Though Lewis is a favorite writer of mine, this is the first time that I've read this particular short volume, presenting his theological, moral, psycThough Lewis is a favorite writer of mine, this is the first time that I've read this particular short volume, presenting his theological, moral, psychological and philosophical reflections on the human experience of the four kinds of "love" referred to (by different Greek words) in the New Testament. One reviewer spoke of this as an "apologetic," and indeed Lewis wrote many apologetic works, designed to make a rational case for Christianity for unbelieving readers. However, this isn't one of them. Here he's presupposing that the Bible and the Christian gospel are true, and writing to offer readers who share that view his insights into how, in the light of that truth, we should think about love in its various manifestations. Non-Christian readers would probably not be interested in that approach to the subject (although, since all truth is God's truth, he draws his thoughts from a lifetime --this was published three years before he died-- of observation of human beings, not simply from Scripture and theology). It's also not a book that's designed to be a "practical" manual, laying down all sorts of rules for day-to-day conduct. Rather, it's concerned with helping people to think about the subject rightly, in the consciousness that "ideas have consequences" for behavior. The vocabulary and thought, as always in Lewis' writing, is aimed at the ordinary intelligent layman; it avoids jargon, and while it's profound, it's never pedantic.
The six-chapter structure of the book is simple and logical. First, he introduces the subject of love in general in Chapter 1, moving beyond the facile labeling of "gift-love" as invariably positive and "need-love" as invariably inferior and negative, and expounding the idea that "God is love" (and not the converse). Chapter 2, by way of prolegomena, treats our "Likings and Loves for the Sub-human," including love of nature, and patriotism; these aren't the types of love for personal beings spoken of in Scripture, but have a certain "continuity" with them. Finally, he devotes a chapter to each of the "loves" addressed in Scripture: the natural affection of family and close association; freely-conferred friendship; Eros, or romantic love; and "charity" (Latin, caritas; Greek, agape), the kind of unconditional, self-giving love God has for us and desires us to have for Him and for each other.
Simply recounting the chapter schema, however, doesn't reflect the variety and depth of insight here, and summarizing it in the limited space of a review wouldn't do it justice. This is a meaty, pithy book to sink your intellectual and spiritual teeth into, and designed to make you think. Even when you disagree with him (and I do on one or two minor points), here as elsewhere, Lewis is always intellectually stimulating, and leads you to insights you wouldn't have come to without the interaction. But what he proffers, he does so with a profound humility that commands my respect and admiration as much as his wisdom. His was a first-rate mind; and it's always a privilege to read his work....more
New Atheist spokesman Harris published an earlier book attacking religion, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, in 2004. WritNew Atheist spokesman Harris published an earlier book attacking religion, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, in 2004. Written in response to "hostile" mail, mostly from Christians, reacting to the first one, this second book is designed as a concise (91 pages of text) distillation of his argument, both to irrefutably "demolish" any possible case for theism in general and Christian theism in particular, and primarily "to arm secularists... who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right." Harris uses the term "Christian" loosely, apparently including various types of nominal "Christians" and Christian-influenced Americans; but he directs his attack here on those who hold to the traditional form of the faith, though defined somewhat inaccurately and treated as monolithic, without nuance. As a Christian, I obviously didn't come to the book without a prior opinion. But I did honestly seek to give it a fair hearing, considering his case on its merits, and seriously interacting and engaging with it. (That's been an intellectually stimulating and enriching process, despite the fact that the book itself is disorganized and poorly argued, IMO; I did quite a bit of study as a result, and learned some significant things.) I've attempted to organize my review topically, rather than following the rambling order in which subjects are treated in the book. First, I'll consider his arguments against theistic/Christian belief; second, his critique of Christian positions on social issues; and third, the significance of New Atheist attitudes for our common life in a pluralistic culture.
Truthfully, given the hype surrounding the book, I expected a much more cogent case against Christian faith than Harris makes. There are actually no arguments here that I hadn't heard before, and they're for the most part shopworn chestnuts that have been bandied about (and already answered) by village atheists for generations, delivered with an in-your-face stridency and belligerence. (Calling it a rant is an objective description, not a deliberately pejorative epithet.) Due to time and space constraints, I won't touch on every point he makes, but I'll try to cover the most important ones.
1. Theism, Harris says, has no evidential basis as all; it's believed in on faith (which he regards as by definition blind belief without evidence), and so is obviously irrational. But "rational" scientists believe in the existence of various real things that are, like God, not themselves directly observable; they're believed in on the indirect evidence of their effect on things that are empirically observable. That's the basis for Christian theistic faith, which turns out to have a lot of indirect empirical evidence, all of which Harris ignores here. (The most exhaustive summary of this that I know of is Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Frank Morison's more narrowly-focused Who Moved the Stone?: A Skeptic Looks at the Death and Resurrection of Christ is also instructive.) In weighing this kind of evidence, there is obviously a subjective element; most of us assess the cumulative force of the case to justify a decision one way or the other, and base our faith (in theism or atheism) on that, recognizing that it stops short of absolute demonstration. This isn't the same thing as blind belief without evidence.
2. Harris argues that a benevolent God could not possibly allow human suffering (represented here by natural disasters, viruses, and crimes against innocent children); the existence of the latter cannot possibly be explained if one posits the former. However, Christians explain it by the fact that God created humans endowed, like Himself, with a free will; we're not robots or clones, but conscious beings who make real choices and enter into voluntary relationships. But that autonomy carries with it the possibility of making wrong and even horrendous choices as well as good ones, and those choices have meaningful effects. This affects even the natural realm. God created the Garden of Eden as a paradise in which He would have directly controlled nature for humanity's benefit; but because of the Fall He has backed off to allow natural law to operate, for the most part, without His direct intervention. This allows humans an environment in which their spiritual choices are not coerced, and that provides the maximum scope for purgative character formation. IMO, that explanation makes sense. Harris may subjectively disagree; but it is not an explanation that's illogical or fallacious on its face.
3. Unlike some atheists, Harris admits that objective morality exists, and can be recognized by humans apart from special revelation. On that basis, he argues that atheists are more moral than Christians, based on lower crime rates in "blue" states than in "red" ones, and on the supposedly Utopian state of society in Western Europe and other Western nations that have lower rates of religious belief than the U.S. He admits that the red/blue state dichotomy isn't a "perfect indicator of religiosity." This is true, given that blue states are often blue due to the presence of large numbers of blacks (who are more Christian proportionately than the white community) and Catholic Hispanics, as well as of ethnic white Catholics who traditionally vote Democratic. It also seems to be true that the high crime rates of red states are driven by the rates in their blue counties, and that lower crime rates in blue states owe more to low rates in their red counties than in their blue ones. In general, Harris ignores every other factor, like income and education, that affect crime rates as much as religion. Those factors are particularly applicable in other Western nations with cradle-to-grave welfare states (which may not be economically sustainable). However, despite the myth of the "happy atheists" in those nations, the two countries with the largest per capita use of antidepressants are Iceland and Denmark, and four Western European countries have significantly higher suicide rates than the U.S. (see www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/27... and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List-of-countri... .) [Note: that Wikipedia link does not work; see message 4 below for one that does.] And it happens that several recent university studies that actually DID measure the effect of religious affiliation on crime (unlike Harris' red/blue state comparison) all demonstrate that communities with a higher rate of religious affiliation have less violent crime (www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/n... .)
It should be noted that Christians don't claim that every individual Christian is more moral than every individual non-Christian. All humans are fallen, and marred by psychological shortcomings; all humans also have consciences, and most to some degree receive the subconscious ministration of the Holy Spirit to move them in a better direction. Genuine Christians benefit from a moral reorientation and a more conscious attempt to cooperate with the Spirit, so that they're in a process of becoming morally better than they individually would have been without conversion. But the results don't break down into a "Christians=perfection, nonbelievers=monstrous vileness" dichotomy, and the Bible doesn't suggest that it does. So Harris' suggestion that the moral shortcomings of Christians across the 2,000 year history of the faith disprove the truth claims of Christianity has no more validity than a claim that the moral shortcomings of some atheists, such as serial-killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who defend moral nihilism on the basis of what they consider a legitimate interpretation of atheism, in themselves disprove atheism.
5. Christian morality, in Harris' view, is inferior to the morality of Jainism, summed up in the command, "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being." In other words, Jainism draws no distinction between the lives of humans and of lower animals. Atheists who eat meat, use glue and leather, euthanize their terminally ill and suffering pets, and omit to strain their drinking water through layers of thick muslin (to avoid swallowing and digesting an innocent microorganism) may see Jain ethics as more problematical than Harris does. (And might also have a problem with the ideal of suicide by self-starvation, which Mahavira is said to have attained, as the pinnacle of moral performance.) Jain pacifism may have influenced Gandhi's development of non-violent civil disobedience, which M. L. King in turn borrowed from Gandhi (and from Thoreau, who was a Deist and whom Harris does not mention). But he got his pacifism from his interpretation of the Bible; what he got from Gandhi and Thoreau was a technique for affecting social change, given a stance of pacifism. Most Christians, however, agree with Harris that the Bible doesn't teach absolute pacifism; we just don't view that as a defect in a fallen world. When you confront someone raping and torturing a child, tearfully remonstrating with him accords with Jain ethics, but a hard punch to the jaw works better. Biblical ethics allows for the latter.
6. To Harris, the idea that God will someday bring the current world order to an end and finally judge the wicked is so self-evidently vile that it discredits Christianity, and Jesus' acceptance of that idea can "justify the Inquisition." No, it can't, because Jesus' explicit teaching forbids His followers to try to assume God's prerogative of judgment; that will be His function in His own time (Matt. 13:24-30). Nor is the judgment directed, as Harris suggests, at everyone who isn't a Christian; classical Christian thought has always understood the Bible to teach that Christ's sacrifice atones for all those who follow the light of general revelation to the best of their understanding. (Even Christians who have a more exclusive view of salvation don't see their mandate as to slaughter unbelievers to send them to "hell," but rather to peacefully invite them to embrace a place in God's community.) Final judgment is reserved for those who make a deliberate choice to embrace egoistic selfishness and persist in it --and as long as they live, there's hope that they won't persist in it, so Christians can't presume to finally judge anyone. God's role as Judge is consistent with His role in the moral governance of the universe He created; and His plan to bring that universe to a final state of social justice and happiness is a constructive teleology that differs from the Utopia advocated by people like Harris mainly in that God actually has the capacity to really achieve it.
7. As Harris sees it, "Science" categorically disproves the existence of God. (Since the National Academy of Sciences officially denies this, his response is to slur their collective integrity.) It does this by supposedly proving, through the dogma of Darwinian evolution, that life came into being without a Creator. This contention is rebutted in, among other books, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis by Michael Denton, The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis by Hugh Ross, and Science Speaks by Peter W. Stoner (none of whom are "young earth" creationists).
This doesn't exhaust Harris' arguments, but it covers the most important ones; the others are more obviously flawed on their face. As for the pernicious positions of Christianity on social issues, Harris identifies four that he considers "obscene" and "genocidal."
1. Christians oppose abortion. While Harris calls it "an ugly reality," without saying why he thinks it's ugly, he maintains that there is a "need" for it as long as there are unplanned pregnancies. Presumably, this is because raising an unplanned child might threaten a woman's career and financial well-being. Things like adoption, paternal financial responsibility, educational and employment options, affordable day care, community support for single mothers, etc. aren't seen here as solutions. (Slavery apologists, of course, saw a "need" for slavery if the white community was to be able to live the good life.) Christians base opposition to this on the fact that unborn human babies are, as Harris says about slaves, "human beings like [ourselves], enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness." Being at an earlier developmental state doesn't change that, and the comparison with skin cells brushed off your body (which "could" be grown into a clone using high technology, but won't naturally develop into a living being at all) is spurious. So is the argument that humans often naturally miscarry, and God doesn't prevent it. God allows people to die of a good many natural causes, but that doesn't establish that it's morally neutral to actively kill those who don't naturally die. Nor does it become innocuous to kill someone if they don't feel pain (although developing babies do at a fairly early stage); the injury to a murder victim isn't just in the pain of the act, but in depriving him/her of life.
The point also needs to be made that the example of El Salvador's 30-year criminal sentences for women who abort does NOT, just because El Salvador's population is largely Catholic, demonstrate that punishing women in this situation is "the Christian position." It's entirely consistent with Christianity (and common sense) to regard abortion as an offense committed against the woman, not by her, even if it's supposedly voluntary; this recognizes the reality of women's social situation, in which economic, psychological or physical coercion almost always drives the felt need to abort. This reflects the common law tradition, and is the position of the (largely Christian) National Right to Life Committee. See humanevents.com/2007/08/03/if-abortio... .
2. Christians, says Harris, oppose "stem cell research." Actually, that isn't the case; Christians only oppose obtaining stem cells by killing human embryos for them. There are a number of other ways to obtain them; research with these has already produced significant medical benefits, while embryonic stem cells research has produced none. See www.all.org/nav/index/heading/OQ/cat/... . (www.stemcellresearch.org is another site with a lot of useful information on this whole subject.) Interestingly, the Jain position, which Harris earlier held up as the epitome of what religious ethics ought to be, happens to agree with the Christian one on both these points.
The other two issues relate to Harris' view (not shared by all atheists) that any sexual behavior done by consenting adults is morally neutral, and that Christian disagreement with this is because of "prudery" that "contributes daily to the surplus of human misery." Christian sexual ethics are based on a positive view of sex as designed to be an expression of committed love in marriage, and I would contend that they can be recognized as valid by humans generally, based on natural moral intuitions of the kind that Harris admits to be valid.
3. Christians encourage teens to abstain from premarital sex. Harris waffles on whether or not this is actually pernicious (at one point, he appears to concede that it isn't), but he misrepresents "abstinence only" education as doing nothing except preaching abstinence and withholding all other information. In fact, abstinence education is as or more "comprehensive" as any other sex education program, including providing information about birth control and AIDS preventives (and including their limitations) but it emphasizes abstinence as the only completely responsible choice (www.abstinenceassociation.org/faqs/ ). He also uses selected statistics to assert that abstinence education doesn't work, but a comprehensive review of the over 20 studies done to date demonstrates that they do (www.heritage.org/research/reports/201... ).
4. He accuses Christians of deliberately trying to prevent the development of HPV vaccine, and of discouraging condom distribution, so that HPV and AIDs can be preserved as a boogey to prevent sexual activity. For the record, Reginald Finger, the evangelical member of the CDC's Advisory Commision on Immunization Practices that he falsely accuses of this (based on a secondary source that was incorrect) voted to recommend developing the vaccine, and fully supports it (www.regfinger.com/5.html ; see also Letter to an Atheist by Michael Patrick Leahy). And the Roman Catholic opposition to condom distribution is based on opposition to birth control (which is not a general Christian position), not on resistance to AIDS prevention.
Harris does not simply think religious belief is mistaken; he thinks it's dangerous and needs to be eradicated. His earlier book declares that "some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." This is in a context of discussing Islamists, and he trades heavily on Islamophobic extremism (www.salon.com/2014/09/06/richard_dawk... ). But he makes it clear here that he considers traditional Christians just as potentially dangerous as he believes Moslems are. This kind of general tarring of ALL religious people as dangerous, intolerant maniacs is, frankly, disturbing. And it's doubly disturbing because he demonstrates himself here to be as intolerant and as hateful towards those who disagree with him as any of the medieval Inquisitors he condemns. ANY worldview, religious or atheistic, that demonizes its opponents and can't coexist in civil comity with them poses a threat to the peace of the majority of people, of various faiths or no faith, who have no problem sharing the world in peace together. (Comparing the faiths of the latter to religious terrorism isn't simply comparing apples and oranges; it's comparing apples and ergot.) It tends to poison the well of our civic discourse, and to foster a polarization and fear that nobody needs.
This is another book that wasn't on my radar at all, but which I read because it was a common read in one of my groups, and wound up falling in love wThis is another book that wasn't on my radar at all, but which I read because it was a common read in one of my groups, and wound up falling in love with! My only regret is that, in the constraints of a more-than-usually pushed and busy day, I may not have time to do it justice in a review --but it's due back at the public library today, and I'd like to have it on hand as I write. (Normally, before writing a review, I read my friends' reviews of the book and sometimes interact with their thoughts --and in this case, there are a LOT of friends' reviews, and they're apparently a mixed bag as to ratings-- but this time, my review is my own immediate reaction untempered by any comparison with others.)
For once, the Goodreads description is pretty accurate (though it doesn't suggest the depth of the reading experience). The Cirque des Reves is the venue for an intentionally vaguely-defined contest of skill and power between the pupils (groomed for their roles since childhood) of two rival sorcerers, distinctly different personalities but both sociopathically indifferent to any harm they do to human beings in the process of vindicating themselves against the other. What powers the circus is magic (though the two rivals both disclaim the term), of an incantational sort, a "natural" magic supposedly inherent in the way the universe is, and which people who believe in this can learn to tap into --especially if they have a natural talent for it, as the young duelist pupils both do. Morgenstern brings the circus to vivid life as one of the more richly drawn, most beautiful and imaginative settings in fiction, in a way that appeals to all of the reader's senses. When I opened the book, I feared it would be too surreal for my taste. As one review I glanced at noted, it does have, in places, a dream-like quality (reves is French for dreams). But the narrative never loses its real-world grounding or its quality of coherent story, and the characters are always real people with realistic reactions and motivations (even if, as in life, some of them have motivations that are egoistic and grandiose).
Morgenstern has chosen to tell her story in present tense; I didn't find this off-putting, and it gives the narrative a deliberate sense of immediacy, like the occasional use of the "historical present" tense in the original New Testament Greek. Our read opens with a short second-person vignette taking us into the circus; there are a few more of these interspersed at key points through the text, leading us through the experience. The main narrative is in the form of dated chapters, starting in the young pupils' childhood in the early 1870s and moving chronologically forward through the formation of the circus and its early years; but in the midst of this chronology, we have a new plot thread, introduced in chapters dated after the main storyline, but interspersed with it. But this non-linear narration isn't a gimmick introduced for its own sake; there's a good artistic reason for it, which will become clear in time. All the parts of this creation dovetail into a perfect whole that's a tour de force.
Detractors of supernatural fiction tend to dismiss it (usually unread) as "escapist," having nothing to say about the real world. Many supernatural tales inherently refute that canard, none more so than this one. First of all, it shows us powerful people, running the lives of others with no accountability and no real concern for anyone's welfare or feelings but their own. (Yeah, that's completely unlike anything in the real world --NOT!) It's about people learning to find their own path and make their own choices when they're dealing with forces that would constrain them. It deals with things like friendship, kindness and caring, the consequences of selfish or unthinking behavior, the role of story and dreams in our life, the meaning of "magic" and the differences between what's real and what we tell ourselves is "real," the way that what we do can make a difference even if we don't see ourselves as special. And it's also very much about love, including romantic love (as a warning to very romance-averse readers) --though, as I've indicated, it's also about a lot more. All of this is delivered seamlessly in a compelling and well-developed story which sweeps you up in powerful emotional reaction, as it unfolds in a gripping plot with very high stakes indeed, and which could not, IMO, have been crafted better. I don't often use the term "mesmerized" to describe my reaction to a book; but I was mesmerized by this one.
As an added plus, there's very little bad language here, no explicit sex,and very little of the non-explicit variety (it's about love, not about sex). You will encounter one f-word in the first chapter; but that's the only one, and in its placement and context, it's designed to give you an instant insight into Hector Bowen's character. (Of course, first impressions can be wrong --but not in this case!) And while the inherent menace of the situation is real, and leads ultimately to mounting suspense and tension, there's not much violence and minimal gore. (It's a supernatural read, but not scary "horror.")
All I can say in conclusion is, I'd definitely like to be a reveur! (Now, where can I get one of those red scarves...?)...more
Full disclosure at the outset: I got a free PDF electronic review copy of this short anthology from one of the contributors, my friend Andrew M. SeddoFull disclosure at the outset: I got a free PDF electronic review copy of this short anthology from one of the contributors, my friend Andrew M. Seddon. So far, it only exists as an e-book; as per my policy, when the print edition comes out, I plan to buy a copy, since I don't believe in using e-books as substitutes for printed ones. (Of course, that's just me!)
There are 10 stories in the collection, all either written originally for it or (in at least two cases) written earlier but not previously published. Of the eight contributors (anthology editor Isobel Mason and Malcolm Cowen are represented twice), several are Christians, including Mason and Seddon; I'm not sure whether all of them are, or whether the British-based publisher is a Christian press. Only two stories have clearly Christian or Biblical content, but all are free of lewd sexual content and foul language. Each story is followed by an author's note explaining the conceptual basis for his/her particular alternate world.
Given that I'm a fan of alternate world scenarios in fiction, it might be expected that I'd rate this book more highly than I did --though, as my rating shows, I did like it overall. Three of the stories, IMO, were genuine five-star productions. But the literary quality of the rest unfortunately tended to fall short of this, in my estimation, and some didn't rise above mediocrity. Mason's "Danger of Death" (which posits that Adam and Eve resisted the serpent's temptation, resulting in an unfallen world without sin and death) is interesting as a theological speculation, but lacks dramatic conflict as a story. The same can be said for Forrest Schultz's "Autobiography of a Lateral Time Traveller," which along with Mason's "A Second Chance" is one of two that doesn't concentrate on exploring the conditions of a very different world with an altered history, but rather on characters who get to explore different individual lives in a very similar world. A common flaw of both of these is that they don't explain how the protagonists simply displace their other selves (who are, after all, distinct individual human beings!) --even if we accept the idea that they can somehow travel to an alternate dimension in the first place as a "soft" SF premise that doesn't need explanation. In Jeffrey Paolano's "Milking the Good," the premise of the story (the U.S. black community, at the time of Pearl Harbor, unitedly blackmails the government into granting civil rights to blacks by withholding their support for the war effort until that demand is met) is just too sweeping to handle credibly in a short story; it reads simply like an unfleshed exercise in wishful thinking. (It would be hard to make it credible even at novel length; successful alternate world fiction depends on premises that could actually have happened, and there are too many wild improbabilities with this one.)
Both Heather Titus ("Flesh Eyes") and Magdalene Zapp ("American Samurai") give us tales in which the Axis won World War II, a pretty common staple premise of this sub-genre. The former also suffers from a credibility problem (the Nazis won through a program of creating cyborg super-soldiers who defeated the Allies on D-Day --this of course has no resemblance to any experimentation in the real world!). But both of these present very realistic and emotionally engaging vignettes of human relationships in the face of this kind of situation. "Wave Goodbye" by Steve Wilson is based on a very detailed working out of the complex premise, of an altered path in a key 19th-century technological development, something of an intellectual tour de force which would probably greatly intrigue and please hard SF buffs. The story also develops a very effective surprise ending, but a grim one that, for me, left a bad taste in the mind.
Seddon and Cowen contribute the three outstanding stories here, each one based on a very careful and plausible extrapolation of developing differences from one small and easily imaginable change in real-world history. The Minoan civilization was extraordinarily advanced by the standards of the Bronze Age; had it continued to develop without interruption, it might well have produced high technology by the time of classical antiquity. Instead, it was obliterated by the volcanic eruption of Thera in ca. 1600 B.C. (which was 1,000 times bigger than the 1880s eruption of Krakatoa, and caused false winter effects as far away as China). "Pride of Knossos" (which I had the privilege of beta reading a few years ago!), written with Andrew's characteristic vision and literary skill, posits that Thera didn't erupt then; so, in 33 A.D., the Minoans are ready to launch their moon shot. Cowen capably explores alternate possibilities in British history. The title story (Tanist is a Celtic title, for the heir-designate to a throne) is set in 1633 --but 1,000 years after the great Welsh victory at Heavenfield, where they decisively defeated the Saxon invaders (rather than the other way around). It's a masterful exploration of ethnic tensions between haves and have-nots, powerful and dispossessed, with an exciting and suspenseful plot. And his "The Other England" is a delightful pastiche with Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger and other Doyle characters. (I could imagine Sir Arthur himself appreciating it!)
Despite the uneven quality, this is a collection worth reading, overall. The Cowen and Seddon stories alone are worth the purchase price (and some fans might like the other selections better than I did!)...more
My recommendation of this book is for "fans of contemporary poetry," and those would indeed be its primary audience; but its appeal can be a bit broadMy recommendation of this book is for "fans of contemporary poetry," and those would indeed be its primary audience; but its appeal can be a bit broader than that, since I'm generally not among those fans, but still rated it at three stars (which, for anyone who needs reminding, is a positive rating on Goodreads' scale, equivalent to Amazon's four). That's an overall rating; some poems here are absolute gems which would earn a much higher rating, and a few I didn't care for at all. While I like well-written poetry as such, I tend to read much more fiction, and in general don't seek out modern poetry, so this isn't a book I'd have been apt to pick to read on my own. But my Goodreads friend Lynne King was kind enough to gift me with a copy, and to urge me to read it right away. The (short) time it took to do that wasn't wasted by any means!
There are 39 poems in this collection/chapbook, arranged into three parts. Part One, which has the same title and subtitle as the book as a whole, contains the first 22 of these. Thirteen of these are basically of an autobiographical nature, speaking directly of the poet's feelings about the course of an affair she had about ten years ago, written after the break-up --but not long after, since the book was published in 2007. (Her lover was married, but he didn't drop that item of information on her until she was already deeply involved with him.) These directly autobiographical poems are interspersed with nine others that are suggested by movies she saw during that time (each one identified after the poem title by movie title and director). Here the poems' relationship to the course of her doomed romance is usually less obvious and much more indirect; but some of the connections are more obvious than others, especially with the last poem in this section, "The Heart Is a Phoenix." A reader of these would undoubtedly benefit from being familiar with the movies referred to (I wasn't), but that isn't a necessity for responding to them. The poems in the other two parts, titled Photographs (Part Two) and Places and People (Part Three) arise out of her own life experiences, but aren't related to the titular "love affair."
Frances' style has been called prose poetry, but (IMO) it isn't that exactly; her writing is free verse (at least, I can't tell if it has meter; it doesn't rhyme), but it has a true poetic quality and the arrangement of words into lines does matter --they aren't simply put down to use every bit of the page except for paragraph divisions, as prose is. (She generally uses a relatively long line, but not always.) It would be fair to say that she's influenced by the Imagist school, and a strong suit of her style is command of beautiful language and ability to conjure vivid images (this also impressed both of my Goodreads friends who've reviewed the collection.) Her fluency with the English language is particularly impressive when we consider that she was born and raised in France, though one of her graduate majors is English. Generally speaking, she's more a poetess of emotional feeling than of thoughtful reflection --though a few pieces here do express, and invite, insightful thought. Despite the subject matter of Part One, there's very little sexual content there or elsewhere in the book, and nothing offensive in that way except for "Loved" in Part Three (which may also be autobiographical, and provided much more information than this reader needed or wanted). Similarly, there's only one instance of bad language in the whole book, an f-word in "Letter to Whomever Is Watching. The latter is one of the few poems here that, for me, completely failed to communicate; Frances, like all poets, often uses indirection and metaphor to convey her meaning, but in the main she does convey it accessibly.
The preoccupation with feeling is especially crucial in Part One; this isn't an exercise in moral reflection about the ethics of her or her partner's behavior, nor an attempt to defend and glamorize it either, just a rawly honest description of her own feelings at the time (including, in "The Others," her own pervasive pain "like needles under my fingernails" at the lack of monogamy in the relationship). In part, writing these poems was clearly a cathartic exercise, as was including the texts of the only three letters to her lover that she'd kept copies of (the only part of this book that's actually in prose), which follow the 19th poem, "The Lost Letters." (I didn't read these in their entirety; despite the last lines of that poem, "since they are no longer yours/ and since they don't belong to me, I send them back into the world," I found them very definitely the private property of original writer and reader, and wasn't comfortable entering that sanctum to violate it. :-( ) But this isn't simply a self-indulgent wallow in a pointless pity-party; it's a journey towards healing. "If you think that you will never love again, look up."
Since they aren't as sharply differentiated, we can consider Parts Two (which only has five poems) and Three together. A couple of poems here, "Edward Hopper" and "Joseph Brodsky by Richard Avedon," are directly inspired by visual art; the former speaks for itself even if you aren't very familiar with Hopper's paintings, but the latter (responding to a portrait or photograph of the famous Polish-born American poet Joseph Brodsky) probably requires a familiarity with his poetry to be fully appreciated. I didn't have that familiarity; but I have read some of Isak Dinesen's stories and know something of her life, so "African Quiet" (which bears the notation "For Isak Dinesen" and conjures a image of the dying writer) had more meaning for me and is one of my favorite poems here. Perhaps my top favorite is the final one, "Kirkwood, Missouri" (which isn't really about the titular town so much as about the myriad opportunities for experience and human connection that life offers us, and how we either embrace them or let them slip). This one, IMO, is a modern masterpiece. Another that I find particularly powerful is "Sierra Leone." The most purely Imagist selections here are "Work," "Heartland," and "Mobile."
I don't have nearly enough familiarity with contemporary poetry to assess Frances' place in it. But I can truly say that she's in the top tier of contemporary poets that I've actually read; and at her best here, she produces work which I would consider equal to some of that which has gone before her and already stood the test of time....more
Full disclosure at the outset: Ron Andrea and I are long-standing Goodreads friends, and he offered me a free copy of this book (which, obviously, I aFull disclosure at the outset: Ron Andrea and I are long-standing Goodreads friends, and he offered me a free copy of this book (which, obviously, I accepted!) in exchange for an honest review.
The author is a Christian believer (as am I), in his case for over fifty years. A veteran of 30 years of military service, he currently serves as an elder and Bible teacher for Prevailing Word Ministries/Glen Allen Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational evangelical church in Glen Allen, VA. His book apparently grows out of his congregational teaching, and is structured as an exploration of the Apostle Paul's message(s) in the New Testament Epistle to the Romans. Written strictly for lay readers, it doesn't purport to be either an academic treatment or a verse-by-verse commentary, and there are no bibliography or footnotes. (He does draw on other writers in places, notably the early 20th-century Chinese Christian thinker Watchman Nee.) At 218 pages of actual text, and with jargon-free prose, this is a pretty quick read.
Passionate pastoral concern radiates from these pages; Ron clearly cares deeply about the message of the book, and writes from his heart with a clear desire to reach and engage with the reader. Like many (perhaps most) thoughtful contemporary Christians, he's highly dissatisfied with the sub-biblical thought and lifestyle of the modern American church, and its failure to impact the surrounding world with the gospel. At the risk of over-simplification, I would summarize his main themes here as: unconditional love of God and others is the basis of the entire Christian life; our moral transformation from selfish egoist to loving saint is something only God can accomplish in us, not something we can do for ourselves; and we'll never become what God wants us to be until we're totally surrendered to His will (to the point of the breaking of our own self-will). All of these messages are perfectly scriptural and true, and I think would be agreed on by virtually all Christian readers --though the author suggests that the main problem of the church today is that we don't seem to understand any of this in actual practice. There are a number of other valuable insights scattered through the text. The discussion questions that follow each chapter here are first-rate; a pastor or Sunday school teacher doing a series of lessons on Romans could profitably use these to encourage self-examination/discussion by students in his/her class.
A criticism that could be made is that, though the introduction states that the focus is on Paul's message in Romans, and the chapter headings progress through Romans section by section, relatively little of the text actually expounds the epistle. Main ideas of each section are identified from one or two verses, and then elaborated by quotes from other Pauline writings, other parts of the New Testament, and even the Old Testament. (One chapter even leaves Romans completely, digressing to cover Mark 14:3-9.) Now, exposition of Romans could certainly include reference to other Pauline letters where he makes similar points, or elaborates a point, and reference to the Old Testament sources of his thought (especially where, as he often does, he directly cites the Old Testament). But if you're expounding on the message of Romans, even if you aren't purporting to comment on it verse-by-verse, most of your discussion needs to be on the words of Romans itself. That proportion here is completely reversed. (Even when verses from Romans are quoted, they often aren't from the part of Romans that's supposedly being discussed!) Perhaps a viable solution would have been to make the book simply a discussion of Paul's message as a whole, and not to try to tie the framework directly to Romans.
Personally, I'm not as convinced as Ron is that misunderstanding the basic ideas he's presenting here is the source of the church's sorry state, nor that the message here will correct things if it's just read and taken to heart. (Indeed, I could see some readers distorting the message of spiritual/moral transformation as God's responsibility into an excuse for not bothering to cooperate with the process, though that isn't the author's intention or a fair interpretation of what he says.) Rather, I think the main problem of the church is a lack of understanding as to how the abstract ideas of love, moral transformation and consecration to God's will are to be lived out in practice. Each denomination has its comfortable standard of expected behavior (mostly handed down from the 19th century), that's been the way they've always lived; it's naively assumed that this lifestyle is exactly what Jesus and the apostles had in mind, and anybody that wants to go beyond it or try it by the yardstick of Scripture is weird and rocking the boat. We need a root-and-branch reexamination of the specifics of contemporary Christian attitudes and behaviors, more than we need re-assertions of the general principles. Another valid criticism here, then, is that this book is light on practical specifics of how to apply Paul's behavioral commands. Some specifics are touched on, indeed, but in very brief and undeveloped fashion.
Despite these criticisms, though, I think this is a book that can benefit some Christian readers. It would perhaps be most beneficial as a wake-up call to those whose dedication and practice is lukewarm....more
Dutch author Halm is a native of Amsterdam, his setting for this series, but apparently writes it in English rather than in Dutch. (If he occasionallyDutch author Halm is a native of Amsterdam, his setting for this series, but apparently writes it in English rather than in Dutch. (If he occasionally interjects a Dutch word, it's explained in context.) The Goodreads description reproduces his own blurb for this e-story, so it's a fairly accurate explanation of the premise (with a caveat explained below), and the place of the short stories in the Amsterdam Assassin series. Nobody officially recommended this tale to me, but my Goodreads friend Nancy recently gave it four stars (so some reader responses are much more favorable than mine!). While her review tweaked my curiosity, I had doubts whether I'd like this as much as she did; but the fact that it's free on Kindle, and takes very little investment of time, convinced me to give it a try. (And trying something you don't ultimately like isn't necessarily a waste of time; it provides exposure to the unfamiliar, and a perspective on the reading that you do like.) On the surface, one could argue that it should be up my alley; after all, while I haven't read very much assassin fiction, I do think that assassins can make interesting protagonists, and strong, tough female protagonists appeal to me a lot more than timorous and emotionally frail ones (Katla's credentials are impeccable in that area). A big part of the low rating comes from a fundamental lack of sympathy with Halm's literary vision, which he explains in one part of the additional material promoting the series that's included with this story.
Halm writes (speaking of himself in the third person) that he: "...always enjoyed stories about assassins, but his opinion on assassins differed from the books he read. Since most fictional assassins are antagonists, they're often warped individuals... . However, Martin has come across mercenaries (basically the same field) who are pretty regular people. Sure, their view of the world differs from ordinary citizens, but they're not "warped." This made him want to write about an assassin who has no deep-seated frustration or abused childhood, but who just realized that killing was what she was good at and who had the appropriate world view and lack of conscience to pull it off." The result is Katla, who'll willingly kill any fellow human for enough money. To be sure, her mark here, as she observes at one point, is essentially as conscienceless as she is, and has blood on his own hands shed by criminal negligence. But while that matters to her client, as she also points out explicitly, it doesn't to her; all that matters is the fee. If she was paid the same amount to whack Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa, we sense that she'd have no problem with the idea. Some obvious rejoinders to Halm's statement suggest themselves.
First, the fictional assassins I've read about are not necessarily warped people, in a moral sense. Some, like Karin Kaufman's Jane Piper in All Souls: A Gatehouse Thriller or Mark Cooper's British spy Leah Bennett Hargraves (whose missions often involve covert assassinations) take on a vocation of extralegal killing because they believe it's a legitimate way of fighting evil. Similarly, B. R. Stateham's Smitty (Call Me Smitty), though he's a very dark and damaged soul, is very scrupulous about who he kills; he's an avenger who smites the wicked, not the innocent. We can differ with their method, but we can respect and support their motive. Other fictional assassins, like John Sandford's Clara Rinker, ARE in their trade for the money, and may not have such strict scruples over who they kill to get it, or to protect themselves. But even some of these characters are not totally without conscience; like the rest of us, they're compounds of goodness and evil, images of God with a fallen nature, and their interest as characters derives from how they deal with the contending impulses of their nature in a very extreme life situation, and the interplay of light and dark, and shades of grey, that this creates. Clara, for instance, draws some lines in the sand that she won't cross, and there is real good in her that shows itself at times; she's a very three-dimensional character who fascinates because she's human and unpredictable. (And like real people, fictional assassins may be on a moral journey, with a story arc that may not end where it starts; that possibility also excites interest.) In contrast, Katla comes across as pretty much flat and one-dimensional, a morally lobotomized incarnation of selfish egoism without any empathy for others, and nothing to evoke empathy for her --a cunning predator, like the vampires of the classic Dracula tradition, but like them not really a dynamic or round character. And we feel innately that she's journeying nowhere different from where she is; that she made her last moral choice when she picked her profession, and now ticks on like a clock. (To be fair, Halm may develop the character more deeply in the novels, and introduce more complexity in her moral thinking. But this is how she comes across to me here.) This doesn't, for me, create a very interesting protagonist, nor one that I can like, care much about, or get behind and root for. (I'd also beg to differ with Halm about whether mercenaries and assassins are in the same field, but that doesn't affect this review.)
For me, there were also considerable problems with the execution here (no pun intended!) To my mind, while technical manuals and how-to books are about technology and processes, good fiction is about people. This story compliments its lack of a round and dynamic human element with a heavy concentration on technology and processes, explained in great detail. There's some justification for explaining how Katla can get in and out of a locked room and re-lock it from the inside. (This differs from traditional mystery genre "locked room" puzzles, though, in that in these it's obvious that a murder was committed; whereas Katla's trademark method is to make her killings look accidental.) But we also learn how to solve the problem of making a functional spud-gun/grappling hook light enough for a utility belt (what, you weren't burning with curiosity about that?), how locks and lock-picks work, and hear a lot about computer hardware, etc. etc. This pads the story to a decent word count, and some readers might be fascinated with it. (I wasn't.) IMO, Halm's logic failed seriously in his handling of the murder method. (view spoiler)[Katla drowned the victim in his bathtub; but much was made of the need to do this gradually, by lifting him in and out, with reference to the real-life "Brides in the Bathtub" case solved by early 20th-century pathologist Spilsbury; "they died uncommonly quick... in normal drownings, the victim will struggle for life and so ingest much more water." Well, I'm not familiar with that case; but a drowning victim struggling for life in a bathtub, unlike a river or pond, could readily stand up in it. An actual drowning victim in that case would have to be unconscious --as Katla claims would be caused by water hitting the vagus nerve in the nose!-- and so WOULD drown fairly quickly, rather than rising and falling in and out of the water like a yo-yo. And the stressed need to avoid marks on the body was incongruous; a bump on the head would plausibly explain how the deceased could have fallen underwater and knocked himself out. Were I an M.E., I'd be curious about how someone with no marks of injury on him wound up on his back with his head underwater in a bathtub to start with. (hide spoiler)] At one point, Katla "took a pen" to write something --in a bathroom, where people don't usually store writing materials, and when Halm has established that she's wearing a one-piece bathing suit, which presumably doesn't have pockets. Usually very exhaustive at explaining every physical detail, the author is quite cagey about where this pen comes from; since this isn't urban fantasy, she probably doesn't conjure it. Finally, when she's making her escape, she finds a potential witness or two blocking the egress passageway, and is resolved not to wait "in the cold and wet" for even a few minutes until they leave; instead, she's thinking about disabling or killing them. This is spectacularly unrealistic, because she's gone to great pains to ensure that the crime scene presents nothing untoward that would suggest to anyone that anything unusual went on, besides an unfortunate accident. It's completely out of the character the author has already established to imagine that she'd even consider throwing all that effort away to spare herself some minor discomfort --to disguise a kill, this woman would be quite content to wait for hours under a lot more discomfort than this, and not bat on eye. (Halm is apparently trying to let us know that she's ruthless --uh, DUH, we already kind of got that!-- but did so at the expense of credible character consistency.)
On the plus side, this story has almost no bad language at all, and no lewd sexual content, even in situations that some writers would milk for every drop of titillation they could get; Halm is a very clean writer in this respect. (He doesn't present Katla as a super-sexualized bimbo, either.) It's also a pretty quick read; I finished it in one sitting. But those points didn't redeem it for me, and I don't have any interest in exploring any more of the series.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Full disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author's offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.
Author Lloyd dedicates thisFull disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author's offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.
Author Lloyd dedicates this debut novel, appropriately, "to all the invisible heroes in the world who risk their own lives to save others." It's the opener for a projected series, the Vormund/Ames Files, dealing with a secretive consulting firm that caters to governments and businesses with needs in the security and counter-terrorism area. What they provide is usually advice and analysis --but there are times when they go beyond that. While they're not amoral mercenaries simply out for a buck --they choose to be on the side of good, not evil-- they may operate on the edge of the law, and in operations where their employers sometimes might want some "plausible deniability."
Though published this year, the book is set in 2008. A few months before it opens, a small party of innocent and idealistic American botanists ventured into the jungles of Honduras, researching medicinal plants. Unfortunately, they blundered into the territory used by drug lord Hector Vega, and while trying to flee from a fire fight between his minions and a rival gang, they were all brutally gunned down. Both the U.S. and Honduran governments know, from eyewitness testimony, that Vega was responsible; but his political connections and back-scratching arrangements give him blank-check immunity. He's not as home free as he imagines, however, because the grief-stricken fiancee of one of the murdered men is a soft-spoken young woman from Georgia named Elizabeth Ashton. Liz is a decent, ethically-oriented person who cares about others and about doing the right thing. She's also a professional sniper for the FBI, with the rank of Special Agent, and probably as deadly a markswoman with a rifle as it's humanly possible to be.
The plot here has two focal points of action (and this doesn't disclose anything that's not basically outlined in the cover copy, which is also used as the Goodreads description): the Vega problem in the early chapters, and the main plot strand, code-named "Operation Angelica." Law enforcement runs in Liz' family (her father is a county sheriff, and her brother a state trooper); respect for legal due process and commitment to basic justice are both important principles for her. When they're in irreconcilable conflict, and she has to decide which one trumps the other, she doesn't take it lightly. Personally, I don't have any problem with her decision (I'm much less hard on her on that score than she is on herself!). But it's one that, eventually, brings her to the notice of the Vormund/Ames management --who are impressed rather than scandalized. That leads to a job offer (and given the series title, it's no surprise that she accepts!).
The company's current big project in hand is a rescue mission for a group of hostages --especially a critically ill journalist with both Columbian and French citizenship-- held by a drug-trafficking Marxist guerrilla rebel group in the South American jungle. We also have a sub-plot involving a high-ranking CIA official with a gambling-debts problem and a lot fewer ethical scruples than he needs to have.
Lloyd's prose style is highly accomplished; she handles diction, syntax, and vocabulary extremely well (a refreshing experience nowadays!). She also appears to have pretty good technical knowledge of firearms and the training, procedures and equipment involved in SWAT-style ops; I don't have personal experience in that area, but the writing has a solidly realistic feel to me. Not only Liz, but all of the major characters here are clearly delineated and lifelike. Character and relationship development occupies more of the book than action, as does planning, intelligence gathering and set-up --that's also realistic for this type of thing, where the time involved in actual gun-blazing action, if you've planned well, is actually relatively brief. That said, there's a good deal of taut tension that mounts steadily before the shooting starts, and there's a high body count when it's finished!
For the most part, the plotting here is linear and straightforward, without a lot of convolution, and this is a quick read. I withheld the fifth star in my rating because of several logical missteps in the CIA-official subplot; but that didn't stop me from really liking the book, and I definitely intend to follow the series!
Note: Liz and other characters use a certain amount of bad language, of the d/h/s/a-word sort, at times, but no obscenity or religious profanity. Their speaking style is well within the bounds of realism for these types of characters and situations. One of the flashbacks has Liz recalling a conversation she and her fiance had when they were lying together in bed, and it's clear that another couple make love at one point; but there's no explicit sex, and Lloyd doesn't portray any of these four people as promiscuous types....more
Seasoned speculative fiction author D. B. Jackson is also a PhD. in history, and his Thieftaker Chronicles series allows him to blend those two intereSeasoned speculative fiction author D. B. Jackson is also a PhD. in history, and his Thieftaker Chronicles series allows him to blend those two interests. This e-story was written, and published online, as a sort of appetizer and prequel before the first novel of the series was released. Since I've been reading favorable reviews of the series novels, my interest was piqued, and I decided to check it out through this venue.
The year is 1763 (it's not stated directly in the text, but readers who know their American history can date it from the historical reference). Series protagonist Ethan Kaille is a young-ish (his exact age isn't given, but Jackson gives us intriguing glimpses of a backstory that goes back some 15 years; I'd guess the character to be in his early 30s) single guy who makes his living as a "thieftaker" --a recoverer of stolen goods, for a fee-- in Boston. He's also a conjurer (with genuine powers) in a milieu where laws making "witchcraft" a capital crime are still on the books, and where lethal witch hysteria is a matter of living memory. So that's not an aspect of his abilities that he puts on his resume;' but there are troublesome rumors that don't generally do him any good. Those rumors directly set up the premise (which is adequately summarized in the Goodreads description above) of this exciting, tightly-woven tale.
Jackson evokes colonial Boston vividly, with what appears to be sound historical accuracy (I'd never heard of "thieftaking" being a recognized profession before this series came onto my radar, but I don't have any reason to doubt that it might have been) and a grasp of the physical geography of the city as it existed then (he tosses out street and locality names with considerable assurance.) His plotting observes all of Aristotle's classical unities, and the story arc isn't predictable in the way many supernatural yarns are. The approach to magic is distinctive. Ethan's a likeable character, the supporting cast is well-drawn, the prose is brisk and lucid (I didn't know a couple of period nautical terms, but that didn't impede the story's flow). There's very little bad language and no sex, but a hint of possible clean romance with a worthy lady. Best of all, the story raises ethical questions that aren't cut-and-dried, and that make the reader think.
Why, then, did I withhold the fifth star? That was a response to just one factor, the moral ambiguity of the magic. Elsewhere, I've indicated that I don't have a moral/philosophical/theological problem with the idea, as a literary conceit, of incantational magic (magic that draws on morally neutral power that's supposedly inherent in the universe), as opposed to invocational magic that works by calling on superhuman entities or the departed dead. I do have a problem with the latter. (Of course, I don't believe either one exists in actuality!) Ethan's conjuring seems to straddle the line, or to be very close to the latter; he (and other conjurers) draw on "the power dwelling between the living world and the realm of the dead," but each speller is "enabled" to do this by a "spirit guide," apparently a ghost of someone long dead, who appears when magic is evoked by the shedding of blood from the conjurer's own veins. To be sure, Ethan sincerely believes that his spellcraft isn't evil; and we're not told much about how it works, or how spell-casters are connected with their spirit guides in the first place. My misgivings weren't strong or definite enough to keep me from really liking the story. But they are nonetheless there.
As far as I know, this story has never been published in print form; it's strictly an e-story. But I've indicated before that where short fiction is concerned (unlike whole books), I don't have a problem with reading it electronically; indeed, I think electronic distribution of short stories, in this era of the demise of general circulation magazines, is a boon to both writers and readers. This one can be read for free (as I did) on the publisher's website, by clicking the URL link given in the Goodreads description for this edition. (That's certainly preferable, IMO, to buying the Kindle version, which Amazon is selling for 99 cents!)...more
Note, Nov. 28, 2014: I just edited this review slightly to make a factual correction --I recognized two of the names in the bibliography, not just oneNote, Nov. 28, 2014: I just edited this review slightly to make a factual correction --I recognized two of the names in the bibliography, not just one.
Full disclosure at the outset: I won a free copy of this book in a recent Goodreads giveaway.
Because of my liking for supernatural fiction and my interest in folklore, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm intrigued by unexplained phenomena in the real world, and have been since childhood. My own attitude is one of open-minded inquiry, tempered by caution and a critical faculty. While I don't "believe in ghosts" in the conventional sense, I also don't dogmatically assume that naive materialism explains all observed reality. I've never had any paranormal experiences of my own (I'm using "paranormal" as most people do, in the sense of uncanny or strange, with no connotations about the cause --not, as Clarke defines it at one point in this book, as a technical term that itself implies a non-supernatural explanation); but I have family members who have, and a neighbor whose veracity I have no reason to doubt, who fully believes that her house is harmlessly haunted by the ghost of a child. So my interest in Clarke's book was piqued when I saw the giveaway.
Roger Clarke grew up in the 1960s and 70s on England's Isle of Wight, an area with folk beliefs in ghosts, and lived in houses that had tales of hauntings connected to them. As a kid and teen, he developed an avid interest in ghost hunting, becoming the youngest member of the Society for Psychical Research at the age of 14. (The first chapter of the book provides this background, and discusses the several "haunted" sites he's visited personally.) While the bulk of the Goodreads description just reproduces the cover copy, which is a bit sensationalized, it does give a pretty accurate idea of the book's flavor. It's not really a systematic treatise on the subject, or a full history of ghost beliefs (it's organized topically, rather than chronologically), but it's a very wide-ranging discussion, with a lot of fascinating factual information. Clarke takes it as a given that some people do experience "ghost" phenomena; the question for him is not whether these exist or not, but rather how they should be explained, and what ghost beliefs tell us about ourselves. (And, at least in this book, he doesn't really attempt to suggest definitive answers.)
Though the book isn't really a "natural history" of ghosts, the second chapter does provide a "taxonomy" or classification (actually taken from ghost researcher Peter Underwood) of eight types of "ghostly" phenomena: "elementals," poltergeists, traditional or historical ghosts, mental imprint menifestations, crisis or death-survival apparitions, time slips, "ghosts" of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. Some of these categories, which are mostly distinguished by how they can possibly be explained, are concepts I was already aware of from other reading, but I still found the discussion informative. The succeeding chapters deal with a variety of subjects (which aren't always neatly organized), including 20th-century style ghost hunting, spiritualist seances, attempts to photograph ghosts, use of other kinds of technology for ghostly research, ghost phenomena associated with the military in wartime, and bogus ghost phenomena. Another interesting theme is the role of religion in European ghost belief. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church explained ghosts as souls from Purgatory; once souls were in heaven or hell, they stayed there. The Protestant rejection of Purgatory was associated with denial of the possibility of ghosts, and the explanation of all alleged ghostly phenomena as demonic in origin. (An exception was the early Methodist movement, which was open to the idea of ghosts due to the Wesley family's experience of poltergeist phenomena in Epworth in John Wesley's early years.) Much of this information was new to me or only vaguely grasped before. Several chapters concentrate on famous cases of "hauntings," including the 17th-century Tedworth Drummer, the phenomena at Hinton Ampner in the 18th century, the "Brown Lady of Raynham Hall," and the case of Borley Rectory in the 20th century.
For the most part, Clarke expresses no opinion, or ambiguous opinions, about the phenomena he describes, with the exception of some incidents, like the Cock Lane "ghost" in London in 1760-62, that were clearly faked. Based on the material here, I would say that there is a good deal of claimed "ghost" phenomena that can be discounted or that is susceptible of a natural explanation. There is, IMO, a core residue of data that is more resistant to that sort of explanation. This doesn't mean that we're obliged to explain it as the activity of revenant spirits of the dead, though I don't dogmatically deny that some of it could be. (I personally believe that the souls of the dead are normally unconscious and inactive until the time of the future resurrection; but that's a Biblical interpretation, not a proven fact, and what's normal may also not be invariable. I also don't rule out the reality of genuine demonic activity as an explanation for some phenomena; and I would recommend Kurt Koch's Between Christ and Satan as a worthwhile resource on that topic. But that's also not a handy-dandy explanation that all data can be forced to fit.)
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book to me was Clarke's highlighting of connections between supernatural fiction and real-life incidents. For instance, he makes a good case that the Hinton Ampner haunting suggested Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Daniel Defoe's "True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" turns out to be an only lightly fictionalized account of an actual reported event; and famed ghost story writer M. R. James had a traumatizing paranormal experience as a boy.
Clarke isn't a scientist as such; he's an interested dabbler in the subject, writing for interested lay persons. His style is lively and chatty, but not ultra-scholarly, and his treatments of various facets of the subject are often not deep. He uses endnotes, but they're often just factual tidbits about a subject, not documentation of sources, and a lot of quoted and other material isn't documented. (The book is also indexed, but there are some omissions in the indexing.) Also, the editing was sometimes careless; information will occasionally be repeated because he apparently forgot he supplied it earlier. More than once, he left me wanting more information than I got. He did, however, clearly do his homework, and took it seriously. The bibliography for further reading fills about three-and-a-quarter pages, and consists of apparently solid sources, several of them from university presses. I haven't read any of these, and the only authors I recognized were folklorist Andrew Lang and Peter Haining (who edited The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings; but at least one is a book I'd like to read.) Two valuable sources not included are William G. Roll's The Poltergeist, and True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan.
All in all, I enjoyed the book enough to feel it earned its fourth star. It's not the definitive exploration of its subject by any means. But if that exploration is ever written, this is one source its author will probably want to make use of!...more
Barb and I started reading this together as a "car book" (that is, a book I read out loud to her when we're traveling in the car) many years ago, sincBarb and I started reading this together as a "car book" (that is, a book I read out loud to her when we're traveling in the car) many years ago, since we liked the TV series, and neither of us had ever read the books. But she found this book too boring to continue, and I wasn't engaged with it enough to bother pursuing it on my own. (So, this isn't a "review" --merely a short explanation of why I didn't finish it!)...more