Interview with the Mobster

I Heard You Paint Houses"; Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and closing the case on Jimmy ...Title: “I Heard You Paint Houses”:
Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa
Author: Charles Brandt
Genre: True(?) Crime
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I was living in Scranton back when this book came out, and it made quite the splash. Russell Bufalino, who figures prominently in the story, had been a local (I lived within walking distance of the borough where some of the early scenes take place…I miss all those little pizza joints!), and the whole Scranton-Wilkes Barre area still has a pretty corrupt “mobby” vibe even if the Bufalino family is allegedly no longer active (I won’t go into local “open secrets” and things observed while working as a bank teller for 3 years). Anyway, I finally got around to reading this, and even though disappointingly little occurs in the SWB area, it was interesting in a horrifying kind of way.

Most of the book is comprised of huge block quotes from Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, culled from years of interviews with the author. The author occasionally interjects paragraphs of his own to explain events, but this is mostly the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s murder (and tangentially connected events related to the Teamsters, the Kennedys,  Cuba, Nixon, etc.) as told in Sheeran’s own words. Some aspects of Sheeran’s story are annoyingly repetitive or confusingly organized, but given how much interview material the author must have had to sift through and edit into a readable story, it’s fairly impressive in its coherence.

Sheeran is cold and largely remorseless as he casually talks about “taking care of” people for the mob and the Teamsters (and, before that, for the US Army). He paints a disturbing picture of the utter corruption, casual violence, and immense influence of both unions and the mafia in their heyday. (Joe Biden even makes a brief appearance as the Teamsters suppress an edition of a newspaper that was running large-scale attack ads against him when he first ran for congress.)

It’s hard to say how much of Sheeran’s story is accurate and how much is braggadocio. The actual description of events immediately surrounding the murder of Jimmy Hoffa takes up a relatively small number of pages and is probably the most believable part since the author offers some corroborating evidence. Other aspects, like Sheeran’s sexual prowess, number of murders, or minor involvement in the JFK assassination, seem a bit more iffy.

Overall, I don’t think there’s any way to know how accurate this is, but it does provide a darkly fascinating look at power, corruption, and murder.

The Word

Keeping my “flock” encouraged (and law-abiding) and coordinating all the other usual pastor-y things from home continues to take up a lot of my time and creativity. However, I don’t want to fall completely behind on reviewing, so here are two short reviews of a couple short but excellent biblical studies books.

Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by [Kevin DeYoung]Title: Taking God at His Word:
Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough and What That Means for You and Me
Author: Kevin DeYoung
Genre: Theology (Applied Bibliology)
Pages: 129 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

The subtitle pretty much covers what the book is about. This is an excellent little primer on a conservative Protestant (I would say Evangelical, but that title is freighted with so much political baggage anymore that I hesitate to use it) understanding of the Bible as God’s authoritative Word.

Kevin DeYoung’s passionate, occasionally humorous, pastoral style keeps this from being a dry systematic theology book. It sparkles with a love for God’s Word and contains practical wisdom on taking advantage of God’s gift of “everything needed for life and godliness.”

The book is directed primarily toward Christians who already accept the Bible as God’s self-revelation. However, I would also recommend it to those with other convictions as a means of getting a basic non-caricatured overview of what we believe.

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels?
Author: Peter J. Williams
Genre: Theology (Bibliology)
Pages: 140 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

The earliest written sources that we have on the life of Jesus Christ are the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Peter J. Williams argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust their veracity. Along the way he also looks (unfavorably) at the so called Gnostic Gospels.

The overall tone of the book is scholarly rather than pastoral, but it does not require prior knowledge of the topic or use unexplained academic jargon. The author provides a basic overview of the various lines of evidence and offers a wealth of scholarly resources for those who want to dig deeper. I appreciate that he is confident and articulate in his arguments, but humble and reasonable enough to know that he cannot conclusively prove his case. At a certain point it comes down to faith, but it is a reasonable faith.

I would highly recommend this book as a counterbalance to those in the “historical Jesus” field who treat the Gospels as distorted legends that developed over time.

Encouraging Lament

When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent (Foreword by Mark Dever): Finding Hope in the Psalms by [Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever]Title: When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent:
Finding Hope in the Psalms
Author: Ligon Duncan
Genre: Theology/Biblical Studies/Poetry
Pages: 58 (big type, widely spaced)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The book of Psalms contains some brutally honest poetry in which the psalmist records his suffering and accompanying feelings of abandonment and despair. In this little book, Ligon Duncan shows how these laments can be a source of encouragement. He focuses on Psalms 88 (probably the bleakest of the Psalms) and 89.

I had one very minor quibble with his theology where he dips into the Reformed idea of the “covenant of grace” (a concept not directly taught in Scripture) rather than simply talking about the faithfulness and grace of God. That aside, this is a very encouraging read. It serves as a reminder that God’s children do not have to wear an “I’m a happy little Christian” mask all the time, but neither do we have to despair in painful circumstances. Highly recommended!

A Handful of Mini-Reviews

Working from home plus “attending” an online conference (T4G20) kept me busy all of last week, but it’s time for a few mini-reviews to help catch up with what I’ve read (presented in order read):

The Bondage of the Will: Luther, Martin, Packer, J. I., Johnston ...Title: The Bondage of the Will
Author: Martin Luther
Translators: J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston
Genre: Classic Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

Martin Luther’s response to Desiderius Erasmus’s The Freedom of the Will is a classic of Protestant theology. It demonstrates that a belief in “total depravity” and “saved by grace alone through faith alone” are the dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

While I tend to agree with most of Luther’s conclusions, I felt like his arguments were a mixture of straw man, ad hominem, and sound exegesis. Stylistically he comes off as a bully who swings back and forth between bombast and smug sarcasm. I admire some things about Luther, but his polemical writings could have used a dose of Christian charity.

Title: Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: John Sturrock
Genre: French Classic
Pages: 496
Rating: 3 of 5

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really understand the attraction of this book. A large part of the “action” of the story (when Hugo isn’t off on one of his rabbit trails or swooning over Gothic architecture) is two skeezy older men (one of them a supposedly celibate priest and the other engaged) lusting after and attempting to seduce/rape a teenager, and/or purge their obsession with her.

Quasimodo the deaf, deformed rage monster is tragic and memorable in his devotion to Esmeralda, but for me it wasn’t enough to balance the boring digressions and lecherous behavior that dominated the story.

The Plague: Camus Albert: Amazon.com: BooksTitle: The Plague
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Stuart Gilbert
Genre: French Modern Classic
Pages: 278
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of a modern city quarantined during an outbreak of plague had been lurking on my mental “I should read that someday” list, and this seemed like an appropriate time (or is it an inappropriate time?) to give it a shot. I have to say, Camus has a pretty good grasp on the dark and depressing side of human nature. While the plague in his book is far more deadly than COVID-19, there were some interesting parallels to what is currently playing out around the world.

As a pastor, I found the priest’s second sermon in the book fascinating. It’s basically an appeal to acknowledge the sovereignty and goodness of God in all circumstances (unfortunately followed up by a nonsensical application of rejecting the care of doctors).

Overall, the book was a depressing, largely hopeless slog, which is probably not surprising given its author and subject matter.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtTitle: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [Audiobook]
Author: Mark Twain
Narrator: Nick Offerman
Genre: American Classic Satire
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ron Swanson (I mean, Nick Offerman) is the perfect narrator for this classic tale of a practical, no-nonsense factory boss transported to the court of King Arthur. The Yankee has a bit more braggadocio and showmanship than Ron Swanson, but in their intensely practical outlook and ingenuity they’re the same.

Twain’s biting satire brutally (but humorously) mocks courtly medieval romances along with the concepts of monarchy, aristocracy, state religion, and more. It can be mean-spirited and overly cynical at times, but it’s entertaining and thought provoking at the same time…and Offerman’s narration will delight fans of Parks and Recreation (it bumped it up from a 4 to a 4.5 for me).

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe Book 3) by [Neal Shusterman]Title: The Toll
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi with YA vibes
Pages: 637
Rating: 3 of 5

I have mixed feelings about this final book in the series. The convoluted political and religious corruption and intrigue from the previous books escalate and play out in a satisfactory way. A few plot points seemed to come out of left field, but that may have been my own current crop of distractions causing me to miss things rather than any plotting problems by the author.

What really bugged me was that I felt like the series as a whole and this book in particular got more and more overtly preachy in favor of ideas like consequentialist/situation ethics, non-binary gender ideology, and euthanasia. Overall, an interesting series from a philosophical viewpoint quite different from my own that suffers a bit from preachiness.

Notes from Lockdown

And now for an extremely rare personal non-book-review post: In a comment on my last post I said that I thought that our governor’s “stay at home” order would give me extra time to blog…silly me! I spent significant time over the last couple weeks trying to coordinate and mobilize my congregation of 150ish people to keep in contact, encourage and fellowship with each other, and make sure everyone’s needs are cared for (all from the safety of their own homes, of course). This is a situation they don’t cover in seminary!

Thankfully, I have a great leadership team at the church, and it has been a joy to see people stepping up and looking for ways to care for each other and brighten each others’ days…and tomorrow we get to celebrate the resurrection together on Facebook Live!

All that to say, I’m still around but my posting may become even more sporadic than usual in the coming weeks. Stay safe, and live in hope because He Is Risen!

Benevolent Big Brother

Title: Thunderhead
(Arc of a Scythe: Book 2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-Fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 512
Rating: 4 of 5

*WARNING: There may be mild spoilers for the first book*

This series continues to impress, for the most part. In this installment we get to find out a lot more about the Thunderhead, the benevolent, “nearly all-powerful” AI that watches over humanity (except for anything to do with the Scythedom). Our two protagonists continue in their arcs: Citra now a full-fledged junior scythe and champion of the “old guard” and Rowan a vigilante hunting down scythes who he deems unworthy. We also get a new protagonist who is a protege of the Thunderhead and whose storyline dips into several subcultures mentioned in the first book.

There was a hint of “middle book syndrome” here, but nothing too bad. A few parts seemed to drag slightly since the overall novelty of the world is worn off a little, and the frenetic burst of action at the end didn’t resolve as fully as the first book did.Overall, it was still an excellent book with plenty of intrigue and interesting speculation.

On a personal theological/philosophical note, I am annoyed by the (not uncommon) sci-fi trope that scientific progress completely eliminates the need for religion/Christianity, and whatever faiths are left are full of hateful luddites and nut-jobs (at best). Only in one brief paragraph does anyone seriously wonder what comes after (permanent) death. I find it hard to believe that the whole world has simply decided that immortal souls don’t exist or if they do that it’s not worth thinking about.

Death in a Time of Immortality

Title: Scythe
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 1)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 464
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I saw several rave reviews for this book and somewhat reluctantly decided to give it a shot. The dystopian elements appealed to me, but I am not a fan of YA fiction. While there are a few YA vibes (teenage protagonists, teenage anger/petulance, star-crossed romantic tension) it wasn’t overdone, believably fit the situation, and avoided what I consider to be the two worst YA tropes: all adults are idiots & love triangles.

In the future death has been eliminated, and a benevolent AI (the Cloud having gained sentience) oversees society in a way that ensures peace and prosperity for all. The population is kept under control by the order of Scythes who are completely above the law (“separation of Scythe and state”) and “glean” (kill) a certain number of people per year. The story follows two high-schoolers chosen as Scythe apprentices.

As you would expect, this book delves into some pretty disturbing subject matter. Each scythe has their own approach to gleaning, and the story deals with a deep ideological divide within the “scythedom.” As I’ve said before in books that feature excellent world-building: I don’t want to say much more since learning more and more about the world as the plot unfolds (and in the journal entries that begin most chapters) is half the fun. I highly recommend this book as a thought-provoking, grim utopia/dystopia.

On a personal philosophical/theological note, I find it interesting that many people (not just authors) seem incapable of imagining immortality and universal peace without assuming stagnation, boredom, and/or something sinister behind the scenes. Books like this seem to have an underlying assumption that it is impossible to be truly happy/fulfilled without the presence of death and/or suffering. On the one hand, I agree that living in a world riven by death and suffering is an essential part of making us who we are meant to be…on the other hand, I believe that there is coming a time when death and suffering are gone forever and that will not be a time of stagnation but of joy and creativity able to find their fullest expression without hindrance (cf. Romans 8:18-28).

The Confederacy & Nazi Germany

Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by [Neiman, Susan]Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Genre: History/Philosophy
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5

I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).

The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.

The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.

Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

The last week and a half has been a bit rough here with myself and all three of the kids sick (my amazing wife activated Mommy-immunity and stayed mostly healthy). So, while lying miserably in bed or on the couch I made it through four audiobooks that I’ll be review now. I had a fever, headache, etc. through most of the time I was listening to these so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I don’t really have any comment on the narrators other than nobody stood out as either terrible or phenomenal.

What Ho, Automaton! (Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries Book 1) by [Dolley, Chris]Title: What Ho, Automaton!
(Reeves & Worcester Steampunk Mysteries – Book 1)
Author: Chris Dolley
Genre: Steampunk Mystery Parody
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

This is clearly intended as a parody of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster stories, and I’d say the author nails it. He captures the tone perfectly while transforming Jeeves (Reeves) into a steam-powered automaton and giving Wooster (Worcester) delusions of being a consulting detective on the order of Sherlock Holmes. Like the Wodehouse original, it’s light, breezy fun.

The Scapegoat by [du Maurier, Daphne]Title: The Scapegoat
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Crime?
Pages: 348
Rating: 2.5 of 5

In this unlikely tale, a boring British professor of French history (John) meets his aristocratic French double (Jean) who (more-or-less) forces him to switch places. It turns out his French doppelganger is a morally reprehensible person from a family with a myriad of unsavory secrets. The story slowly unfolds as over the next week John plays at being Jean, uncovering and tinkering with the workings of the corrupt de Gué family. There is some interest in the slowly unfolding story, but overall it is completely unbelievable and has a non-ending that leaves pretty much all the storylines up in the air (and I really didn’t appreciate the casual attitude toward a married man having a mistress…especial with her seemingly being one of the wisest/best people in the book).

The House Of Night And Chains (Warhammer Horror) by [Annandale, David]Title: House of Night and Chain
(Warhammer Horror)
Author: David Annandale
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Pages: 244
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is a fairly standard haunted house story set in the Warhammer 40K universe. Early on, an awful lot of time is spent on details of political maneuvering that is completely overshadowed and made largely irrelevant by the avalanche of events and revelations later in the book. The Warhammer 40K setting doesn’t contribute much to the story other than making local government into planetary government, substituting a cleric of the Emperor for a priest of God, and similar cosmetic tweaks. If you’re into haunted house stories you might enjoy it…I found it pretty “meh.”

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by [Turton, Stuart]Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Genre: Trippy Mystery
Pages: 480
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book starts like a classic “murder at the manor house” kind of story, but things quickly get all wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. I don’t want to give away too much since figuring out what is going on is half the fun. The over-simplified version that’s not any more spoilery than the back cover of the book is: our narrator inhabits 8 different witnesses, reliving the same day 8 times trying to solve (or stop) a murder. Most of the people involved have a nasty secret or two, and the twists, turns, and surprises come thick and fast all the way up to the end. I think that in the end it all weaves together nicely and makes sense, but I’d have to read it again (when I’m not sick) to be sure. It’s well worth reading and will probably make my “top 5 fiction” list for the year.

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.