Tag: Book Reviews

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(Part I and Part II here and here.) I read only a handful of books in 2020, but what I did read provided savory experiences that took me all over the world. The richest discovery I made last year was Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, of which I read My Family and Other Animals and Birds, […]

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Reviewing Seawriter’s Book: Vanished Houston Landmarks

 

This post turns the tables on Ricochet’s intrepid book reviewer, @seawriter, who is known to the outside world as Mark Lardas. He wrote an engaging, enjoyable book called “Vanished Houston Landmarks“, available for the Kindle, and it’s a skillful job that deserves your attention.

When I grew up, people didn’t hate Californians (yet). New Yorkers and Texans regularly topped polls of who our fellow Americans found most annoying, and despite vast differences between Gothamites and Texians, we have this in common: we are apt to boast a great deal. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only passed through Texas and I ought to know more about its history, but I can understand the boasting: it really is a remarkable place with wonderful people.

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Heat! Heat in stifling blanket layers. Heat that enveloped all of California from the arid Mexican border in the south to majestic Klamath Forest, elbowing northward into Oregon. Heat, oppressive and enervating…Throughout cities and suburbs, in factories, offices, stores and homes, six million electric air-conditioners hummed. On thousands of farms in the fertile Central Valley–the […]

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Feasting Slowly, Part 2: Mountain Dreamer

 

In a previous post, I noted that I’d read only around half a dozen books in 2020. I always have something interesting going on my Kindle, so I was surprised to count 2020’s take and find it apparently took two months to finish each book. So to make myself feel better, I’ll say it’s not because I’m a slow reader. It’s that I savored these works, the way books should be consumed. Yeah, that’s it. At least I found satisfying items worth adding to your queue. Today I feature one written by a woman to whom I’m vaguely connected, a connection without which I might not have come across this story.

The Mountain Dreamer: (Published September 2020, by Rachel A. Steffen) This fictionalized account of the author’s real childhood in a remote mountain village in Thailand appealed to me on several levels. First, the writer’s parents preceded my parents’ cohort of missionaries to Thailand, working there since the ’60s. I had heard stories of how the country was less tame back then, that elephants figured into one’s travel plans, and I wanted to find out more about that life. Second, I knew the writer’s parents. They were classic figures of my growing up years–surely everyone in the world knew this couple, whom we called “Uncle” and “Aunt.” Occasionally, their pictures came up on Facebook, and they still looked the same. Encountering them in a book would be an experience, and fill in blanks for me about their early work and life. I had never known this oldest daughter of theirs; this story explains why she went back to the States at fourteen. Third, it was about an American child’s view of Thailand, something to which I could relate, having grown up there myself.

This account did not disappoint. The writer uses fiction to vividly tell a story of her childhood years in simple surroundings with much-loved village friends, and of the rustic means of doing everything from baking cookies to arranging a long ride on elephants’ backs to find medical care. I was pleasantly surprised at how the tool of fiction gave the story smoothness and momentum. It was a fitting choice for this narrative, even though I would not (probably could not) have done it myself. I learned a great deal about Uncle D. and Aunt J. and their work in that rugged region, enough to admire them even more. And I was surprised that although the author’s village was across the country from where I started life, many of our experiences were similar. We both went to school where the instruction was in standard Thai (although I never witnessed any beatings at mine). The lifestyle of the villagers, down to the basic clay stoves they used, sounded similar. And the candles and kerosene lamps at nighttime–yes. I spent evenings in their glow too, when I was little.

Feasting Slowly: An International Smorgasbord of Books

 

My mom read sixty books this year. That’s more than a book a week. Another Ricochet member offered an impressive post on his 2020 reading list where I see that others enjoy a similar diet. I don’t know how you all do it. I read nightly, snacking on my stories for a few minutes before falling asleep, and then partaking of extended meals on occasions when I’m awake in the wee hours. I always have a book or two on my plate. Despite this, it takes me weeks to finish a work, and I realized that I’ve completed only a handful of books in 2019/2020 and sampled a few others. I count my daily grazing at Ricochet as reading, too, so I suppose I could figure in the equivalent of a year of bi-monthly magazines to account for that.

I usually skip the dessert of fiction that keeps me up at night and stick with autobiographical stories and engaging histories with subtle, well-rounded layers. These works, often two-dollar Kindle deals, can have imbalances that earn them a few one and two-star ratings on Amazon. However, I often find them satisfying or even deeply nourishing. Most selections originate from places and times outside my own: the South Seas in the 1700s, Europe, Africa, the Middle East. Some of these international repasts were unforgettable, others savory and filling, and a few meriting abandonment after several bites.

Book Review: Thinking Orthodox

 

“What truly makes Orthodox Christianity different? Is it simply that we do not have a pope? That we preserve ancient liturgical forms and rituals? That married men can be priests?
The question does not lend itself to a simple answer because the reality is complex. In fact, the essence of Orthodox uniqueness lies far beyond these fundamentals… It is hidden, subtle, deeper than the outward forms, customs, or specific theological beliefs that manifest the divergence. The Orthodox phronema (“mentality,” “stance,” or “approach”) is the foundation of Orthodox Christianity. It is usually unexpressed and unexamined, and rarely discussed, but it affects not simply what we believe and why but — above all else — how we think.”⁠1

It needs to be said at the outset that Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind, by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou, is not exactly a book of Orthodox theology (though it contains much). It might be described as a book about Orthodox theology. But it is better described as a book about how to begin to think and understand like an Orthodox Christian, and so to understand Orthodox theology, while avoiding traps, heresies, and dangers along the way.  

The book is guide to understanding how the very culture we live in is imbued with a mindset (a phronema, to use the Greek idiom the author introduces) and spirit that is very often hostile to, or at least at odds with Orthodox Christianity. Even Western Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestent forms, has a very different mindset. In this the book is a valuable guide for converts, inquirers, and even cradle-Orthodox who may not be aware how different that understanding is. But the book is of great value even for non-Orthodox Christians, for much of it is a guide for our times, where Christianity is in retreat, and where the internet can deceive us all into thinking ourselves experts after half an hour on Wikipedia, or lure us towards extremists and zealots who seek division. Much of Dr. Constantinou’s book should indeed be read by all Christians who could find themselves arguing theology with strangers through a keyboard.

They Write Reviews, So You Don’t Have to Suffer

 

Thank you, Douglas A. Jeffery for your article in the Claremont Review of Books. I read it earlier this week and rolled my eyes so hard, they still hurt a little. Good grief! It’s amazing the incredible vitriol that some so-called “educated” people maintain for Pres. Trump.

“One sure sign,” Frum writes, “is when the president tries to bypass the executive branch that exists to serve him.” This is a Catch-22 worthy of the British sitcom Yes Minister: an elected leader trying to bypass the bureaucrats thwarting him is proof he needs thwarting.

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So, our friend Mark Regnerus has a new book out. You can find reviews of it here and even purchase it: https://www.amazon.com/Future-Christian-Marriage-Mark-Regnerus-ebook/product-reviews/B08DYCPLQK/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_show_all_btm?ie=UTF8&reviewerType=all_reviews Other friends of ours have asked for support in the form of reading reviews by Chris, AEH and Joel and marking them as helpful. Mark is a frequent target of the totalitarian left, […]

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Book Review: Big in Heaven

 

“Don’t worry, my friend, for Raskova,” she whispered to me. “I clean baby [crap]. It small thing. You sit. Read.” She said, “I am here,” tapping the pages with socket-wrench fingers. “At Dachau too, my job, priest say, sew sheets for vestment, is very small, he tell me, but big in heaven.” (p. 13)

Big in Heaven is a book of short stories, by Fr. Stephen Siniari, centered in and around the people of the fictional Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish* parish, an ethnically Albanian church in a Fishtown neighborhood. The stories mostly follow the parish priest, Father Naum, through a variety of times, places, and narrators (some more reliable than others). The stories are not sequential. In some we find Naum young and impatient, in others, we find Naum near retirement, wiser, but bearing the scars of many years. In all of the tales, we bear witness to how the parishioners and their friends and neighbors are simply living their lives as well as they know how saints and sinners alike.

Each of the tales is a brief glimpse into the lives of the people of the parish. Through the changing voices of the narrator we learn, sometimes, of backstories and histories of the people, but not always. Sometimes the backstories are unnecessary or merely inferred. Not all of the people belong to the parish – Father Naum is friends with an Evangelical pastor, and regularly has tea with the rabbi of the synagogue across the street. The author studiously avoids common ecumenical stereotypes, however, in these interactions, and each person has his or her own voice and motivations.

Book Review: ‘Strange Rites – New Religions for a Godless World’

 

Poll after poll demonstrates declines in religious observance in the United States today, especially in the Millennial age cohort. Some faiths and denominations are declining more quickly than others, with a few holding steady. Are people ceasing to believe any higher powers, or is something else at work? Tara Isabella Burton examines this issue in her new book, Strange Rites – New Religions for a Godless World, just out within the last week. Ms. Burton makes the argument that while adherence to traditionally recognized faiths (particularly Christianity) has declined precipitously, human beings still have a need to believe that the world is “enchanted” and human beings still need the community that shared rituals can offer. So even as adherence to particular faiths is declining, new religions are emerging to fill spiritual longings. Ms. Burton terms this the “Fourth Great Awakening.”

However, these new spiritual practices are at once radically different from anything that gone before, and yet radically American in their forms and ethos. They are also radically self-centered. Her basic thesis is this: the internet provides access to information on practically anything imaginable, and quickly connects like-minded people over any niche interest, allowing us to pick and choose our friends beyond the limited physical circles we have been limited to in the past, but this also allows us to concentrate ourselves, our interests, and our desires, creating a world of information and practice uniquely tuned to ourselves. In short, we can each pick and choose our own practices, rituals, and relationships, creating “remixed” faiths, and it is the “Remixed” whose worlds Ms. Burton illuminates.

This book is, in large part, about charlatans. It’s about capitalism and corporations and the new cutthroat Silicon Valley of spirituality. It’s about people who want to sell us meaning, brand our purpose, custom-product community, tailor-make rituals, and commodify our very humanity. It’s about how the Internet and consumer capitalism alike have produced experientially satiating substitutes – many, though not all of them, poor – for well-developed ethical, moral, and metaphysical systems. It’s about the denatured selfishness of self-care, and the way in which “call-out-culture,” at its worst, serves as the psychic methadone, providing us with a brief and illusory hit of moral belonging…

Superego: Fathom – Book Review

 

Superego: Fathom by Frank J. Fleming is the sequel to his 2015 novel Superego, where Fleming tells the story of Rico, the top hitman for one of the biggest intergalactic crime syndicates. Rico is a psychopath – a man with no conscience or ability to empathize with other people. It’s a big part of what makes him so successful in his line of work. He’s never found a problem he can’t shoot his way out of, until he’s forced to pretend to be the good guy and find himself feeling emotions he never knew existed. Like love.

This review will contain spoilers for Superego, so if you haven’t read it yet you should stop now and go buy it. There’s also a short story that’s a prequel to the series – Superego: Personality Test – that you can read for free on Fleming’s website.

Superego: Fathom picks up two months after the end of the first book with Rico waking up from a coma. It (and Rico) hits the ground running and doesn’t stop. It turns out that exposing the corruption in the existing government by wiping out the corrupt politicians and leaders of multiple criminal syndicates on a live galaxy-wide broadcast has some consequences. To make matters worse, his father still is out there with plans in motion, plans that involve Rico. His body is constantly dealing with the poison his father used at the end of the first book and the Fazium that is (painfully) repairing him from the inside out. Plus there’s Diane. Rico has to decide what it means to be a hero and if he can live up to it.

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Spin the big Kindle library wheel for a bargain book review and see if you’ve landed a nod, a dud, or a blank. This is a low-stakes game that might yield some good leads or fun screeds. It won’t hurt your wallet or leave you with life regrets. Here is how to play: 1.) LOOK: […]

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The coronavirus crisis has led to much discussion of modeling. One of the largest modeling projects in human history was the Soviet Union’s attempt to manage its entire economy on a top-down basis, including the use of sophisticated and then-state-of-the-art mathematical tools. Red Plenty…part novel, part nonfiction…is about the Soviet Union’s economic planning efforts as […]

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SF authors are generally viewed as being mainly concerned with the future, but Connie Willis is more interested in the past…and, particularly, the way in which the past lives in the present. Her novels and short stories explore this connection using various hypothetical forms of time displacement. In Lincoln’s Dreams, a young woman starts having […]

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In 2015, I reviewed Hans Fallada’s great novel of the late Weimar era, Little Man, What Now? Today’s review is of another Fallada novel, this one set earlier in Weimar, during the time of the great–insane–inflation. Wolf Among Wolves tells the story of a collapsing society through the intertwined lives of many characters, who include: […]

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Book Review: Memories of His Mercy

 

The name Peter Gilquist is incredibly well known in the Orthodox churches of America today. Father Gilquist, along with several other pastors, led a mass conversion of Evangelical churches into the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1987, after nearly 15 years of searching for the historical Christian church as described in the book of Acts, and in the epistles of the New Testament. That quest is told in his more famous work, Becoming Orthodox, and in related works by others from that movement (I reviewed one such memoir, Surprised by Christ, late last year), but towards the end of his life, Reverend Gilquist wrote a different sort of work – personal memoirs of many of the key seminal moments in his life, ministries, and faith. Those memoirs were compiled and published several years after his death in the book Memories of His Mercy: Recollections of the Grace and Providence of God.  

In Memories of His Mercy, Fr. Gilquist tells stories of his upbringing within a devout Christian home, the men and women who mentored him in his family and beyond, and the courtship of the woman he would later marry. He later moves through some of his fondest memories, particularly of people whose lives touched his. His aim is not to write an overarching narrative, but a much humbler one of attempting to convey how faith, charity and empathy for others, and a strong work ethic tempered by consistent honesty can allow one, with the grace of God, to both be a blessing to others, and be blessed in turn.  

The various tales are also quite simply experiences that he genuinely enjoyed and wanted to share (such as when he helped ghost-write Johnny Cash’s autobiography in the 1970s), or of which he was particularly and personally proud (such as his involvement in the creation of the Orthodox Study Bible). His greatest personal joys were, of course, in his wife and family, and so their lives feature prominently in the stories too. Through it all he talks about how he saw every interaction with other people as an opportunity to evangelize and make friends.

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I signed up for a service called Book Bub to alert me to all the books for sale on Kindle. These are often $1.99, but many of these bargains are high quality work, worth your time. Sales are short-term, but often if a book has been for sale, it will be featured at that price […]

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Release Date: January 29, 2019Minotaur Books Evan Smoak is the Nowhere Man. A man who moves in the shadows and helps people. He is also the former assassin Orphan X. In Out of the Dark he is back and ready for his most difficult and dangerous assignment yet. He is going to kill the President of the […]

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Book Review: Surprised by Christ

 

How does a Hasidic Jew, the son, and grandson of rabbis, become an Orthodox Christian? The journey is a fascinating one, as A. James Bernstein relates in a book that is one part personal autobiography, and the other part his spiritual journey from the Judaism of his youth through what he describes as the return to the fulfillment of Judaism’s promise in the Orthodox Church. In his tale, Father Bernstein takes readers from his initial discovery of Christianity as a young man, through his years as an Evangelical street preacher in Berkley, and back to Israel both past and present as he seeks to re-find the ancient Jewish connection to Christianity.

Bernstein begins with a vivid recollection of when a drunk anti-semite threw a brick through his father’s storefront in the middle of the night in Queens, NY. Though James was born in the US during World War II, his parents had wed in the early 1930s, and had fled Jerusalem (where his father was from) for the US (his mother was from Pittsburgh) out of fear that the Muslim Mufti of the region would ally with the Nazis. The horrors of the war and the revelations of the Holocaust broke much of his father’s faith, and though trained as a Rabbi in his youth, in America he instead chose to run a candy store.

Bernstein describes much of growing up in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s as nearly idyllic, the brick-throwing aside, but he had a hunger for spiritual knowledge that led him into conversations with many of the other ethnic groups around him, and those conversations led him to read (in secret) the Christian Bible. What he found, and moreover whom he found he compared in detail to everything he had learned as a Jew, and in time, and at the cost of his relationship with his parents, he converted to Christianity. But of what sort?

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Popular histories of the fall of the Roman Republic are not in short supply. There are excellent entries in this crowded field. One can look to Tom Holland’s Rubicon or the recent New York Times bestseller The Storm Before the Storm by popular podcaster Mike Duncan. Into this crowded field we have Mortal Republic by Edward J. Watts. Dr. Watts is […]

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