Dave, Blue Hole Canoes, Bill, Bob, and a book review 

Dave and my introduction to Blue Hole Canoes

In the winter of 1976, I was a freshman at University of North Carolina at Wilmington. One night, I attended the local Sierra Club meeting. The hot topic at the time was the protection of the New River, a river I’d paddled and felt I should become involved. I don’t remember much of the program, but I did meet Dave Benny that evening. Dave was close to twice my age, and an engineer at Dupont. He had recently purchased a Blue Hole canoe. Learning I also had a canoe (It was my first major purchase when I was sixteen), and had paddled several rivers in Southeast North Carolina, David picked my brain. Over the next six or seven years, until I left that part of the state, Dave or I would lead many of the canoe trips offered by the Wilmington chapter of the Sierra Club.  

The Unique Blue Hole Canoe

Dave’s Blue Hole was a unique canoe. I don’t remember why he decided to purchase a boat built for white water to run in the black water rivers in the eastern half of the state. But I was impressed how well it handled in narrow winding streams where there were lots of logs just under the surface. Those unseen logs would often catch the keel of my Grumman canoe. The Blue Hole had a flat bottom which helped it float them. Its design also allowed the paddler to quickly turn and to move easily across a fast current, a benefit when paddling in a swampy area during high water where the water flow wants to pull your boat out of the channel and into the swamps. 

A faded photo from the early 80s that I recently found. At Crusoe Island, Columbus County, NC, on a paddle down the Waccamaw River. I think Dave’s Blue Hole is the canoe to the right. The photo of me and the boats were either taken by Dave or another friend, Phil Morgan, who paddled with me one of the trips I made down the Waccamaw River.

However, when the river widens and the wind picked up, the flat bottom made the Blue Holes less desirable. One had to paddle harder to keep the boat tracking properly. Many of our trips would begin on smaller creeks and then end up on larger rivers, where Dave and whoever was paddling in his bow had to work harder than the rest of us. 

The Blue Hole was made of a new substance called Rolex ABS. It was much stronger than fiberglass and a lot quieter than aluminum, like the Grummans. In my boat, any bump on a submerged log or a drop of a paddle or water bottle into the boat would be announced to everyone. Dave’s boat was much quieter. 

Dave and the finer things in life

Dave and I didn’t paddle together much. We were generally in our own canoes, with each of us having another participant in our bow. But on occasion, the two of us would go out together to scout a new river or creek. Then, we’d often take Dave’s canoe. Dave seemed to have all the cool toys. As a middle-aged single man, he could afford such things. In addition to his canoe, he was the first person I knew with a Leica, a German camera known for its superior optics. He also purchased a Sea Gull 1.2 horsepower outboard motor. This British designed motor, I would later learn, was popular among sailors to power dinghies and rafts to and from a mooring. 

Dave obtained the Sea Gull motor so we could take a canoe upstream to check out new streams. After motoring upstream, we’d paddle back down to our vehicle. One such stream was Colly Creek, which flows into the Black River. That little motor pushed us upstream easily. But there were lots of weeds in the stream, which kept tangling up the prop and causing the sheer pin to snap. Dave, however, came prepared. We became very proficient at replacing sheer pins that day and when we had no more pins, we were in sight of a bridge we could use to launch from. It was time to turn around. We paddled with the current to our waiting vehicle at a bridge just downstream of the confluence with the Black River. Colly Creek became a favorite paddling stream, and I must have run that creek a dozen times. 

Leaving Eastern North Carolina and acquiring a Royalex Canoe

I left Eastern North Carolina early in 1984 and lost contact with Dave. In one of our last trips together, he had invited a woman along. I heard they later married. For a few years, I would occasionally hear about him from my brother who was also an engineer with Dupont, but in another factory. But then he retired and that was many years ago. 

My Mad River at a campsite along the Missinaibi River, Northern Ontario, 1992

As for my old Grumman Canoe, it was stolen in 1985. I would replace it with a Mad River Explorer. Like the Blue Hole, it’s also an ABS Royalex boat. However, instead of a totally flat bottom like the Blue Hole, it has a rocker bottom which allows it to track better downstream and on lakes. I still have that boat. I have paddled it in rivers in nine states as well as northern Ontario where I paddled to the James Bay. I have replaced the wooden gunnels twice, and it’s still a good paddling canoe. I must continue caring for that boat for they no longer make ABS Royalex.

Paddling with Bill in one of his Blue Holes
Bill and me

Two weeks ago, when I was at Montreat, a Presbyterian Conference Center in Western North Carolina, I met up with another old friend. Bill and I had been a part of the team who ran the youth program at First Presbyterian Church in Hickory NC. We both paddled a lot, but only once made one trip together, that I recall, on the Henry River (where parts of the Hunger Games would be filmed decades later). Bill, who has lived in Asheville for over 30 years, suggested we paddle the Tuckaseegee River. Bill’s canoes have multiplied. He now owns a trailer full and they’re mostly Blue Holes. On this day, he brought along a tandem boat which we paddled together. 

Meeting Bob Lantz
Bob Lantz on the deck of his cabin

We made our way down the river, through rapids named the 1st Hole, the 2nd Hole, the Slingshot. A short bit after running the Double Drop rapid, Bill suggested we drop in and see a friend of his. We found Bob Lantz at his cabin on the river and spent some time sitting out on his porch drinking a beer and talking. Bob was one of two designers for the Blue Hole canoe. After talking to him that day on the river, I decided that I needed to read his book. Doing so, I realized that Dave’s canoe would have been one of the earlier boats built by the company, only a few years after its founding. 

Sadly, Bob no longer paddles. He’s had a couple of knee replacement surgeries and cannot kneel in a canoe. But he does get to enjoy being on a beautiful river and watching canoes, kayaks, and rafts float by. 

Bill’s Blue Hole at the Take-out on the Tuckaseegee River

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Bob Lantz, Lean Downstream!! The Whole History from Beginning to End of the Blue Hole Canoe Company 

(Bob Lantz, 1979), 231 pages with many photos and diagrams. 

This book contains many moving parts. It’s part memoir but includes engineering and business details of canoe construction along with bits about how to paddle and work to save rivers in Tennessee. Combining these elements, the reader learns much about the growth of canoeing as a recreation activity in the 1970s and 1980s. The author appears upfront with his honesty, admitting when he made mistakes. And his mistakes include a superior attitude of how to paddle before being taught proper techniques as well as business and personnel blunders while running a company. 

The book jump around a lot. However, the author warns the reader about this at the beginning. Lantz takes a thread and runs with it (such as the business of building canoes) then backtracks to fill in his personal details. He also tends to blatantly “foreshadow” what will happen in his writing by telling his readers he’ll get to it. However, the book is easily read. Lantz writes in a conversational style, not the technical style one expects from engineers. This less formal style seems to work well and serves the author’s purposes. 

The author claims this is the “whole history” of the Blue Hole Company. However, I couldn’t help but assume some things are left out. But such is the nature of any writing as we can’t cover or report on everything. I would suggest the book is a history of the company through the eyes of one of its major players.

This book is also a history of the personal life of the author. I must admit, I felt sorry for him. Lantz was suddenly single and middle aged, sitting by his wood stove on winter nights in an old Tennessee farmhouse. When I visited his cabin on the Tuckasseegee, I admired his stove. He seemed appreciative and said it was his second Jotul wood stove. His first one eventually burned out the sidewalls trying to heat his house on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Reading the book, I realized the stove is a minor character in Lantz’s story. 

That said, I was impressed with what Bob, a former aerospace engineer, and friends were able to do. They developed a company that radically changed the sport of white-water canoeing. From the idea to build canoes out of Royalex, to their design and develop of aluminum gunnels (purposely using low-tempered aluminum) and thwarts, Blue Hole was a pioneer in the canoe industry. The company lasted for fifteen years (1973-1988). Sadly, internal struggles seemed to sink the company. When friction between partners increased, the bank called the loan and the company liquidated. 

I recommend this book to those interested in the development of canoeing in this country. Even if you don’t read it all, the book has great photos. As a warning, I doubt those uninterested in canoeing and rivers would find much enjoyment from the book. I am also grateful to the role the author and the company played in protecting several rivers in the Southeast. 

Catching up and two book reviews

Montreat

Enjoying refreshments along the river

I’ve been on vacation this past week, which is why I didn’t post a sermon on Sunday. Instead, I spent five days at Montreat, a Presbyterian conference and retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina. While there, I caught up with an old friend from the time when we both lived in Hickory, NC in the early/mid 1980s. I haven’t seen Bill since the late 80s. Back in the day, we did several backpacking trips together as well as some water skiing. Oddly, as we’re both big paddlers, I don’t remember but paddling together but once before, on the Henry River. 

a delightful rapid on the Tuckaseegee

Bill now lives north of Asheville, and we sent the day paddling the Tuckaseegee River near Dillsboro, NC. It was a delightful river with numerous class 1 and 2 rapids. I haven’t paddled any white water in a canoe in probably 20 years. Most of my paddling lately hasn’t been white water, and is generally in a kayak. But it was fun to be in a tandem canoe. I also got to meet a friend of Bill’s who lives on the river, Bob Lantz, who was a co-inventor the Blue Hole canoe, a white-water boat that was popular back in the 70s and 80s. Bob has a cabin on the river and we enjoyed a beer while talking to him out on his porch. 

from the Graybeard Trail

In addition to enjoying some down time and a few lectures and seminars, I hiked to Lookout Point and the Graybeard Trail (the latter seems rather personal). Getting a late start on the Graybeard Trail, I got back into Montreat after dark! But it was a good hike and while I didn’t see any rattlesnakes, two different groups on the trail told me of their encounters. As the sightings were at different places, they would have been different snakes, but none wanted to show their faces to me. 

The Assembly Inn (where I stayed) from Lookout Mountain

Natural Tunnel State Park

Tracks through the Natural Tunnel

This weekend, after getting back from Montreat, we went over to Natural Tunnel State Park in the far western part of Virginia. This natural tunnel is over 800 feet long and since the late 1880s, has included railroad tracks. The track is now owned by Norfolk and Western. I was hoping to get a photo of a train coming through the tunnel, but there was only one that passed through while there, and I wasn’t anywhere near the tunnel. The area has some nice hiking, too. 

I have a bunch of books to review on philosophy, poetry, history, and fiction… I’ll get to them in later posts. Here are two reviews. The second one perhaps prepared me for hiking the last leg of the Graybeard Trail in the dark. 🙂

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Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More than Our “Correct” Beliefs

 (2016, HarpersCollins Paperback, 2017), 230 pages including notes and scripture references. 

What does it mean to have faith? Peter Enns makes the case that our faith is grounded in trust in God. And this God is greater than we can imagine. However, too many people (and the author had been one of them) equates faith with correct thinking and right beliefs. We often are concerned with “getting the Bible right,” (it’s the Protestant DNA). We think when we fully understand the scriptures, we will find an answer to all our problems. Enns challenges such thinking.  

In this book, Enns encourages the reader to explore the scriptures as he shows that faith and belief isn’t about correct thinking of God. It’s about trusting a God who draws us closer. After all, as he points out, believing in God is easy. Even demons believe. Our faith isn’t about what we know, it’s about who we know.

Enns draws continually on the Bible to make his point. While he uses the whole of scripture, he pays special attention to parts often overlooked such as the Psalms of Lament and the Ecclesiastes. We grow in our ability to trust God not when things go well, but when things go wrong. Quoting Samuel Rutherford, “grace grows best in winter.” (71)

While many Christians may disagree with parts of this book, Enns’s thesis need to be heard. For skeptics and for those who have struggled with holding a “correct belief” in God, his words offer hope and a new way to engage the God of scripture. This book is easy to read. I encourage others to check it out.

Quotes from The Sin of Certainty:

“A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can hold up.” (120)

“Wanting clarity is seeking some sort of control….”  Darkness takes away control…”. “if anyone tells you Christianity is a crutch, you should take one of those crutches and beat him over the head with it (in Christian love, of course, making sure to tell them you will be praying for a quick recovery).” (170)

“When faith has no room for the benefit of doubt, then we are just left with religion, something that takes its place in our lives along with other things—like a job and a hobby…. Doubt is God’s way of helping us not go there, thought the road may be very hard and long.” (172)

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Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep

 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 199 pages including notes and study questions. 

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. 
 -“The Compline,” from the Book of Common Prayer 

My review:

The Compline is a prayer that is offered as night falls. Darkness is a metaphor for evil. Bad things can happen at night. We don’t know what lurks in the shadows. Yet, according to Genesis, God also created darkness even though in Scripture, we’re promised that in the end, “night will be no more.” 

Warren begins her book with a tale of tragedy, the night she experienced a miscarriage. During this troubling time, she found comfort in praying The Compline. 

In this book, she carefully exegetes each line in the prayer. She draws from Scripture, especially the Psalms, as well as a host of other sources. She quotes theologians, authors, philosophers, even those who are critical of the faith. In addition to writing about trusting God, she also expounds upon various aspects of theology, from death to bodies, to work and our dependence on others as well as God. 

I found this book a delight and recommend it to those who want to deepen their prayer life. 

Quotes from Prayer in the Night:

“Faith, I’ve come to believe, is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft.” (8)

“Grace is the first and last word of the Christian life, and all of us are desperately in need of mercy and are deeply loved.” (8)

“Compline speaks to God in the dark. And that’s what I had to learn to do—to pray in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disillusionment. It was Compline that gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news.” (19)

“Mysteriously, God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it.” (29)

“The Christian story proclaims that our ultimate hope doesn’t lie in our lifetime, in making life work for us on this side of the grave. We watch and wait for ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life to come.” (57)

“Just as our pupils dilate to let in more light, to see more than we first thought we could, prayer adjusts our eyes to see God in the darkness.” (61)

“God is not a masochist who delights in our pain or weakness, but a cultivator whose grace is found even in the burn unit… I can believe that God is good because God himself chose a way of suffering that none of us would have every choose—and he walked this way in a human body, as a creature of dust.” (99)

“To be a Christian is to sit, however uncomfortably, in mystery, in something we can never quite nail down or name.”  (111)

“We weep because we can lament to one who cares about our sorrow. We watch because we believe that Love will not abandon us. We work because God is restoring the world in love. We can sleep because God governs the cosmos out of love. Every sickness can be transformed by love. When we’re weary, we are given rest because we are loved. Love meets us even in death, bearing blessing…” (165)

We don’t pray to convince God to see our needs. He asks us to pray, to tell him what we most long for, because he loves us deeply and devastatingly.” (166)

“In the end, darkness is not explained; it is defeated. Night is not justified or solved; it is endured until light overcomes it and it is no more.” 

Additional Reading Suggestions:


Last Summer, I posted a review of two other books that deal with darkness. Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, is another religious look at darkness. Chet Raymo’s The Soul of Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage was one of the best books I read last year. While Raymo is writing more from a scientific point-of-view, his writings convey a sense of awe and mystery, which is where science and religion go together. Click here to read my reviews on these two books. 

Catching Up on my Reading

Today, I’m just trying to catch up on some books I’ve read over the past few weeks… If one doesn’t interest you, you can skip it and move on to the others.

Andy Stanley, Not in It to Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church 

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 231 pages. 

This is a book that needs to be read. And there should be no excuses. Stanley is a master communicator. He’s easy to read. Unlike many books I read, I didn’t have to look up a single word. But his message and the warning for the church is clear. The evangelical church, of which he’s a part, has sold out Jesus and are more interested in winning politically than following Jesus. And because of this, they have lost the message of love and grace. 

Stanley grew up Southern Baptist. His father is Charles Stanley, one of the best-known preachers in the South Baptist denomination. In 1995, Andy Stanley started “North Point Ministries,” a large multi-campus church in Atlanta. He acknowledges that many of his members probably disagree with him. He refuses to endorse political candidates and even challenges the militaristic metaphors often used in church. We may sing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” but Jesus did the opposite as he laid down his life for us. 

Not everyone is going to like what he has to say in this book. In the summer of 2020, his church decided to stay closed because of COVID. Many people accused him of selling out. However, Stanley saw it as loving and caring for one another, especially the most vulnerable. His decision to keep the church virtual through 2020 caught the attention of CNN. They interviewed him, which upset others. After all, CNN was not their network of choice.  Stanley defends his action by reflecting on what Jesus did and suggesting that if CNN was “the enemy,” that was even more reason to accept the invitation to talk to them. 

While Stanley stays mostly neutral on political themes, he challenges some political events like like the Jericho March (A group of pro-Trump supporters who marched on state houses and on January 6, the Capitol in a belief that Trump really won the election). He also points out that using hateful speech toward those whose lifestyle we disagree with or those of different political views from ours as an expression of our faith have gotten Jesus’ message wrong. While he acknowledges that this happens on both side of the political aisle, he appears to come down harder on those who are more like him, on the conservative spectrum. 

Stanley makes the point that we are to follow Jesus. This means we can’t just believe. Jesus calls us to action, which is based on love for everyone, not just those like us. While he encourages his followers to participate in the political realm, he doesn’t come out to say they should vote in a particular manner. 

Recommendations

The one place within Stanley’s thoughts that bothered me is that he seems to have “moved on” completely from the Old Testament. He joked at one point about one sermon he gave from the Old Testament, but it seems to me he draws his theology exclusively from the New Testament. His emphasis on actionable items may sound like works too many. I think we live in a tension that is found with the two testaments and between law and gospel. However, I wouldn’t let this discourage anyone from reading this book. Stanley challenges us to reconsider how the church handles politics. It is a challenge worth taking. 

Quotes:

“You can’t make disciples of people you demonize publicly, and label as enemies of the faith or the state.” (27-28)

“One of the many things I appreciate about Jesus is that he was never concerned about guilt by association. If he had been, he would have stayed in heaven. He would have certainly refused to associate with me.” (37)

“When we reimagine Jesus to fit our partisan agendas, we rob the world of the message that changed the world… We cancel the message that canceled our sin.” (58)

On there being no difference between believing and non-believe party members: “You rarely hear Republicans or Democrats who consider themselves Jesus followers make or draw that distinction. But it would be easy to do if national leaders were more committed to their faith than their political party.” (85)

“We are not at war with the culture. Culture-war Christianity is not simply a waste of time, it is diametrically opposed to the teaching of Paul and the example of Jesus.” (129)

“The path of least resistance is always to complain about everything and do nothing about anything.” (203)

Rick Bass, Why I Came West: A Memoir

(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 238 pages. 

Rich Bass is writer who lives in Montana’s Yaak Valley. However, he grew up around Houston, Texas. He attended college at Utah State in Logan, where he lives in the “Gentile Sandwich, a floor within the dorm for non-Mormon students. The floors above and below were all filled with members of the LDS Church. Afterwards, he worked in the oil exploration business in Mississippi, before heading back west. He found his home in the Yaak Valley and had lived there at the time he was writing the book for 21 years. 

Bass refers to this book as a memoir. While I agree there are memoir-like parts to the book, especially the first part, much of the book seems more a series of essays around creating designated wilderness areas in Bass’ backyard. 

I am drawn to and comforted by Bass’ paradox. He is an environmentalist that hunts (he stocks away the meat from an elk and a deer and some birds). He is amused at how those who read or hear him speak are shocked by this. Bass also uses a chainsaw and believes that we can’t stop cutting trees. He is for more responsible land use and is comfortable with what many as a paradox. 

Bass also shares how he has been attacked by those who see wilderness as a threat. Sometimes the attacks are frightening, but often they are only emotionally hurtful. Yet, despite this, he continues to save the remaining wild parts of the world in his neighborhood. 

Favorite and humorous sections

My favorite chapters (or essays) in the book are “Landscape and Imagination” and “The Poison of Language. In the first, Bass draws on how the duality and tension within landscape gives birth to narrative. Bass, writing as an environmentalist, like George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” points out how language is often abused to sell us stuff. It can be a product, a land management practice, or a political idea. However, language also holds the power to enchant us and encourage us to protect our wild spaces.

The most humorous essay are his bear spray stories. Reading them, I began to wonder if carrying bear spray is a little like arming yourself with a gun for protection. Statistically, the person you’re most likely to shoot is yourself. And Bass seems pretty good at ending up on the wrong end of pepper spray.  The funniest story was sneaking what he thought was his date’s breath freshener from her purse when she had gone to the bathroom.  A quick whiff of her self-defense device and he was no longer in the mood and she didn’t have anything to worry about that evening. 

I was drawn to this book because I had never read any of Bass’ books and felt I should get to know him. As one who has spent a dozen years in the American West, and who still finds it enchanting, the title also title drew me in. I recommend this book if you have such feelings for a particular place on earth.  Bass tells a good story. 

Quotes: 

“The West has never been anything but a colony of the extractive industries, feasting (with the benefits of full congressional subsidy) on the splendor of these public wildlands. But the extractive industries have been very shy in doing everything they can to promulgate this myth of the rugged and completely independent individual: enhancing the already existing wall that stands between the rural West and the rest of the outside world…” (45)

“What kind of environmentalist am I, really, to be still using petroleum and to still be using wood? Almost nothing, really, with regard to our huge presence in the world these days, is in the least bit sustainable. This certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the best we can. I think what it does man is we shouldn’t be high and mighty, and should never forget the unaccountability of the awful and immense cost of the joyous gift of us being here—and again, while trying to do as little harm, or even as much good, int hose areas of our lives where we are most active and passionate, it may be perceived there is a sin or paradox here, to be desiring perfection and absolute sustainability even when it is not possible, and to likewise be advocating for the protection of pristine country even while seeking elsewhere to be more actively managed and manipulate the fringes of an ecosystem.”  (92-3)

James R. Edwards, From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the Church in Less than a Century 

(Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2021), 290 pages include indexes, bibliography, maps.

Our knowledge of the first few centuries of the Christian era is shrouded. While the book of Acts focuses on the early growth and mission of the church, it only follows one strand, the taking of the gospel to Rome. Other threads of mission that saw the church growth in Africa including Alexander, into Asia including India and China, and deeper into Europe remain a mystery. In this book, James Edwards attempts, where possible, to reconstruct the history of the early church during its first century.  

Each of the chapters within this book focuses on a movement. From rural to urban, Edwards looks at how the “Jesus movement” that began among rural Galilean peasants spread to urban areas while dying out in the place of its birth. Other chapters focus on books the physical movement from its first urban center, Jerusalem, to Rome and into Asia and Africa. Other chapters focus on a shift of language from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek, from a Jewish to a Gentile movement, and a movement occurring through persecution. Much of the book focuses on the break from the Jewish tradition, as the emphasis moves from Torah to Kerygma, from the synagogue to the church, from a Jewish ethos to a Christian one, from an emphasis on the Passover to the Eucharist, from Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday, and from a scroll to “codex” (or books). There are also chapters focusing internally on the church as it goes from a movement known as “the Way” to “Christian,” and as the leadership shifts from the Apostles to Bishops. 

A few interesting things I found in this vast study: 
  1. The split between those from those of the Jewish tradition and of the newer Christian tradition didn’t fully occur into the Jewish revolt in the 2nd Century. I always assumed the split came after the Jewish revolt of 66 AD. While the earlier revolt impacted the two traditions going separate ways, Edwards maintains it wasn’t until the later revolt that the split became permanent. 
  2. Pentecost was not the church’s beginning, as we often say and celebrate. Rather, it is the church’s equipping. 
  3. The synagogue became a place that followed Jews in comparison to the temple. The temple was a place where Jews travelled. Likewise, the church would forever “follow” believers rather than being a place to travel.  

This is a well-researched work. While Edwards draws heavily on both the Old and New Testament for understanding, he also draws from other primary sources. He explores the few early Christian works still available along with Jewish and pagan writers. I recommend it to those serious about early church history. It would make an excellent textbook for an advance class, perhaps in a seminary, on the topic of the early church. 

Quotes: 

“Eliminating evil does not result in a state of virtue; indeed, it may invite the return of greater evil.”  (166_

True martyrdom is not a single act at the end of life, however, but bearing witness to the gospel in daily life through ‘Patient endurance, imitating the ‘goodness of the Lord,’ and the example of the Lord himself.”  (166-7)

The early church did not speak of the Christian way in terms of ease and comfort, of low demands or no demands, but as a rigorous and demanding contest.” (167)

“That God divulges himself as God precisely in lowliness,’ concludes Eduard Schweizer, ‘means that his community must differentiate itself from the world by its willingness to take on lowliness.’” (198, this is Edward’s translation from German of Schwiezer, Gemeinde und Gemeindeodnung.)

“The Apostolic Fathers admonished readers not to allow the name ‘Christian’ to become a substitute for Christian behavior… ‘We should not be known as Christians, but really be Christians.’” The last is a quote from Ignatius in a letter to Magnesia (Western Turkey). (232)

Three reviews: Democracy, Beza, & Tides

Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

(2020: New York: Anchor Books, 2021), 206 pages including notes. No index or bibliography. 

This is an important book for understanding much of what is happening in our world. However, at first, I wondered what I was getting into as Applebaum describes a party she and her husband held on New Year’s Eve 1999. She reveals her guest list and a bit about the menu. Then, as I read deeper into the book, she describes how many of those at the party went in separate directions over the next two decades. She comes back to the dinner party motif throughout the books. Parts of this book felt like a travelogue memoir as she wrote about her connection to well-known names in European politics along with meals she shared with them. But between these personal stories, Applebaum makes important observations. Conservatism has moved from its traditional Burkean views to a fascination with authoritarianism.  

In the United States and the United Kingdom, the new right has broken with the old fashioned Burkean small-c conservatism that is suspicious of rapid change in all its forms. Although they hate the phrase, the new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, or destroy what exists. (page 20)

Applebaum, an American married to a Polish politician and diplomat, has lives much of her life in Britain and Poland. Once a Reagan Republican, she confesses to have left the Republican party over two issues: Sarah Palin (who kept her from supporting her hero, John McCain), and the use of torture in the war on terror. In this book, she notes how many of those she’s known through her political connections are divided over current politics within the Republican party. However, much of this book isn’t about America. She writes extensively about the politics in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and lesser degree about what’s happening in France, Spain, Italy, Brazil among other nations. I would suggest that what’s happening in these countries are important, especially since the American Conservative Union’s CPAC just held a meeting in Hungary. There, they were welcomed with wide arms by Viktor Orban, the nation’s authoritarian leader. While America is discussed throughout this book, only in the chapter “Prairie Fires” does she extensively cover what has happened in our nation in the recent past.  

I recommend this book and would enjoy discussing it with others. I wished Applebaum had included an index and a bibliography. This is the second book I’ve read by her this year. In February, as it appeared there would be war in Ukraine, I read her masterful work, Red FamineWhile Twilight is good, and probably pertains more to America’s future, I highly recommend Red Famine to understand what’s happen right now in Ukraine.

Here are some of my takeaways: 

  • Simplicity makes conspiracy theories attractive. Complexity and nuances are difficult for people to accept and understand. (see pages 45 and 106)
  • The optimism of the 90s, after the end of the Cold War, has disappeared
  • Conservativism has lost its optimistic views of the future (example, it no longer buys into Reagan’s “America as a shining beacon,” not as an ideal achieved, but as one to strive to live into)
  • There is nothing exceptional about “American exceptionalism” as it is currently defined.
  • Societies are always in a state of flux (meaning of government, national understanding of a country, etc, must constantly be redefined)
  • As we move beyond COVID, the future is not clear. Can democratic ideals be revigorated or will we move toward authoritarian institutions? (pages 185-186)
  • Although it is difficult work, we must still strive for “apathy” is deadening, “mind-numbing,” and “Soul-destroying.” (!87). 

Shawn D. Wright, Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth 

(Great Britain: Christian Focus Publication, 2015), 256 pages. Discussion questions after each chapter. No notes, bibliography or index. 

Theodore Beza was John Calvin’s successor in Geneva after the Reformer’s death. Wright wrote this book to refute a popular notion that Beza moved away from Calvin’s teaching as he took the Reformed movement into a more scholastic direction. While I am not convinced that Wright succeeded with his stated purpose, he introduces Beza to a new generation by outlining his life and his major theological positions. For this reason, I am glad to have read Wright’s work. 

Like Calvin, Beza was French. Unlike Calvin, who died long before the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572), Beza’s Geneva had a front row seat to the autocracies committed upon the Protestants in France. This troublesome event, along with living through plagues, certainly colored Beza’s worldview. 

From what I understand from Wright, Beza had a more vivid “eschatology vision” than Calvin. But, as I just pointed out, his ministry was in a different era. Furthermore, from how Wright presents Beza theology, it appears that the younger pastor in Geneva spent more time dealing with “double predestination” than Calvin. It also appears he wrote more about hell, Satan, and the reprobate than Calvin. Having not actually read Beza, I’m not sure I can state this categorically, but from my reading of Wright, it appears this way. While Calvin certainly accepted the idea of double predestination as a means to maintain God’s sovereignty, I don’t remember him dealing with the topic as much as Wright suggests Beza did. 

There were several insights into Beza’s thought I found useful. His four differences between law and gospel are helpful distinctions. He begins noting that law is natural while gospel is supernatural (91). Beza also appears to have been pastoral in his theology. This was seen in both his work on a Christian response to the plague and in his writings on prayer.  I wish I had read the section on plague before COVID, as it could have been very helpful. He makes the case for doing what we can to protect ourselves and our families as well as acknowledging God’s role in all. 

If you’re into theology, I recommend this book. Otherwise, I might look at my next book. 

Jonathan White, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Don Waren, narrator (2017: Audible, 2017), 11 hours 12 minutes.

While I really enjoyed this book, I’m not sure how to catalog it. It’s part travelogue, as White travels to globe to experience various tide phenomenon. It’s part historical narrative as the author discusses various understandings to tide theory, from the ancient world myths to the present. There’s a part of the book that is an astrological primer, as we learn of the moon and sun’s role in creating tide. But in addition to the pull heavenly bodies, there’s also a discussion of the role of geology, wave theory, and how vibration (resonance) effects tides. And after explaining tide theory, Write discusses ecological issues and how tides can help provide power (as it once did in England where it powered many mills around the seacoast).  

A researcher provided the author an example of how tides slosh around the ocean. It’s not all uniform as if the ocean is a pan where the water moves back and forth, from one side to the other. Instead, it’s like having a table full of pans. When someone kicks the leg of the table, the water in each pan sloshes at different rates. Because of other factors like geology, the ocean doesn’t act uniform with the gravity pull of the sun and moon. Some places experience great tides while other places (especially nearer the equator or in lakes), the tides are barely noticeable. 

I learned many things from this book including that spring tides have no relationship to the season, but to an old Anglo-Saxon word that means “to rise or swell or bust.” Spring tides generally occur at New or Full Moons. The opposition, which occur seven days later, are “neap tides.”

Having grown up near the coast in North Carolina, I’ve been aware of tides my whole life. But the coast in North Carolina has only a tide that averages 3 feet.  I also knew that in South Florida, the tides were much less. When I moved to Savannah, I was shocked to realize that its tides were much higher than those to the north or south (the spring tides often being over 10 feet). Sadly, Wright does not discuss the tides within the blight (indention) along the Georgia coast that creates larger tides by forcing in more water. While he writes about using tide for energy, he doesn’t mention the way rice farmers would use a series of locks and dikes around the coast tidal rivers to flood fields. This practice was done in the American South, and was probably brought into use by the slaves who learned such skill along the African coast.

A ten-foot tide might seem to be a lot, but there are places in the world where tides can be as high as 50 feet! Another interesting phenomenon are tidal bores. Wright travels to the Qiuntang River in China to explore the “Silver Dragon,” a tidal wave that rushes up the river. In another chapter he goes under the ice in the Canadian arctic with an Inuit elder to hunt mussels. With extreme low tides, the natives supplemented their diet by forging under the ice, but they had to be careful to exit the ice caves before they were filled with water. In addition, he explores surfing off California and Hawaii and his own sailing in some of the tidal straits that can be challenging when caught at a time when the tide is running fast. 

Toward the end of the book, he discusses climate change, sea-level rise, and such dangers posed to coastal areas. He visits the Scotland’s Orkney Islands and South Chili to learn about using tides to generate electricity. Interestingly, John Kennedy spoke about using tides in New England to create electricity just weeks before his death.  Kennedy said: 

“The problems of the world cannot possibility be solved by skeptics and cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never was.”

I enjoyed listening to this book and recommend it to anyone interested in the sea. 

Gardener Spirituality and Olmstead the Gardner: Book Reviews

Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul

 

(Chicago: Moody Publishing, 2016), 206 pages.

I heard Anderson at the HopeWords Writers Conference I attended in April in Bluefield West Virginia. Another speaker referred this book of hers for its ability to create a sense of place, which is why I chose it as the first of hers to read. Anderson lives with her family on a small farm near Roanoke, Virginia. This book consists of eleven essays that draw on the natural world, especially the rhythms of agriculture. Among the topics Anderson explores include: planting seeds, cultivating grapes and apples, raising honey, appreciating vine-ripe tomatoes, the role of pollinators, and dealing with thorns and thistles. 

In each of these essays, Anderson also explores aspects of our lives and our faith. Some of the themes she explores include having enough and being blessed, trusting God, remaining humble, spiritual maturity, and being an image bearer. Each essay comes back to being humble, a topic she addresses throughout the book. Humility is a challenge for if we think we can accomplish it by ourselves, we have already lost the battle. Just thinking we can overcome pride is prideful. We must depend on God even for our humility, yet we can see how it works through the natural rhythm of life that surrounds us.

A few favorite quotes: 

“Fascinating, while humans were made to rule over the earth, we were also made from the earth. And perhaps even more significantly, we only came alive by God’s Spirit. Without God’s breath in us, we are nothing but a pile of dirt.” (page 65)

When we use fear to persuade a person to decide ‘before it’s too late,’ we make God like a cosmic bully who is just waiting for the opportunity to strike them down.” (page 112)

“The problem with privilege is that we rarely see our own. Because we only know our own experience, we rarely recognize how much we have been given and how much those gifts have smoothed our way.” (page 142)

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in living a worthwhile life, especially those who are interested in our role in the world.  

Others books that I reviewed of authors at the conference:

Makoto Fujimara, Art & Theology

Malcolm Guite, In Every Corner Sing

I still have books to read by Winn Collier and am finishing up a collection of essays by Lewis Brogdon. 

Justin Martin (Richard Ferrone, narrator), Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead 

(2010, Audible, 2014, 18 hours and 48 minutes). 

Olmstead, A Man of Accomplishments

Frederick Law Olmstead led an incredible life. He started out as a surveyor, then went to sea, traveling from the east coast to China, then with the health of his father became a farmer, a traveling correspondent before entering the new field of landscape architecture with his work on designing New York’s Central Park. While he would continue in this field the rest of his life, he took time out to run the United States Sanitary Commission (a Red Cross forerunner) during the American Civil War and later operated a gold mine in California. While in California, he became enthralled with Yosemite and lobbied for the sight to be saved for future generations years before John Muir.  His travels in the American South changed his mind on slavery and his books on these travels were probably second to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in building abolitionist support. Because of this writing popularity in Great Britain, he’s partly credited with keeping England out of the American Civil War. 

Influence on Landscape Design

But what Frederick Law Olmstead is mostly known for is his landscape designs. He felt parks should be for the people and that they should help our emotional state by allowing city dwellers an opportunity to be in nature. Many of his parks and estates still exist and he influenced generations of landscapers who followed him. Not only does he have Central Park (which he designed with Calvert Vaux) to claim, but Brooklyn’s Prospect Park along with parks in Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Rochester, and a host of other cities. He influenced park designs in San Francisco and other places. With his work in Buffalo, he helped preserve Niagara Falls (sadly, he came upon this a little late, but it appears it was more of a tourist trap in the 19thCentury than today). His landscape ideas shaped Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and he designed the landscape for the grounds of the Biltmore House near Asheville, North Carolina. The later also helped establish forestry as a scientific study in America. 

Failure in his early life

In a way, Olmstead’s early life was full of failure. Thankfully, he had a wealthy father who helped his son out on many occasions, such as buying farms for him and sending him on fact-finding journeys through Europe. These trips helped prepare Olmstead for his career. His life also had its share of sorry, including his brother’s early death and the deaths of friends. He would later marry Mary, his brother’s wife, and adopt their children. Mary would also give birth to several children, two who died young. His adopted brother’s son, John, and his own natural son, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr, would continue their father’s role as premier landscape architect through the first half of the 20th Century. 

Olmstead was always interested in words and would often look for the right word for a project. Many words we use today came from Olmstead and his associates. His first park in Boston was a marshy area in which he named “the Boston Fens.” Fen is an old English word for marsh and lives on now in baseball with “Fenway Park.” 

Sadly, Olmstead began suffering from some sort of dementia after the Chicago World’s Fair and the creation of Biltmore. He would spend his last years in an institution and died in 1903.

My recommendation

I have been aware of his name for some time. I knew of his work for the Chicago’s World’s Fair from Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I also knew he designed the Biltmore and Central Park. I had some ideas of his additional work through Nick Offerman’s book, GumptionHe led an amazing life, using his influence to save Yosemite, helping to end slavery, and providing a framework for what would become the American Red Cross. I recommend this book! 

Where is Home?

Billy BeasleyHome (Abbeyville, SC: Moonshine Press, 2022), 234 pages. 

Reading Billy’s book on Cape Lookout

Things just don’t seem to go Trent Mullins way. Never able to please his father, he has stopped trying. Two different women have broken his heart (and one of them twice). Depression has set in. To break out of the depression, without pills, Trent finishes up his business in Wrightsville Beach and leaves everyone behind, including his high school age son, and heads to Brunswick, Georgia. Most people don’t even know where he’s at, except Jackson, one of his friends. In Brunswick, he manages a small marina and lives in a small, isolated house out by the water. His landlords are a black couple who run a restaurant in Dylan Town. Then the call comes. Trent learns his father is dying. He heads back to Wilmington where he’s forced to face and make peace with his past. But where is Trent’s home? Where is our home? 

Billy Beasley weaves a good story. Like his other stories, this one is set mostly around Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, a place where I lived from age 9 to 24. The other setting, along the Georgia Coast, is a place I lived for six and a half years. And even though Dylan Town isn’t a real place, there are similar towns along the Georgia coastal plain. All one must do to find them is to gets off Interstate 95 and travel the backwoods roads lined with live oaks draped in Spanish moss.  

This is Beasley’s fourth book and I’ve read them all. This is also the third book I reviewed in this blog. The others I’ve reviewed here include The Girl in the River and The Preacher’s LetterIn addition to exploring family themes, like his other books, this one also explores friendships across racial lines. Without being preachy, Beasley also interjects his faith into the story. My only criticism of the book is that Beasley spends a little too much time telling us what is going on in Trent’s mind. Showing instead of telling us what he’s thinking would have strengthened parts of the book. 

Two weeks ago, when I was in Wilmington for Williston’s 9th Grade Center 50th Anniversary project, I was also able to attend Beasley’s book release party at Noni Bacca winery the next afternoon. I was glad to go as I caught with another friend from high school that I haven’t seen since graduation. I have known Billy since the fourth grade and generally, when I’m in town, we’ll meet up for coffee or a beer.  

 

Billy signing a copy of his book for Wayne, another classmate of ours from Williston and Hoggard days

Books on Poetry and Writing and a Poem

Mark Jarman, Dailiness: Essays on Poetry

(Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2020), 177 pages.  

I became acquainted with Jarman’s poetry through poems published in the Reformed Journal.  Dailiness consists of a series of long essays on various aspects of poetry. Originally, I thought I would use this as evening reading, but the essays were too long and deep for that. I found myself falling asleep. They required more attention, so I began to read them in the morning with better success. Not only do these essays need to be read, but they also need to be pondered. As they are independent of each other, I recommend reading one per sitting.  In each essay, Jarman muses about aspects of poetry as he reflects on a concept (like dailiness) while engaging in a conversation with poems throughout the ages. 

After opening with a reflection of the epic Gilgamesh, the author explores the role of metaphor and repetition in poetry. He insists on the need for one to write daily with two essays (dailiness) and devotes essays to poetry as devotion and as part of the religious life. Here, he attempts to save the George Herbert (the parson poet) from critiques of T. S. Eliot and Samuel Johnson. However, to Herbert’s credit, Coolridge appreciated his poetry and Simone Weil credits one of his poems for her Christian conversion. Jarman (as with Malcolm Guite who I review below) explores the work of Seamus Heaney. I found his concluding essay on the pronoun “Something” inspiring.  Reading this essay after church on Palm Sunday, which lead me to write the poem below.  

I liked the book but would only recommend it to those serious about poetry. In a good way I found myself often looking up words (not in a dictionary, but with google on my phone).  Like many books I read this one provided me with another book to check out, John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago, 2014). 

Now here is my poem:

Palm Sunday 2022

Something is happening and will happen this week.
Something so dark and terrible we can barely comprehend over the noise of this day 
filled with excitement and expectation 
as the Messiah rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd.
For evil lurks behind these walls and in the minds of those in power, 
and soon, the expectation of the crowd will melt into the excitement of a spectacle 
as the innocence one dies and the guilty go free.

Something is happening and will happen this week.
Something so wonderful and hopeful we can barely comprehend over the noise of this day 
filled with excitement and expectation 
as the Messiah rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd.
For the goodness of God prevails over evil and in the deep darkness of the week, 
on the stillness of the morning of the third day a light will burst from a tomb 
as the innocent one rises and the guilty pardoned. 

                                    -Jeff Garrison, April 10, 2022

Malcolm Guite, In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner Collection

 (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2018), 196 pages.

I had not read Guite when I heard him speak at the HopeWords Writing Conference in Bluefield earlier this month. While there, I purchased and had him sign this collection of his columns which appeared in Church Times, a British magazine. Each article is about 500 words or two to two and a half pages in length. Although English, Guite spent part of his years growing up in Canada. As I read this book, I enjoyed getting to know him better. Each article draws on poetry, from ancient to modern poets including a few from his own hand. 

 In them, he muses about poetry and the natural world. We learn of a man who enjoys many things, from smoking a pipe to walking his dogs. We also learn of his deep faith in Christ, his delight at the natural world, and how we are connected to those who came before us. Most of these essays have a nice twist at the end. In one story, he marvels at an old bridge as he canoes “Willow” on a river through the bridge. The last two arches in the bridge are “new.” They were rebuilt after having been destroyed Cromwell’s era (17th Century) to prevent an army from taking a town.  After flirting with the bridge, the poetry of Tennyson and Eliot, he ends marveling at the bridge God has built through Christ that cannot be destroyed. 

This was a perfect wind-down book for the evening as I could read through four or five of the seventy-three columns, before closing the book, turning out the light, and going to bed. 

Peter Yang, The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know

(TCK Publishing, 2019), 89 pages. 

Yang distills the writing process into four principles: Economy, Transparency, Variety, and Harmony.  And, with homage to “economy”, he does this in 89 pages. A lot of people could benefit from these principles to help clarify their thoughts on paper. This is the value of this small volume. While this may not be on par with William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, few people will wade through Zinsser’s more detailed prose. What Yang provides are simple ideas, each backed up with a couple of stories and examples. For the person just wanting to learn some basic techniques to make their writing appeal to more audiences, The Art of Writing would be a good place to begin. Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for an honest review of the work.

In Preparation for the Baseball Season: Book reviews

Yankee Stadium, 2015

It looks like we’ll have a baseball season this year. Why are there so many good baseball books? I don’t know of any other sport who produces as many good writers as baseball. In anticipation of the season, I listened to Robert Creamer’s Baseball in ’41, which I’m reviewing below. I’m also attaching a review of another baseball book I read several years ago by the famed Presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. And, for those who want to ponder baseball and religion, here’s a link to my review of Baseball as a Road to God, written by John Sexton.

Robert W. Creamer, Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever in the Year America Went to War 

(1991: Audible 2005) Read by Tom Parker. 8 hours 46 minutes.

This book is part memoir, part baseball history, and part history of America on the eve of World War II. The author, Robert Creamer, was a nineteenth-year college student between his two “first years” of college (he admits having to redo his freshman year). While war talk is in the air, the great advances of the German army of ’39 and ’40 seemed stalled after they had conquered Western Europe. That would change late in the summer when German attacked the Soviet Union. America was trying to stay neutral while arming Great Britain. And it was the year that a young Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 concessive games.

The draft of young men for the military resumed. Draftees had a year enlistment. Some in baseball made the case for those drafted (it wasn’t a large draft in ’41), to join so that they would only miss one season instead of straddling two seasons. The draft included one of baseball’s all-time great players, Detroit’s Hank Greenburg. He entered the military with much fanfare and missed the season. At the end of the year, he had fulfilled his commitment and released from duty two days before Pearl Harbor. He would rejoin the military two days later. Greenburg missed four and a half seasons at the peak of his career, which probably is why he is not as well-known as other players of the era or before.  

While no one was sure when the United States would join the war, many felt it just a matter of time. This summer, one major league game paused as President Roosevelt addressed the nation about the need to be prepared. His address played over the stadium’s PA system, after which the game resumed. Of course, the next year things would change after Pearl Harbor. Many of baseball greats either joined or found themselves drafted into the military. ’41 was the last year in which the majors consisted of most of its big names. Even Williams and DiMaggio went off to war. 

In 1941, the Yankees redeemed themselves from their failure of the year before. They faced some challenges early in the season, especially from Cleveland and their ace, Bobbie Feller (later known as Bob Feller). But the Yankees won the pennant earlier than ever. Instead, the America League excitement came from Williams and DiMaggio’s hitting. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers remained in a head-to-head race throughout the season. The National League pennant was decided in the closing days of the season. St. Louis with their extensive farm teams could call up new players when others were hurt, something they dealt with a lot in ’41. Leo Durocher’s Dodgers, a historically second division team (the bottom 4 teams of an 8-team league), were finally playing well and no longer worthy of their nickname, “the bums.” However, in the World Series, the Yankees easily beat the Dodgers in five games. 

As he weaves in throughout the book, 1941 was not only a season of change for baseball. The author went through a change as his older brother signed up for the Army Air Corp. The next year, he, too, would be in the military. He would later become a correspondent for Sport’s Illustrated and go on to write many baseball books including biographies of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel. Creamer claimed to be a Yankee fan in ’41, and it seems that his interest in baseball continued to follow that path. 

Detroit, 2010

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir 

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 261 pages, some photos.

Goodwin, a renowned historian and author of many presidential biographies, recalls her childhood fascination with the Brooklyn Dodgers in this delightful memoir.  The Dodgers were referred to as bums, as it seemed they would never win a World Series.  In the forties and fifties, they were a National League powerhouse, often winning the pennant, but losing in the Series.  They were “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”  Against this backdrop is a young girl whose father taught her how to keep score.  As she became better at scoring, she would listen to the afternoon game and then retell the events of the game to her father when he came home from his job as a bank examiner.  She credits baseball with making her a historian and storyteller as she learns to build suspense in recalling the events of the game.    

As Goodwin recalls each season in which the Dodgers disappoint them again, she shares memories of growing up in her Brooklyn neighborhood as well as events happening in the country and around the world.  She lived by two calendars: one from church and the other from baseball.  She tells many humorous stories such as making her confession before her first communion.  It has been impressed upon her how serious this is and to think hard about her sins.  She realizes she has been wishing bad things upon others, such as wanting a certain Yankee player to break an arm or a Phillies ball player to experience some other kind of misfortune. As she confesses, the priest’s giggles and admits that he too is a Dodger fan. Then, he uses the occasion to teach a lesson, asking how she’d feel if the only way the Dodgers win the Series is that all the other players are injured. Another story involved Old Mary, who lived in a dilapidated house. The neighborhood children were sure she was a witch and set out spying on her. When Goodwin’s mother learns of how they have been treating Mary, she takes her daughter down to meet the old woman who was from the Ukraine and had learned only broken English. A few months after meeting this nice but lonely woman, she dies. 

Goodwin enjoyed school, especially literature and geography. She even had a teacher who required them to learn the main towns along the Trans-Siberia, Trans-Mongolian, and Trans-Manchurian railroads, along with the Baikula-Amur line. However, I’m not so sure about the Baikula-Amur line, a Siberian railway that runs north of Lake Baikal, as most of the work on it was twenty-plus years after Goodwin had finished school. 

In addition to what was happening locally, Goodwin reflects on the national events. The fifties were the waning years of segregation, and she pays attention to the events at Little Rock. She ponders over the Rosenberg’s children after their execution and worries over the Soviet’s exploding an atomic bomb. She goes out and searches for the first satellite launched by the Soviets.  All this is recalled as Goodwin recaps each season. The book comes to a climax in 1956, when the Dodger’s beats the Yankees for their first World Series win. She and her parents celebrated in downtown Brooklyn. But with the win comes losses. Goodwin’s childhood friend moves away, a trend that will happen repeatedly with the affluence of the 50s. She becomes interested in boys. Then her mother dies and her father, who is heartbroken, decides to sell the only house she’s ever known. Then the final straw breaks in 1957, as the Brooklyn Dodgers (along with the hated Giants) announce they will relocate to the West Coast. The magic of childhood has passed her by.  

In the Epilogue, Goodwin writes about how she again fell in love with baseball as a graduate student at Harvard. This time it was with the Boston Red Sox, a team who (at the time of the writing of her memoir) was a lot like the old Dodgers.  Although they often had good teams, they were unable to win the Series. Goodwin, like her father before her, has the pleasure to introduce her children to the magic of the game.  Goodwin is a wonderful storyteller and has an eye for history (with perhaps the exception of Russian railroads). I enjoyed this read 

PNC Park looking back on Pittsburgh, 2012

Red Famine (some background on the conflict between Ukraine and Russia)

Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017), 17 hours and 46 minutes

I read reviews of this book when it first came out. It looked intriguing, but I never got around to read it. When Russia invaded Ukraine, I decided I needed to read something to get myself up to speed on what is happening in the world. I have often appreciated Applebaum’s insights on talk shows, so I tried to find this book. Guess what, there were no hard copies immediately available, so I got an audible copy and listened to the book. I am glad that I did and recommend this book as a helpful way to understand more of what’s going on in Ukraine. If you only read the introduction and epilogue, you’ll have a much better understanding of what’s happening. 

The word Ukraine means borderland. While much of its history is that of a colony (of Poland, Imperial Russia, the Austrian/Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union), it has a distinct language and culture separate from each of these. Applebaum provides a brief history of the region prior to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, but her story really begins with the defeat of the Czar and the rise of the Bolsheviks. The defeat of the Czar and the rise of the Soviet state might best be understood through a line from the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by “The Who.” “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” 

When Russia fell to the Bolsheviks and pulled out of the Great War, Ukraine was able to press its own identity and for a few short periods, became independent. However, independence was short-lived as the country constantly being overrun. Twice by the Bolsheviks conquered Kiev, along with the German/Austrian/Hungarian army and both the White and Black armies who fought the Bolshevik. The region value came from the grain produced in its fertile ground.  After it finally arrived within the Soviet sphere (Ukraine had its own communist leaders, who didn’t always go along with Moscow), the country primarily became as a place for grain to feed the Soviet rising industry. 

The first demands and confiscation of grain occurred during this time as Lenin saw Ukraine as a source for feeding the masses in the more industrial regions of Russia. Following the Revolution and the fights against White Russians, along with a drought in 1921, the young Soviet Union needed grain. They demanded it from Ukraine, even though she had suffered under the same circumstances. Interestingly, when the America Relief Association under the work of Herbert Hoover brought food to Russia, the were discouraged from working in the Ukraine. 

Like Czarist Russia before them, the Bolsheviks were troubled by any nationalist ideology in Ukraine and continued the policies of insisting on the use of Russia while they stamped out Ukrainian identity. At times, they would give nod to the Ukrainian unique situation and loosen up a bit, but they made it clear that Moscow was in control. Compounding the problem with the Soviets in the Ukraine was how to deal with the peasants, as Marxist ideology had no real understanding of such a class of people.

At first, the Soviets sought to voluntarily collectivize the farms, but with few wanting to join such farms, the Soviets put more and more pressure on peasants to collectivize. The nation’s “five-year plans” required the region provide and outrageous amount of grain. With the resentments toward collectivization and no incentive to work harder, these “goals” became unrealistic. The central state began to demand the region turn over more and more grain (even seed grain), which led to the terrible famine (known as the Holodomor, which combines the words for hunger and extermination) that occurred in 1932-33. Other policies such as blacklisting some villages and collective farms, exasperated the situation. The situation became dire as starving people were unable even to work the fields. As Applebaum describes the growing famine, she also provides detail on how starvation effects the body. Such details are horrific. As the famine grew more severe, people even began to eat the dead.  Sadly, there were no American Relief committees in the 1930s and an estimated 3.9 million people in the Ukraine died. While there was starvation in other parts of the Soviet Union during this time, no area suffered as much as Ukraine.

To collect more grain for the Soviet Union, they forced everyone onto collective farms and began to use propaganda. The Soviets created tension and hatred between groups. They even created a special class of peasants, the Kulacks. At first, Kulacks were large landowners, but later included anyone against the collectivization efforts or those seen as enemies of the state. 

After the famine, with not nearly enough workers to harvest the grain, the Soviets began to move even more Russian speaking people into the Ukraine. Among these included a young Nikta Khrushchev, who first worked in the Donbas region of Ukraine. In the purges of the late 1930s, they eliminated almost all the Ukrainian communists and replaced them with “Russians.” The famine, as terrible as it was, helped the Soviets control the Ukraine. This helps explain why many in the Ukraine were willing to, at first, go along with the Nazi invasion in 1941. This legacy is seen today with Russia (or Putin) referring to Ukraine as “Nazis.” Applebaum wrote between the Crimean War and this latest conflict. Applebaum is almost prophetic as Putin has declares his invasion to be an anti-Nazi campaign). Despite such terms, Applebaum points out how all sides (Czar, Soviets, and Ukrainians) had antisemitic tendencies. 

This book has several takeaways. First, in relation to current world politics, it is easy to see Putin as a continuation of Russian views of the Ukraine (which started with the Czars and continued through the Soviets). Russia viewed Ukraine as its bread basket. Beyond that, the Russians looked down on Ukraine as second class. The reader also comes to understand the tension between Russia and Ukraine because of different languages. Ukraine’s cultural leaders (writers and such) has sought to bring the country more aligned with the West, while Russia wants them to be aligned with the East. However, after the terrible things done to the Ukrainians in the 1930s, it is no wonder the people of the country are willing to fight to the death to avoid returning to their previous subjugation. Furthermore, during the Soviet era, information about the famine was constantly covered up and denied (just as it’s against the law now in Russia to speak of the invasion of and war in Ukraine as anything other than a special military action).

In addition to understanding the regional conflict (which could become a worldwide conflict), we should also take seriously Applebaum’s insights into the Russian propaganda campaigns of the 30s. In these campaigns, groups of people were seen as undesirable and as unimportant. Essentially robbed of their humanity, everyone lost their moral compass and allowed the needless deaths of millions. The warning: we must be careful of how we refer to those seen as “the other.” 

While she doesn’t see the famine as genocide only because the tight legal definition of the word is due to the Soviet’s influence at the United Nation. Soviet policies caused the famine and while they did not try to kill all Ukrainians, they did want to destroy such identity for the people there. Moscow used the famine to dominate Ukraine and continued to discourage Ukrainian identity until after the end of the Soviet Union. In the epilogue, Applebaum credits Ukraine (and Chernobyl) as the catalysis leading up to the end of the Soviet state. When the truth about Chernobyl began to be known, it opened a pandora’s box that the Soviets could not close. Perhaps this is another reason why Putin is so out to get Ukraine, as its people helped bring about the demise of the Soviet Union, which he’d like to reestablish. 

Two Books about Mark Twain

I recently read Heretical Fictions, which I am reviewing here. I am also reposting another review that I wrote seven years ago on Mark Twain and Orion Clemens, which looked at the relationship between Twain and his older brother. That review will enlighten us on the first review. I hope to soon find a way to post an article I wrote for the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly in the 1990s. “Of Humor, Deaths, and Ministers: The Comstock of Mark Twain” is about Twain’s relationship to clergy when he lived in Nevada in the early 1860s. While I could post it through individual images (PDFs), I would like to find my original copy so that the document could be searchable. Now, for my two reviews:  

Lawrence I. Berkove and Joseph Csicsila, Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 271 pages including index, bibliography, and endnotes. No photos.

Edgar Lee Masters once said, “Twain threw out the Bible, but it seemed to be attached with a rubber band and was likely to bounce back in his lap at any time.” One finds constant allusions to Biblical stories in Twain’s writings. Perhaps, instead of trying to free himself from the Bible, Twain really wanted to free himself from the harsh Calvinism of his youth. But, as with the Bible, his faith kept bouncing back into his lap. 

Berkove and Csicsila challenges an older understanding of Twain. Many still see him as a humorist who became a bitter agnostic in his later years. Instead, these scholars explore a thread running through Twains work which displays his constant battle with the Calvinism of his youth. From his childhood faith, Twain continued to believe in God, and accepted two of the three major Calvinist views of God. Twain understood God to be omnipotent and omniscient. Where he departs from the Calvinism of his youth is that he didn’t accept the idea of a benevolent God. 

Twain develops a “counter theology” which the authors highlight in nine points: 

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and malevolent. 
  2. Existence is a fleeting and transient, a dream within the mind of God making the world unreal and an illusion (this comes out especially in No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger and influenced by the writings of William James). 
  3. The consequence of original sin is God’s “Primal Curse.” Humans are enabled to do wrong.
  4. Humanity is not just flawed by original sin. We are corrupted by it.
  5. Virtuous deeds cannot save us for the balance sheet between our good and bad deeds are always going to be stacked against us.
  6. Everything is predestined.
  7. Most of humanity are reprobates, predestined for eternal punishment.
  8. Because God is perfect, there is no possibility God will change his mind.
  9. Conscience is from God, but affected by religious instruction and warns us when going astray. 

While Twain accepts these principles, he views them as “arbitrary, unfair, deceptive, and cruel.”  (see pages 15-17)

To make their case, the authors examine five of Twain’s novels (Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger) along with several of Twain’s shorter writings in his last decade. 

I have read all the novels but one (most of these novels I’ve read several times). I’ve also read many of the reviewed short stories. I confess that the chapter on No. 44: The Mysterious Stanger, was the most difficult for me which had to do with having not read that book and not having a frame of reference.  

In Roughing It, the book of which I probably know best of Twain’s writings because of my own work on the role of the church in Nevada during the 19th Century, Twain explores the concept of getting rich without working hard (a desire that he humorously relates to in his own life). We’ve been cursed since the garden to toil for our bread, but we don’t like it! Although Twain wants his readers to laugh and enjoy the book, he layers them such that they each explore a different theme. Tom Sawyer attempts to find freedom before deciding to become a respectable part of society, but is that society respectable and pure?  Huckleberry Finn and Jim, long for freedom, only to learn it’s not obtainable.  Hank Monk in A Connecticut Yankee, explores things such as get rich schemes within the stock market (something Twain had seen in Nevada). Other themes include pride (Monk’s knowledge of the future allows him to become God-like in the ancient world), and human damnation (people act the same back then as in the 19th Century, look out for themselves). Twain cleverly uses an allusion to a card game throughout the story, but in the end the reader learns it’s all a dream. This dream motif occurs in many of Twain’s later stories which the authors link to Twain’s study of the writings of William James.  


While Berkove and Csicsila stick to Twain’s work and his theology to make their points, I found myself often wondering about events in Twain’s own life. The tragedies he experienced from the death of his younger brother Henry on a steamboat that blew up on the Mississippi (an event Twain felt somewhat responsible for), the death of his niece in Nevada from Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and the deaths of some of his own children and his wife, all haunted the author. I wondered if some of Twain’s more cynical writings about God might be his attempt at a lament as seen in the Psalms. In such writings, the author of the Psalms becomes angry with God, but never abandons God.  Another life event would be Twain’s relationship to his brother. Early on, Orion was far more religious than Twain, even serving as an Elder for the Presbyterian Church in Carson City and helping organize a church in the mining camp of Meadows Lake, California. However, after his daughter’s death and other hardships, he gave up religion and became an atheist. 

I appreciate how Berkove and Csicsila have highlighted Twain’s lifelong interest in God and theology. While I enjoyed this book, I would only recommend it to those familiar with a large body of Twain’s writings. 

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Philip Ashley Fanning, Mark Twain and Orion Clemens: Brothers, Partners, Strangers (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 2003), 268 pages, no photos or maps

In much of Mark Twain’s writings, his older brother Orion comes across as a bumbling idiot. Was he?  Orion led and supported the Clemens family from an early age when their father died.  He also held a responsible position in the Nevada Territory, the territorial secretary, a political appointment he earned for his support of the Republican Party in the 1860 election.  Like his younger brother, who became Mark Twain, Orion desired wealth, but he was known to be a man of principle and stuck to his principles even when they led to financial shortcomings and failures.   Philip Ashely Fanning examines the relationship between these two brothers, who were similar in some ways, yet very different.

Orion was ten years older than Samuel Clemens, so when their father died, he became the patriarch of the family.  He worked in various positions along the towns of the Mississippi, as a newspaper man, a printer and occasionally as an attorney.  At a young age when Sam quit school, he went to work for his brother.  This arrangement didn’t work well.  One of the stories told is that Orion decided there were too many stray cats hanging around the print shop and had Sam collect them in a sack and drown them, something that bothered the younger brother who always had a soft spot for cats.  In 1852, Sam quits and heads out on a trip though New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC, funded by working in various print shops and newspapers along the way.  He occasionally wrote articles that appeared in his brother’s newspaper. During this time, Orion broke with the family and became convinced that slavery was evil.  This led to him becoming a Republican and working for the party in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln.

 Coming back from his trip east, Samuel Clemens continues to work in print shops and for newspapers, until he concocts a plan to go to South America.  On his way down the Mississippi, to New Orleans, he changes direction and accepts an offer to “learn the river.”  In 1858, Sam became a riverboat pilot, an occupation that paid more than the Vice President of the United States.  At this stage, the younger Clemens usurps his other brother’s position as the family patriarch.  After the Republican victory in 1860 and the beginning of the Civil War, their role reverses with Orion being offered a political position in Nevada as Sam finds him out of work.  The two of them head west, with Sam bankrolling the trip from his savings.  Later, when Sam (now known as Mark Twain) begins to write an account of his western adventures, he depends heavily on his brother’s journals to reconstruct (in a humorous manner) the stage trip across the country.  This account was published in his second book, Roughing It.  In Nevada, the brothers parted ways for a period.  Twain’s practical jokes and attempts at humor created problems for his brother and sister-in-law.  Sam headed to California and then to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) while Orion headed back to the Midwest.  

Over the next couple of decades, Orion found himself having to depend on his younger brother’s generosity both for money and positions.  Orion, who was always honest, finds himself excommunicated from his church after having expressed his beliefs.  At Sam’s encouragement, he beings to write an autobiography.  Sam begins to insist on rewrites as a way to protect his own self-constructed myth.  Orion seems to have compiled, even though much of the autobiography has been lost (and may have been burned by Twain or lost by his biographer).

Fanning presents some interesting ideas concerning how Twain related to his older brother.  He offers some interesting possibilities concerning the brothers’ father’s death, suggests that after Twain had thoughts about killing his brother, and that Orion’s time in Nevada was much more successful than Twain would later acknowledge (he was often the acting governor and as such helped settle a border dispute with California).  He also demonstrates how the younger brother encouraged his older brother to go into the ministry, even though later in life Orion would find himself excommunicated because of his unorthodox beliefs 

Although Fanning’s book raises a lot of questions concerning the two brother’s relationship, he also helps redeem Orion for the “bumbling idiot” characterization in which he’s often been portrayed.  Unfortunately, due to loss of material (especially that which was written by Orion) and the inability to know what’s happening inside the mind of another, we will never be able to really know for sure if some of Fanning’s ideas are correct, but it is safe to assume that Orion needs to be assessed in a different light.  This, Fanning does, while also showing how Twain, a wonderful author, had a mean streak and was not above throwing his brother under the bus in order to make himself look better.