Dogged Detection

The Giant Collection of the Continental Op' is now available ...Title: The Giant Collection of the Continental Op
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective Fiction
Pages: 769
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I have a weakness for hardboiled detective stories from the 1920’s-50’s, and Dashiell Hammett’s nameless Operative of the Continental Detective Agency is the character that got me hooked. He’s not as well knows as Hammett’s womanizing Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon or pleasantly inebriated Nick Charles of The Thin Man, but I prefer the tubby little tough guy to either of them. Because he is based on Hammett’s own time as a Pinkerton operative, he’s a bit more believable, and his appearance in 20+ stories and two novels allows for some character development (even if it’s driven largely by meeting expectations of three or four different editors over his career) .

There’s nothing fancy about the Continental Op. He stubbornly plows through the evidence, stepping on toes and poking at suspects to see what happens (usually something violent). Over the years he becomes increasingly cynical and violent, getting the job done even if it isn’t tied up in a nice neat bow.

As with any pulp fiction, you have to be willing to look past some product-of-its-era prejudices, but it’s not as bad as most. The Op’s thoroughly unromantic nature eliminates most of the rapey (or otherwise troubling) womanizing that you see in some older pulp (though unfortunate racial caricatures persist in some stories).

Also, as with any pulp fiction, you probably don’t want to read through all of these too close together or they start sounding too much the same. Hammett is better than the average hardboiled writer (Raymond Chandler is probably the only one in the same league), but there’s only so much you can do with characters and plot when you write for Black Mask. This particular book provides a nice chronologically arranged collection of all the Continental Op short stories: perfect to pick up and read a story or two when you need some escapism.

WH40K Smorgasbord

Title: Forges of Mars Omnibus
Author: Graham McNeill
Genre: Military Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40K)
Pages: 944
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Over the last couple years, the Warhammer 40,000 books have become my go-to series when I’m in the mood for escapist sci-fi. There’s very little complexity in characterization or plot, but it can be a nice violent grimdark read.

*Heresy Alert* I’m not a big fan of loyalist space marines. Their character development pretty much begins and ends with [Role in their squad] + [“FOR THE EMPEROR!!!”], so I tend to gravitate toward books based on other character types. This particular omnibus was a lot of fun in that regard. As you you would expect from the title, the main story revolves around the tech priests of Mars. The three book arc (I wouldn’t recommend reading the books separately) follows an exploratory mission led by an arch-magos of the cult mechanicus. Along for the ride are a rogue trader and his crew, Cadian guardsmen, skitarii, titans, Black Templar space marines, and more. Weave in an eldar storyline and you get a lot of interesting interaction between groups that usually go their own way.

This is definitely worth a read if you are into the WH40K universe and want to explore something other than space marines. I almost gave it 4 stars (an unprecedented rating from me for a WH40K book), but the author was so obviously fishing for a sequel with the way he ended the third book (and even more so in the follow-up novella) that I docked it half a star: 3.5 stars for competent escapist sci-fi that manages a bit more character development than usual.

 

Follow Up

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. – Isaiah 1:17

This is just a quick follow up to my last post. I am thankful for my community where citizens, law enforcement, and government can peacefully come together to protest injustice and to pray and pursue understanding and change. I was pleased to see about a dozen pastors and at least a handful of my church members there.

Keep praying for our leaders to make courageous, wise choices that promote justice and for concerned citizens to passionately plead for justice in ways that are compassionate and profitable rather than violent or hateful.

Below are a couple pictures from the march and a link to some pictures taken by the local paper.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoorImage may contain: one or more people, people standing, crowd, tree, sky and outdoorLink to Times Herald pictures  Here.  (I’m in the third one down…black mask behind one of my church members who has his mask pulled down)

#georgefloyd

It’s time for another non-book review post (I seem to be doing more of those than usual lately). When I read American church history, I am deeply disappointed and saddened by the silence (at best) of most white conservative churches during the era of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. I hate talking politics, but what kind of hypocrite would I be if I kept silent right now? I posted this on my church’s Facebook page yesterday and wanted to share it with you as well.

Also, I don’t know if anyone local follows this blog, but if there is anyone, consider this event:

No photo description available.

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

Leading a church through the craziness that is 2020 (trying to keep people compassionate, encouraged, safe, & law-abiding) continues to be exhausting, but I have just enough brain power left right now to catch up with several mini reviews.

Title: Agent Zigzag:
A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Spy biography
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy Ben Macintyre’s historical accounts of spies. His A Spy Among Friends and The Spy and the Traitor were two of my favorite non-fiction reads over the last couple years. This one was still interesting, but it lacked some of the “wow” factor of the other books.

The author never gave the impression that Eddie Chapman made quite as big of a contribution to history as the spies in the other two books. I was left with the impression that he was colorful (in a self-promoting, bigtime criminal, womanizing cad kind of way) and bold, but he was just one of many double agents working for British intelligence during WWII. It was still a well-written book, but the stakes didn’t seem as high, which slightly lowered my interest.

All Quiet on the Western FrontTitle: All Quiet on the Western Front
Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Genre: Modern Classic / Historical Fiction (barely)
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

What a horrifying book! The author barely fictionalizes his experiences in the German trenches during the Great War (WWI). This is a soldier’s-eye view of the dehumanizing horrors of war. I was especially struck by the question of “how can we possibly go back to living normal lives after experiencing this?” This is a difficult, disturbing read but an important sobering balance to the “war is glorious” way of thinking.

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Classic Mystery
Pages: 418
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Reading Victorian era books with enjoyment often requires that you look past product-of-its-era casual sexism, racism, colonialism, etc. This is definitely one of those books with an extra helping of cringe. I think that at times Collins was intentionally satirizing the prejudices of his contemporaries, but other times not so much. I quite enjoyed Collins’  The Woman in White even with all its improbabilities and eye rolling moments, but this classic mystery didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if it was really any worse or if I just wasn’t in the mood to charitably overlook his nonsense.

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!