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ex libris reviews

1 December 2005

Do you feel a warmness in the air, Linus? This is Indian Summer... Indian Summer originally was a device created by some very crafty warriors. The Indians would trick the approaching cavalry into thinking the weather was nice, while in reality it was about to snow.
Lucy van Pelt


In This Issue:
Eight Years

This issue completes the eighth year of ex libris reviews, which was originally known as "Will & Jane's Books Page". Man, that's a lot of books, and a pretty good run for something I started because I was bored over Christmas break and had a new dial-up internet account.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Mommy Knows Worst
By James Lileks

Lilek's latest, which is subtitled "Highlights from the Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice", is a hoot, rather as you'd expect from the author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations. He covers the whole range of mid-20th-century parenting ephemera, from pamphlets on how to deliver a baby at home to the role of the father in raising children to the dread sin of Constipation. There are quite a few chuckles here, and a number of outright belly-laughs.

But is it as good as its predecessors? Has Lileks met the high standard of his previous work? Yes, but also no. So far as the book goes, it's classic Lileks; but the whole thing feels a tad lightweight, in two senses. I don't know whether James rushed it, or ran out of inspiration, or simply had less grist for his mill, but there seems to be less here than in his previous books--it was over too quickly. (In fairness, this is an extremely subjective judgement; the page count hasn't decreased.) But second, the book is literally more lightweight. The prior volumes were initially published in hardcover; they made hefty Christmas presents and nice (if unusual) coffee-table books. With Mommy Knows Worst the publisher went straight to softcover. It would look funny on the coffee-table and it's going to look funny sitting next to them on the shelf.

Ah, well. It's still a lot of fun.

The New Testament and the People of God
By N.T. Wright

Some things are simply common sense, and should be obvious to anyone with the wit God gave a goose. One plus one, for example, equals two. We often use this as the canonical case of a statement that simply must be true. One plus one equals two: it's just common sense.

If you're a pure mathematician, though, that simple statement hides a world of peril and uncertainty. Vast are the swamps the student of math must cross, stepping from axiom to axiom, proof to proof, theorem to theorem, before he can demonstrate unequivocally that indeed, one plus one really does equal two. And the mass of his acquaintance greet his joyful shouts with, "Of course one plus one equals two. What else could it equal? So what?" The student of math is unbowed. Now he not only knows the basic fact; now he also knows why one plus one equals two.

That's kind of how I feel about this book. The first volume in a series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God, it strikes me as nothing so much as a detailed defense of common sense in the field of New Testament studies--a field in which, to judge from the author's sources, common sense has often been distinctly lacking.

The book lays the foundation for the other volumes in the series; consequently it begins with a lengthy survey of the epistemologies used in New Testament studies over the last century or so, combined with a criticism of most of them. This is followed by Wright's own epistemology, which he terms "critical realism"; in his view, the New Testament cannot be approached as simply historical, or simply theological, or simply literary, but requires the union of all three. He then goes on to examine the world view of the Jewish community in which Christianity arose, and then uses this world view in a preliminary look at the gospels and the earliest Christians.

And all the way along, he's disposing of popular but absurd readings of the New Testament. I do not have the time or the learning (this is an exceedingly scholarly book, albeit a lucid one) to go into all of them, but here's an example. It has become popular in certain circles to claim (largely on the basis of an early date for the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas) that the earliest Christianity was a Hellenistic movement--that Jesus, in fact, was a Cynic. Later on, goes the claim, a Jewish veneer was added; it is this we see in the canonical gospels. Wright examines the world view displayed in the gospels, and in particular in the smaller stories told and retold within them; he also examines the praxis of the earliest Christians so far as it is known. And he concludes, persuasively, that the Cynic theory is all wet--it is much more likely that Christianity should begin as a Jewish sect and retain aspects of its origin at a later time than that it should have begun as a Greek philosophical movement and unaccountably have Jewish language and symbols grafted onto it.

Reading this book has been a long, involved journey; and though I end up with familiar conclusions I feel rather like the student of math I describe above: I can now feel comfortable that common sense really does make sense.

Lord of Snow and Shadows
By Sarah Ash

This is a book I picked up at Powell's whilst attending the Tcl conference; I'd not heard of Sarah Ash before, and there was a note on the shelf saying that it's a good book. I agree, as it happens, and I've already acquired the second book in the series.

Lord of Snow and Shadows is what I think of as a political fantasy--that is, a fantasy novel in which politics and intrigue are at the forefront, as with George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Ash's world is clearly though loosely based on Imperial Russia--but a Russia which is divided by an ocean from the rest of "Europe", and in which the empire splintered, generations ago, into five independent princedoms.

The prime mover in the political drama is Eugene, Prince of Tielen. Legend has it that the empire will be reunited by the man who reunites Artamon's Tears, five matched rubies which once adorned the imperial crown. Eugene is determined to be the one, and the only man who stands in his way is Volkh Nagarian, Drakhaon of Azhkendir--if man is the right word, which it probably isn't. Like all of his line, Volkh is the host of the Dhrakaoul: a violent dragon spirit which subjects him to sudden vicious rages, and whose shape Volkh can take at need. Not even an army can withstand the flame of the Dhrakaoul, but this aid comes at great personal cost to the Dhrakaon, and at times an even greater cost to his people.

Still, Eugene is not one to be balked, and in the opening pages of the novel he succeeds in having Volkh murdered...which sends the Dhrakaoul fleeing south to Volkh's son and heir, a young portrait painter unaware of his ancestry. Gavril Nagarian must learn to lead the unruly, barbaric people of northern Rossiya, and must somehow prevent the Dhrakaoul from consuming him utterly.

Not a bad start, I think; and the best part is that not only does Ash keep surprising me, but she plays fair in doing it. The climax of the book is everything one could want, and much to my surprise includes a plot point that some authors would have dragged out for three or four volumes. It makes me extremely curious to know where she's going, for I confess I haven't the slightest idea.

The One Kingdom
The Isle of Battle
The Shadow Roads
By Sean Russell

You think your family has problems.

The three novels listed above comprise Russell's latest fantasy trilogy, The Swans' War, and if nothing else Russell has raised the subject of generational sin to new heights.

In The One Kingdom we're introduced to our primary viewpoint character, Tam, and to two opposed families, the Renne and the Wills. Back in the old days, the Land Between the Mountains was united into a single kingdom; then came civil war, with the Renne and the Wills both claiming the throne. They've been feuding every since, and the kingdom is but a distant memory. Tam and his cousins are from a valley in the far north, inhabited by folk who fled the constant wars; the trio are venturing out for the first time in their young lives, looking for horses and adventure. They find it, naturally, and also discover that the Land Between The Mountains is a much stranger place than any of them (or the reader) would have guessed. It's as though the Land had once, long ago, been torn into shreds, and the edges rejoined incorrectly, so that much of the Land is simply inaccessible--at least to mere mortals. Yet there are those Tam meets who are clearly more than human.

In The Isle of Battle the feud between the Renne and the Wills breaks out into open battle yet again; and we discover that the current violence is really a manifestation of a much older feud, a battle between the three children of Wyrr, great magicians all, who have lain undead in the bosom of the great river that bears their father's name for a thousand years, but are now free. The consequences for the people who dwell in the Land Between the Mountains don't bear thinking of.

In The Shadow Roads Russell brings the whole thing to a conclusion as we learn that the dispute between the children of Wyrr is but a symptom of an even older quarrel--and if it isn't resolved, and promptly, the shredded lands will rejoin to catastrophic effect.

The trilogy as a whole is well-written and engaging, and full of surprises. Each book picks up right where its predecessor leaves off, and goes somewhere completely unexpected; and Russell has peopled his world with as delightful and varied a cast as one could ask for: Tam and his cousins; Cynddl, the story finder; Alaan, who travels by paths that no one else can find; Lord Carral Wills, the blind minstrel, and his daughter Elise, heir (by Wills reckoning) to the throne of the One Kingdom; Toren Renne, heir (by Renne reckoning), a good and valiant man who might be too good for his stiff-necked family; Prince Michael of Innes, a good man in a tough position; the evil Sir Haffyd (yet another occurrence of that archetypal character, the Enemy Who Will Not Die); and not least (and probably best), Lynn Renne, who lives by herself in a private garden near the center of Renne Castle--Lynn who speaks to many but whom no one ever sees.

In short, if you like epic fantasy it's worth your time.

Prisoner of the Iron Tower
By Sarah Ash

I've just finished reading Prisoner of the Iron Tower, sequel to Ash's Lord of Snow and Shadows. The good news is that the third volume of Ash's trilogy The Tears of Artamon was apparently released last month; the bad news is that it was released in hardcover, so I'll probably have to wait a year before reading it.

Anyway, Ash delivers a rousing good tale with lots of surprises...and they are the best kind of surprises, the kind that you don't see coming at all but still make perfect sense after the fact. I'll add that Ash has a nasty imagination: our hero, Gavril Nagarian, has a perfectly awful time (the lobotomy is just one of the trials he has to overcome); more pleasantly, his adversary, Eugene of Tielen, has serious problems as well, and frankly he deserves them. And, fittingly for the middle volume of a trilogy, the book ends with the entire world on the verge of going pretty much completely to hell--thanks mostly to Eugene's machinations, but I've no doubt the prince will suffer suitable consequences.

And she manages to do all this without making the book horribly depressing.

I have no idea how she's going to come to any kind of happy ending, but I'm confident she'll manage it. It will be a bittersweet kind of happiness, no doubt, but I'm OK with that.

An Oblique Approach
In the Heart of Darkness
By David Drake and Eric Flint

I first read these books about five years ago, and found them to be a rollicking (if gory) good time. I'd borrowed them (and their sequels) from my brother, which is always a problem if I turn out to like the books, because he wants them back. And then, by the time I want to read them again, they are out-of-print. I managed to snag my own copies of these two, and some of the later books are still in print, but number three is selling used for absurd sums of money.

When I re-read a book, I make it a rule not to read any previous reviews before writing a new review; what I'm writing about this time is how the book struck me this time. In this case, though, I broke my rule--and discovered that my original review really does capture the spirit of these books pretty well. So well, in fact, that I'm going to break another rule and reprint a review:

* * * * *

These are the first two books in the duo's "Belisarius" series, a series with one of the silliest premises I've seen in a long time. I'm tempted to tear these books apart in at least six different ways, and the only thing that's stopping me is how much I'm enjoying them--which is considerably.

First, let me describe the background. It is early in the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great, back for yet another walk on our stage. Belisarius is his best general, and perhaps one of the greatest generals of all time. But then a hermit comes to Belisarius with a mysterious crystal that brings visions, and this is where Belisarius' story and our own history explicitly part company. For the crystal reveals that a new empire, the Malwa empire, has arisen in India. The Malwa are bent on conquering the world--and they have weapons we would recognize as cannon, grenades, and rockets. These weapons are still incredibly primitive by modern standards--the rockets are particularly erratic and hard to control--but they are far in advance of anything available to the Romans. The crystal has come to aid Belisarius to defeat the Malwa; the future of the human race depends on it.

First and foremost, these are war novels; the details of each campaign and each battle are described with loving details. It's the sort of thing one could imagine Byzantine soldiers of fortune reading in their off-hours, perhaps serialized in the latest issue of Swords and Scabbards magazine, right before the "mercenaries wanted" advertisements. And, perhaps because they are war novels, the authors have loaded them up with mounds of casual, cheerful profanity, and school boy jokes that ought to grow tiresome after a while--but somehow they don't. There's lots of arch banter from almost all of the good guys that sits oddly on many of their lips, and which should detract from the tale--but somehow it doesn't.

Perhaps it's just that I came to these books immediately after reading something by Dorothy Dunnett, and that I'm trying to hold them to a higher standard than I ordinarily would--but despite all of the silly, profane, juvenile elements, the fact remains that I'm having a rollicking good time. There's just something delightful about watching a collection of superbly competent folk cheerfully and cleverly kicking the bloody hell out of some nasty people who desperately deserve it. Perhaps it's cathartic.

What can I say? If you have any taste for alternate history, and don't mind profanity and body parts gaily strewn about in pools of gore, you should give these a try. You might not respect yourself in the morning, but you'll have an entertaining night.

Lies My Teacher Told Me
By James W. Loewen

This book has been sitting on my shelf, unfinished, for over a year. I'm not going to finish it--in fact, I'm going to get rid of it--but I figure I might as well review it first.

Loewen's book is a critique of secondary school American history text books, and as such he does have some valid criticisms; such texts are notorious for omitting any kind of real controversy. It's a complaint that can't be made too often, but given the process by which history texts are selected it's probably also unavoidable.

But I have two major criticisms of the book.

First, Loewen doesn't seem to understand what high-school history class is all about. The goal is not--cannot--be to teach our high-school students everything that's important about American history. There's far too much to know. In my view, history class should first attempt to give students a working knowledge of the broad sweep of American history. I don't care whether the kids retain the precise dates of Millard Fillmore's presidency--or Abraham Lincoln's for that matter. But they should know approximately when the Civil War happened, and something about why; they should know why the American Revolution happened, and how. We're talking about basic knowledge, and a foundation for future study. In addition, it should demonstrate the workings of our constitutional system over time; as such, it's an adjunct to the usual government class. In short, the goal is to give the kids the historical knowledge they need to be good citizens. It isn't about self-esteem.

Second, Loewen has a skewed notion of what our kids need to know. Yes, we mustn't sanitize our history out of recognition; on the other hand, there's no need to dwell on our every historical wickedness. Yes, our heroes have feet of clay; but then, all heroes do. We can make that point without dragging every hero's name through the mud. We mustn't eliminate the negative--but surely the goal of history class is better met by accentuating the positive? Loewen seems to want to substitute an angry self-loathing. If his program were followed, I believe we'd be teaching our kids to hate our country, rather than to love it while recognizing and hating its faults.

I don't have time or stomach to write a detailed critique of the two-thirds of the book I finished, and in any event it was too long ago. It's possible that I'm not being fair. Anyway, I didn't like it and I'm not going to keep it.

The Early Church
By Henry Chadwick

A couple of years ago, due to controversies raging within the Episcopal Church, I became interested in learning more about the history of the Early Church, and especially the period from Christ's resurrection up to Constantine. This book was recommended to me, and it quickly migrated to my car.

The thing about history books is that they are very often dry; and the material takes some pondering, or it doesn't really sink in. At that time I was regularly stopping for breakfast on my way to work, and I had the habit of keeping a book in the car to read while I ate. And Chadwick's book became that book. Then, of course, I was put on a diet and started eating breakfast at home every week; and I only got to Chadwick's book on the rare occasions when I went out to lunch by myself. Eventually I finished it.

My considered opinion? It's OK, but it wasn't the best book for my purposes. In addition to getting the basic historical details, I was also interested in tracing the thread of orthodoxy from its earliest days, through the various controversies and heresies and schools of thought. Chadwick covers all this, naturally, but he doesn't seem all that interested in the theological details, and I frequently found his descriptions to be rather opaque. Nor, as he describes the various disagreements, does he give any indication of which point of view eventually won out. On top of all this, he writes as though the truth or falsehood of any of the claims is irrelevant; or, rather, as though they are all equally false compared to the historical truth he's attempting to describe. This is a common attitude among historians, but as a Christian attempting to discover more about the early days of my faith I found it uncongenial.

All that said, Chadwick's better when dealing with the non-theological details, and I intend to keep the book around for reference.

Essential Writings
By G.K. Chesterton

I like Chesterton a whole lot, and I bought this book during my last Chesterton binge. That was some time ago, and it's taken this long to review only because I never finished it. And why did I never finish it? Because it isn't a very good book.

What it is, is an anthology of a few essays and many excerpts from longer books, most of which I'd already read. The excerpts are all good bits, but somehow they aren't as compelling when plucked from their proper setting. Each piece has an introduction by some guy named William Griffin, with whom I have two quarrels: first, I dimly remember that his introductions annoyed me, and second, he somehow managed to make Chesterton boring. Perhaps I'd have felt differently if I hadn't read most of the material before; and perhaps this book would be a good introduction to Chesterton for one not yet acquainted. I dunno. But I didn't like it.

On a whim I did a Google search on the American Chesterton Society's web site; for what it's worth, they make no mention of the book at all.

Four Witnesses
By Rod Bennett

Here's another book I read while looking into the history of the Early Church. I finished it over a year ago, and was moved to begin a long and detailed description of its contents. I was never moved to complete that review, alas, and now the details are too foggy, so a briefer summary will have to do. This is from memory, mind you, so I might not have all of the details perfectly correct.

Subtitled "The Early Church In Her Own Words", Bennett's book consists of excerpts from the writings of four of the early Church Fathers: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Bennett surrounds each with material on the background and context of each excerpt, turning the whole into a complete, if narrowly focussed, look at the first two centuries of the Early Church, written from a standpoint of faith rather than skepticism.

The book is also about Bennett himself. Raised a Baptist, he'd been taught that there is a wide gap between the time of the Apostles and the later church, a gap about which we know very little and during which the church had gone wrong, necessitating the Reformation and its drive to return to the ways of the Early Church. Hence, the Reformation's rallying cry of Sola Scriptura! And yet, although Protestantism harkened back to the Early Church, none of his teachers seemed to know much about it.

Bennett determined to correct this, and went looking for what he could find. And what he found were these four authors whose lives form an unbroken chain from the time of the Apostles (Clement came to Rome in the days of St. Peter) through the end of the second century--four authors who neatly fill that pesky gap he'd always been told of. That was the first surprise.

The second surprise came when he read what these men had to say, and looked at the Early Church through their eyes. It did not, in fact, look anything like the Baptist church he'd grown up in; it did, in fact, look a great deal like Roman Catholicism. (Having grown up Catholic myself, I can vouch for this; Justin Martyr's description of Christian Sunday observance is recognizably the Mass I grew up with--even given that I grew up with the Post-Vatican II Mass and not the Latin Mass.) This was a turning point in Bennett's life, and he subsequently joined the Roman Catholic Church.

This is a popular work; if you're looking for a scholarly commentary, look elsewhere. At the same time, I found this to be quite a good introduction to Clement, Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus; and leafing through it again, it's clear that although he focusses on these four, it's evident that in preparation he covered the entire waterfront. I liked it; and it's a good complement to Chadwick's History of the Early Church.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 December 2005
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