I read this book 15 years ago, and have remembered it ever since (although I can't give a coherent story line other than it being a coming-of-age road...moreI read this book 15 years ago, and have remembered it ever since (although I can't give a coherent story line other than it being a coming-of-age road trip). It's meaningful, funny, and intelligent. Recommended!
Devin Brown writes that, unless he could find an entirely new angle, he saw no reason to write yet another biography of the beloved novelist and Chris...moreDevin Brown writes that, unless he could find an entirely new angle, he saw no reason to write yet another biography of the beloved novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. (Such a startlingly concept: apologist. Is it modern? Apologizing for faith in a secular time, explaining why it makes sense after all… Or is it instead terribly old-fashioned? Our is a Clint Eastwood, “stand your ground” world, after all, that doesn’t believe in apologizing for what one believes in.)
We’re fortunate that Brown found the new angle. A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C.S. Lewis, the title obviously a play on Lewis’s book A Grief Observed, is an excellent biography of Lewis, covering what many of us care about most, his spiritual writings and where they came from.
Brown’s writing is smooth as silk, and he takes the reader through Lewis’s life and thought with little fuss. I was grateful that he didn’t complicate it with unnecessary theological intricacies. I was left with the desire to reread my favorite of Lewis’s book, a number of his books added to my “want to read” list, and the sense that I’d been given some of the best insights from the many books about Lewis.
I’d recommend this book to anyone intrigued by Lewis or by Christianity. A Life Observed is an excellent introduction to both.(less)
While the book that David Chappell is best known for, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, seems as though it could be taugh...moreWhile the book that David Chappell is best known for, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, seems as though it could be taught in philosophy or religion classes as well as history classes, his latest book is a different species. Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King Jr., is pure history and political science. Depending upon your inclinations, that might make it a more difficult or less difficult book to love. Stone of Hope, with its discussions of Reinhold Neiburh and Arthur Schlesinger, sometimes necessitates breaks to digest the philosophy. Even so, Stone of Hope had a simple message at its heart: there was passion and conviction preached from the pulpits of African-American churches during the “third American revolution,” (for Civil Rights) about justice that was, unsurprisingly, missing from the pulpits of white churches. Indeed, the Southern Baptists (created back in the 19th century because Baptist preachers and congregations in the South supported slavery, in opposition to Northern Baptists) and Methodists came out in tepid favor of Civil Rights. Whether you believe in grace, Christ, God, or not, it’s demonstrable that faith played a role in filling African Americans with faith and determination that their cause would prevail. Their opponents, in contrast, were filled with pessimism, hatred, fear, and uncertainty. Waking from the Dream is harder to pin down. Chappell is a marvelous historian and a good writer, something that is obvious just by his ability to keep readers turning the pages on what is actually the rather dry topic of process, meetings, planning, and politics – in contrast to the sweeping drama of Civil Rights marches in the face of violence and hatred. He divides the book into six chapters: 1) the Civil Rights Act of 1968; 2) the National Black Political Conventions of 1972 and 1974; 3) the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978; 4) the battle to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan; 5) Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988; and 6) what Chappell describes as the “public reckonings” with King’s character. Each chapter offers insights into the American story of its people respecting one another as legitimate, worthy of being called Americans. Chappell is an inveterately honest historian, unable to keep back tidbits of information that don’t fit a triumphal American story of redemption and progress. It’s hard to quantify, for instance, what came of those conventions. The MLK holiday was in some ways a marker of defeat as it became clear that larger societal goals of protecting the middle class (both black and white) were not going to be prioritized any time soon, even though the Humphrey-Hawkins bill passed. Jesse Jackson may have lied about how close he was to King at the time of the assassination, although there’s no evidence other than the say-so of at least one other King aide. And, finally, the chapter on J. Edgar Hoover’s evidence regarding King’s sex life discusses evidence rarely used against King because it revealed too the FBI’s illegal and immoral surveillance of him. Chappell has said that he doesn’t want people to finish his book thinking that his message was that there was continuity after King’s murder, that the journey for Civil Rights continued and that the story of those years should also be included. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that message – which is indeed one of my major take-aways. The difference was that after King’s death was that there was no beloved, charismatic figure (at least in comparison with King), and that the gains were more often made through legislative process born of the power of the ballot box rather than of blood spilled on bridges or motel balconies. Perhaps the message of this sobering book is that politics are messy, and that African-Americans are simply people. Many African-American leaders are extraordinary people, but they’re also simply Americans, as likely to be misguided, angry, divided, and racist as any other American. Despite that, despite “waking from the dream,” it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep battling for a better, fairer system. Chappell finished Stone of Hope with one of King’s favorite quotes. It’s a quote that reflects King’s understanding that people need prodding and inspiration in equal measures. This book could have used that same quote at its end, for surely there is continuity at least is this, the basic human condition (if viewed through optimistic eyes): “Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God! We ain’t what we was.” (less)
Like a magnificent medieval tapestry, Nicola Griffith’s historical novel Hild pulls you into a foreign, familiar world and shows how it was.
Griffith h...moreLike a magnificent medieval tapestry, Nicola Griffith’s historical novel Hild pulls you into a foreign, familiar world and shows how it was.
Griffith has taken the historical figure, St. Hild of Whitby Monastery, and put flesh and desire into her. Hild begins when the future abbess is just 3 years old, the niece of King Edwin of Northumbria. Hild’s mother, the formidable Breguswith.
Be forewarned: this novel is an immersion in a different era, relentless in its gorgeous yet difficult language calling up our past. Historical characters include Æthelburh, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, Ceadfryth, Ceadwin, Ceadwulf, and Coelfrith; peoples include the Dal Riada, the Gewisse, the Anglisc; ruling dynasties include the Loides, the Idings, and Yiffings; and places include Alt Clut, Gwynned, Craven, Elmet, and Dyfneint. An ætheling (Male youth in the line of succession, i.e., a prince) ends his day with the hours of æfen (from six to nine in the evening), already dark in the month of Blodmonath (November). Well-born women are assigned a gemæcce, that is, a formal female friendship, a pair of women who watch out for each other.
The idea of gemæcces is important in Hild, for hers is a woman’s world – despite her being a seer and prophetess (and maybe a hægtes (a witch) descended from etins (giants), and, because she accompanies the king to battle and has killed herself, perhaps more than that as well.
I’ve rarely read a historical novel better researched or more fully imagined. Hild brings to mind the Kristin Lavransdatter books by Sigrid Undset – and I suspect that comparison will ring even more true once Griffith has finished her Hild books, for she envisions a trilogy as well.
If you read Hild, and I heartily recommend that you do, notice how Griffith describes place, transporting you to a wild, early Britain. Notice how she shows us how Hild thinks, in terms of patterns, a metaphor of the weft and warp of weaving that well-born women learned from earliest childhood. “Hild walked the hills in the golden time before dusk, senses wide open but no longer restless. One evening she was moved to tears by the blaze of crimson, gold, and green of the wold, moving at the centre of a vast pattern that she knew she would never have the words to explain. The pattern watched over her from the face of every leaf and every tiny flower of furze. She felt safe and sure.”
Her ability to see and shape patterns would give Hild her power – and that was even after the Christian priests came and disrupted the old ways: “For most East Anglisc, the Christ was just the excuse. But underneath, baptism was the riptide dragging all boats off course. Baptism is very much like a sword in this way: that the man whose hands the sword or the soul passes through adds his lustre. Baptism added another pattern to the warp and weft of allegiance and obligation.”
As Hild is baptized, she’s reassured to find that the priests had been exaggerating; she was still herself – and more. “God the Father,” she said. God the pattern. “God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.”
It’s only January, but I know already that Hild is going to be one of the best books I read this year, if not the best.(less)
For me, with a passion for history, faith, and mystery, St. Peter’s Bones was almost bound to be a hit. It was especially meaningful since I’ve been t...moreFor me, with a passion for history, faith, and mystery, St. Peter’s Bones was almost bound to be a hit. It was especially meaningful since I’ve been to Rome a couple times, and wandered through much of that city’s history, the layers of which are so marvelously visible.
Author Craughwell uses the bizarre story of the search for St. Peter’s bones to give a brief history of St. Peter and his basilica.
If you go to Rome, be sure to take the daily tour beneath the church, where more than 90 popes are buried, including Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. That level, beneath the floor of the present-day basilica, is called the Vatican Grottoes. Before reading St. Peter’s Bones by Thomas Craughwell, I didn’t understand that there is another level below the grottoes, called the necropolis (city of the dead). It’s there where the bones of St. Peter, along with a scrap of purple cloth woven with gold thread, may have been found.
He leads readers through Catholic history, from the Acts of the Apostles through the twentieth century, by luring us on with the gripping story of the excavation. He covers who St. Peter was, why it’s thought Peter came to Rome, Rome’s deadly fire in AD 64, how St. Peter died at the hands of Nero a few steps from the basilica, the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the construction of the first basilica over St. Peter’s grave, and then the construction of the second basilica during the Renaissance.
It’s a fantastic story. While World War II raged all around, Pope Pius XII decided to reconstruct the Vatican Grottoes beneath the immense church, lowering the grotto floor by two-and-a-half feet and creating what would become a tourist-friendly series of crypt chapels instead of what had been a claustrophobic burial chamber. That’s where all the pope’s are buried, a place of lemony light against whitewashed arches, filled with the murmur of tourists and prayer.
Craughwell never addresses what would possess the pope to begin such a project at such a time.
He does, however, offer up the story of the bones in just the right order, and presents the implausible story in such a way that this reader could just barely believe that someone would lose archeological evidence and sacred relics in the way that the allegedly responsible party did. (No spoilers here!) The book’s power is in the way it links the present with the past. I’m sure I’d understood that the obelisk out in St. Peter’s Square was associated with Nero’s Circus—where St. Peter was crucified—but it never hit me until reading here that the obelisk is a direct link to the martyrdom of the first pope.
I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in early Christianity and in archeology. It simplifies the past, for instance not mentioning that the obelisk was moved a few yards during the construction of the present-day basilica. That might be a benefit, since those details can sometimes veil the crucial point. The book also lacks illustrations or diagrams. Is that a serious issue with internet resources at our fingertips? Probably not.(less)
If Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey inspire you, so will Carol Ruckdeschel, who is my new saint of the wilderness. Author Will Harlan paints such a compe...moreIf Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey inspire you, so will Carol Ruckdeschel, who is my new saint of the wilderness. Author Will Harlan paints such a compelling and intimate portrait that his request, at the end of the book, for readers to honor Ruckdeschel's privacy and not descend upon her like hungry pilgrims to Buddha, is absolutely necessary. I was ready to book tickets. Ruckdeschel's passions are wilderness, Cumberland Island, and sea turtles -- although she has a friendly acquaintance with critters as varied as alligators to otters. For much of her life men fell in love with her spunk and looks; only one of those guys seemed to actually cherish who she was, not a blonde trophy but a wilderness warrior as fierce and committed as Geronimo. Her dogged self-confidence also reminded me of the great Kenyan aviator, Beryl Markham. I realize I'm gushing, and so will try to tone it down. Harlan, who writes for Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, began his acquaintance with Ruckdeschel more than a couple decades ago, and has checked in regularly with her ever since, obviously paying close attention and taking good notes. He ends up telling her story with such detail and understanding that you would think he was related - except few of us, even those of us who are writers, could tell our own parents' stories a tenth as well. The book begins with Ruckdeschel on the Cumberland beach. She's just shot and killed a feral hog (they devour the endangered turtle nests), had a nice pork roast over her campfire, and then tagged a mama turtle. After the turtle is back in the ocean, Ruckdeschel "pressed herself against the turtle's shell as they went underwater together. "She and the turtle skimmed the ocean floor. It was quiet, the water was inky, and Carol's lungs burned, but she held on and went deeper still. Down here, she felt raw and real. She tightened her grip on the turtle's shell and held on as long as she could. "Ahead, the ocean floor dropped off sharply. The turtle plunged into the abyss, and Carol finally let go. She clawed frantically toward the moonlit surface and finally popped out into the night air, gasping and wheezing. She floated on her back, chest heaving, the summer stars whirling overhead. "'Hooo-weee!' she howled. She drifted naked in the wild ocean, tossed by the tides, her oxygen starved lungs still on fire. '"Then she noticed a different burning - gory gashed along her legs that had ripped open when she slid off the turtle's barnacled back. A cloud of bloody water engulfed her bare body. She could not see the shore." The book just gets better after that. Harlan takes us through her childhood and lovers as she finds her calling - protecting Cumberland and its turtles. This book should be a movie, to inspire all those folks who won't read even a fast-paced book like this one, with pages that fly by too fast. Recommended!
Terrifically important book on how and why the New Deal sacrificed the equality of African-Americans in order to save democracy and stand up to totali...moreTerrifically important book on how and why the New Deal sacrificed the equality of African-Americans in order to save democracy and stand up to totalitarian governments. Katznelson doesn't condemn the Roosevelt administration for doing it; he paints instead an America consumed by fear of the rising tide of totalitarianism, the fearful weapons invented in the 20th century, weapons that killed so efficiently and horrifically that they changed the landscape of war; and, last, the looming social change at home: equality - so feared by racists but also, to some extent, by progressives, because of worries over how it would happen. Would the whites bomb African American communities? Would they murder black children in churches? Would they fight the end of America's caste system with an orgy of lynching and blood-letting? White racists did all that and more. (less)
Hard to put it down. This is the second in Downing's series about John Russell, an everyman journalist in Nazi Berlin. He's the guy we hope we would b...moreHard to put it down. This is the second in Downing's series about John Russell, an everyman journalist in Nazi Berlin. He's the guy we hope we would be in his situation: careful not to get himself killed (or his girlfriend, ex, son, or others), but at the same time willing to risk his neck for what's right. Every government of the time sees him as a potential spy, and makes it difficult for him to say no. (less)