The Horror! The Horror!

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by [Hochschild, Adam]Title: King Leopold’s Ghost:
A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: History
Pages: 306 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the mid-1800’s, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed a massive chunk of central Africa. With the help of trading companies and their armed “sentries” he brutally exploited the people in it for his own personal enrichment while convincing the world that he was a great humanitarian. King Leopold’s Ghost examines the sordid history of the Belgian Congo, the land that inspired Joseph Conrad’s bleak Heart of Darkness.

Hochschild covers everything from the early exploration of central Africa to the results of the international protest movement spearheaded by journalists and Protestant missionaries and all the horror in between. Reading about exploitation, mutilation, and death on such a massive scale is not easy, but is crucial to understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact.

The author definitely “has it out” for Leopold, but I’m not sure how you would be completely dispassionate about someone responsible for deaths on a scale similar to Hitler or Stalin. Africans are presented in a balanced manner, emphasizing their victimization without falling into the idealized “noble savage” mindset or ignoring the complicity of some in the slave trade. Europeans and Americans working against the cruelties of Leopold’s rule are portrayed sympathetically without glossing over their blind spots, weaknesses, and limited impact.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Africa and/or European Colonialism. The overall style is a very readable “popular level” but features high quality primary-source research.

(Also, this is my sixth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.

Bio of a Megalomaniac

Title: The Great Successor:
The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un
Author: Anna Fifield
Genre: Biography
Pages: 336
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 6/11/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Given the snarky subtitle of this book I wondered if it was going to be a bit on the satirical side. However, the author provides a serious, well-researched portrait of the eccentric North Korean dictator. She is able to offer some details of his early childhood, school years in Switzerland, rise to power, and political maneuvering at home and in the international community.

Rather than portraying Kim Jong Un as nothing more than a deranged lunatic, Fifield seeks to understand him. She strikes an excellent balance between recognizing him as a canny politician and as a brutal, entitled egomaniac who couldn’t care less about the suffering he inflicts on others to maintain absolute power, an obscenely luxurious lifestyle, and the “adoration” of his people.

Personally, I would have liked to learn a little more about what is faced by religious people (who must be in the extreme minority) in North Korea, but maybe there was no way for the author to obtain this information. Overall, I was very pleased with this book as it provided an informative overview of this horrible little man and his devastated country while seeming to maintain a bit more objectivity than is usual with this topic.

16th Century Conspiracy Theories

Title: The Afterlife of King James IV:
Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King
Author: Keith John Coleman
Genre: History
Pages: 280
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 4/26/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not influence the content of the review)

Any time a famous/infamous person dies there are those who cause a stir with “he’s still alive!” conspiracy theories. This is nothing new. King James IV of Scotland, brother-in-law of King Henry VIII, died at the battle of Flodden in 1513 and was eventually buried in England…probably.

This book collects and discusses a number of alternate stories that circulated after the battle and were exploited for political gain by various factions. The book’s subtitle gives the impression that these were mostly of an Arthurian “taken to faerie” variety, but that is not really the case. There were a couple “prophecy” stories and a one with a “once and future king” vibe, but most of the widespread stories discussed here were of a more mundane survival, exile, betrayal, and/or misidentified corpse variety. It felt a bit bait-and-switch, to be honest. Nevertheless, it was a relatively interesting look at the fog of war, human tendency to react with conspiracy stories in the face of unexpected tragedy, and political exploitation of misinformation.

The Anti-Philby

Title: The Spy and the Traitor:
The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Espionage History/Biography
Pages: 334 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 5 of 5

Ben Macintyre spins another true tale of espionage and betrayal. In A Spy Among Friends (one of my favorite reads last year) he told the story of Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who wormed his way into the highest levels of MI-6. Now he focuses on “our” double agent: Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who spied for MI-6 in the waning years of the Cold War.

Macintyre captures the paranoia and internal conflict of a double agent from Gordievsky’s first tentative effort at contacting Western intelligence to the final daring overland escape attempt from the heart of the USSR. Along the way he highlights Gordievsky’s contributions to preventing nuclear war and promoting more cordial relationships between East and West. While a primarily positive portrayal of the spy (especially as compared to Aldrich Ames whose story is interwoven with Gordievsky’s), the book does not completely gloss over mixed motives, the personal toll on family, and other nasty parts of a life wholly dedicated to deception. Overall, this is a fascinating spy story, right up there with anything written by LeCarré… but real!

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

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!