Book Reviews

Reading List for February through April, 2023: Playing Catch-Up

Tertullian by Geoffrey D. Dunn

In preparation for my upcoming Church History class I decided to familiarize myself with early church father Tertullian. This work by Geoffrey D. Dunn was very helpful in filling in the gaps of my knowledge regarding the life and works of one of the first (if not the first) true Christian apologists. The first section of the book overview of Tertullian’s life and work, including some of the more recent scholarship on the subject. The second section consists of the author’s own translation of three of Tertullians works.

Concerning these: Overall, I enjoyed these windows into the development of Tertullian’s thought. One nitpick, however, is that I always find it incredibly distracting when an author or translator goes out of their way to avoid gendered language. Dunn also concedes that the Apostle Paul viewed women as inferior, something I definitely do not concede.

A Soldier in the Great War by Mark Helprin

After being introduced to Mark Helprin through his masterful “Paris in the Present Tense”, I decided to read his much larger work “A Soldier in the Great War”. I was mostly not disappointed.

We’ll get to the “mostly” qualification later, but first, the good stuff. As in “Paris”, Helprin brings his considerable descriptive skills to bear. His philosophical prowess is also in full form. The result is an epic (30+hours!) tour-de-force that explores the meaning of life and beauty with the background of the death and ugliness of the First World War.

And the WWI context brought a surprise to me, as it deals almost exclusively with the Italian front, not the French. I particularly enjoyed this aspect, as until now I have been woefully ignorant of Italy’s participation in that conflict.

The story centers around one Alessandro Giuliani, a young Roman from a wealthy background, who is caught up in the war. The story actually begins with Giuliani as an old man, who finds himself on a long walk with a young Italian factory worker. This focus on the hero in his old age is another concept that this book has in common with “Paris”, as is the way it ends (no spoilers here!).

As Alessandro recounts his many adventures before, during, and after the war, we the audience, along with Giuliani’s young companion on the path, are treated to the development of world view based on finding light in the midst of darkness, love amidst hate, life in the midst of death.

Now to the qualifications. First, this is a book about war, and so there are many places where the dialogue is that course conversation common to soldiers. And there are a few times where Alessandro’s philosophical ruminations and fond reminiscences run to the subject of sex. These things combined make it a book that I wouldn’t read to my sons around the dinner table. If, however, either of my sons began to develop an over-romanticized view of war, I would definitely hand him this book.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard is one of the better books I have read so far this year, and high up on my list of popular histories. The subject of the book is the assassination of President Garfield.
Garfield is one of the lesser known presidents, due mostly to his short term in office, and to a certain lasagna-loving, Monday-hating feline namesake. This is unfortunate, as he was a very capable, interesting man, as Millard brings out in her book. After reading the way he came into office, his ideas, his goals, and his deftness in dealing with political opposition, one cannot help but wonder at what the tremendous loss suffered by the nation upon his assassination.

Besides the story of Garfield himself, Millard also weaves in the stories of other people who shaped the evens, such as Alexander Graham Bell, and most chillingly, Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin.
The details of Guiteau’s life are both tragic and horrifying. Miller does an exceptional job of highlighting the concurrent contrasts between Garfield’s ascension and Guiteau’s gradual descent into madness, until the two are brought into tragic collision at a Washington DC train station. One takeaway from this narrative: misplaces compassion and failure to treat behavioral issues at their root can have tragic consequences for people, families, and nations.

If you want to learn something new about an incredibly interesting period of American history that you probably don’t know much about, pick this book up.

Asterix et le Griffon by Ferri and Conrad

Continuing the French-learning adventure, I finished another graphic novel featuring Asterix, Obelix, and their zany band of recalcitrant Gauls. This particular adventure features the search for a magic griffin.
This is a more recent release, which remains faithful to the artistic style and narrative feel of the original, while including some more modern references. How modern, you may ask? Well, there’s a conspiracy-theory-prone Roman Legionnaire named “Fakenius”.

As with every Asterix adventure I’ve read so far, a very delightful read.

December 1941 by Craig Shirley

When I was in my late teens I worked at a Burger King in Painted Post, NY. One of our “regulars” was a man who was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7th, 1941. When he talked about that fateful day it seemed like to him it was just yesterday.

While other books on Pearl Harbor that I’ve read have focused on the geopolitical and military aspects of that event, Craig Shirley – in his book “December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World” – has taken a different tack, emphasizing instead the social and societal changes that took place in the period of one month. To do this he makes extensive use of newspaper reports and other social indicators of the time. The result is a masterpiece mosaic of the mental state of the nation.

One of the things that stood out to me in this retelling is just how long it took for Americans to get a full picture of what had actually happened in Hawaii that Sunday morning. In fact, as the author gives each day of the month a single chapter, we get a day-by-day record of the information as it seeped out. By the end of the month, Americans still didn’t know the full extent of the damage.

A clever mixture of anecdote and artifact make “December 1941” an informative and captivating read.

Lucky Luke – Le Pied Tendre (The Tenderfoot) by Goscinny and Morris

My French acquisition project continues with another adventure of Lucky Luke. This time our hero comes to the aid of a British tenderfoot – literally “pied tendre” in French. Hilarity ensues.

A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

You should definitely read “A River in Darkness” by Masaji Ishikawa. But be prepared, it is NOT a fun read. There is occasional profanity, but this is entirely overshadowed by the darkness of the book itself.
So why would I recommend it? Because it is the raw, emotional recollection of a man who escaped the horrors of life in North Korea.

No…no, there’s more to it than that. It is the autobiography of a man born into post WWII Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother, who was subsequently sold into slavery in North Korea with the knowledge and approval of the UN, Japanese and US governments, and the Red Cross, just to name a few.
Why would one want to read such a tale? Because the horror, disgust and righteous anger one feels while reading it can serve as a powerful antidote to the leftist tropes being bandied about today by clueless college students and their cynical professors.

The author of this book should be on every lecture circuit and every morning and late night talk show in the west. Instead he is apparently working as a security guard in Japan.

If this book were translated into Portuguese, I would buy it in bulk and give a copy to every friend of mine before they go off to university. It’s that powerful.

Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley

One thing that has become evident to me over past few years is that most modern Evangelicals are woefully ignorant of the 2000 years of history that have preceded our day. In my observation, the vision of current believers is very “now” centered, which deprives us of centuries of experience and wisdom.

For those looking for to remedy this deficit, short of getting a seminary degree, I cannot think of a better resource than Bruce Shelley’s “Church History in Plain Language”.

When one hears the term “plain language”, the assumption is that it will be shallow. I did not find this to be the case with Shelley’s work. He tackles the main movements of this history of Christianity, striking a delicate balance between comprehensiveness and simplicity.

He tells the story in an engaging narrative, and carefully avoids taking sides. Also included are biographical sketches of some of the lesser known figures in Christianity.

And for those wanting to dig deeper, each chapter ends with a short bibliography for further reading.

Crown and Sceptre by Tracy Borman

“Direct ancestors of King Charles owned slave plantations, documents reveal” breathlessly panted a recent headline in The Guardian.

To which historian Tom Holland replied “Direct ancestors of King Charles had people hanged almost to the point of death, cut down, castrated, disembowelled, beheaded, cut into quarters and stuck on spikes.”

If one is looking for paragons of virtue (a frustrating task if you are any kind of historian), the royal family of England is NOT a good place to start.

However, for anyone who is interested in rich and colorful stories full of heroes and villains (often the same person), battles, intrigue, politics, murder mystery and more, a walk through the history of the British monarchy is time well spent.

Enter the book “Crown and Sceptre” by Tracy Borman. In this lengthy yet easy-to-read tome she traces the succession of the British throne from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II (the book was published shortly before her death).
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It filled in gaps in my knowledge. In addition to this, the section on Henry the Eighth and his Tudor descendants provided me with a lot of material for my Church History class.

Fascinating, fast-moving and engaging – “Crown and Sceptre” would also be a great read as a lead-up to the upcoming coronation.


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