So Many Books, So Little Time...

If only I could be paid for reading, I would not have any problems working.

 

And yes, I am yet another refugee from Goodreads.  So far, I like BL.  What about you?

Excellent Analysis of the Public Square

— feeling smile
The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse - Steven D. Smith

The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith ****

In the wake of last year's election, it appears that discourse in the public square is breaking down completely.  Invective and name calling have become the rules of the day I cannot imagine a more propitious time to read Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.” It is a brilliant look at the current state of discourse in the American public arena.

By way of introduction, Mr. Smith lays out for us the problem as it is typically described by pundits of different stripes. We live in the “age of American unreason” they say, characterized by a “new species of anti-rationalism” where our “politics are now so debased that they threaten our standing as a genuine democracy”. He lists the usual suspects: an under-performing educational system, media outlets interested more in entertaining than informing, “the Internet, video games, text messaging”, and especially evangelical or fundamentalist religion, all of which contribute to a dumbed-down society of those “eager only to browse and skim, but without the patience actually to read and think”. 

Though he is deeply concerned about the appalling state of affairs, Mr. Smith finds these sacred cows to be less than satisfying, as the same symptoms can just as easily be found in the academy, and even on the Supreme Court, as on the street or on talk radio. If, then, these are merely symptoms, what is the true cause? The answer he suggests is surprising and can be paraphrased as follows. In a reaction against the failure of Reason to fulfill the promises of the age of enlightenment, we have evicted from the public arena our “deepest convictions about what is really true and consented to work only with a scaled-down set of beliefs or methods that claim the support of an ostensible ‘overlapping consensus’”, understanding that “no one’s truth is going to prevail over its rivals”. In other words, in order to “keep [public discourse] from drowning in the perilous depths of questions about ‘the nature of the universe,’” we have discarded our worldviews and created a public arena that can be nothing but shallow.

The problem does not end there. The shallowness prescribed by the rules of public discourse cannot provide satisfactory answers to the most vexing problems that face society. Therefore, those who participate in the discussion have had to resort to the practice of “smuggling” their deepest convictions in to the discussion under cover of a number of disguises. We have become a society of well-meaning hypocrites, claiming to have abandoned our convictions about first principles, all the while smuggling them in the back door in the worst disguises. 

All of the above is laid out in painstaking detail in the first chapter. The balance of the book is spent providing evidence to support his formulation of the question of what is wrong with public discourse in America today. He examines the most common vehicles used for such smuggling, showing how they are used in the most contentious and divisive arguments that occupy contemporary society: among them right-to-life issues, church/state division, and a non-metaphysical source of first principles. 

All of this might be a laborious yawn-fest, but Mr. Smith writes with conviction and a wry sense of humor that occasionally borders on sarcasm. It is a winning combination that engages the reader and encourages him to hang in there even when the going gets a little rough. Having a good teacher can make learning even the most tedious subject enjoyable. Mr. Smith appears to have all the makings of a very good teacher. Given that his subject is one of vital importance to the life of our nation, we do well to listen to what he has to say and learn as much as we can.

The Real Jane

Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series) - Peter Leithart

A loving biography of one of my favorite writers.  Well worth the read if you love Jane Austen's work.

Christ the Center (Ministers Paperback Library) - Edwin Hanton Robertson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This series of lectures given by Dietrich Bonhoeffer early in his career is a mixed bag.  His original lecture notes did not survive.  The book reproduces the lectures through notes taken by Bonhoeffer's students.  The theological content is quite good.  It could hardly be otherwise.  But the presentation is poor and lacking in clarity.  It's obvious that one is reading someone else's notebook.

 

The gist of Bonhoeffer's lectures is that Jesus, the Christ, is the center of all things: creation, history, theology, the Church and the life of the Christian.  That may seem like a given for Christians, but it's important to keep in mind that Bonhoeffer was responding to a German Church that increasingly embraced the ideals of the National Socialist Party.  It was necessary to restore an orthodox Christology to the German Evangelical Church.  The lectures that form "Christ the Center" were a small part of his efforts to steer the Church back to its origins.  

 

Thought not an easy read, I recommend "Christ the Center" as a reminder to today's Church of who Jesus is.  There is a lot of confusion in the world about the Christ, and the Church does not always do a good job of responding to it.  In spite of it's difficulties, "Christ the Center" is a good antidote.  Be prepared to spend a little extra time working through it.  The thread of Bonhoeffer's argument is easily lost on occasion and difficult to pick back up.  But it will reward your efforts if you stick with it.

A Right Rendering of Bloody Beowulf

Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering - Douglas Wilson

Simply a rousing new edition of one of my favorite books.  Douglas Wilson has produced a verse rendering of Beowulf that recreates the alliterative style of the original.  The result is a more visceral reading experience that suits the subject matter well.  I highly recommend it.  

"“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.”"

C.S. Lewis, "Preface to Paradise Lost"

Have Fun, Just Don't Blow Anything Up

Theo Gray's Mad Science - Theodore Gray

"Theo Gray's Mad Science - Experiments That You Can Do At Home, But Probably Shouldn't" is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time.  It is filled with just the kind of cool stuff you wish you'd been allowed to do in high school if only the insurance would have covered it.  Most of the 50+ experiments contained in the book could easily maim or kill the incautious, but would be so much fun if you pulled them off.  

 

Mr. Gray shows you how to do things like make titanium in your backyard, make glass from sand, melt just about anything, make salt from pure sodium and chlorine gas, and shrink coins by passing current through them.  But don't touch the bank of 12,000 volt capacitors used to shrink the coins.  The smallest touch will kill you, so he says, and I'm not going to doubt him.  

 

Few of the experiments are practical, cheap or easy, and all of them require some knowledge of chemistry and/or engineering, but that doesn't keep the book from being fun to read.  Mr. Gray's pithy commentary, accompanied by beautiful photographs, are enough to keep you turning the pages wondering if you really might be able to make your own trick metal coffee spoons that melt in the coffee and send them to your kid brother as a prank.  Just don't breathe the mercury vapors from that engine you're building and everything should be fine.  

 

So long as you remember to steer clear of the capacitors.

For Boredom's Sake?

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale - Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk

I was supposed to read "Moby Dick" for the first time in high school (weren't we all).  Being a poor student back then, I did everything I could to avoid it and succeeded, though I wound up with pretty bad grades that term.  The memory of those grades stayed with me down through the years, and this year it seemed time to finally make atonement by sitting down and reading it.  My instincts in high school were right.  Even for an A in the class, it wouldn't have been worth it. 

 

"Moby Dick" is a dreadful bore from start to finish.  Reading it was pure drudgery.  Far from being the great American novel, it's not even a good one.  Melville squanders his acknowledged gift for storytelling by digressing from his main story too many times to count.  He starts out with Ishmael, Queequeg and their desire to go a-whaling.  They sign on with the good ship Pequod out of Nantucket under the command of mad Captain Ahab on his obsessive quest to kill the great white whale.  So far so good.  But as soon as they are out of the harbor, Melville begins the first of many long digressions about whales and whaling.  There are interminable pages on the history of whaling, the techniques of whaling, the tools of whaling, the customs of whaling, the traditions of whaling, how to skin a whale, whales in art, the physiognomy of whales, the terminology of whaling, the etymology of whaling, the nobility of the whale and whaler all with no sign of the characters in sight.  This is great stuff if you find those topics interesting, but not if you came here looking for a deep, engaging, multi-layered novel about the complexities of human nature and its relationship with the world around it set in the context of a sea-going adventure.    

 

Some might argue that many great books digress from their stories.  The famous sewers of Paris from "Les Miserables", or John Galt's radio address from "Atlas Shrugged" for example, and they would have a good point.  But unlike those masterful novels, of which up to a quarter consists of digressions, I would guess that only a third of "Moby Dick" focuses on the story.  The vast digressions stretch out before the unknowing reader like the surface of the ocean before a thirsty shipwrecked sailor in the middle of a dead calm.  

 

Having said that, when Melville sticks to the story, it is darned good.  The characters are well drawn and memorable.  Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask the mates, Tashtego and Queequeg the harpooners, and Ahab himself stand before the reader in all their salty glory.  The ships on the sea chasing their prey, the deadly struggle of the whales, Ahab's quest; all of this is well told and it is clear that the author knew his subject well. The symbolism and the story of evil turning on and devouring itself is brilliant.  Had he stuck with these elements and pursued them as devotedly as Ahab did Moby Dick, this might truly have been a great book.  As it stands, it is a well written treatise on whaling in the 19th century, interspersed occasionally with a strange, sad short story about a particular, doomed expedition.

 

Read at your own risk.  If, that is, you didn't have to do it already in high school. 

SPOILER ALERT!

Not so Great...

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

With precious few exceptions, twentieth century American fiction is my least favorite genre of literature.  It is often so hopeless, melancholy and pointless that I am left feeling empty when it's over.  Occasionally, something will happen to goad me into reading a "modern classic" and give me an opportunity to reevaluate my assessment.  Such was the case with "The Great Gatsby".  The new movie attracted enough attention that it seemed time to come to terms with the novel so that I would be informed enough to speak about it if it ever came up in conversation.  Sadly, the experience did nothing to change my opinion of twentieth century American fiction.

 

Though not a complete failure, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is far from the classic many claim it to be.  Hailed as a book that captures the heart and soul of the jazz age, it is a slender nothing of a book clocking in at just over 100 pages, quickly read, digested, and forgotten.  It is as complete a portrait of the 20s as a cheap Polaroid is of a family: a hazy and indistinct snapshot lacking focus, depth and context.

 

The story is well known and easily summarized.  A young man by the name of Nick Carraway moves to New York City from the mid-west after serving in the first world war.  Quite by chance, he takes up low-rent lodgings not far from a fabulous mansion owned by millionaire Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby is in the habit of throwing massive bacchanalian parties attended by the greats of society by invitation, and by the not so great as hangers on.  Nick is drawn to Gatsby and becomes part of a small circle of friends, partly because of his second cousin, Daisy Buchanan, the love of Gatsby's life. 

 

Married to the wealthy, abusive, and philandering Tom Buchanan, Daisy is offered the chance to escape with Gatsby.  Questions arise, however, about his past and the source of his wealth.  Daisy, weak and indecisive, is unable to follow through and tragedy ensues, leaving death and broken lives scattered throughout the end of the book.

 

"The Great Gatsby" is unpleasant to read.  The quality of Fitzgerald's writing is uneven at best.  It is affected, self-satisfied and self-consciously artistic.  You can almost hear him muttering to himself "how can I phrase this so it sounds...artsy?"  There are moments that are quite good, particularly the famous last paragraph, but they are few and far between.  Adding insult to injury, Fitzgerald has no ear for dialogue.  Conversations between his characters are dreadful, which may explain why there are so few.  What remains are descriptions of people, places and events tacked together haphazardly. 

 

As to the characters, they are universally unlikable.  It helps a book to have someone the reader can root for, someone to love or at least sympathize with.  "Gatsby" is utterly lacking in all of these.  The characters are all shallow, self-centered and careless, pursuing their own ends with no regard for what impact they might have on those around them.  There is little to no character development.  No one learns or grows, no one changes for the better or worse. They exist as they are with nothing but their own desire for achievement, entertainment or novelty to drive them.

 

Some of the reviews I read of the book claim that it was his intent to create such characters as a means by which to critique and satirize America in the jazz age.  This is a rather myopic way to write.  It dismisses out of hand so much of what was happening in the world.  The early part of the twentieth century was a time of great discovery and achievement.  It was the era of Lindbergh and Einstein, Ruth and Matisse, Gershwin and Lloyd Wright.  Yes, it saw the horror of WWI, but it also saw the healing power of antibiotics and the advent of modern electronics.  Fitzgerald wrote about the small part of the world that he knew; of self-indulgence, artificial euphoria, and lost dreams.  But has there ever been a time when those things could not be found?  Aren't Gatsby and his circle still living today among the celebretante crowd, famous for being famous and lampooned by TMZ when they wind up in scandal after obligatory scandal? 

 

It is obvious that Fitzgerald did not, like authors I admire, write from a love for words or language, or even a love of writing.  He did not even seem to love his characters or the story he told.  Instead, he seems to have written as a way to express and assuage a deep pain that he carried.  Perhaps, had he looked beyond the literary crowd he hung out with, he might have found a way out of himself.  He might have found a larger world; flawed and imperfect, but with much to celebrate.  As it is, "The Great Gatsby" is a hollow achievement, a book of impressions, as shallow as the characters it aims to satirize.

Elementary, my dear...

The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Sidney Paget, Julian Wolfreys,  Arthur Conan Doyle

I came to Sherlock Holmes fairly late in my mystery reading career, and the result was an odd experience.  It was very much like coming home to someplace I'd never been.  Though I'd never read much, if any, of Arthur Conan Doyle's work, there was something familiar and comfortable about it all.  It took me awhile, but I eventually figured it out.  In a sense, I was coming home.  Sir Arthur is to the mystery story what Mallory is to Camelot and Tolkien is to fantasy.  Though not the first writer of detective stories, he is in many ways the source, the ur-quelle of so much that has come along since.  I am not the most widely read mystery reader, but every author I have read owes a debt to Sherlock Holmes.

 

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are the first two collections of Holmes short stories.  It is easy to see why their popularity endures.  Doyle's writing is clear, tight and efficient without sacrificing elegance.  The plots are well conceived and executed, and the action is always palpable.  But those elements are secondary to the characters.  

 

In Holmes and Watson, Doyle created what may be the most perfect detective partnership ever to reside between the covers of a book.  They are as complementary as any two characters could be; Holmes the cold logician, effortlessly observant, solving crimes as though it was as easy as tying his shoes, almost too detached from the rest of humanity.  Watson, the physician, warm, intelligent, resourceful, faithful, ready with his revolver, and contrary to the popular conception that he is bumbling and clueless, only a step or two behind his friend.  Together they unravel mystery after mystery, each with a unique twist that hooks the reader and makes it hard to put the story down. 

 

A word about the types of stories in these collections.  Those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are almost pure whodunnits.  Just enough clues are scattered about here and there that the careful reader should be able to solve the mystery before the end.  Having come off a recent Nero Wolfe binge, I was able to guess the answer to most of them. ;-)  But the stories in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes have a very different flavor.  They are more along the lines of character sketches as Doyle spends more time on the criminals and victims than on Holmes's intellectual feats.  Clues are rare and Holmes and Watson seem forced to rely more on intuition than pure deduction.  I enjoyed the difference as it kept the series from becoming an exercise in matching wits.  

 

I look forward to reading the novels and other story collections, and highly recommend these first two to those who, like me, may have taken the long way round to being introduced to Mr Holmes.

Nobody does it better...

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit - P.G. Wodehouse

Is anyone better at farce than P.G. Wodehouse?  I've looked high and low, but have found no one.  

 

This time out, Bertie Wooster finds himself once more in peril of engagement to Florence Craye, in fear of his life from Stilton Cheesewright, and in danger of seeing his only worthy aunt lose a business deal with Lemuel Gengulphus Trotter ("some dirty work pulled at the font, Jeeves".)  Making matters worse, a moustache has come between Bertie and Jeeves, leaving young Wooster without his counselor and confidant.  Fortunately, Bertie is left to his own devices just long enough for us to enjoy the mayhem before Jeeves, that bird of the ripest intellect, exerts the old cerebellum and sets everything right once more.  

 

A great book from a great author.  I recommend it to everyone who wants or needs a good laugh.

SPOILER ALERT!

A Portrait of the Scarlet Pimpernel in Purple Prose

The Scarlet Pimpernel - Emmuska Orczy

I grew up knowing about the Scarlet Pimpernel through the Warner Bros "Scarlet Pumpernickel" cartoon starring Daffy Duck.  The image of Sylvester the cat stuttering out "puh...puh...pumpernickel" never failed to make me laugh.  Later, I caught the televised version with Richard Grant and Elizabeth McGovern and enjoyed it immensely.  When my family watched it recently on Netflix, I decided it was finally time to sit down and read the book.  

 

"The Scarlet Pimpernel" is a delightful adventure story by Baroness Orczy, a titled but poor Hungarian noblewoman.  In a prose style that frequently veers off into shades of purple, she convincingly re-creates the time of the French Terror in 1792, introducing into it the title character, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Brilliant, fearless, cunning, resourceful, impetuous and uncommonly strong, he penetrates, time and again, the very heart of the revolutionary council, carrying off what few of the remaining French noblemen and women he can to freedom across the channel.  Only his closest comrades know that this dashing hero hides behind the foppish facade of Sir Percy Blakeney, the most wealthy and superficial of the subjects of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.  

 

Sorry about that, but honestly, reading "Pimpernel" could bring out the Bulwer-Lytton in just about anyone.  Baroness Orczy excels at squeezing every ounce of overwrought emotion possible out of her adjectives as her heroes and heroines jump back and forth across the channel in an almost farcical adventure of secret identities, sundered hearts, and misunderstandings.  If it weren't for the ever-present guillotine, "Pimpernel" could almost pass for a comedy.  

 

The plot is simple enough: Sir Percy Blakeney, the best dressed but least intelligent dandy in the British court, marries the beautiful and brilliant French actress, Marguerite, and matches wits with the villainous French envoy, M. Chauvelin, as he risks his life to save as much of the French nobility as he can, transporting them to England on his aptly named schooner the "Day Dream".  Marguerite, surprisingly ignorant of her husband's activities, inadvertently betrays him when Chauvelin captures her brother and uses him to extort the information from her.  It is only after Chauvelin departs to capture the Pimpernel that Marguerite figures out what has been going on all along and enlists the aid of one of the league of the Pimpernel to save Percy.  All along there are hair-raising adventures and hair's-breadth escapes, right up to the happy ending when all is set to right.  

 

Though far from being one of the towering achievements in literature, I can't help but feel it deserves a place as a classic of some sort.  First, it's just plain fun to read.  Though the Baroness certainly did not intend it to be comedic, the result of her efforts is just this side of silly in the best way.  Second, it succeeds as an adventure story.  Though not in the same vein as Kipling, Verne, or Stevenson, it is almost a precursor to some of the pulp adventure stories that came along later.  Her timing is excellent, and the adventurous episodes are engagingly written.  She keeps the suspense going even when there is a break in the action for dialogue.  Third, it is unabashedly patriotic.  Though born in Hungary, Baroness Orczy emigrated to England and was proud of the history of Britain.  She supported the aristocracy, and the British efforts in WWI.  Her love of England and the English spills over from the pages of "Pimpernel".  As a result, the whole turns out be greater than the sum of the parts.  

 

Again, this is a delightful book that can serve as an enjoyable bit of brain-candy when you need a break from more serious fare.  

An Innocence to which I Aspire

The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown - G.K. Chesterton, Martin Gardner

GK Chesterton is one of my favorite authors.  He was possessed of a huge intellect, immense jollity, a flair for the fantastic, and a profoundly childlike sense of wonder, all combined with a genuine love of words.  Words were his toys.  Reading his books, it is easy to see how much he enjoyed playing with them, putting them together, taking them apart, turning them over and around, and then putting them together again in different ways like a child excitedly playing with building blocks to see how many different buildings he can make from the same set.  I think this is part of the reason that few share his ability to turn a phrase with such wit, or fill a single sentence with so many layers of meaning.  

 

In "The Innocence of Father Brown", Chesterton invests these gifts in an unlikely hero; a short, soft-spoken, round-faced, Roman Catholic priest who happens to solve crimes on the side.  Like other great fictional detectives, Father Brown frequently succeeds where the police fail.  Where he differs is how he arrives at the solutions.  Father Brown is, like all great detectives, logical, rational, and highly intelligent.  But as a priest who hears the confessions of those who come to him for reconciliation, he is also intimately familiar with the evil that lurks inside all human beings, particularly the criminal.  He is able to feel with the criminal the motivations behind the crime, and that, combined with his brilliance, leads him to uncover one crime after another.

 

These are some of the finest short stories in detective fiction I've read so far, but they go much deeper than simple whodunits.  Father Brown allows Chesterton to explore the the consequences of the fall of man among both the criminal and the respectable elements of society, but his combination of wit and whimsey prevents the stories from becoming preachy.  

 

Father Brown is one of the least likely and most enjoyable detectives in mystery fiction.  I recommend him highly.

Mere Brilliance

Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis

I just finished re-reading Mere Christianity.  As always, I am amazed at its brilliant simplicity and straightforward explication of the basic tenets of Christianity; the things that all Christians in every age and denomination agree to.  Every time I read it, I learn something new, which is one of the marks of a great work of art.

 

I first read "Mere Christianity" nearly 25 years ago as a sophomore in college when a good friend lent me a copy.  Though I grew up in a Christian family and was baptised at an early age, "Mere Christianity" came as a wonderful surprise, almost a shock.  Never before had Christianity been presented to me as something that was reasonable, rational, or intellectually defensible.  Instead, Christianity was primarily an emotional relationship, something more felt than thought about.  My earliest attempts at evangelism, or even apologia, were always quickly frustrated by many honest and reasonable questions by atheists and agnostics.  I did not know why I believed or how to "be ready in season and out of season; [to] reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."  This frequently left me frustrated in my attempts to articulate my faith to others.  Reading "Mere Christianity" changed all of that.  I learned that Christianity was not only rational, but vigorously so.  It was the beginning of my intellectual awakening as a Christian.

 

How did Lewis accomplish this feat?  By walking the reader slowly, in a logical step-wise fashion, through the core doctrines of the Christian faith, beginning with the existence of God, and ending with the sanctification, and ultimate glorification, of the individual Christian.  Along the way there are mutliple stops where he explains Christian teachings on natural law, sin, justification, morality, marriage, forgiveness, even the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, all the while making ample use of analogies and illustrations to clearly make his points.  

 

"Mere Christianity" is a remarkable book for many reasons, not least of which that it is both easy enough for the youngest Christian to understand, but profound enough for even seasoned theologians to glean insight.  It wisely avoids most of the controversial topics that tend to divide the denominations, making it accessible to Christians of all traditions; Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant.  Though uncompromising in its explication of Christian doctrine,"Mere Christianity" is gentle and loving in its tone, and witty in its presentation.  Lewis was a gifted author and lay-theologian who dearly loved both working with words and anything to do with his Lord.  These loves are everywhere present throughout his work, and fill this particular book nearly to overflowing.  I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to understand more of what it means to be a Christian.  It is not the end of theology, but it is a wonderful beginning.

 

 

Divine Judgment

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Cantica I (L'Inferno) (L6) - Dante Alighieri;translator Dorothy L. Sayers

What a joy to read literature that is not only well executed, but beautiful in spirit! Dante's work is one of the pillars of western literature, and justly so. Conceived and executed in a poetical form called "terza rima" and functioning on multiple levels of meaning simultaneously, the three books of the "Commedia" are a microcosm of human spiritual life. Care is lavished on every detail from the geography to the astronomy and everything in between. It is a monumental achievement, encompassing theology, politics, aesthetics, literary criticism, science, philosophy, metaphysics...you name it. 

The first book, the Inferno, chronicles the beginning of Dante's spiritual odyssey. He wakes one day in the middle of his life to discover that he is lost in a dark forest and surrounded by mortal dangers. Against all hope, rescue comes in the form of the ancient poet Virgil, who has been commissioned by Heaven to lead Dante back to the true path. Virgil, the personification of pagan wisdom, must lead Dante down through the nine circles of Hell where he will begin to learn the wisdom that leads back to life, which will ultimately be found only in Christ. Each circle in Hell is the final resting place of souls who have died in their sins, the punishments at each level being perfectly suited to the sin that defined the earthly life of the soul. The sins at each circle are progressively more vile than the circle before, and the punishments grow more horrible and gruesome. 

Though the tortures of Hell are graphically described, Dante is not gratuitous. He is no medieval Quentin Tarantino. Part of his purpose is to reveal the hideous nature of evil and expose the ugliness of the soul that remains unrepentant and self-interested even after death. Dante's theology is solid and Hell is the place where true, lasting judgment is meted out and justice is finally satisfied. These are not popular ideas in our politically correct, selectively tolerant society. But exactly what have these flaccid new ideologies done for us except to shackle our thoughts, and silence dissenting voices? Give me Dante any day.

Sayers' translation is magnificent. She reproduces both the meter and rhyme, giving those of us who do not know Italian a taste of what the original must be like. Her explanatory notes provide much needed details that enrich the reading experience. Even more helpful was her dedication to Charles Williams which, in turn, led me to read "The Figure of Beatrice". It was there that Dante's meaning became more clear to me.

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians & Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War - Victor Davis Hanson

I enjoy reading classical Greek and Latin literature of all sorts: drama, poetry, and history, as well as books about these topics. So it was with the anticipation of something good that I sat down to read Hanson's "A War Like No Other". Hanson is a noted author, historian and classicist, so what could be more interesting than his take on the Peloponnesian war? A lot of things, actually.

Not that "A War Like No Other" is bad. Hanson, as has been noted in many reviews, departs from the typical linear presentation of the war, taking instead a topical approach. In each chapter he examines the war as a whole through the lens of a particular aspect of the war. In "Armor", he focuses on the life of the Greek Hoplite soldier, the main Hoplite battles, and how the nature of those battles changed radically from the opening to the closing of the war. Likewise in "Walls" he investigates the ancient Greek practice of siege warfare. Naval battles are discussed in "Ships", cavalry in "Horses", and so on. As he examines these topics in detail he also touches on several recurring themes, chief among them the cost of the war in material treasure, human lives, and the way the Peloponnesian war changed Western concepts of war forever. All of this is fascinating.

The issue I had was not with the information presented, but how it was presented. The topical approach simply did not work for me. It was too fragmented and disjoint. I felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. True, each chapter varied from the last in topic, but too many of the events and characters were repeated. The narrative thread provided by a linear history was disrupted as those characters and events lost their normal place in a timeline. It did not help that this was my first reading of a book on the Peloponnesian war. Perhaps if I had already read Thucydides, "A War Like No Other" would have been more accessible.

On the whole, Hanson's book is worthwhile, but I cannot recommend it to a newcomer to the war between Athens and Sparta. Start with Thucydides. I intend to make him my next stop.

Give it a pass...

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America - Mike Yankoski

I would probably never have read this book had not some very sweet and well-intentioned people given it to me. Reading it was an unpleasant experience. "Under the Overpass" somehow manages to be condescending, arrogant, misinformed, and hypocritical all at the same time. Here are just a few of the many problems I had with this book:

1. On page 114 he mentions walking with a friend past a church on a Friday evening. The church is closed, locked, chained, and padlocked. The two took offense to this and then went on to compare it to a convenience store which is open and selling cigarettes, beer, and porn. The unspoken conclusion is that the worldly convenience store is more welcoming than the spiritual church. Apparently they did not consider that:
   a. If a church is going to open its doors, someone needs to be there to help protect it from those who would do it harm?
   b. That in order to have someone in the church, someone needs to volunteer or be paid?
   c. The convenience store probably had a security system including cameras and an alarm, both of which would deter theft and vandalism. These systems cost money; money that not every church can afford.
I want to know if the churches they attend now leave their doors open 24/7 and allow any and all to come and do what they want, when they want?

2. On page 148 he mentions a church service he attended during which the pastor delivered a sermon on how women will be saved through childbearing. He then remarks on how it was Berkeley and 2003. What do the two have to do with each other? Is not all Scripture God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness? Why then should a pastor in Berkeley in 2003, let alone 2010, not teach on that passage?

3. In the "Cowbell Door Chime" section beginning on page 76, he tells the story of walking with his friend into a sandwich shop and beginning a friendly game of one-upping each other on how bad they smell. Five other people come in, notice them, and then sit far away. It turns out that they are Christians. It is obvious that they can smell the two as much as they smell each other and they wind up avoiding them. There is an implied criticism of them for doing so. Is this fair? I may see two ratty-looking, smelly young men with guitars in a sandwich shop, but my first thought is not necessarily going to be that they are homeless and in need of help.

4. On page 141, they are engaged in a conversation with George, the Christian-pizza-guy. During that conversation he states " But you know what? I've never once come down here and preached. At least not in the typical fashion - you know; with yelling and Bible thumping." I have been going to church since I was born, attending services in Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, and even Roman Catholic services, depending on the circumstances in which I found myself. In over 40 years and dozens of churches I have, apparently, never seen one of George's "typical" sermons with "yelling and Bible thumping". Is his critique valid? If not, why does Mr. Yankoski give it his tacit support?

From the beginning there was something that bothered me about the entire project. Theirs was an intentional and almost belligerent homeless. They flaunt their willing homelessness in the face of the Church, asking the Christians they met for a handout, with no intention of giving up their homeless lifestyle, and then criticize them when they choose not to help them live the life they chose. They put them to the test, daring them to fail, castigating them for failing, but the test itself is unfair as the preconditions are disingenuous. Does a Christian have an obligation to aid and abet someone in their self-destruction? He, himself, gives the answer to that question in the book, and the answer is an unqualified no.

I say this having worked with the homeless through a good portion of my college career. I learned that there were different types of homeless people. Nearly all were on the streets due to a series of crushing circumstances that destroyed their livelihoods. Some were mentally ill and caught between a cycle of living on meds, losing their ability to buy their medication, thus losing touch with reality, and then losing their homes, only to regain them once they could obtain medication again through a charitable source. Some hated life on the streets and were working hard to get back into a productive life. Others were caught in the grip of terrible addictions and could not yet find the will to leave the streets. As another reviewer points out, Yankoski barely touches on these distinctions, preferring to gripe about how much he stank, or how uncomfortable he was.

All in all, "Under the Overpass" is a self-indulgent voyage of spiritual self-discovery. I gained almost nothing from it, and would not encourage anyone to read it. Your time would be much better spent reading Mother Teresa's "A Simple Path". She not only lived with the homeless, she spent her life caring for them, easing their pain, comforting them in the time of their death. That is a story worth reading.

Currently reading

Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body
Michael Waldstein, Pope John Paul II
Progress: 25/768 pages
Great Books of the Western World
Mortimer J. Adler
The Glory Of The Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing The Form (The Glory Of The Lord: A Theological Aesthetics)
Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, John Riches, Joseph Fessio, Hans Urs von Balthasar