Britain & the Confederacy

Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Pages: 400
Rating: 4 of 5

This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).

Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).

Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession*  and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.

The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.

 

 

* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

No, Bonhoeffer is on MY side!

Title: The Battle for Bonhoeffer:
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
Author: Stephen R. Haynes
Genre: History / Theology / Politics
Pages: 190 (plus bibliography & index)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The tone of this book differed from what I was expecting, but I still appreciated it. Stephen Haynes critiques how various groups have invoked, used, and abused the name and writings of anti-Nazi pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was hoping for a full-orbed (if brief) analysis of Bonhoeffer and his theology, but the author mostly pointed out where he believed others were wrong without ever giving a complete summary of his own understanding of the man and his work (though frequently mentioning “complexity” and the “give and take” of scholarly opinion).

Though Haynes covers a wide variety of those who have sought to co-opt Bonhoeffer’s legacy, his primary animus is directed against Eric Metaxas. In fact, the subtitle to the book could have been “Why Eric Metaxas’ book is oversimplified, erroneous tripe and his political advocacy disgusts me.” Haynes spends much of his page count criticizing Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and excoriating his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Donald Trump. The book crescendos with this denunciation:

“You [Metaxas] were grossly irresponsible to use your role as an influential interpreter of Bonhoeffer to endorse someone whom Bonhoeffer would have found repulsive. You are entitled to your political opinions, of course. But you used credibility gained largely from your association with Bonhoeffer’s estimable humanity to imply that voting for Donald Trump was incumbent on American Christians. You thus gave them permission to ignore their spiritual intuition that the man was a repudiation of everything they held dear. In the process you did a disservice to Bonhoeffer, to Americans, and to the cause of Christ” – p. 131

This is shortly followed by a final chapter entitled Your Bonhoeffer Moment: An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Donald Trump. As far as calm, thoughtful political rants (if that’s a thing) go, it was pretty good. Overall, I would have liked more detail on historical Bonhoeffer and some warning that this book was primarily about confronting Metaxas, but there was plenty of food for thought here.

Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

“…the difference between man and man”

Title: Figures of Speech:
Six Histories of Language & Identity in the Age of Revolutions
Author: Tim Cassedy
Genre: History/Linguistics
Pages: 296
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 1/3/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, intellectuals commonly believed that language “made the difference between man and man.” That is, certain characteristics of a language (phonemes, orthography, vocabulary, etc.) shaped its speakers’ way of thinking and could allow others to draw valid generalizations about them. Tim Cassedy examines the lives of six individuals who tried to use language as a means of shaping identity (individual, national, or international). He seeks to show that the conclusions drawn from this line of thinking usually did little more than confirm existing biases.

The stories themselves will hold your attention if you have an interest in language, but there is some redundancy in their telling. For me, there was occasionally the feeling of “I think maybe he’s reading too much into this,” but that’s pretty much par for the course in academic books …and he’s the expert so maybe it’s just me. Overall, the book provided me with new historical information and kept my interest.

Unfortunately, the advanced reader copy that I was provided was very poorly formatted and included occasional “words” or “phrases” of gibberish that were clearly placeholders for something else in the finished version. This made parts of the book hard to review. I suspect that some of the charts, illustrations, typefaces, and comments that were nearly unreadable in the ARC will be helpful in the original and probably bump this up from a 3.5 to a 4 star read.

Cromwell in Painstaking Detail

Title: Thomas Cromwell:
A Revolutionary Life
Author: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Genre: Biography/History
Pages: 575 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 10/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way reflects the content of the review)

In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s scheming and plotting overseeing and subtly nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust and greed than concern for godly living or doctrinal purity (as aptly summarized my Rowan Atkinson and Horrible Histories here). However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s thesis is that Cromwell was driven, at least in part, by real (but cautiously concealed) Evangelical leanings.

MacCulloch’s biography is built on an examination of what must have been reams and reams of correspondence and court documents. The whirl of names, titles, legislation, favors granted, animosities provoked, etc. can be a bit dry and confusing, but no one can accuse the author of not being thorough!

Throughout the book, MacCulloch assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of the major events of the Tudor period especially ones relating to Henry VIII’s marriages and relationship with the church. His goal is to describe Cromwell’s role and motivations in this history, not to give an “entry level” summary of it.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically throughout, though the author admits more than once to “blood on his hands.” I can’t help but wonder if in an effort to save him from being portrayed as a monstrous “mustache-twirling villain,” MacCulloch hasn’t gone a little too far in the other direction. Many of Cromwell’s actions (e.g. participation in the destruction of Anne Boleyn) seem to be more about personal vengeance and/or advancement rather than Protestant idealism. Whatever the case, this book filled in some gaps in my understanding of the Tudor period in general and the English Reformation in particular. I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period who appreciates (or at least doesn’t mind) painstaking detail derived from primary sources.

Sobering History

Title: Darkness over Germany:
A Warning from History
Author: E. Amy Buller
Genre: History
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the years leading up to World War II, E. Amy Buller spent a lot of effort fostering dialogue between English educators and Germans. Obviously, war was not averted, but in this book (published in 1943 while WWII was still raging) she recollects many of the conversations she had with German friends and acquaintances. Most of the conversations involve Germans who dislike Nazism to some degree, ranging from unease to outright hatred. This seems to be an attempt to help understand and humanize the enemy to some degree, looking forward to the day when the war is over and people will have to coexist again…perhaps hoping that this will not end in another bitterness-inducing Treaty of Versailles.

Additionally, these conversations provide a sober warning of how difficult it can be to resist once a brutish totalitarian regime has consolidated power. Many of them feature regret that people waited too long to stand up to the Nazis coupled with fear, bewilderment, and/or resignation regarding the seeming futility of making any kind of stand now. For example:

“Of course, our real guilt lies in our slowness and in letting these gangsters get the whole country in their grip sufficiently to paralyze all collective opposition. So many people were so relieved to see any kind of order emerge out of the uncertainty and chaos that they said ‘Certain  things the Nazis are doing are good,’ and left it at that, without inquiring on what this new order was based or what was the spirit of the movement that was sweeping the land.” (p. 20)

Throughout the book Hitler and his cronies are characterized as upstart “gangsters” whose ham-handed foreign policy can lead only to war. For instance:

“It is also, I gather, true that Hitler is completely ill at ease with the more cultured and conventional diplomats, and looks upon them as quite unsuitable agents for putting over his policy with vigour and determination. The groveling insincerity of von Ribbentrop with his horde of keen and fanatical young men, together with the high tension atmosphere of No. 63 [the Nazi Foreign Office], gave Hitler the kind of setting and support he felt he needed.” (p. 69)

and

“And finally there was the von Ribbentrop and Hewel type who had never held power, men who had very little integrity to suppress and who loved the power that was so new to them. They  cheated, bullied and would even murder, I suspect, to gain their ends. All the tricks of the dishonest commercial traveler were in use among this crowd.” (p. 93)

Quite a bit of space is also devoted to exploring how Nazism became widely accepted because it had a religious appeal to those who had drifted from traditional spirituality (especially Christianity).

“The whole world today is full of false gods, and it is not surprising that in Germany they have chosen particularly brutal and violent gods. That makes it easier to see what is happening but there are also other false gods being followed in America and England.'” (p. 157)

The recently written introduction to the book is unnecessary (any relevant information on Buller is presented again and better in the afterward) and goes a bit “Godwin’s Law.” I would strongly recommend skipping it and deciding for yourself what kinds of warnings the sobering history contained in this book has for our own time.

“Character Counts!”

Title: Believe Me:
The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
Author: John Fea
Genre: Theology/Politics/History
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 8/30/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

My earliest clear memory of American politics is of conservative Christians howling “Character counts! Bill Clinton is not morally qualified to be president and must be impeached!”.  Fast forward to 2016 and many of these same voices eagerly led 81% of white Evangelical Christians to vote for a profane, lecherous bully…but it’s okay because “we’re voting for a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief and he’s going to appoint such good supreme court justices.” Major cognitive dissonance! This book, written by a self-identified Evangelical historian who is appalled at this pragmatic hypocrisy inconsistency, explores how this came about.

His main premise is that the evangelical “political playbook” has been driven by three factors:

  • Fear: “If you don’t vote for/donate toward/support [fill in the blank] you’re going to lose your religious freedom (and guns)!”
  • Power: “We must have people in positions of high authority who are on our side or we cannot properly influence society!”
  • Nostalgia: “We need to get back to ‘the good old days’ when everyone acted like Christians and things were so much better” (as long as you were white, male, and born in this country)!

He seeks to demonstrate that these three factors have long been a part of the American political landscape and have caused a variety of sinful/hypocritical behavior along the way (racism, or at least calloused insensitivity toward people not just like me, being a major focus). Because he is primarily historian, the author doesn’t offer a lot of commentary on what could have been done differently. However he does suggest that rather than play power games, maybe Christians need to take the role of outsiders “speaking truth to power” with hope for the future…more like prophets than courtiers.

I greatly appreciate the main thrust of this book, and it has helped me think through some things related to the unedifying spectacle that was the 2016 election. That said, I don’t know how convincing the book would be to someone who wasn’t already inclined to agree with the author. His presentation isn’t always carefully argued/sourced, as he occasionally takes an approach that sounds like “most scholars agree on [insert interpretation of data without presenting the data itself in any detail]…”. Another issue was that along the way I spotted a couple factual errors (the worst being identifying DACA as pertaining to children born in the US!), which made me question his credibility a bit.

Overall, I think that this is worth reading as a critique from someone within the Evangelical movement even if not all of his arguments are as fleshed out as they could be.

Iconoclastic History

Title: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee:
The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon
Author: John Reeves
Genre: History
Pages: 264
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/1/2018 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

In most of my school history books Robert E. Lee was presented as being practically the fourth member of the Trinity. Among many dedicated church-going people I know, it is a “known fact” that Lee was a godly man fighting for a noble lost cause (states rights, not slavery which he abhorred).

John Reeves calls this narrative into question with his well-researched book. As the title suggests, the main focus is on the treason trials promised by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though he is clearly not very sympathetic to Lee, the author is fairly even-handed in his presentation of the facts; not cherry-picking just the ones that suit his purpose and admitting when contradictory reports (e.g. of Lee’s cruelty to the 197 slaves under his charge) render a point uncertain. The neutral examination of thoughts and attitudes in the North immediately following the war provides a helpful perspective that I had never read about before.

I feel that the book suffers slightly from a lack of focus as it leaps between the attempted treason trials, reconstruction, the character of Robert E Lee (including his inconsistency/hypocrisy regarding slavery), and the revisionist “lost cause” narrative. I am unsure whether the main goal was to simply describe the events surrounding the attempted treason trials as accurately as possible or to discredit the Lee-as-godly-hero mythos. Nevertheless, it was an excellent read that I would highly recommend for those who want to read about a forgotten part of post-Civil war history and for anyone who wants a balance to the usual hagiographic Lee biographies.

Some Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up on the books that I’ve read that didn’t warrant a full scale review (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy them):

Title: Saga of the Jomsvikings
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: Norse Saga
Pages: 116
Rating: 3 of 5

I enjoy Norse mythology (especially in poetic form) but find the more historical prose sagas a bit “meh.” There is certainly historical, cultural, and poetic interest in this tale of a brotherhood of warriors and their participation in a major battle with Earl Hakon, but the Old Norse style is a bit dry.

Image result for the informer liam o'flahertyTitle: The Informer
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Irish Crime/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This felt a lot like Crime & Punishment…if it were set in Ireland during “the troubles” and the protagonist was a brutish moron instead of a sensitive, philosophical type. We get to watch the mental torment of an oaf who betrays his friend as the vengeance-seeking revolutionary party plays a game of cat and mouse with him. The plot crawls through the seedy underbelly of Dublin and was surprisingly deeper/better than I expected.

Image result for Night Squad GoodisTitle: Night Squad
Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This is a good, solid noir tale, featuring an ex-cop, who unlike his “chump” father (an honest cop  killed in the line of duty), looks out for his own interests even if it means a bit of corruption. He eventually finds himself working for the local mobster and reinstated as a cop on the infamous Night Squad. This isn’t necessarily Goodis’ best work (Dark Passage is much better), but it’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of noir.

Image result for Right ho Jeeves book coverTitles: Right Ho, Jeeves / Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 256 / 282
Ratings: 4.5 & 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and these are two of the best. Unlike the previous books in the series, these are each one continuous (though episodic) story rather than a collection of loosely related short stories. As usual, good-hearted but dim Bertie Wooster tries to help his friends and relations, gets himself in trouble (which usually means engaged to someone he doesn’t want to marry) and has to be rescued by his genius valet (which frequently seems to involve temporarily throwing Bertie under the bus, but it’s all good in the end).

Title: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
(omnibus containing Swords & Deviltry, Swords Against Death, & Swords in the Mist)
Author: Fritz Leiber
Genre: Swords & Sorcery
Pages: 520
Rating: 3 of 5

There’s really not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s fairly standard antihero swords and sorcery featuring a northern barbarian (basically a less broody, less rapey Conan) and a thief/swordsman who dabbles in magic (though we seldom see him use any). It’s entertaining enough but nothing special.

Title: Immeasurable:
Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.
Author: Skye Jethani
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This insightful little book offers bite-size reflections on what it looks like to biblically lead, serve in, and be the church in a day when many churches and Christians are all about counting attendance, perpetuating programs, offering the “full service church” experience, and honoring celebrity pastors. While I disagree with some of his views on preaching (e.g. that it should inspire rather than teach), it offers some thought-provoking insights that would be helpful for both pastors and church members.