulas for prayer experiences." (p. 12) The author seems to react negatively to "rigid patterns" of prayer and says we should develop prayer patterns that will fit our lifestyle, even if that's just "the short time you spend shaving or getting ready to go to work." (p. 27)

Psychology as Religion, Paul C. Vitz (Eerdmans paperback, 1977) (read 1982)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Cult of Self-Worship," this book sets forth, in layman's terms, a very persuasive argument that much of modern psychology has become a religion, a form of secular humanism based on worship of the self. (See also the five theses for which he argues, p. 10)

The author is a Christian, an associate professor of psychology at New York University. Although his critique is therefore made from a Christian standpoint, he says his conclusions are usually identical or close to those which could be made by other religions (p. 9). He also points out that psychologists are generally hostile to Christianity. "The universities are so secularized that most academics can no longer articulate why they are opposed to Christianity. There merely assume that for all rational people the question of being a Christian was decided -- negatively -- at some time in the past." (p. 12)

After surveying the four major "self-theorists" -- Fromm, Rogers, Maslow and May -- and the various popularizers of these theorists in the first two chapters, Vitz critizes what he calls selfism as bad science. He notes that the kind of empirical data often relied on to support the self-theorists' ideas -- the statements, emotions and behavior of patients in a clinical setting -- should also be applicable to validate the claims of conversion or spiritual rebirth. (p. 42) Human nature discussed pp. 44 et seq.

Much of the book is, of course, a critique of modern psychology from a specifically Christian perspective. I found significant his discussion of the impact of selfism on the family (pp. 83 et seq.), sex education programs (p. 109), and "escape from the self" (pp. 126 et seq.).

In a few places the author's enthusiasm leads him away from his subject, such as his discussion of persecution of Christians in totalitarian states (p. 114). Overall, however, this is a well-written and tremendously important book.

Titles beginning with the letter "Q"
Question of God, The: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. (Free Press, 2002) (read spring-summer 2004) 
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For another review, click here.

The author of this engaging book, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and editor and coauthor of The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (3rd Ed., 1999), is a Christian who has taught a course on Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis for more than 25 years. Now he has published the essence of his course in this 300-page book.

This is a philosophical book. Not, perhaps, philosophy at a very deep or sophisticated level, but the ideas discussed are central to human existence and have always been discussed or at least thought about by thinking people. These are captured in the subtitle: "God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life."

What Dr. Nicholi does is contrast the views and the lives of two great men, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, as they pertain to these issues. The views he gleans from the men's writings, letters and books mainly, and the lives he presents from their biographies, letters and reports of others, and autobiographical materials in their writings. In that sense, the book is quite objective and not slanted. The book also has an index, bibliography, and 37 pages of notes in which he gives the source and page number for every factual assertion in the book. However, it may not be totally objective, since the way the issues are framed and the material is presented at least seems to reveal the author's own position.

So what does the book actually say? He divides it into two parts with questions as headings: "What should we believe?" and "How should we live." Before getting to those questions, though, he devotes an opening chapter to outlining the lives of Freud and Lewis. In this chapter, he shows, for example, how similar the lives of the two men were in the first several decades of their lives, and how dramatically different they were after Lewis' conversion. He points out that both had striking intellectual gifts revealed in childhood, both suffered significant losses early in life (Freud, a beloved nanny; Lewis, his mother), both had difficult, conflict-ridden relationships with their fathers, both received early instruction in the faith of their family (Freud, Jewish; Lewis, Christian), and both, heavily influenced by reading certain authors, rejected their early belief system and became atheists in their teens. The critical difference was that one, Lewis, eventually rejected atheism and became a Christian.

In the "belief" part of the book, the chapters, after the first, are:

    2. Is There an Intelligence Beyond the Universe?"
    3. Is There a Universal Moral Law?
    4. The Great Transition: Which Road to Reality?" (Here, "transition" refers to Lewis's conversion from an atheist to a Christian.)

In the "life" part of the book, his chapter headings are:

    5. Happiness: What Is the Source of Our Greatest Enjoyment in Life?
    6. Sex: Is the Pursuit of Pleasure Our Only Purpose?
    7. Love: Is All Love Sublimated Sex?
    8. Pain: How Can We Resolve the Problem of Suffering?
    9. Death: Is Death Our Only Destiny?

The author's basic technique in these chapters is to present the views of first one man and then the other, conflating these views with descriptions of how their lives reflected or, sometimes, contradicted their stated views.

I found many surprises in this book. Freud, often thought to be the father of free love, or at least of freer sexual expression, actually lived and raised his children quite conservatively and strictly. As revealed mainly in his letters, Freud the atheist was apparently haunted all his life by the idea that God might actually exist. And Freud was obsessed with the thought of dying and several times predicted his own death.

This would be a great book to give to a thinking unbeliever.

Titles beginning with the letter"R"
Reader's Guide to the Best Evangelical Books, The, Mark Lau Branson (Harper, paperback, 1982) (read 1982-83) 
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An excellent survey of Christian books. Although the title says "Evangelical" books, it's not narrowly evangelical in scope. In fact the forward indicates that other books are included, but the "bibliographic selections generally stay within the parameters of classical orthodox thought."

There are two main divisions: "The Christian Life" and "The Bible, the Church, and the World." Each major category (The Bible, Christian History, etc.) within these divisions is broken down into subcategories, each of which is introduced by several introductory paragraphs and then a listing of relevant books with very brief annotations. Following the major categories is a "Favorite Books" section, in which "leaders in the church" offer their top ten choices, five named as "most influential" in the contributor's personal life and five as most influential in that person's professional life. There are some strange bedfellows here! (e.g., History of the English-Speaking People by Churchill and What Really Happened to the Class of '65 by Medved and Wallechinsky, which are among James Dobson's personal choices.)

There is an author/contributor index, but no title index, which would be helpful.

Realities, M. Basilea Schlink (Zondervan Pub. House, paper, 1966)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The subtitle of this book is "The Miracles of God Experienced Today," and that's what it's about – miracles of God's provision in response to believing prayer.

The authors are members of the "Mary Sisterhood" in Darmstadt, Germany, which was founded after World War II as the result of revival in some girls' Bible classes. They describe the highlights of their growth, which came about primarily through prayer. The book reminded me of the biography, George Muller of Bristol, by A.T. Pierson, in that the "Mary Sisters" apparently did not tell others of their needs, but told the Heavenly Father who then provided for them through the hands of others.

A primary emphasis in this book is on the goodness of God – He delights to give good gifts to his children. Another strong emphasis is on the Father's leading – it's his will that is to be carried out.

One thing that comes through loud and clear is the fact that there are conditions for God answering prayer. "He will not accept prayers from hearts unwilling to forgive and live in love." (p. 28)

"Depending on the circumstances we will underline our prayers with such things as special offerings, fastings, vigils, and giving up something in some area of our everyday life." (p. 56) See also p. 88 for an illustration of "seeing" things in faith; Sister Schlink "saw" a cow actually moving into a stall that they build for it after they had been praying for a cow.

Finally, the postscript (pp. 121-128) sums up lessons of effective prayer life, citing Scripture.

Reasonable Faith, A, Anthony Campolo (Word Books, 1983) (read 1984)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Responding to Secularism," this is basically a plea for Christians to use their heads as well as their hearts in confronting the world. The author surveys secularism in an easy-to-read style and then talks about the ways Christians should respond to its claims and assumptions. The writing is at times a bit awkward, but not distractingly so.

Campolo points out that two things prevent us from really living life now: guilt and anxiety. "Guilt keeps me oriented to the past. It focuses my attention on the things that I should have done, and the things that I should not have done. Guilt is a burden that saps my energy, dissipates my enthusiasm for life, and destroys my appetite for savoring the fullness of each moment. Anxiety, on the other hand, orients me to the future and keeps me from enjoying life in the present, because of the dread that I have about the future." (p. 119)

I could not find much in Campolo's views or interpretations to disagree with, and was impressed with the scope of his learning. He is not narrowly evangelical. This book should have an index, because it contains brief descriptions of many important thinkers, such as Darwin, Newton, Freud, Maslow, Sartre, etc., and it would be helpful to be able to quickly look them up.

Redeeming Law, Michael P. Schutt (InterVarsity Press, 2007) (read winter 2014)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Christian Calling and the Legal Profession," this is not a simplistic proof-texting discussion of how Christian lawyers should practice their profession. Instead, it is an impressive scholarly analysis of that subject. I know I am not really a scholar, but I consider myself at least intelligent and interested enough to think about issues like this. However, some parts of this book involved theological and philosophical ideas that were very difficult for me to understand.

Schutt's approach is conservative and evangelical. He assumes a Christian lawyer will be a Christian spouse and parent, be active in a local church, and bear witness as a Christian in his or her law practice. However, although he cites many evangelical writers, he also uses sources from Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants as well as from ancient texts. (The book contains a complete author and subject index and index to cited scriptures.)

Many of Schutt's suggestions consist of practical advice to law students, such as telling them to set their priorities (worship, study, prayer, etc.) straight in law school, because it won't be any easier when they are practicing law. (pp.126-127).

Perhaps the key concept for Schutt is integrity, which means "an unity of life, thought, and conduct in and across every area of life." (p. 99; emphasis by author) See especially chapter 6, "Unity and the Integrated Lawyer," and Part 3, "Integrity in Practice."

Interesting discussion of humility on pp. 222-224, including this quote from Jamie Lash: "Humility is not debasing ourselves; it is getting our focus off of ourselves altogether. Belittling ourselves is not humility, but a hidden form of pride. We are still the center of our own attention." (p. 222) This is very hard for me to do, which I'm sure is why I'm not humble.

Finally, quoting Professor Craig A. Stern, the author explains the concept of "moral luck," which basically refers to the fact that sometime one who has the intention to do evil is thwarted, not by a change of mind, but by an intervening force that prevents the evil result (e.g., the intended victim stoops to tie his shoe just as the bullet whizzes overhead). Why should the accidental failure to kill be punished less severely than a successful attempt? The explanation, for a Christian, is based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which reflects the difference between the civil law (good but not perfect) with the moral law (God's perfect law). Consequently, although the result under criminal law will be different, in God's ultimate judgment both acts – the successful and the intended-but-unsuccessful – will be treated the same.

Although Schutt does not use this example, Christ's teaching on divorce (see Mt. 10:2-12, esp. 3-5) might, by analogy, be explained this way. Would it also explain how Christians should understand such current social issues as abortion and gay marriage?

I found this book to be valuable and challenging, and would recommend it to any Christian lawyer or law student who is not intimidated by big ideas.

Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1958) (read 1984; reread 1998)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is C.S. Lewis speaking as a layman to laymen about the Psalms, and what he has to say is, to me, very interesting and helpful. He uses the version of the Psalms found in the Anglican prayer book, which differs somewhat from the King James and quite a bit from modern translations. Only a few of the 150 Psalms are covered, many only in passing. He primarily discusses features of the Psalms in general, rather than specific Psalms.

Lewis emphasizes that the Psalms are poems, and he points out that their chief formal characteristic is one that survives in translation: parallelism, the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.

Among the subjects that he helpfully explains are why "judgment" appears to be a positive thing in the Psalms and a negative in the New Testament (in the Psalms judgment means justice in a civil action; in the New Testament it refers to a criminal action); why God commands man to praise Him ("In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him"); the cursings and spirit of hatred, as in urging God to slay his enemies and bash their infants' brains on the rocks (apparently this is part of the realism of the Bible, not to be emulated, and also shows that the psalmist at least takes sin seriously); and why the Old Testament does not seem to be aware of any future life, either in heaven or hell (pp. 36-41; God wanted to first teach the Jews to love Him for who He is, apart from what He might bestow).

The book contains an appendix listing the Psalms discussed or mentioned in the text.

Righteous Mind, The, Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon Books, 2012) (read fall 2012)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is an amazing, eye-opening book. For my full review, see separate review. For my basic conclusions, read on.

1. Morality is mostly innate, built into our natures (by evolution, says Haidt). It mostly depends on intuitions, not reason. Generally, we first make a moral judgment, and then come up with reasons to support it. "Intuitions come first; strategic reasoning second."

2. Innateness does not mean fixed and universal; it means we start out with a complex brain that is flexible and subject to change: "Built-in" does not mean unmalleable; it means "organized in advance of experience." We start out with a "first draft" of our moral convictions, but this may be revised by education and experience. We are pre-disposed, but not hard-wired, to become what we become.

3. Because of the dominating role of intuition rather than reason, it is very important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth or establish policy. That way, our prejudices (intuitions that drive our moral judgments) tend to neutralize the prejudices of others.

4. There are different kinds of morality. Most of the world rejects our western "morality of autonomy," which assumes that morality largely consists of avoiding harm to individuals and promoting fairness among individuals.

5. Another major system of morality stresses the ethics of community. This kind of morality views people not so much as individuals, but as members of larger entities, families, teams, companies, tribes, nations. This leads to moral concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation, and patriotism, because these protect the social fabric on which everyone depends.

6. Still another widely-held morality is based on the concept of divinity, which holds that people "are not just animals with an extra serving of consciousness; they are children of God and should behave accordingly." Some things are just wrong, even if they cause no harm and violate nobody's rights, because they are degrading and violate the "sacred order of the universe."

7. Liberals have a narrower view of morality than conservatives, mainly limiting it to caring for and avoiding harm to others, promoting liberty and fighting oppression, and playing fair and avoiding cheating, although liberals are often willing to trade away fairness (as proportionality, not as equality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression.

8. Conservatives recognize these moral concepts, but they also recognize loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation as moral foundations. Conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice the care/harm foundation and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral objectives.

9. Liberals tend to favor egalitarianism over hierarchy, believing that: hierarchy = power = exploitation = evil. But Haidt says that while hierarchy can always be exploited to hurt those on the bottom, often it serves a good purpose, such as maintaining order and justice in a chaotic world. This gives everyone "a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station."

10. "Groupishness" – the human ability, under some conditions, of transcending our natural self-interest to "lose ourselves" in something larger than ourselves (a team, nation, etc.) – generally leads to making people less selfish and more loving. Haidt calls this the "hive switch" (self-centered humans become more like altruistic bees), and he has some good suggestions of how to make this happen, such as emphasizing similarity, not diversity; exploiting synchrony (people moving together, as in singing or doing calisthenics), and creating healthy competition among teams, not individuals.

11. Happiness does not come from within ourselves or from some outside source. It comes from between; from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself (like God?).

12. Haidt's appraisal of conservatism includes appreciation for its tendency to conserve "moral capital," the sets of values, practices, institutions, etc., that enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and induce cooperation. Conversely, conservatives sometimes fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

13. Liberals are right to see that governments can and should restrain overly-powerful corporations, and that some problems really can be solved by governmental regulation. But liberals have their own blind spots, such as a tendency to overreach, to change too many things too quickly, and to reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently, as, for example, in failing to see the danger of pushing for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital (e.g., welfare programs that reduce the value of marriage and increase out-of-wedlock births).

Titles beginning with the letter "S"

Scripture and Social Action, Bruce D. Rahtjen (Abingdon Press, 1966, paperback)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Overall impression: excellent! Obviously written for lay readers, but not oversimplified. Readable, brief (125 pp.), with bibliography and questions for discussion.

Rahtjen traces Christian understanding of social action through the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament), through church history, and in the present time. He shows how both fundamentalism and liberalism went off course. The chapter on "Where do we begin?" is not especially helpful, but that does not detract from the rest of the book.

Some highlights: We must read the Old Testament christologically (p. 17). Martin Luther was committed to "medieval feudalism" and Calvin was not much better on social concern, but Wesley was different (p. 52 et seq.)

In the feud betweindividualsen fundamentalists and liberals, the only choice in American Protestantism was "social concern with little theological foundation, or an orthodox theology which had no concept of social responsibility." (p. 76) The question, "What would Jesus have done in this situation," which was asked by both liberals and fundamentalists from different perspectives, is a "useless and nearly meaningless one." (p. 83)

The right theological basis for answering social-need questions is based on three doctrines: Incarnation, Divine Grace, and Divine Love. (p. 93; see summary on p. 106)

The impossibility of man "making it on his own;" quicksand illustration. (p. 97)

Selected Sermons of St. Augustine, Quincy Howe, Jr., Trans. & Ed. (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966) (read winter 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The translator of these sermons by St. Augustine says he read more than 500 of his sermons and selected 30 that "seemed particularly persuasive, instructive, beautiful, or memorable." I found them a very mixed bag, not uniform in structure, length, content, or any other way.

Yet there were some gems sprinkled throughout, and I am glad I read this book.

Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter J. Gomes (William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1998) (read winter-spring 2002)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A book of sermons from the pastor of Harvard University's Memorial Church. Although Gomes is theologically liberal, he is an excellent writer, or craftsman of sermons, and I enjoyed almost all of the forty short addresses in this volume. Often he finds a relatively obscure text and says something about it that makes sense.

Seven Storey Mountain, The, Thomas Merton (Harvest paperback, orig. 1948) (read summer 2007)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

I was absorbed in reading this classic autobiography of the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton, who was born January 31, 1915.

He grew up irreligious but developed a particular disdain for Protestants. He says that "sometimes Protestant theology does, in certain circumstances, amount to little more than a combination of sociology and religious history." (p. 84)

Merton was affected deeply by the poetry of William Blake, which he says is "extraordinarily difficult and obscure" and contains "some of the confusion of almost all the heterodox and heretical mystical systems that ever flourished in the west." (p. 87) He says Blake's rebellion, "for all its strange heterodoxies, was fundamentally the rebellion of the saints. It was the rebellion of the lover of the living God, the rebellion of one whose desire of God was so intense and irresistible that it condemned, with all its might, all the hypocrisy and petty sensuality and skepticism and materialism which cold and trivial minds set up as unpassable barriers between God and the souls of men." (p. 87)

Merton is really a good writer. He tells about his first adolescent crush on a girl, when he was 16 and crossing the Atlantic alone: "I would rather spend two years in a hospital than go through that anguish again! That devouring, emotional, passionate love of adolescence that sinks its claws into you and consumes you day and night and eats into the vitals of your soul! All the self-tortures of doubt and anxiety and imagination and hope and despair that you go through when you are a child, trying to break out of your shell, only to find yourself in the middle of a legion of full-armed emotions against which you have no defense! It is like being flayed alive." (p. 88; see also the middle two paragraphs on p. 90, which are very funny.)

(When he was 18) "I believed in the beautiful myth about having a good time so long as it does not hurt anybody else." (p. 103)

(Confession of faith while he is writing this book) "It was there [in Rome] I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and Who owns and rules my life." p. 109)

Merton is at his most Catholicky when he talked about the Virgin Mary. "People do not realize the tremendous power of the Blessed Virgin. They do not know who she is: that it is through her hands all graces come because God has willed that she thus participate in His work for the salvation of men." (p. 229) "Sanctity comes to us through her intercession. God has willed that there be no other way." (p. 230) Strange that nothing is mentioned of this in the Bible, which does record that Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6).

"It is a kind of pride to insist that none of our prayers should ever be petitions for our own needs: for this is only another subtle way of trying to put ourselves on the same plane as God – acting as if we had no needs, as if we were not creatures, not dependent on Him and dependent, by His will, on material things too." (p. 247)

An offhand comment that seems to illustrate the enormous gap between salvation by faith and salvation by works: "And as I left the church there was no lack of beggars to give me the opportunity of almsgiving, which is an easy and simple way of wiping out sins." (p. 280, emphasis added)

When called by the draft board at the beginning of World War II, Merton examined the classic requirements of a "just war," concluding that it was a war of self-defense, not aggression; that it was probably necessary as a last-resort (though he deferred to the "men in Washington" on that question); but he could not agree that the means used in the war was moral. However, the draft at that time had made provision for "non-combatant objectors," who were willing to serve, in the medical corps, for example, but not shoot a gun or drop a bomb. So he made plans to be drafted, but then failed the physical exam, so he was not taken. (pp. 311-315)

"The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real." (p. 330)

Full of doubt and indecision about whether he could ever be what he longed to be – a Trappist monk – Merton decided to ask God what he should do, or what he was going to do with his life, through the Scriptures. So he opened the Bible at random and put his finger down, and it was on the words "Behold, thou shalt be silent," spoken by the angel to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:20). To him, the word "Trappist" stood for silence, and so he felt, deep down, that this really was God's answer, though he thought it was a foolish and immature way of seeking it. (pp. 333-334)

"Before we were born, God knew us. He knew that some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy, and that others would love Him from the moment that hey could love anything ...." (p. 419) It seems strange to me that Merton could know so much Scripture and yet make statements like this, which directly contradict Isaiah. 53:5, Rom. 3:23, and other Scripture. In the very next paragraph he refers to "Him for Whom all things were created," and this book is filled with similar allusions, but somehow he misses some major teachings of the Bible.

I must say I enjoyed reading this book, despite my misgivings about Merton's views on some things. He is a beautiful writer, and he writes with passion, and that comes through. A very fine book, definitely worth reading.

Short History of Nearly Everything, A, Bill Bryson (Broadway Books, Random House, paper, 2003) (read spring 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A breezy, easy-reading survey of everything known – or thought to be known – about the material universe. The author has obviously dipped into lots of resources and interviewed lots of scientists, and he has a knack for explaining very complicated things simply, perhaps too simply. There is no hint in this book that there is anything – or any One – behind it all. Everything just came to be, through evolution, despite incredible odds against it.

Here are some notable excerpts:

"Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours." (p. 2)

On the formation of life on earth: "It was a singularly hostile environment and yet somehow life got going. Some tiny bag of chemicals twitched and became animate." (p. 39)

After explaining how tiny discrepancies in DNA replication may produce a slight advantage or disadvantage for the body, and that "[O]ver time these slight modifications accumulate in both individuals and populations, contributing to the distinctiveness of both," he talks about the "balance between accuracy and errors in [DNA] replication" and attributes the results to evolution. "By such means does Darwinian natural selection look after us. ... Evolution simply won't let you become too different – not without becoming a new species anyway." (p. 409)

Bryson is a terrific writer, with a gift for apt analogies. For example, in talking about the fact that, to work properly, proteins must not only have the right chemistry but also must be "folded into an extremely specific shape," he says this is extremely difficult because "Proteins loop and coil and crinkle into shapes that are at once extravagant and complex. They are more like furiously mangled coat hangers than folded towels." (p. 414)

In commenting about the fact that humans have caused the extinction of many species of living creatures: "It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously." (p. 477)

And so I reached the end of the book, understanding more than I did before, and thoroughly enjoying the trip. I would give this book an A for general nonfiction. The book does have a pretty good index.

Signposts in a Strange Land, Walker Percy (1991) (read 1996-97)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A collection of essays and other non-fiction which reveals the author's interest in science and strong Roman Catholic convictions. While most of the pieces are not particularly memorable, I read one twice: "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind" (p. 271). This essay asserts that our modern scientific view of the world is "radically incoherent," basically because it cannot relate material things -- things that can be seen or measured -- with nonmaterial things that can only be described. He points out that psychology talks about material things -- neurones, synapses, central nervous system, brain -- and nonmaterial things -- consciousness, ego, superego, etc. -- but cannot relate one to the other.

He thinks an American scientist who lived a hundred years ago, Charles Sanders Peirce, pointed the way to the answer. Peirce, who is known for his contributions to symbolic logic and semiotics (the science of signs), said the only way to get at the great rift between mind and matter was to look at language, where mind and matter intersect. He said there are two kinds of natural events in the world. One is dyadic, the interaction of physical things, which the hard sciences deal with, and the other is triadic, which involves the use of symbols and a "third person interpreter." Percy says the simplest example is a child's learning that things have names. When the child grasps that the word "cat" means not just the cat he is looking at but all cats, he has learned something new and real that cannot be understood in a dyadic or two dimensional cause-and-effect model. The use of language requires an association between, for example, "cat" the creature and "cat" the sound image.

The importance of this is, first, that it "moves the entire world into the reach of our peculiar species." That is, through the use of language we can communicate what we can imagine, as well as what we see, feel, etc. This is apparently unique to humans; efforts to teach chimpanzees to speak have never succeeded beyond simple response stimulation -- say these words and you get a banana.

There is much more in this essay and it would be worth reading again.

Sixth Continent, The, Mark Frankland (Harper & Row, paper, 1987) (read summer 1989)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Readable account of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980's, focusing on Gorbachev's rise to power. Highly anecdotal and therefore perhaps not totally accurate.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher (Harper Colophon Books, paper, 1975) (read Jan. 1981)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A wonderful book of great clarity and common sense. Main theme is that the rampant materialism of the West is threatening to destroy us, and that we need to restructure economics and science on a spiritual or metaphysical base, so as to create a "lifestyle designed for permanence." (p. 19)

The trouble with economics, says Schumacher, is that it yields a fragmentary judgment, ignoring important non-quantifiable factors (social, aesthetic, moral or political), and that it tends to reduce everything to financial terms. "... [I]t is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man's dependence on the natural world." (p. 41, emphasis by author)

Chapter on "Buddhist Economics," which emphasizes the "nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work," and hence the need for full employment.

Schumacher not only argues that "small is beautiful," but also that "big is beautiful" - where bigness is necessary. It's a question of balance. (p. 61)

Part II on Resources. The greatest resource is education, and the task of education is transmission of "ideas of value, of what to do with our lives." (p. 75) Six leading nineteenth century ideas which still dominate our thinking today (p. 81), described as "a bad, vicious, life-destroying type of metaphysics," (p. 84) must be opposed by three different metaphysical ideas, discussed on pp. 89-94.

Nuclear energy is "damnation," primarily because of the insoluble problem of waste disposal. (pp. 126-137)

Key chapter on "Technology with a Human Face," in which he puts forth the concept of "intermediate" or "self-help" technology. Most concise statement of our present peril is the parable of the prodigal son, and the Sermon on the Mount could teach us an "economics of survival." (p. 147)

Part III. The Third World, characterized by mass unemployment and mass migration into cities. Need to develop "millions of workplaces," which can best be done through application of "intermediate technology." (p. 163 et seq.) Suggestions for dealing with third world problems. (pp. 180-208)

Part IV. Organisation and Ownership, discusses planning, theory of large-scale organisation, socialism, private ownership, social responsibility of business, and epilog.

A great book!

Social Conscience of the Evangelical, The, Sherwood Eliot Wirt (Harper & Row, 1968)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Overall impression: a very poor book, one that I would not recommend to anyone. The author is really hung up on typical evangelical problems: evangelism vs. social concern, right-wing politics (though not extreme), economic conservatism, bibliotry, etc. Occasionally he displays plain ignorance of the facts, especially in discussing Communism and Vietnam.

p. 12 lists a few Bible references on specific social concerns.

p. 39 says the social gospel originated as an evangelical effort (citing authority).

p. 80 quote about men taking pride in things they cannot control, like skin color.

p. 154 "To pit social action against evangelism is to raise a phony issue, one that Jesus would have spiked in a sentence."

So Long, Sweet Jesus, Bill Milliken (Prometheus Press, 1973)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A readable and powerful sequel to Tough Love. The language is vulgar and will shock many Christians. Some of it is probably necessary for authenticity, but I think it's overdone.

The book is quite autobiographical, and tells how Bill became depressed and frustrated with the horror of corporate evil seen in the ghetto, drugs, poverty, violence, etc., and also with the horror of war such as in Vietnam. He gets into the militant and the revolutionary bag and then finds out that they don't have the answer -- one of the militants drives a Porsche while a revolutionary dies of a drug overdose.

The turning point apparently came at a weekend meeting with Clarence Jordan, who explained the concept of a nonviolent revolutionary.

The book is very well written, with considerable drama. The verbal pictures are vivid: an $80,000 church organ, a baby's food nearly torn off by a rat, "room was so small that the rats we found in there were hunchback." Bill is candid about exposing his own feelings, for example, of rage, anger and violence. He is very emotional.

Highlights: Confronting Graham on Vietnam, p. 158; Christian "niceness," p. 164; start of communal living, p. 172 et seq.; "Zorba" enthusiasm for life, p. 177.

Solzhenitsyn at Harvard: The Address, Twelve Early Responses, and Six Later Reflections, Ronald Berman, Ed. (Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1980) (read December 1980)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This important book contains the text of Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement address in 1978 (18 pages); a dozen "early responses" – editorials and commentary from various newspapers and magazines, from left to right wing (49 pages); and six "later reflections" or essays from scholars in history, law, theology, philosophy, etc. (69 pages).

To me this book was fascinating; I read and reread Solzhenitsyn's address. I suppose only he could agree with all of it. He is a hardnosed right-wing conservative in matters of foreign policy, rabidly anti-Communist. On the other hand, he condemns the West for its gross materialism, which he thinks has prevented "free spiritual development," for its excessive legalism, abuse of press freedom, "revolting pressures of advertising, TV stupor, and intolerable music." He emphatically rejects the idea that the world is converging into a unity; rather, the world is split into many factions (not just East and West) and these factions are growing further apart. He sees our great problem as the swallowing up of our spiritual heritage by "rational humanism" which has led to our grossly materialistic culture.

I found both the "early responses" and the "later reflections" to be very interesting, easy to read, and widely divergent, contradicting each other as well as Solzhenitsyn. The journalistic responses range from James Reston and a New York Times editorial on the "left" to George F. Will and a National Review editorial on the "right."

Someday I should buy a copy of this book and reread Solzhenitsyn again. His words may be prophetic. He comes from a much different tradition in Christianity – Russian Orthodox – but he clearly sees some of the basic Christian truths, such as the depravity of man and the need for spiritual values; the danger of secular humanism; the need for self-discipline, etc. Whether he correctly applies them to Western society from his enclave in Vermont is open to more question. I would find it hard to ever agree with his assessment of Vietnam, and for one who speaks so strongly of spiritual values, he seems awfully attached to military power for security.

Song of Ascents, A, E. Stanley Jones (Abingdon Press, 1968) (read Nov. 1972)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is E. Stanley Jones "spiritual autobiography," and it has all the virtues and all the faults of his other books. It is not great literature, but it is readable and interesting. It is not intellectual, but it is profound in many ways. He loves little puns ("Unless your song is cosmic, it is comic") and neat little alliterative phrases. He organizes his points into logical tidy package, often in numbered series.

As a man and a Christian, Jones come through, to me, as somewhat egotistical and paternalistic, but with a marvelously balanced and triumphant life. This book contains enormous amounts of usable information, more than theory or ideas. Much of the material is taken from his other books, but here he synthesizes it.

Specifics: Jones had a conversion experience at a Methodist evangelistic service (p. 27); then a year later he had a separate experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit (p. 53), but he disclaims speaking in tongues and considers that emphasis devisive (p. 59). Seven things that happened when he became a Christian (p. 28). Life attitude: "Make everything serve." (p. 37) He is critical of Paul's speech in Athens (p. 107). He is a pacifist (p. 114). "God created everything through Christ" (p. 160, citing scripture). Five ways God guides us (p. 188). Ashram decision-making (p. 218). Healing (p. 228). Federated church (p. 272). Freedom and discipline (p. 296). Health (p. 330).

Soul of Atlas, The, Mark Henderson (self-published, 2013) (read summer 2013)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

I learned a lot from this book, which compares Ayn Rand's Objectivism with Christianity. The author, Mark Henderson (my niece Kristin's husband) is unusually well-qualified to write on the subject. Aside from having degrees from Brown University and Columbia University, he was raised until age 11 by his biological father, a devout Christian, and from that time to adulthood by his step-father, a committed Objectivist. Both men are intellectual giants and passionate about their beliefs.

The author bends over backward to be fair to both belief systems. In a particularly helpful chapter, he explains Rand's concept of "selfishness" as "rational self-interest." (p. 130) But his efforts to shine a good light on Objectivism are not persuasive to me. From his quotations from Ayn Rand's works, it seems to me that she sets up straw men only to knock them down; for example, by arguing that Jesus (or his interpreters) gave men "a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one's soul, one must love or help or live for others." (p. 135) Henderson immediately points out that here Rand misinterpreted the Gospel, but then appears to water down his disagreement by talking about "God, the Egoist." (pp. 136-138) To me, that is nonsense.

God is, in a sense, an egoist, because he is sui generis. He cannot be compared to humans in his desire to be worshiped, and his Word makes that clear. In other words, just because God claims to be and is the Center of Reality, that does not mean that we have any claim to be the center of our universe. In fact, that's what's wrong with the world; everybody seeking to put himself or herself as numero uno. A very unRandian thought?

Since Henderson ultimately comes down on the side of Christianity, I certainly have no quarrel with most of his analysis. And I'm sure his step-father, John, is an incredible man, deeply sincere and well-meaning, as is his father, David. Nevertheless, I would caution the reader that they, like everyone else (me, too) have their biases. So, while in my own limited understanding, I mainly agree with the author and his father, I take issue with statements like the following:

While Objectivism and Christianity differ at their core, the logical conclusions they embrace lead to similar behavior. ... {T}hey see the same ideas opposing their own. They know the answer is not more government. It's not Collectivism that provides the answer, solution by committee. They may have different ideas about how to live their lives as individuals, but they want the liberty and the freedom to do that, instead of the government trying to do that for them. (p. 213)

Both [the Christian and the Objectivist] can agree on the harmful effects of a government that overextends itself by taking those decisions away from the individual. (p. 215)

The implication of these and other statements in the book is that Christianity equals conservatism, which many Christians (like me) would strongly dispute. It seems to be that the coalescence of Objectivism and Christianity that the author seems to advocate is one reason why "the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer" (to quote an unfavorite author of Rand's); why one percent of the citizens of this country own 90% of its wealth; why freedom in fact, as opposed to freedom in theory, belongs to the wealthy. As Anatole France put it, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

In short, this is a really good book, well worth reading, especially if (like me) you don't know much about Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. But the book has its own slant on Christianity, which I think can only be corrected by a deeper study of the words of its Founder. "Deny yourself" is not another way of saying "Pursue your enlightened self-interest."

Step From Death, A, Larry Woiwode (Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, 2008) (read spring 2014)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to fiction directory]

This memoir by a very graceful writer begins with a frightening tractor accident that almost killed him. His loose-flapping denim jacket got caught in the power take-off (PTO) and wound him tight against the tractor, which providentially shut down. (pp. 8-10, 12 et seaq.).

Another almost-tragedy occurs when his only son, Joseph, to whom (with his wife and children) the book is dedicated, is thrown and rolled on by a horse. (pp. 114-121) Woiwode tells the story so smoothly and dramatically that whether Joseph will recover seems to be in doubt until the end, even though he must have survived, since the book was dedicated to him. Really beautifully written.

In fact, the book is filled with tragedies, or near tragedies. Another one happened when his kids found his lighter and literally (but accidentally) burned down the barn. (pp. 101-104) On a winter trip to Arizona they skidded on black ice and were hit head-on by an out-of-control pickup. (pp. 138-145, 152-154) Later Joseph reached under a riding mower before the blades had stopped spinning and they almost ripped his fingers off. (pp. 163-165)

I love to read books by Christians who don't trumpet their faith and probably are not evangelicals. Woiwode acknowledges his faith right at the beginning ("... I am a Christian and have been from the time I can remember ...."; p. 15), but it's really in the unfolding details of his story that the reality of his faith comes through. On passing on the faith, see pp. 112-113 (based on the second question in a children's catechism, "Why did God make all things?") When his son was severely injured by a horse, Woiwode thinks, "I know the good work God started in you will be brought to completion" (a direct quotation from Phil. 1:6, though he doesn't cite it).

He mentions that at the unnamed university where he taught during the winter, he "ran into roadblocks. Chauvinism and outright racism and prejudice were absent from its halls, a welcome habitat, but undergraduates who held traditional religious or spiritual or, especially, Christian views were targets to some professors. Students came to me and complained of how they were cut off before they could finish an opinion or were ridiculed by a professor." (pp. 161-162)

And he says, "not entirely in jest," that he settles at the computer "after an hour of prayer and meditation to steel myself for writing." (p. 79)

There's also a lot of wisdom in this book. He says that adults should be able to "open possibilities to a questioning or doubting or depressed young person ... without shaking a finger or sitting in judgment. He says doing that is an "act of mercy" and "mercy is the fullest expression of love." (p. 69)

Also aphorisms: "The glory of youth is the fire of its passion./ The glory of age is its ability to bank that fire." (p. 69) "The best writer and best spouse and best parent and best friend is a confident listener." (p. 79)

On political correctness at universities, see pp. 237-239. On academic ignorance of the text of the Bible, see pp. 243-244.

Finally, although this is a beautifully written book, it is not, in my opinion, perfect. There is a herky-jerky sense of jumping around in his life because, no doubt for artistic purposes that I don't completely understand, he weaves events that occurred at widely differing times into a whole. He seems to have a very high opinion of himself as a writer, and does a lot of name-dropping of publishers, agents, and other writers (see esp. chap. 9, p. 166 et seq.). On the other hand, he is almost bluntly honest in discussing his shortcomings, especially toward his family.

My conclusion: This is an excellent book, well-worth reading, inspiring at times, and thoroughly enjoyable to someone like me, an aspiring writer without the literary gifts that Woiwode has in abundance.

Story of Philosophy, The, Will Durant (Garden City Pub. Co., 1926, 1927) (read May 1973)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A quite readable history of philosophy as seen in the lives and opinions of the "greater philosophers." The most outstanding philosophers from Plato on are given generous treatment, usually consisting of background (the times in which the philosopher lived), brief biography, main ideas and publications (often shown through quotes), and critique.

The book is, by its very nature, difficult to summarize. I was most impressed by Plato and Spinoza, the latter especially because of his high (though sub-christian) view of Jesus (see p. 181). Most frightening was Nietzsche, whose philosophy of might makes right and superman cult is easily seen as foreshadowing, if not causing, Hitler's reign of terror.

Sudden Family, Debi and Steve Standiford, Nhi and Hy Phan (Word Books, 1986) (read summer 2010)   [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is the story of a young American couple, Steve and Debi Standiford, just out of law school (University of Virginia) and in their first jobs, who went to Thailand on a short-term mission trip to help refugees who were fleeing Vietnam after the Communists took over. There they meet Nhi and Hy Phan, teenaged brothers who were considered unlikely to be sponsored to come to the United States because Nhi, older by two years, was crippled by polio and had to be carried around by his younger brother, Hy.

To shorten the story, Steve and Debi decide to sponsor the two boys, believing they were orphans about nine and 13 years old. Later, much later, they discover that they are 14 and 16 years old and that their parents are still living – they lied, on the advice of older men in the refugee camp, so they would be more likely to be chosen to come to America, where they both believed the doctors could heal Nhi's crippled legs. But by that time Steve and Debi had adopted them and brought them into their home, where they formed an unlikely family.

Nhi and Hy were raised as Buddhists, and this religious/cultural background strongly affects their attitudes as they try to adjust to life in the United States. For example, Nhi believes he had polio because in his past life he was a bad person, so he tries to be good "so that in my next life I will look like everyone else." (p. 27)

This book was especially interesting to Ruth Ann and me because, in an amazing coincidence, we have Nhi and Hy's niece, Sophia Ngo, living with us while she is a student at Roger Williams University. It was fun to read in the book about Nhi and Hy's "little sister" back in Vietnam, who is in fact Sophia's mother.

The book is well-written and very inspiring. It did leave me with some questions; for example, Nhi and Hy, who received so much love and help from the Standifords, don't seem to do much for Sophia. Did they really become Christians, or did they just "go through the motions" to please their new American parents? It would be enjoyable to meet them, and the Standifords, and sort of "continue the story" that is told so well in this book.

Titles beginning with the letter "T"

Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1982) (read 8/83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "Expeditions and Encounters," this book is a collection of personal narratives of varying length. Several are accounts of expeditions or explorations to remote parts of earth – Galapagos Islands, Artic circle – but the rest are accounts of ordinary places – farms, woods, streams – in various parts of the United States.

They are much more than straightforward reports of places visited, however. Mostly the places serve as springboards for the author's thinking-out-loud about life. The one I liked best is entitled "An Expedition to the Pole." In it she juxtaposes considerable history about past polar expeditions, personal experiences with and ruminations about the Church (specifically, the local Roman Catholic Church she had been attending for a year, but more generally the Church at large), and brief observations about her own visit to the Arctic. The point of the narrative seems to be that the Church is going about its mission like the old Artic explorers, who wore braided uniforms and dined with sterling silver, instead of adapting to the conditions necessary to succeed ("reach the Pole"). Rather, we Christians prefer to play our silly games and wear our braided uniforms. But -- God puts up with it all!

Annie Dillard is apparently a Christian, though certainly not a fundamentalist and probably not an evangelical. I like the way she unfailingly respects other views; she is curious, open-minded, fair. She is also an excellent writer, although some of her poetic flights of fancy get beyond me.

Techniques of Novel Writing, A.S. Burack, Ed. (The Writer, Inc., 1973) (read 1/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Mixed bag of suggestions by 40 novelists on how to write a novel. Very readable.

Torches Together, Emmy Arnold (Plough Pub., Rifton, N.Y., 1964, 1971) (read 4/73)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Beginning and Early Years of the Bruderhof Communities," this book is a rather amateurish piece of writing by the wife of the founder of the Bruderhof communities, Eberhard Arnold.

However, it is very interesting to anyone wanting to know more about how Christian communities are formed, as it tells just how this particular group of Christians came together and out of the disillusionment of World War I began to live together in community.

"The Christian must be a perpetual corrective of the State -- a conscience of the State and its legislative task, a leaven, a foreign body in the sense of a higher value; but he cannot be a soldier, an executioner or a police chief." (p. 26, quoting Eberhard Arnold)

Impressions of book: (1) the community had a strong sense of the leading and presence of the Holy Spirit, but not in a charismatic sense (though there were some healings and other apparent miracles); (2) those in the community rejected "Church life and revivalist pietism" (p. 27) in favor of a radical Christianity based on the Sermon on the Mount and combining both spiritual life and social concern; (3) members wore a common symbol (an open ring, p. 58) and had a strong sense of unity and joy, and (4) members endured much suffering and hardship.

"Community can never be founded; it can only be given as a gift of the Spirit." (p. 44) See also quotes on pp. 152, 207 (speech by Eberhard Arnold).

Tough Love, Bill Milliken (with Char Meredith) (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1968)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Story of Young Life's ministry on New York City's lower east side. Readable and powerful.

Need to learn a positive attitude toward failure. (pp. 44, 131, 138)

Proclaiming the Gospel is proclaiming both success and failure -- Christ produces successes and forgives failures. (p. 143)

"... witness is the total involvement of one person's life with another person's life, desspite rejection, despite the other's not needing us or not wanting us." (p. 157)

"Perhaps the one thing that keeps people apart more than anything else is the fear that we won't be liked if people find out what we're really like." (p. 120)

Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott (Pantheon Books, 1999) (read spring-summer 2005)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A mixed bag of autobiographical reflections. The earlier ones, from the author's childhood, seemed better to me, or at least more interesting – she came from an incredibly dysfunctional family. And although she became a Christian and truly believes (says she's probably missed 10 days of church in 12 years!), she is one whacked-out immoral female, alcoholic, drug-addicted, bulimic, and sexually promiscuous, particularly with married men. Sort of a Christian hippie, clearly a refugee from the sixties, politically left-wing, theologically vague.

But she can be uproariously funny. Some things made me laugh out loud, like when she admits to a fundamentalist born-again believer on a plane that she, too, is born again. "I'm probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car ...." (p. 61)

Especially good chapter on bulimia (p. 190 et seq.) But it seems to me that sometimes she struggles to get a spiritual lesson out of a mundane event. All in all, worth reading, well written, but not great. Might be helpful for someone who has a similar wild background.

True Spirituality, Francis A. Schaeffer (Tyndale House Pub., paper, 1971)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

If this book is representative of Dr. Schaeffer's work, then I am not too impressed, although by all reports he has a wonderful ministry in his well-known Swiss retreat, L'Abri.

The book is not well-written and not well-edited. It seems disjointed, rambling, repititious. On p. 143, he says we do not have an "aesthetic" system, when from the context it is clear that he means "ascetic". He talks about things being "totally unique" and "absolutely unique" (p. 58), as if there could be degrees of uniqueness. In style, the book is frequently argumentative; it re-fights the old liberal-fundamentalist battles.

This book is supposed to be about real or true spirituality or Christian living. But it is obviously written by someone out of his head rather than out of his heart. It is based almost wholly on a king of reasoning that is perhaps acceptable if everyone agrees to accept the basic premises on which it is built; e.g., the literal truth of Scripture, space-time limits applicable to the "supernatural world" (p. 66), etc.

All this is not to say that the book is worthless. It has some good points – the emphasis on coveting as the basic inward sin (pp. 7-9), for example – but it could be so much better. There is a sort of arbitrary and dogmatic spirit about it that repels me, although perhaps that says as much about me as about the book. At any rate, I cannot recommend it very highly.

Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd Ed., Mark A. Noll (Baker Book House Co. paper, 2000) (read winter 2004)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

For a brief review, click here.

This Wheaton College historian has picked out a dozen "turning points" in the history of Christianity and described each in a separate chapter. In addition to giving the background and significance of each turning point, he includes hymns, prayers, selections from historical documents, maps, charts, and illustrations. There are study questions and an index at the end of the book.

These are the turning points:

    1. The Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. When Roman legions suppressed a Jewish revolt against Roman leaders and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, this forced the nascent Christian church out into the wider world, where it began to fulfill its Master's command to go into all the world and preach the gospel. The church emerged on its own, no longer as just a sect of the Jews. As Noll puts it, this "move[d] Christianity outward, to transform it from a religion shaped in nearly every particular by its early Jewish environment into a religion advancing toward universal significance in the broader reaches of the Mediterranean world, and then beyond." The critical factors in the process of transforming the church from a localized sect to a worldwide religion were "creed, canon, and episcopacy" -- the "creed" refers to the development of succinct statements of faith to express the early church's understanding of the gospel, such as Apostles' creed and its precursors, the canon was the fixing of a set of authoritative Christian writings added to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the episcopacy was the established means of governing and shaping the church.

    2. The Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325., which produced the Nicene Creed, emphasizing the divinity of Christ, and also (because it was initiated by the Roman Emperor Constantine) began the intermingling of church and state which has had good and bad effects down through history. The main theological issue was settling on the nature of Christ, with Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria in Egypt, contending that Jesus had been created and was not fully equal with God. One of the main ones opposing Arius was Athanasius, who would later become bishop of Alexandria. He argued for the doctrine of the Trinity, and his views ultimately prevailed. The Council concluded that (1) Christ was "very God of very God;" (2) Christ was of "one substance with the Father;" (3) Christ was "begotten, not made;" and (4) Christ became human "for us men, and for our salvation." Noll says, "The turning point in Christian history represented by the Nicene Creed was the church's critical choice for the wisdom of God in preference to human wisdom."

    3. The Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, clarified orthodox Christian teaching, especially about the nature of Christ, who was "one person" consisting of "two natures." Here the issue was not the divinity of Christ, but the humanity, and how he could be both divine and human at the same time. "The key affirmations of the definition [of Christ's nature] reflected the main themes of the New Testament -- that Christ was a united and integrated person, that he was both God and man, that his human and divine natures were not confused, and that these natures were harmoniously joined in a single individual."

    4. The rise of monasteries, epitomized by St. Benedict, who founded the Benedictine order and guided it with the Rule of Benedict, a document laying out the basic principles of monastic life. Noll says the monastic movement "rescued" the church, because it provided a haven for the development and continuation of learning in the turbulent Middle Ages, especially through preserving, copying and studying the Scriptures, and engaged in missions and service to the world.

    5. The coronation of Charles, king of the Franks, as Charlemagne, ruler of the Roman empire in 800 A.D. Since Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Leo III, the coronation symbolized the union of church and state, which was to persevere as "Christendom" for many centuries. Noll treats in some detail the growth and establishment of the papacy, which he says is important in Christian history even though rejected by Protestants. Another important historical fact that led to the coronation of Charlemagne was the tremendous expansion of Islam, which effectively eroded the ties between the Eastern church of Constantinople and the Western church of Rome. Noll says it turned the church "from a Mediterranean, eastern-oriented faith to an expressly European, northward-looking form of religion."

    6. The "Great Schism" - split between the Eastern church ("Orthodox" church), centered in Constantinople, and the Western Church (Roman Catholic), centered in Rome, in 1054 A.D. Good quote about the difference in Eastern and Western church cultures, p. 135. The theological differences between the churches stemmed from the change in the Nicene Creed in which the Western church added "and the Son" in the section that speaks of the Spirit's procession from the Father. Also, the claim of papal supremacy irked the Eastern church. The Crusades mounted by the Western church sealed the breach, especially the Fourth Crusade in which an army of Venetian, French, and Flemish soldiers sacked Constantinople.

    7. The Diet of Worms, in which Martin Luther refused to recant from his writings attacking the papacy unless he could be convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures ... "I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything ...." Thus began the Protestant church, or more accurately, churches. "The authority of the individual conscience had been proclaimed over against the authority of church councils, and in the very face of the emperor himself." (p. 156)

    8.The English Act of Supremacy, in 1534, by which Parliament, at the behest of King Henry VIII, declared that the English church was no part of the church of Rome. This furthered the post-reformation trend of establishing "self-consciously local, particular, and national forms of Christianity." It paralleled the growth of nationalism across Europe. Although King Henry and the other leaders of churches that broke away from Roman Catholicism expected only "legally monopolistic national churches," Protestantism soon split into a wide variety of churches, from the Anabaptists who hewed strictly to Scripture (not using organs in worship, for example, because nothing in Scripture mandated the use of organs in Christian worship) to many churches in the Reformed tradition. As Noll says, "on almost every major issue of Christian doctrine or practical church life, Protestants divided among themselves."

    9. The founding of the Jesuits in 1539 by Ignatius Loyola, a Spanish nobleman and soldier, who developed an intense course of discipleship called the "Spiritual Exercises." Noll says it is "difficult to exaggerate the practical and symbolic significance of the founding of the Jesuits." It was one of the "finest expressions of the Catholic Reformation" which "thoroughly revitalized the Roman Catholic Church." The Jesuits had a strong missionary zeal, with Francis Xavier undertaking missionary journeys to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and China – "150 years before anything comparable can be found among Protestants and 250 years before anything comparable among English-speaking Protestants." The Jesuits and other religious orders were attached to ideals of poverty, chastity, and obedience. During this time the Council of Trent began meeting, which established many dogmatic conclusions in opposition to Protestant beliefs.

    10. The conversion of the Wesleys, John the great preacher and church organizer, and Charles, the great hymn writer, in 1738. Quantitatively, they were amazing. John Wesley traveled about a quarter of a million miles, mostly on horseback, to preach 40,000 sermons (an average of more than two a day). His brother Charles wrote 10,000 hymns, many of which we still sing today. The Wesleyan message was that God's free grace saves sinners who believe in him. They continued the legacy of Luther and the reformers, but also extended it in many ways, such as by itinerant street preaching; organizing small-group cells of believers into bands, societies, and circuits, which became the Methodist Church; and organizing voluntary agencies for social reform on issues such as slavery, drunkenness, and education of unschooled children. As Noll states it, "the work of the Wesleys represents a turning point in the history of Christianity because they and their 'methodist' colleagues renewed doctrines of God's grace that had grown stale in the English church." (p. 228) The Wesleys and the "pietists" on the continent emphasized Scripture, evangelism, small-group organization, and practical social benevolence. The stood for warm personal living faith over formalism and spiritual indifference.

    11. The French revolution of 1789 is listed as a turning point in the history of Christianity because its violent efforts to "dechristianize" France was the beginning of the end of European Christendom as the dominant expression of Christianity in the world. Instead of common acceptance of a basic theological view of the world, secularization became the reigning ideology in almost all areas of life. In science, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species came to symbolize science proceeding on its own without reference to a creator. Eventually even the Bible began to be treated differently, as a human book chronicling evolving Semitic experience rather than a book of divinely inspired truth.

    12. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910 represented the "high tide of Western missionary expansion." It also, indirectly, led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches. According to Noll, it represented a turning point in the history of Christianity because of its ecumenical significance and because it represented the end of an era in which "worldwide Christianity" was equated with the Christianity of Europe and North America. Although it purported to be a conference on the worldwide mission of the "church," only Protestants attended, with the vast majority from Britain and North America. This chapter also surveys the nineteenth century expansion of missions, and the major permanent benefit of missions, the indigenization of Christianity by non-western converts.

A final chapter in this book sums up what might be considered further "turning points" in the history of Christianity that occurred during the twentieth century.

Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, C.P. Snow (Cambridge U. Press, 1959) (read ?/82)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Small (58 pp.) book or essay arguing that a gulf has opened up between the two "cultures" of scientists and educated nonscientists (primarily literary intellectuals), and that this gulf threatens the western world with loss of world leadership. The gulf is primarily one of communication; scientists and nonscientists don't communicate with each other, mostly because they really aren't interested in doing so and don't understand each other. (He says literary intellectuals are "natural Luddites" who have "never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution." (p. 23))

Snow's solution is, apparently, better education. He thinks we should pour money and men -- trained scientists and engineers -- into a crash program to industrialize the poor half of the globe. He's confident that the disparity between the rich and the poor nations will not survive to the year 2000.

It seems to me that Snow is very naive about human nature, and places far too much confidence in man's capacity to change basic things with education and technology. Jesus said "The poor you have with you always," and while I don't think He said that approvingly, it seems to me a far more accurate prediction than Snow has made in this book.

Titles beginning with the letter "U"

Titles beginning with the letter "V"

Vanishing Adolescent, The, Edgar Z. Friedenberg (Dell, 1959, paper)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Interesting analysis of adolescence in the '50's. The author argues that adolescence -- a developmental process through which a child in complex societies learns his social role and function as an adult -- is becoming obsolete. He argues that adults, who frequently dislike or fear adolescents, try to maintain their dominance over them today by seduction and manipulation, rather than by coercion and punishment, which was the former method. (p. 25 et seq.)

Central task of adolescence -- self-definition. (pp. 29, 190)

What high school contributed to adolescent. (p. 72 et seq.)

In adolescence, self-esteem is a crucial problem. (p. 107) "The most tragic thing that happens to lower-status youngsters in school is that they learn to accept the prevailing judgment of their worth. They accept and internalize the social verdict on themselves." (p. 117)

"Fear of disorder, and loss of control; fear of aging, and envy of the life not yet squandered -- these lie at the root of much adult hostility to adolescence." (p. 180) Also, fear of homosexuality. (See p. 181 et seq.)

Adolescents need adults who "can accept them for what they are, without for a moment forgetting how much more they might be." (p. 195)

Victory Through Surrender, E. Stanley Jones (Abingdon Press, 1966)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The title sums it up admirably – the secret of living the Christian life is self-surrender – victory through surrender.

Overall impression: excellent! Both readable and profound. E. Stanley Jones has a gift for capturing great truths in memorable phrases, as in the title of this book.

However, although very readable, this is not a well-written book. Jones just has a flair for writing pithy active-verb sentences, spiced with alliteration and anecdotes. Sometimes his illustrations are superficial and his logic weak. There are no footnotes and no attribution for his many quotes. Particularly weak, I think, is what he calls self-surrender in nature (pp. 74-76), with his cryptic comments about Darwin ("Darwin's interpretation of lower nature as self against the rest was a half-truth ....") and discussion of the "five levels of life" ("The mineral kingdom may decide ....").

But these criticisms do not take away from the value of this wonderful little book.

After examining the answers given by eastern religions to the question of what must be done with the self, and the answers given by modern psychology, and finding them all wanting, the author asserts that "the Christian faith in its New-Testament form asks nothing less and nothing more than self-surrender to God." (p. 27) He says that if you surrender yourself to God, you align yourself with "the creative forces of the universe." The supreme example of self-surrender is, of course, Jesus at Calvary.

"The advice of modern psychology points toward self-assertion, means to put your self in the center. And anything that leaves you at the center is off-center. It feeds the disease it is trying to cure, namely, self-centeredness." (p. 24)

Distinction between surrender and commitment: "You may be committed to a person or a project and not surrendered to that person or project." (p. 28) Distinction between surrender and subjection: "You surrender to God – and to God alone; you are subject to man. If you surrender to man, it makes man your final allegiance. That final allegiance can only be given to God. But you can, and often have to, be subject to man, reserving the final allegiance to God." (pp. 90-91)

Good discussion of Jesus as Lord vice Jesus as teacher (p. 64).

"The sense of not belonging to anything real and eternal is the central insecurity of our time." (p. 80)

Jones says that self-surrender is the cure for loneliness, as he has experienced himself. "But I know nothing of loneliness. I cannot remember when I've had a blue hour or a discouraged one for forty years." (p. 114)

Although he claims that self-surrender is the "basic remedy," it does not solve all problems. "But what it does do is to set up right relationships between you and God, you and yourself, and between you and others. It gives you a framework and an attitude in which your problems can be worked out." (p. 121) This seems true to me, because as Jones says, with self-surrender "you have the central problem solved – the self is no longer at the center trying to be God, it is in its place surrendered and subordinate and aligned to the Highest." (p. 121)

Dec. 14, 2004. Just read this book for the eleventh time, and find it as great as ever. I should reread it every year.

Dec. 4, 2009. Finished twelfth reading. Read it again!

Violence, Jacques Ellul (Seabury Press, 1969) (read Aug. 1972)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Very interesting and profound book on the question of violence, which is broader than the question of pacifism, since the author defines violence in extremely general terms to include spiritual and psychological as well as physical violence. In fact, it's not clear just what human conduct is not violence in Ellul's thinking.

Ellul comes across as thoroughly biblical and conservative in theology. However, he does not base his position that Christians should utterly reject and refuse to participate in violence on simple proof texts, but primarily on his analysis of the nature of violence.

He cites the traditional positions Christians have taken concerning violence: compromise (the "just war" theory, which he says is utterly inapplicable today), nonviolence (such as Ghandi's, which he says is not universally applicable), and (pro)-violence (which he says is usually worked out by politicians who use Christianity as a justification). He spends a lot of time refuting "today's Christians for violence," and then analyzes the "law of violence," which he says is of the "order of Necessity" which the Christian has been freed from.

The book is deficient, in my opinion, in that it doesn't reach the tough questions (defense of family, Hitler problem, pacifists as essentially parasitic, etc.) He apparently believes that Christians should not even be policemen (see pp. 130, 169).

See my summaries at the end of each chapter.

Visual Display of Quantitative Information, The, Edward R. Tufte (Graphics Press, 1983) (read spring 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Actually, I only read the first three of the nine chapters in this book, and then skimmed the rest. But it is very informative and interesting. The author basically pioneered in this field, which concerns the use of graphs, maps, charts and other visual depictions of statistics. A classic example (p. 41), which he says "may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn," shows the fate of Napoleon's army in Russia. This chart, drawn in 1861, shows by bands of varying width the size of his army on different dates and at different temperatures. He has chapters devoted to both good and bad examples of statistical design, and comes up with principles that he believes will remedy the problem of mediocre and sometimes false graphics. Part II of the book, which I only skimmed, deals with the theory of data graphics. Hopefully I can read this part of the book when I have more time to study it carefully.

I liked this book because it introduced me to brand new ideas, things I had never thought about before. I do recall seeing graphics in newspapers, for example, that seemed to me misleading or confusing, but I did not understand the reasons and the principles underlying my instinctive response. Although some reviewers have criticized the author as being arrogant and, I guess, self-important, I think this is a book well worth reading.

Titles beginning with the letter "W"
Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle (Bantam Books, paperback, 1980, 1982) (read 1984-1985) 
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The author of a number of well-known children's books attempts to define "Christian art." She doesn't like the question even, and believes that all true art is Christian art and vice versa.

Although I kept it for many months on the dashboard of the car and read it in bits and pieces, I did enjoy this book, as I do all books by authors revealing something about what they go through to write a book. L'Engle has sort of a mystical view of the creative process; she says the characters take on a life of their own and the plot just works itself out and she is more or less helpless to change it. She also gives a number of instances when just the right book or idea came to her at just the right time, and she indicates, I guess, that this is the way God guides her in her writing.

Wanderings, Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, Chaim Potok (Knopf, 1978) (read 1979)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Engrossing popular Jewish history by a Jewish scholar, former rabbi, and author of The Chosen and other novels depicting the clash of Hasidic Jews with modern American culture.

The book is well-written, appears scholarly and accurate, and covers four thousand years of Jewish history in about 400 pages. The focus is on the confrontation of Jews down through history with various cultures, from early Sumarian and Egyptian down through classical Greece and Rome to "modern paganism." He says little about the Holocaust or the founding of Israel, though he examines the roots of both.

The material on Christianity is fairly presented, though sometimes inaccurate (see p. 281, stating that upon discovering the empty tomb, Jesus's followers believed he "had been resurrected and was in heaven," thus ignoring the post-resurrection appearances and the ascension) and of course he is skeptical of Christian doctrine (Jesus is repeatedly referred to as the "son of Joseph").

Wedge of Truth, Phillip E. Johnson (InterVarsity Press, 2000, paper) (read fall 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Now retired, former Boalt law professor Phillip Johnson is apparently a leader in the effort of Christian scholars to challenge the reigning philosophy of naturalism, also referred to as materialism or physicalism and modernism. This is the philosophy that assumes the existence of the fundamental particles that compose matter and energy, and the fundamental laws of physics, and therefore rules God out of the picture a priori. He says that by building on that philosophical assumption, "modernist scientists conclude that all plants and animals are the products of an undirected and purposeless evolutionary process -- and that humankind is just another animal species, not created uniquely in the image of God." (pp. 13-14)

The idea of the "wedge" in Johnson's title is that by asking the right questions, and refusing to accept assumptions that have no scientific support, all those genuinely interested in discovering truth will introduce a thin sliver of doubt into the prevailing philosophy of naturalism. Once this happens, says the author, the wedge will naturally thicken as more and more questions are raised about naturalism, and the truth -- which is, in his opinion, consistent with God's revealed word -- will prevail.

He starts by telling the story of Philip Wentworth, who entered Harvard College in 1924 claiming to have a strong Christian faith, but found it undermined by what he learned at Harvard, until he ditched the whole faith. In succeeding chapters, he talks about the "information quandary" (how can impersonal, random chance create intelligence?); the Kansas controversy over the mandatory teaching of evolution; the problem with modernist theology (it gives up too much in order to be "relevant" to naturalist thinking); "Darwinism of the mind" (how can morality and free choice be explained -- or sustained -- by a mind totally composed of inert material?); the arguments against intelligent design in biology; a Christian approach to understanding life by starting with the Word, as in Jn. 1:1, which includes a summary of preceding chapters in pp. 145-150; and a final chapter entitled "Technological Optimism & Literary Despair," a phrase from the theologian Lesslie Newbigin, which refers to the peak of progress in technology and the corresponding lack of progress in the humanities.

This is a good, well-written book that explains some of the fundamental disagreements that evangelical Christians have with modern philosophy. It is wide-ranging and thus not exhaustive on the topics covered, but it does contain an index and helpful endnotes.

Welcoming the Stranger, Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang (InterVarsity Press, paper, 2009) (read fall 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Two evangelicals working for the World Relief Commission, an agency of the National Association of Evangelicals, tackle the difficult social and political issue of immigration in America today. Matthew Soerens, of Dutch background, grew up in Wisconsin, got involved in immigrant issues while on a summer mission trip to Costa Rica, and now works as an immigration and citizenship counselor for World Relief in Wheaton, Illinois. Jenny Hwang was born in Philadelphia to Korean Christian parents who had just immigrated to the United States. She is director of advocacy and policy of the Refugee and Immigration Program of World Relief.

Who are the undocumented immigrants in the United States? Of an estimated 37 million foreign-born people in the country, about 31 percent – 11 to 12 million – have no legal status. Either they entered the country without inspection or they overstayed a temporary visa. (p. 29) That means almost three-fourths of all those born in another country are here legally.

Many undocumented immigrants use a false Social Security card to get work, and of course payroll taxes are deducted and sent to the Social Security Administration, even though they are ineligible for any Social Security or Medicare benefits, or for almost all federal or state benefits funded through their income taxes. In fact, the federal government receives 6 to 7 billion dollars each year from "no-match" Social Security contributions. The author, presumably Soerens, the immigration counselor, notes wryly, "It is probably not coincidental that the Social Security card, unlike most government documents such as a driver's license or passport, employs very little modern technology that would make it difficult to falsify; in fact, it looks like it was made on blue construction paper with a typewriter." (p. 34)

Another clue to the government's willingness to take money from undocumented immigrants is that while false Social Security numbers are not valid for filing taxes, the IRS offers special Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) to those who do not have valid Social Security numbers. Furthermore, the IRS apparently makes a commitment not to communicate information about those who have ITINs to immigration enforcement authorities! In 2005, tax returns with at least one household member reporting an ITIN number accounted for more than $5 billion in federal taxes paid. (p. 35)

So we take their money, but give them almost no benefits in return. Besides public school, mandated by the Supreme Court in 1982, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for almost all forms of public benefits. The most they can hope for, in some states, is emergency and prenatal health care, immunizations, and for children, some nutritional benefits. (p. 42)

An interesting chapter on the history of immigration in America describes a recurrent pattern: because of famine or persecution or other reasons, large numbers of immigrants start to come from a certain country, which provokes a backlash and, frequently, results in legal restrictions on immigration from that country. The government often acted irrationally in responding to outcries from "nativists" who were upset by immigrants. For example, when Chinese immigration swelled during and after the Gold Rush, the Congress authorized a joint congressional committee to investigate Chinese immigration. The final commission report stated, among other inflammatory statements, that there "was not sufficient brain capacity in the Chinese race to furnish motive power for self-government" and that "there is no Aryan or European race which is not far superior to the Chinese." The committee recommended a halt to immigration from China. (p. 54)

The chapter entitled "Thinking Biblically About Immigrants" should be an eye-opener for Christians. The authors write,

The term usually translated as alien or sojourner appears repeatedly in conjunction with two other categories of people of special concern to God: the fatherless and the widow. For example, Deuteronomy 10:18 says that God "defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing." Psalm 14:9 echoes this concern: "The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked." The same linkage extends throughout the Old Testament, such as in Ezekiel, where the evil rulers of Israel are condemned for having "oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow," and in Zechariah, where we are commanded, "Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor" (Ezek 22:7; Zech 7:10). (p. 87)

The authors conclude: "Caring for immigrants is a central theme in Scripture. ... God does not suggest that we welcome immigrants, he commands it – not once or twice, but over and over again." (p. 89)

The chapter that will perhaps be of most interest to Christians is entitled "Concerns about Immigration," in which the authors tackle the issue raised by the tension between two Scriptural commands: to accept and love the aliens among us even though many of them have violated the nation's immigration laws. Although this is not actually a contradictory situation – since virtually all that resident Americans can do to help immigrants, short of helping them cross the border at night, is completely lawful – the authors note that many Christians they have spoken to are against a more generous immigration policy. (p. 93)

They point to reasons why the immigration problem exists, such as the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was economically devastating for small corn farmers in Mexico, who could not compete with subsidized U.S. corn; hence, many abandoned their farms and headed north to find work in the United States. (p. 95) They write:

As long as the pull of employment in the United States matches the push of economic hardship in other countries, migration will not stop, no matter how challenging and hazardous we make the process for entry. (p. 98)

While that may explain the current state of immigration, it does not, of course, justify it. They also say that we should recognize that "our complex and inadequate immigration system has made it impossible for many of the hard-working people that our country needs to enter or remain in the country legally or to be reunited with family members." (p. 111)

All that may be true, but what about the fact that many of them have violated our laws in entering or remaining in the country? The authors seem to dance around that issue, confusing the need for Christians to press for immigration reform with the issue of what to do about immigrants who break the law to get or remain here. They do suggest, but not really explore, one possible answer: that the immigration laws, or some of them, are in fact unjust and need not be obeyed, just as some Christians in Nazi Germany violated unjust laws against the Jews, or as other Christians smuggle Bibles or preach the Gospel in countries where that is against the law. This seems a valid argument to me.

In the chapter entitled, "The Value of Immigration to the United States," the authors say that "according to a survey by the Wall Street Journal, forty-four out of forty-six economists surveyed thought that illegal immigration was beneficial to the economy." (p. 120) However, when it comes to the public costs of supporting illegal immigrants (schools, hospitals, public services, etc.), immigrants are a net fiscal burden on local governments, although at the national level they are still a net benefit – they pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits. (pp. 120-121)

The authors admit that there are some negative effects of illegal immigration on the economy, though they downplay them and obviously believe that the net effect is positive. For example, illegal immigrants tend to displace low-skilled native workers and depress (under the law of supply and demand) wages in such jobs. The authors point out, however, that some of the businesses that employ illegal immigrants would not even exist without them, because they would not be able to compete with cheaper imports from abroad, and that immigrants are also consumers, so that they are increasing demand at the same time as they are displacing native workers; for example, immigrants may take a certain percentage of fast-food service jobs, but they also shop at fast-food restaurants, thus increasing the need for workers. (pp. 121-123)

While the tendency among many is to blame the "illegals" for entering the United States without proper documentation, some governmental policies have spurred illegal immigration. For example, the authors point out that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was expected to reduce illegal immigration by developing a more robust Mexican economy, but in fact illegal immigration has increased since its implementation. Why? Because NAFTA opened up Mexico's market to American imports and displaced small-scale Mexican farmers, who were unable to compete with American food importers, so many of them headed north just to survive. (p. 132)

Although immigration, according to the economists, is a net benefit to the United States, the authors point out that "as Christians, we must be wary of valuing persons solely on the contributions they can make to our affluence." (p. 133) They quote Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the Archbishop of Lost Angeles, who said that "there are no prior commitments that can overrule, or trump, this biblical tradition of compassion for the stranger, the alien, and the worker." (p. 137) The authors conclude that "both the economic needs of our country and the guidelines of our faith lead us to a more generous, welcoming immigration policy, where immigrant laborers are able to enter the United States legally." (p. 137)

When it comes to legislative answers to the immigration problem, the authors say there are four basic principles that should be part of comprehensive immigration reform: (1) border protection policies consistent with humanitarian values i.e., secure but not punitive; (2) reforms in family-based immigration to reduce backlogs (reduce waiting times for separated families); (3) creation of legal avenues for workers and their families to enter the United States, allowing U.S. employers who need foreign workers to hire them legally; and (4) earned legalization of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.; e.g., period of time of productive residence in U.S.; acknowledgment of wrong, payment of fine, and other reasonable criteria. (pp. 141-142)

In the chapter on "The Church and Immigration Today," the authors point out that comprehensive immigration reform is strongly supported by many mainstream Protestant denominations (including the PC-USA), as well as Catholic, Jewish, and religious bodies, but not strongly supported – or not supported at all – by most evangelical churches. The exceptions are the minority churches, Hispanic, Asian-American, and African-American. Many evangelical leaders, including Chuck Colson, have spoken out in favor of immigration reform, but ordinary evangelical church members are mostly opposed to it or are silent. (pp. 167-173)

The authors cite a 2006 study finding that "63 percent of white evangelicals see immigrants as a threat to U.S. customs and values, and 64 percent consider immigrants a burden on society – higher percentages than any other group surveyed, whether religious or secular." (p. 173) And the Family Research Council, the political arm of Focus on the Family, conducted a poll among its membership in 2006 and found that "90 percent of those polled said our country should forcibly deport the 11 to 12 million illegal aliens in the country today." (p. 173) A pretty sad commentary on the evangelical mind.

In an important concluding chapter entitled "A Christian Response to the Immigration Dilemma," the authors give some practical suggestions about how Christians can get to know, learn from, and serve our immigrant neighbors. As they write,

While some would rather not go near the controversial issue, we believe that, like the lepers of the New Testament era, undocumented immigrants are a stigmatized population whom God calls us to love and serve. (p. 180)

Helpful appendices at the end of the book include study questions for discussion groups, a copy of the 2006 "World Relief Statement in Support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform," and other resources.

What Is Secular Humanism? James Hitchcock (Servant Books, paperback, 1982) (read 7/83)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

An excellent popular discussion of secular humanism, to be distinguished from three other kinds of humanism. (pp. 8-10) Weaknesses in the book include some remarks more emotional than rational and a tendency to see secular humanism as a kind of conspiracy (e.g.: "For the first time in years, secularists are beginning to feel that not everything is going as they would like." p. 113)

The author is a professional historian, and Chapters 2-4 show how secular humanism developed in western civilization, an amalgam of the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition and the Greek rational and artistic tradition. He shows the major historical figures who contributed to this development over the centuries.

Succeeding chapters deal with "The Cult of Self Worship" (citing and relying on Paul Vitz's book Psychology as Religion); "The Mass Media"; "The Law and the Constitution" (some weakness here, viz: "... courts tend now to rule automatically against religious organizations and practices. Fanatic secularizers are encouraged to bring more and more outrageous cases." (p. 105)); "The Secularization of the Churches" (excellent chapter; see esp. "typical progressions in liberal religious thinking" (p. 121) and paragraph about "a curious irony in liberal Christianity (p. 131). A final chapter discusses "True and False Humanism," arguing that Christians are really the "true humanists" and showing the "unperceived fallacy" on which secular humanism exists -- that "man can love and esteem himself more if he does not have to share that love and esteem with God." (p. 139) Rather, says the author, love grows the more it is shared, and therefore men are properly enabled to love themselves when they first love God.

What Jesus Says, Robert Boyd Munger (Revell, 1955) (read June 2010)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Master Teacher and Life's Problems," this book by my old pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, is a simple straightforward discussion of the teaching of Jesus. It starts with an overview chapter and then each succeeding chapter in this book of less than 200 pages begins with the heading, "What Jesus Says About ...," and each of the "Abouts" is followed by a particular topic. The second chapter, for example, is entitled, "What Jesus Says About Himself," the third, "What Jesus Says About Understanding Ourselves," and so on.

The first chapter, which reminded me of that classic essay, "One Solitary Life," points out that even some of the criticisms of Jesus are based on presuppositions that came from his teaching. For example, to those who claim they cannot believe in God because they cannot reconcile the idea of a good and loving God with all the pain and suffering in this world, he asks, "Where did you get this idea of a good and loving God?" His answer: "Primarily from Jesus," and explains,

Christ Himself raises the difficulty of belief in Himself. The greatest problem of faith in the deity of Christ is the deity of Christ. It is because of what He has told us about the nature of the Father that we have difficulty in accepting what he says about the nature of Himself. (pp.19-20)

In the chapter entitled, "What Jesus Says About Life's Main Business," he has a great illustration of what it means to be converted, based on the "converted bombers" that were used for missions of destruction during World War II but after the war were taken over for commercial service. As Munger points out, a converted bomber had "the same wings and fuselage, the same type motors, the same cockpit and instrument panel" but now, "It has a new owner. It carries new cargo. It has a new pilot." He says that in Christian conversion,

Jesus Christ delivers us from the old life and possesses us for God. He enters into the cockpit of the heart, takes over the controls and operates the old life on a new course, pointing us to a new and glorious purpose – "... the kingdom of God and his righteousness...." (p. 106)

For those wondering about the definition of a real Christian I would recommend reading the chapter entitled, "What Jesus Says About True Faith." (pp. 136-149) First he discusses what are not necessarily signs of a true Christian – being a church member, affirming a doctrinal belief, etc. – and then, starting with "a true Christian is one who agrees with Christ," he talks about the basics of Christian belief. Along the way he discusses various reasons why people seek to believe, and he concludes the chapter by analogizing becoming a Christian to becoming married.

In the chapter entitled, "What Jesus Says About Managing Our Unmanageables," Munger compares the raging passions within people to animals in a zoo. He says the first step in dealing with "the animals within" is "calling them by their right names." (pp. 152, 154) This means recognizing sin as sin and confessing and getting rid of it. Munger interprets Mk. 7:15, 21-23 as meaning that circumstances and things around a person are not the real problem, but rather people are defiled by what comes from the inside, such as evil thoughts, adultery, deceit, pride, etc. (p. 154) Second, the "animals" inside must be locked behind bars; i.e., we should not "let it all hang out" by expressing our acting on whatever we feel. Instead we should "repent;" that is, change our attitudes and behavior. (pp. 154-157) Finally, we should "feed the good animals." If we feed our lower nature, then it comes out on top, but if we feed our higher nature – by prayer, Bible reading, and Christian fellowship. (pp. 157-160)

His chapter entitled, "What Jesus Says About the Exchanged Life," is based on Gal. 2:20 ("... and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God ...."). He writes,

It takes a little time for a Christian to learn that without Christ he can do nothing, yet it is a most important lesson to learn. Until we see our helplessness, there is little Christ can do to live His life in us, but when at last we face our inability and give Christ freedom to operate in us, He will exchange places with us. (p. 167)

Among the gifts the Dr. Munger possessed was a special ability to capture important ideas in memorable phrases and images. In the last chapter of the book, for example, entitled "What Jesus Says About his Home in the Heart," he compares the Christian life to a physical home into which Christ is invited. I heard Dr. Munger use this extended metaphor in a talk, and believe he used it many times. Although the language is a bit out of date ("drawing room" and "rumpus room"), the basic idea of this chapter could be used at any time in any culture.

Among his sayings:

The glory of the gospel is that it produces a new heart. It goes to the root of the need. Christ does not attempt to change the baser passions of the soul, to inhibit and suppress primitive impulses. Rather, He redirects these energies into new channels, imparting new desires, new affections, new love. (p. 51)

Do not become discouraged because you cannot do much for God. Ability is not the fundamental question; it is our availability. (p. 181)

I really enjoyed reading this book. Perhaps it's a bit simplistic and old-fashioned, but after a half-century of being away from Berkeley and listening to Dr. Munger in the pulpit, I still find his words glowing with Truth.

When the Kings Come Marching In, Richard J. Mouw (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., revised ed. 2002) (read spring 2003)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

One of those rare books that introduces a New Thought into my mind. This is a study of Isaiah 60 in five brief chapters. The general idea is that Isaiah 60, although ostensibly referring to the nation of Israel, is really talking about the New Jerusalem, or heaven, as it is similarly described in Rev. 21-22. The "new thought" is this: heaven is not purely an individualistic destination for saved believers, but rather will incorporate the best of human culture, will have a political aspect (we are going to "reign forever"), and will display God's justice and vindication for the oppressed and sinned-against people of the world.

Isaiah says the "wealth of the nations" shall come to Jerusalem, which Mouw interprets to mean that, in some sense, the riches and great accomplishments of humans will not be destroyed but will be brought into heaven to serve and glorify God. See also Rev. 21:26, "the glory and the honor of the nations" will be brought into the Holy City. He points out that God's original command to Adam and Eve was to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28), and says this does not just mean they were to have a lot of babies. It also means to "fill" and "subdue" the earth by introducing schemes to manage its affairs and to transform untamed nature into a social environment. This "cultural filling" is to be brought into heaven and, to the extent that it is tainted by sin, transformed for God's purposes and glory. This is where, for example, swords will become plowshares and spears will be changed into pruning hooks.

The political element, according to Mouw, involves public vindication of all those who through history were oppressed and persecuted by kings and others in authority. There will be a "political reckoning" under which all those who misused their authority will be forced to confess and admit their wrongs -- in other words, they will be put on trial -- and the authority that they misused will be handed back to God. This is why unsaved kings will be marched into the heavenly city. Political authority itself will be "healed and sanctified," which is why, I suppose, that Christians will be able to reign forever.

Christians are not only going to reign, they are going to come from "every tribe and tongue and people and nation" and will be "a kingdom and priests to our God." Rev. 5:10. Mouw also finds this thought in Isaiah, and he uses it to emphasis the need for Christians to avoid racial discrimination. He says in the new City "[n]o longer will human 'blood' have any status in evaluating and organizing people" ... The citizens of this City will be given golden crowns and purified robes so that all may participate in the everlasting rule of the saints as kings and priests." (pp.80, 81)

In comparing Isaiah's and John's accounts of the heavenly city, Mouw says that both of them seem to be impressed by the "dazzling light of the City," but only John notes that the "lamp" in the heavenly cite is the Lamb. (Rev. 21:23) Jesus is the One who will dispel every shade of darkness in heaven, and his light is magnetic: "nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising" (Isa. 60:3). This Light will not only illuminate; it will also "draw all of the works of culture, and all rulers and peoples, to himself." (p. 114) It will also expose the "secret patterns of sinful history."

Finally, Mouw talks about how we should seek this heavenly city while we are here on earth. The individualistic pattern of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is too narrow, says Mouw, although it is the right place to start. Mouw cites Heb. 13:11-16 as a key text, calling us to go to Jesus "outside the camp" and bear the abuse he endured, not neglecting to "do good and to share what you have." These verses he connects to Isaiah, especially Isaiah 58:10 and 61:1, in concluding that our path to the heavenly city should not be solely a passive receiving of what God has for us, but rather we should actively be working to transform our culture while at the same time realizing that God Himself will bring about the ultimate and final transformation of culture at the end time.

In my opinion, this is a great book. Although modestly presented, it contains a tremendous challenge about how to live the Christian life.

Whole World Is Watching, The, Mark Gerzon (Viking Press, 1969)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "A Young Man Looks at Youth's Dissent," this is a superb analysis of youth culture in the '60's. Extremely rapid social change -- changes that used to take 40 years now take four -- is the basic reason for the widening generation gap and the alienation of youth today. Also, mass society makes it possible for today's youth to learn much about other cultures. It also tends to confuse the images given to youth by our own society, because it is so homogeneous and so pervasive that the mentally ill and the intellectuals are not integrated in society, and therefore present alternate images. (pp. 5-7)

Young people today will "not accept the detached, non-involved way of life that modern American society has tried to prepare them for." (p. 50)

In order to grow up, a young man needs commitment and involvement. (p. 67)

Not the lunatic fringe, but the student leaders are leading the opposition to the Vietnam War. One hundred present and former student body presidents sent a letter to President Johnson expressing their intention to refuse induction and "to aid and support those who decide to refuse." (p. 116)

"No youth, who wants to become a man, wants to have it made. He wants to make it." (p. 138)

Classification of different types in current youth culture, such as activists, hippies, etc. (p. 245 et seq.)

Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? John Powell (Argus Communications, 1969, paperback) (read December 1973)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This brief book is subtitled "Insights on self-awareness, personal growth and interpersonal communication," and it seems to be a pretty good description of what it contains.

The book is good, well worth reading, especially for those who want to get some insight into what makes them tick, why they behave the way they do, etc. The first of the six chapters, Understanding the Human Condition, is a bit weak theologically, but contains many good insights. It points out that "Our word, communication, refers to a process by which someone or something is made common; that is, it is shared." (p. 7) It also points out that "There is no fixed, true and real person inside of you or me, precisely because being a person necessarily implies becoming a person, being in process." (p. 8)

The author summarizes The Games People Play by Eric Berne and says there are three ego states assumed by all of us at various times: the parent, the adult and the child. (p. 15) He describes the five levels of communication: (1) cliche conversation; (2) reporting the facts about others; (3) my ideas and judgments; (4) my feelings, emotions; and (5) peak communication, which the author says is "complete emotional and personal communion." (p. 62)

He suggests rules for "gut-level communication." (pp. 62-79) In chapter 5 he defines various defense mechanisms, such as reaction formation, displacement, projection, etc., and in chapter 6 he catalogs the games and roles that people play.

Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick (Penguin Books, paper, orig. 2001) (read fall 2006)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

For another review, click here.

Subtitled "The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired," this is truly an inspiring account of the translation of the Bible into English.

We tend to forget how much persecution and suffering accompanied the first English translations. The first Bibles in English were printed in Germany and Belgium and smuggled into England. Ships were searched for contraband Bibles, and huge bonfires of condemned books, including Bibles, were lit in London. In 1526 Bishop Tunstall of London decreed that all "books as contain the translation of the New Testament in the English tongue" should be seized and burned. (p. 107) Eventually those found in possession of Bibles were burned at the stake.

Sir Thomas More, the "man for all seasons" who had an outstanding reputation for modesty, wisdom, and justice, became so caught up in violent opposition to Tyndale and the English Bible that he wrote enormous books filled with vituperative and slanderous attacks, including "perhaps the most wrongheaded [book review] ever penned." (p. 113) In one book he called Tyndale

"a beast," discharging a "filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth"; "a shameful, shameless, unreasonable, railing ribald"; a "hellhound" fit for "the hogs of hell to feed upon"; and the son of the devil himself.

(p. 113) However, one line I liked about More. In describing More's household, Erasmus had written, "he loveth his old wife as if she were a girl of fifteen." (p. 110)

According to the author, King Henry VIII found himself forwarding Bible translation almost by chance. He desperately wanted to get a divorce from his childless wife Catherine, and his advisors found support for him in the Leviticus passage on divorce. That left him "inferentially pledged" to the Bible's paramount authority rather than papal supremacy. (p. 142) At any rate, he then acceded to the requests of many and authorized a new translation of the Bible into English, which became known as the "Great Bible" in 1539. This was followed by other English translations, culminating in the publication of the King James Bible in 1611 when King James was on the throne.

The first edition of the King James Bible, printed by the royal printer, Robert Barker, contained a typographical error about every ten pages. (pp. 251-252) Barker himself was fined 300 pounds and rebuked by the Crown for coming out with an edition that became known as the "Wicked Bible" because it omitted the word "not" from the seventh commandment, so that it read, "Thou shalt commit adultery." (p. 253)

Bobrick concludes his history of the English Bible with some observations on its relationship to democracy. He says that "by and large, those who pleaded for the rights of conscience, for free discussion, and for an unrestricted press were those who held to the supreme authority of Scripture in all things." (p. 293) Unlike the bloodshed and despotism associated with the French revolution, the English revolution, based on biblical notions of human nature, bloodlessly led to parliamentary rule. He says the English Bible gave to the American colonists "the idea of the sacred and equal importance of every man, as made in the image of God." (p. 297) In other words, the Bible in the language of the people was indirectly the foundation of democracy.

The book contains a good index and bibliography and many helpful indices, including a chronology of events relevant to Bible translation, a narrower chronology of English translations of the Bible, and a selection of comparative translations of particular passages. There are also a couple of indices of less interest to me, including a list of all the translators of the King James version and a list of rules for translating the Bible by Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, who was apparently not one of the translators of the King James Bible but forced some changes to the manuscript produced by the translators.

Words Made Fresh, Larry Woiwode (Crossway, 2011) (read fall 2017)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

As the subtitle states, this is a book of "Essays on Literature and Culture." I first read the chapter on Shakespeare, then decided to read the whole book.

Woiwode is a Christian, a writer and intellectual. After some kind of crisis of faith, resulting in divorce, he had a genuine conversion experience, re-united with his wife, and moved to North Dakota to raise his family, including three daughters and a son.

Obviously he is well-read and has thought about many important issues, both personal and social. I had a little trouble, due to my own lack of knowledge I think, understanding all that he has to say about some authors. His treatment of John Updike (the longest chapter in the book, pp. 85-126), for example, seems to excuse or justify what seems to me as his exploitation of sex because of his genius as a writer and his acknowledgment of some level of Christian faith.

The one chapter that really turned me off is chapter 8, "Deconstructing God: On Views of Education." Here he reveals himself as conservative if not reactionary on politics. Big government is the problem. Secularism is our national religion, and it's all the fault of "liberals." He longs for the good old days when public schools were not hostile to religion. In one very revealing paragraph he implies that the idea behind the creation of the federal Department of Education — of educating children to promote the welfare of the state — was essentially the same idea that led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Stalin's reign in Russia! (p. 132)

Woiwode also says the Department of Education was created because President Jimmy Carter "owed a debt to America's teachers unions." (p. 133) Compare this off-the-cuff slur against Carter with his adulation of John Updike. Carter has demonstrated, even after his presidency, what a deep, sincere Christian he is (which doesn't mean he was a great president), while Updike comes across, at best, as a shallow believer (which doesn't take away from his genius as a writer). Updike seems to have had a kind of nagging, residual faith that he couldn't quite get rid of, as compared with Carter's open and lifelong consistent Christian witness. The only way I can understand Woiwode's differing views of these two men is that one was a great writer and the other a liberal politician.

His chapter entitled "Dylan to CNN" extols folk singer Bob Dylan and denigrates TV news, especially CNN "for its hodgepodge of slippery stuff." He says CNN's "deception goes on daily in their (sic) selection of ’news,’ not to mention the engulfing commentary." (p. 148) This book was published in 2011. It would be interesting to hear what Woiwode thinks about Fox news and Donald Trump in 2017. As for Bob Dylan, Woiwode views him first as a modern-day minstrel who ushered in the hedonistic sixties and the anti-Vietnam war movement with his folk music lyrics and later as a Christian who proclaimed his faith in his music. Dylan's later music, says Woiwode, "is the celebration of God in the discipline and art of song and the good news true art can bring." (p. 146)

Re-reading the chapter on Shakespeare, I think I understand how Woiwode's conservative nature gives him really good insight into the poems and plays of the "lad from Stratford," like the way my conservative theology enhances my view of the Scriptures. He explains that only someone from the lower, working class — only a farm boy — could have written so much about all kinds of people. In other words, it is much easier for a bright, perceptive person with a basic education to write about both country life and upper-class city and court life than vice versa. Woiwode surveys the literature about Shakespeare, finding much of it spurious and born of jealousy, but praising some insightful works. He thinks Shakespeare was a profound Christian:

Through his characters ... he speaks to us as an integrated bearer of ultimate Good News. Above all, he placed the impress of Christ, whose outlines are love and mercy and reconciliation, into more universally appealing characters than any other writer in the history of the Western world. (p. 175, emphasis by author)

Overall, I would say this book is very much mixed bag. Woiwode is enthralled with literature, and is an excellent writer himself. But he, more than most people perhaps, cannot seem to see beyond his fixed focus on a largely mythical past of conservative values and politics. Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this book. Even his chapter that I most disagree with, on education, contains some good insights and views that seem on target to me.

Words with Power: Being a Second Study of The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990) (read winter-spring 1995)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A sequel to The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. This book, even harder to understand (for me) than the first one, deals with four major themes of the "axis mundi," the "journey of consciousness to higher and lower worlds." The four themes are the Mountain (including other vertical constructs such as Jacob's ladder and the Tower of Babel), the Garden (Garden of Eden, vineyard imagery), the Cave (or underworld, hell, etc.), and the Furnace (Daniel's friends, and Egypt as the figurative furnace refining the Israelites).

I don't understand much of what Frye writes, and I don't agree with a lot that I do understand, but I am fascinated by the insights he has into the Bible and the parallels he draws with other literature. Like The Great Code, this is a book to read again.

Writing a Novel, John Braine (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1974) (read 1/87))  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Opinionated but practical guide to writing a publishable novel, by English author of Room at the Top. He recommends reading, among others, John O'Hara (Appointment in Samarra, From the Terrace), Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Stuart Chase (The Tyranny of Words), Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), Colette (Cheri, The Last of Cheri), William Cooper (Scenes from Provincial Life), David Karp (One), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (The First Circle), Lionel Trilling (The Middle of the Journey), Cyril Connolly (Enemies of Promise).

Writing Life, The, Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1989) (read May-June 1994)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

A slender (111 pages) book of autobiographical reflections about being a writer. Much about the places where she's written her books, and the environment, both material and psychological. She says writing a book, fulltime, takes between two and ten years, (p. 14) and her guess is that fulltime writers average a book every five years, 73 usable pages a year, or a usable fifth of a page a day.

Writing of Novels, The, Christopher Derrick (The Writer, Inc., 1969) (read 2/87)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Guide to writing a publishable novel, written not by an author, but by a "publisher's reader," whose daily work is to read novels submitted for publication. Many good suggestions. Primary virtue is that the author is not wed to one way, his own way, of writing a novel.

"A novel is an onward movement through time: it exists in the time-dimension as music does, not in the space-dimensions as painting and sculpture do. ... The novelist must always concern himself with processes rather than with states ...." (p. 166)

Writing of One Novel, The, Irving Wallace (Simon and Schuster, 1968)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

This is a best-selling author's story of how he wrote a best-seller, The Prize. Not of great value, except to tell a lot about the working methods of one writer, as he produced a novel about the Nobel prizes. The appendix contains a detailed synopsis of The Prize as well as a work chart showing, as best he could, the number of hours and working days used in different stages of producing the novel.

Irving Wallace comes through as obviously in love with his work, somewhat sensitive to criticism, and hungry for recognition.

Titles beginning with the letter "X"

Titles beginning with the letter "Y"

Titles beginning with the letter "Z"

Zealot, Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013) (read spring 2014)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

Subtitled "The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth," this popular book by an Iranian scholar expresses the hope that he can "spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ." (p. xx)

As that sentence in the Author's Note at the beginning of the book suggests, the author, a nominal Muslim, had a born-again conversion experience when he was in high school, began witnessing as a Christian to all he met, then began to doubt what he had been taught about the inerrancy of the Bible, and finally realized that "this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions."

Nevertheless, he continued his academic work in religious studies, began to highly esteem this "Jewish peasant and revolutionary," and now concludes that his academic research into the origins of Christianity "has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ." (pp. xviii-xx)

While there are at least some inconsistencies in the Bible, Aslan's illustrations of "profound contradictions" are not really contradictions at all, in my opinion. He describes Jesus as

... one day preaching a message of racial exclusion ("I was sent solely to the lost sheep of Israel"; Matthew 15:24), the next, of benevolent universalism ("Go and make disciples of all nations"; Matthew 28:19); sometimes calling for unconditional peace ("Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God"; Matthew 5:9), sometimes promoting violence and conflict ("If you do not have a sword, so sell your cloak and buy one"; Luke 22:36). (p. xxiv)

But these apparent contradictions are easily reconciled. Yes, in his earthly ministry, Jesus was sent primarily to Jews, but after his resurrection (a point Aslan does not mention) Jesus commanded his followers to reach out to the whole world to bring the Gentiles into God's kingdom. As to his message of peace vis-a-vis violence, he consistently taught peace, as can be shown by many examples in his earthly ministry, but what he said about buying a sword is clearly symbolic. This is shown two verses later (when he said two swords are "enough," which if taken literally would leave nine unarmed men and two sword-bearers against the mob) and especially in verse 50, where he rebuked Peter for slashing off an ear of the high priest's servant with a sword, and says, "No more of this!"

Aslan asserts that the "fanciful accounts" of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem and his family's flight to Egypt are not history, but myth. He says "Luke never meant for his story about Jesus's birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact." (p. 30) Rather, he says, these stories about Jesus's birth and infancy were inserted into the New Testament to show that certain Old Testament prophecies about his were fulfilled. (pp. 26-33)

For a good example about how Aslan uses scriptural passages selectively to support his theories (of course, Christians have done this too), he writes

As a Jew, Jesus was concerned exclusively with the fate of his fellow Jews. Israel was all that mattered to Jesus. ... Whenever he encountered gentiles, he always kept them at a distance and often healed them reluctantly. ... (p. 121, emphasis added)

This contradicted by many scriptural accounts of Jesus' life. See, for example, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he met at Jacob's well, in which he not only went out of his way to converse with the woman and offer her his salvation, but ended up spending two days staying in the woman's Samaritan village, preaching to Samaritans and making many converts among them. (Jn. 4:4-42)

Part of the difficulty of evaluating this book is that the author cites both canonical and non-canonical books as having equal authority (e.g., see p. 43, citing Maccabees and 2 Baruch). Also, although he has fairly extensive notes on each chapter at the end of the book, they are not tied to specific assertions in the text (as by footnote numbers). For example, he says the view of Pilate in the gospels as a "righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with doubt about putting Jesus to death that he does everything in his power to save his life, finally washing his hands of the entire episode when the Jews demand his blood," is "pure fiction." (p. 47) Yet his notes do not say a word about how he reached this conclusion, no quotations from scholars, not even any conjectures.

Reading his notes indicates to me that Aslan, although undoubtedly very bright, fancies himself a biblical scholar on a par with those he cites (see, e.g., p. 233, top: "On this point I agree with ...;" "However, I disagree with ...;" "Rather, I contend that ....")

It's hard for me to understand how any scholar could take this book seriously. It has a veneer of scholarship, but clearly twists the Scriptures to fit his thesis. For example, his description of Gethsamane:

... Jesus had warned his disciples they would come for him. That is why they are hiding in Gethsamane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords – just as Jesus had commanded. They are ready for a confrontation. ... (p. 147)

That matches none of the Gospel accounts, but it does match the author's notion that Jesus was a zealous messiah seeking to overthrow the Roman empire. Aslan dismisses the Gospel records with phrases like "pure fantasy," "so incredible, so obviously contrived," "makes no sense at all," "truly beyond belief," "patently fictitious scene," "a story concocted ... strictly for evangelistic purposes," and so on. (pp. 148-156)

Aslan also explains away Stephen's martyrdom for the sake of Jesus Christ. The reason Stephen could believe in Christ, Aslan says, is because he

was not a scribe or scholar. He was not an expert in the Scriptures. He did not live in Jerusalem. As such, he was the perfect audience for this new, innovative, and thoroughly unorthodox interpretation of the messiah being peddled by a group of illiterate ecstatics whose certainty in their message was matched only by the passion with which they proclaimed it. (p. 167)

Similarly, Aslan goes on to explain the success of the Gospel in penetrating the Roman world: ignorant peasants who knew and followed Jesus somehow communicated the Gospel to "educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Jews" (like Paul) who would then "reinterpret Jesus's message so as to make it more palatable both to their fellow Greek-speaking Jews and to their gentile neighbors." (p.171)

The author does acknowledge the centrality of the resurrection to the early church, and does not buy simplistic explanations like Jesus's body was stolen while the guards slept. (pp. 172-177) But his way of getting around the first believers' claim that Jesus rose from the dead is to explain that the resurrection stories "are not meant to be accounts of historical events; they are carefully crafted rebuttals" to the argument that the resurrection never happened. (p. 177)

Finally, here is one more instance of Aslan cherry-picking Scripture to bolster his thesis. He claims that "The story of Paul's dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke; Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus." (p. 184, emphasis added)

Really? First, Luke never wrote that on the road to Damascus Paul was blinded "by the sight of Jesus." He wrote that Paul was blinded by a light from heaven and that Paul heard the voice of Jesus but did not see him. (Acts 9:3-7) Second, years later when Paul reached Jerusalem he did, in fact, recount the story of being blinded, not by the sight of Jesus, but by a bright light from heaven, and he did it before an angry crowd of Jews. (Acts 22:6-11). Furthermore, he told this story twice, the second time before King Agrippa. (Acts 26:12-16) Of course, Aslan could respond that this was Luke quoting Paul, not anything Paul said in his own writings. To me, this is just another way of arbitrarily picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to believe.

Well, for anyone knowledgeable about the Bible, criticizing this book is like shooting fish in a barrel. It is rife with inaccuracies, selective quotations, and fanciful interpretations, all to fit what seems like a pre-conceived story about Jesus.

Does that mean it's not worth reading? No, I'm glad I read it. For one thing, it does raise significant issues that should be considered by all who claim to follow Christ with their minds as well as their hearts. It also challenges many interpretations of Scripture accepted uncritically by Christians, at least by evangelical Christians. But overall, I have to say it's pretty far down the list of books that all Christians should read.

Zero-Sum Society, The, Lester Thurow (Basic Books, 1980) (read summer 1980)  [Next review]  [Preceding review]  [Back to nonfiction directory]

The title of this book on revitalizing the American economy comes from the author's view of our plight. A "zero-sum" game is any game where the losses exactly equal the winnings, as in all sporting events. Our economy has a lot of "zero sum" elements – to improve the economy important changes must be made; these changes will benefit many people, but a substantial number will be hurt. the net result will be a higher standard of living for most Americans, but who are going to be the ones who take a lower standard of living? Our problem is in allocating losses.

Thurow's solution seems to be to free up the economy by reducing regulations, subsidies, tariffs, and the like, so that the economy can boom, but cushion the negative effects on the losers (in old, low-productivity areas) with governmentally-provided full employment and a fair income redistribution system.

The main problem with this book from my standpoint is based on the author's conception of human nature: "Man is an acquisitive animal whose wants cannot be satiated. This is not a matter of advertising the conditioning, but a basic fact of existence." (p. 120) With that as a starting point, his virtual denial of an energy problem (p. 114) and disparagement of environmentalism (p. 105) and "zero economic growth" (pp. 115-120) become more understandable if not more tolerable. Everything is reducible to economics.

Thurow would probably be classified as a liberal (he ridicules the idea that too much government regulation is our problem, and that all we have to do is "liberate free enterprise" (p. 7)) but he takes shots at liberal positions as well. He says we should abolish separate corporate income tax (p. 97), and makes the comments noted above about energy and environmental problems.

He convinced me on the need for full employment, even if the government must create the jobs. (p. 204) And chapter 7 on redistribution is especially good. "The truth about our tax system is not that it is progressive or regressive, but that it is unfair." (p. 170) He has an interesting discussion of "group demands" and affirmative action to remedy past discrimination. (p. 178 et seq.)