And There Was Light

We’re at the season when the days are slowly beginning to lengthen. Perhaps this is a good time to review this book which I read in October. I did not finish the review then, even though I quoted the book in several sermons. This is my last review of the year! On the COVID front, I am still testing positive, but feel great although I do tire easily.

On Sunday (as I am not preaching this week), I will post the review of 53 books read during 2023. This is one of the best books I read during this year, the other being Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on UkraineIt’s a hard pick between the two books. I recommend both. One enlarges our view of the world and our understanding on what is happening in Ukraine. This book provides insight into our own national challenge. Race is still the proverbial “elephant in the room,” in American politics. 

Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

(New York: Random House, 2022), 713 pages (37-page prologue, 421 pages of text, 225 pages of notes on sources and bibliography, an index) plus 16 inserted color plates. 

This is an excellent book that needs to be read and studied by Americans today. Meacham provides a biographical portrait of Lincoln, with an eye on the President’s struggle during the Civil War. He also delves, as much as one can, into Lincoln’s private faith that allowed him to continue in his position while the nation was being tested and as he endured personal tragedies including the loss of children and the challenges of an unstable wife. A politician who had served in the state house and one term at the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Lincoln seemed unsuited to lead the nation through our most trying hour. He also was a flawed man, hating slavery but not necessarily believing in equality of the races. But Lincoln was able to draw from his experiences and find the strength to become what many historians believe to be the best president in America’s history. 

This book builds on Meacham’s earlier book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. In the Soul of America, the author drew heavily around Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In this book, he begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is often considered the most theological of all inaugural addresses and was given just weeks before Lincoln’s assassination. In both books, Meacham does more than write about the past. His writings provide insights for our nation to move forward, even when deeply divided. Meacham see’s Lincoln as a providing a path, one in which we hold tightly to what is good and nobly while also being gracious to our enemies. 

The Election of 1860 and 2020

Meacham provides a detailed account of the events between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and his inauguration in March 1863. Some of the details are eerily familiar. Vice President John Breckinridge, who had just been defeated by Lincoln in the general election, oversaw the counting of the electoral votes on February 13 (this was before the inauguration was moved to January). As with January 6, secret forces gathered in Washington hoping for a coup and to make Washington the capitol for the Confederacy. Like Mike Pence, Breckinridge, who would later become a Confederate General, did his duty.  Furthermore, General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War, ordered troops into Washington to quell any attempt to overthrow the government. The electoral college votes were counted without trouble. The next step was the inauguration itself. As Lincoln moved from Illinois to Washington by train, there were plans to assassinate him enroute. Secrecy and security prevented it from occurring. 

I couldn’t read the accounts of what happened between the election in November 1860 and the inauguration without being reminded of January 6, 2020t. It has been shown that the events on that day were not spontaneous but planned. I found myself wondering if those behind January 6 had studied what had happened in 1861 and attempted to “correct” the mistakes of those who had attempted to keep Lincoln from the presidency.  

Lincoln’s theology

This volume is steeped in theology. On the one hand, this seems strange as Lincoln never joined any church. His background was Baptist and Presbyterian, but he also read widely including the Unitarian Theodore Parker. It appears that as President, Lincoln became surer of his faith. His discussions and friendship with the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church helped the President see God as an agent in the world. Gurley comforted the Lincolns at the death of their son, Willie, and was present at Lincoln’s own death. In seeing God as active in the world through humanity, yet God’s providential will being at times hidden, Lincoln developed a trust that helped him moved from one who attempted to keep the Union together to one who sought to end slavery. 

Recommendations

I hope this book is widely read. As a nation, we should learn from Lincoln’s struggles. 

I have come to appreciate Meacham’s writings over the past decade. Along with this book and The Soul of America, I have also read two other biographies by him: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

Catching up on my reading

I am trying to catch up on reading reviews. Below are four reviews that contain fiction, poetry, philosophy, and history. I will start with the lighter books and move on to the more heavy ones. There’s something here for everyone!

Aaron McAlexander, This Old Store 

(Stonebridge Press, 2014), 95 pages including photos and maps. 

There really is a place called Mayberry. It’s located along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southwestern Virginia, twenty-some miles from Mt. Airy, NC. There was never much of a town here, just a few businesses and some farmers. Until the 1930s, there was a Post Office here. The store, where the Post Office resides, is still in business. The other reminder of the community that once existed is Mayberry Presbyterian Church. Aaron McAlexander, along with his late uncle, John Hassell Yeatts, have done their best to preserve the stories of this community. This is the fourth book I’ve read by McAlexander. It’s an easy read and a joy.

Throughout the countryside in these parts, there are lots of old boarded up stories. Many were two story stores, like Mayberry Trading Post. Most have been closed for decades. The Mayberry Store, which was built in 1892, remains open mainly because it is adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Today the store sells snacks, crafts, and souvenirs, along with jars of canned local treats from jams to chowchow.  

This was once a community center. People picked up their mail in this old building, in addition to obtaining kerosene for their lanterns and later gasoline for their car or tractor. Hardware and tools along with that which they couldn’t produce themselves could be purchased at the store. The store would also trade for locally produced goods, from apples to chestnuts, which the storekeeper hauled to Mt. Airy or Stuart, Virginia to sell. While the storekeeper never sold alcoholic drinks, there would often be a bootlegger around who would have a bottle or two hidden nearby so those who wanted a nip could be satisfied. On slow days, checkers would be played. 

Over the years, the store has changed hands many time (it’s been for sale for the last few years and from the scuttlebutt I recently heard, may be about ready to be sold again). McAlexander outlines these changes along with recalling stories from his mother and grandparents to his own stories of growing up in the area in the 1940s and 50s. 

Other reviews of McAlexander books I’ve read: The Last One to Leave MayberryShine On Mayberry MoonGreasy Bend: Ode to a Mountain Road.

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Ivan Doig, The Bartender’s Tale

Narrated by David Aaron Baker, 14 hours, 47 minutes; (2012, audiobooks, 2013)

It has been a while since I read Doig. Almost a quarter century ago, when I was living in the Great Basin of the American West, I discovered Doig and read two of his memoirs: House in Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind and Heart Earth. Living in an area where there were still sheepherders, Doig’s writings felt familiar. This is the first fiction I’ve read (actually listened to) by him and, God willing, it won’t be the last.

The book is told through the eyes of a child. This allows the author to lead us, in Rusty’s mind, down some wrong paths as a boy’s mind will often do. Is she my mother? What will happen if my father falls in love?  You’ll have to read the book to learn the answers to those question and others that I ask.

The story begins in the early 1950s, when Rusty was six years old and being raised by an aunt with a couple of older boys in Arizona. He’s looking forward to school just so he can have time away from these taunting nephews. Then, like a good western, an outsider rides into town to save him. He is reunited with his father, Tom Harry, whom he had only seen occasionally. His father lives in Gros Ventre, Montana, where he runs the Medicine Lodge Saloon.  

The novel then jumps ahead to the summer of 1960. Rusty is now twelve years old.  This is a summer of discovery. Rusty meets Zoe, a new girl in town whose parents have purchased the Top Spot, the local diner. The two of them make quite a pair spying on everyone and trying out new characters as if they’re in theater.  Throughout the summer, as everyone wonders if Kennedy will be the new President, there is a string of characters that make their way into town. One is Delano, an oral historian who wants to learn about the Fort Peck Dam project from Tom, who ran a bar there during the Great Depression. Delano is also interested in language patterns, which helps provide insight into the catchy phrases often thrown around by those visiting the bar. Also swinging into the Medicine Bar is Proxy, a former dancer in Fort Peck. In tow is her trouble daughter, Francine. Is Francine Rusty’s half-sister? Or his sister? Can Francine run one of the best-known saloons in Montana? 

There is a lot packed into that summer of 1960, as Doig slowly fills in the details of Rusty’s inquisitive mind. Doig captures the western dialect, which helps create a delightful come-of-age story. He captures the life of the sheepherders along with working into the story a Class D League baseball team which he describes as being one step up from a picnic softball game. There is also some fishing. Doig captures the beauty of place as he describes Montana and the Medicine Bar. 

Quote from their road trip from Arizona to Montana:

“My father always said, when stopping on a road trip in a place to pee, “nice joint you have here, even if it was as gloomy as a funeral parlor. I supposed I learned something of professional courtesy from these stops.” 

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Raymond Carver, All of Us: The Collected Poems 

(1996, New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000), 386 pages including index, appendixes, plus Introduction and Editor’s Preface

I have only recently become acquainted with the writings of Raymond Carver who died at the age of 50 in 1988. He’s perhaps best known for his short stories, but I decided to sample a collection of his poetry. This collection was gathered and published after his death. While I was familiar with the poetry of Tess Gallagher before reading his volume, I did not know that she was Carver’s last wife. She provides both the Introduction to this work along with an extensive essay in the appendixes that served as an introduction to the last collection of Carver’s poetry. 

The book begins with earlier poems which are often raw and sometimes vulgar. Some reflect the views of an alcoholic and of loss relationships. Other poems in this section come from the author’s travels, especially in Europe. Often, in these poems, he weaves in history with his own experiences. Other travels take him into the wilderness of the American West, and on fishing trips. One poem that stood out to me was “To My Daughter,” where he warns her that alcoholism runs in the family and warning her not to drink like she’d seen her parents do. 

I found the poems in the last half of the book, written after he had quit drinking, to be more filled with wonder and gratitude. Here there are even more poems set around the Pacific Northwest. Fishing often comes up. Mixed into this section are many poems by Anton Chekhov. Sprinkled throughout the book are quotes and poems from other authors. Carver also brings other authors into his poetry such as Franz Kafka in “The Moon, The Train.” As the reader comes to the “first” end of the collection, the author knows he’s living on borrowed time. I had a sense of grace reading these poems. 

But just because I reached the end of the collection didn’t mean I was out of poems to read, as the first appendix contained a group of “uncollected poems” from No Heroics, Please. His wife’s essay at the end is also worth reading as it sheds much light onto their life together and the last group of poems in this collection. 

This is a large collection of poems. I spent a month and a half reading through them, often before bed, sometimes reading a poem several times. For those interested in poetry, this volume appears to me to be a “must read.”  Yes, some of the poems especially in the first part of the book can be quite raw, but so is life for many people. As one continues to read, one will also find grace and hope and beauty. 

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Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Artistole and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization 

(New York: Random House, 2014), 676 pages including notes, bibliography and index, or 25 hours and 26 minutes on Audible. 

I started listening to this book on Audible but became so engrossed into Herman’s survey of Western thought that I ended up buying the book so I could go back and read and study sections of it. This is a massive undertaking. Herman begins by describing Raphael’s painting, “The School of Athens” which is in the Vatican. Over the next few hundred pages, he will expand upon the various philosophers in the painting. He’s concentrates primarily on Plato and Aristotle, who are depicted in two camps on the canvas. On Plato’s side is Socrates, Pythagoras, Speusippus, Zenocrates, Plotinus, Epicurus, the Arab scholar, Avernoes, and Heraclitus. In Aristotle’s camp are Eudemus, Theophrastus, Ptolemy, Euclid, and Stabo. From these two camps come a creative tension between the idealist Plato and the more practical Aristotle that has driven Western thought for the past 2500 years. 

Herman takes the reader on a journey that begins in Greece and moves on to Alexander and across Europe.  He discusses the influence of each of the philosophers on the Roman world, medieval Christianity, into the renaissance, reformation, enlightenments and on into the 19th and 20th Century. He discusses how these two schools of thought shaped not only philosophy and religion, but physical and biological science, government, and economics. I compare reading this book to retaking the year of Western Civilization required in college when I was a student in the late 1970s. 

However, the book does not read like a textbook. Herman often draws on illustrations from art and for popular culture to make a point. And a few times, his writing seems to become “creative” as when he writes as to draw us back into a particular situation such as Michelangelo’s  stroll to the Sistine Chapel to paint, a cart rumbling down a cobbled road to the guillotine during the French Revolution, or Alexander von Humboldt encounter with a jaguar in the South American jungles.  

Herman’s thesis is that for a society to do well, it needs the creative tension that comes from Platonic idealism and Aristotelian materialism. When one side is over-emphasized, bad things happen. Plato leads to tyranny and Aristotle to stagnation. But when the two are in competition, society flourishes. While Herman could be critical of Hegel, there is a certain Hegelian logic in his thesis. 

I really enjoyed this book even though at times I felt he had to stretch things to keep everything lined up between Plato and Aristotle. I wish he had spent more time with Scottish Common-sense philosophy and with the work of Edmund Burke, but when you are trying to pack 2500 years into one volume, you can’t have everything. 

This is the second book I read by Arthur Herman. Several years ago, I read and enjoyed How the Scots Built the Modern World.

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Williston, 50 Years Later

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been away the past week. During this time, I did several things I’ll write about, the first being a project I’ve been associated with for the past few years. The next day, I attended a friend’s book reveal, and then spent a few days paddling out to and camping on Cape Lookout. I’ll write about the other two things later.

Between the 7th and 8th Grade

Excitement filled the air as the 1970-71 school year ended. I had just finished the 8th Grade at Roland Grice Junior High. In an art class, I had drawn with color pencils a large portrait of Yogi Bear and had friends to sign it. Next year, we’d rule as 9th graders. But things were changing in ways we did not realize. While we had no way of knowing at the time, this was our last day at Roland Grice.

During our summer break, a court decision forced the complete integration of schools. Those students at Roland Grice who lived north of Oleander Drive would attend D. C. Virgo, which had been the former African American Junior High, which was one of the county’s two “9th Grade Centers.” Those of us who lived south of Oleander would attend Williston, the former black high school. Interestingly, D. C. Virgo was the principal at Williston that made it celebrated school during the time of segregation. In 1968, after the opening of Hoggard High School, Williston was converted to a Junior High. Now, it would be the county’s other 9th Grade Center.  The goal was to have all schools to reflect the county’s racial make-up which, in 1971, was roughly 70% white and 30% African American. 

9th Grade

It was late in the summer that we learned of the changes. That September, I took the bus to Roland Grice and from there transferred to another bus for the ride to Williston. This was a scary time. Since 1968 and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Wilmington had its share of riots and racial unrest. New private schools such as Cape Fear Academy and Wilmington Christian Academy popped up in response to the forced integration. However, most of us continued in public school.

The 1971-72 school year would be one of the most memorable years in my life, not because of what I learned in the classroom, but what I learned about life and people. We were a part of great experiment, which while it contained personal disappointments, was necessary for the well-being our society. Sadly, I didn’t get to finish out my year at Roland Grice, but greater good is that the unequal segregated system of schools needed to be undone. Those of us who attended Williston, at least those willing to open our eyes, saw first-hand how unfair the old system had been.   

50th Anniversary Project

One of the panels with quotes from the 4 of us (from left: Cliff, Sadie, me, Wayne)

At a class reunion a few years ago, I found myself discussing our year at Williston with several students. As we were coming up on our 50th anniversary, it seemed that we should do something. As the first students to experience busing, at least for historical purposes, we should preserve some our memories and perhaps even take another step or two toward healing the racial divisions that have divided this country for too long.

Cliff, a classmate who was also the son of the school superintendent for the county in 1971-72, be talking. We reached out and talk to others, creating a group of students from across the racial spectrum. We started a Facebook page, which revealed how our experience, 50 years later, still contains extremes. There were those who thought the year was wonderful. One black woman recalled it was the first time in school she was given a new textbook. Before, her schools issued “hand-me-down” books from schools that was most white. And then there are the few who hated everything about Williston and still carry a grudge.

We searched for a way to memorialize our year at Williston. Thanks to another of our classmates, LuAnn, who had graduated with a master’s degree in public history from University of North Carolina at Wilmington, we were connected to this department. Three graduate students of the program began to collect oral histories and created a series of interpretive panels about the experience of integration in Wilmington. 

Last Friday, the UNCW students presented their work. The panels will be displayed at Williston, which today is a middle school. The oral histories will be available for future scholars through the UNCW library. At the presentation, I learned that busing was no longer being done in New Hanover County and that at present, Williston’s student population consists of 80% minority. I wondered if our sacrifices were in vain.

Presentation at UNCW (students: Conner, Jack, Heather.
Faculty: Dr. Jennifer LeZotte. & Dr. Tara White)

The students titled their project, “Not Done Yet: School Integration in Wilmington, NC, 1968-Beyond.” Click on the link to learn more.  

I am thankful for this project. Not only does it add to the historical body of material available on integration in America, it also allowed me to catch up with old friends and to make some new ones.

My Other Williston Writings:

Williston’s 1971 “Snowfall”

Ms. Gooden

Mark Brown

Reviews of Three Very Different Books

Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk! (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 227 pages.

 

There is a favorite used bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina that I often stop in when I’m home. This time I was looking to pick up another copy of Guy Owen’s The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man to give to a cousin, along with any books by Archibald Rutledge (both Southern writers). I didn’t have any luck, but I came across a book by Patrick McManus that I had not read. I promptly purchased the book and read half of the stories that evening. All these stories had previously seen ink in Outdoor Life. They are funny and many have a good moral lesson, too. McManus has always been a bit of a curmudgeon. He longs for the days of old, when mountain trails weren’t so steep and there was more oxygen in air. He recalls hunting 80-acre section of land where the deer were seldom seen, but when he visited recently his old hunting ground, he sees that it’s not been developed into a gated community and the deer are plentiful, snacking on the shrubbery. The deer earing shrubs hit home! In these stories there are also good safety lessons, such as the purpose of hooking the safety chains on a trailer, because having your boat pass you on the highway us “one of the least pleasant sights you may encounter during your lifetime.” And McManus is also a master as self- deprecation, such as the time fishing for steelhead, his friend already had one on the line while he, having made a half-dozen casts, he hadn’t yet gotten his line in the water.  As for “Kerplunk”, you’ll have to read the book to find out. I do recommend McManus’ books!

 

David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 331 pages, a few illustrations.

 

I have enjoyed many of McCullough’s books (John Adams, The Wright Brothers, The Johnstown Flood) and while I enjoyed this book, it’s not one of McCullough’s best.  While the book is about the opening up of the Northwest Territory (which included the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin), McCullough spends the first part of this book discussing how the territory came to be in the early days of the Republic. As the nation was broke, this territory allowed the country to pay the soldiers in the Continental Army with land. Of course, these former soldiers had to clear the land and fight for it, as the native tribes were not agreeable to giving away their land. One of the promoters of the territory was Manasseh Culter, a Congregational Pastor. He spent time in Philadelphia lobbying for the territory and would later travel westward into Ohio but would not move there. It was through Cutler’s eyes that McCullough tells of the passing of the Northwest Territory Act. After discussion of the passing of the act that opened the territory, McCullough focuses on those who establish the town of Marietta (which is located just north of the Ohio River, where Interstate 77 crosses). McCullough does a wonderful job telling the story of how the settlement was established, overcame the hardships of the early years, and became a permanent town.  I think he should have stopped there.

Where McCullough’s book fails is that he tries to tie his story through the middle of the 19th Century, which leaves many gaps in the story. By focusing only on Marietta and towns along the Ohio River, the reader is only given insight into one strand of settlers who poured into the territory. That said, I still enjoyed reading this book which my men’s book club read for its December selection.

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James Clavell, Tai-Pan  (1966, Blackstone Publishing, 2019), 885 pages (~34 hours on Audible).

 

Tai-Pan is a fictional account of the founding of the British Colony “Hong-Kong.” This is a long book. I listened to all the book and read some sections (as this is our January book selection for my book group).  While Clavell tells a good story, he seems to excel at foreshadowing, which means that when things happen there is little surprise. An example was when the Chinese lover of the Tai-pan was bitten by a mosquito, I knew she’d be coming down with malaria. Thankfully, Clavell doesn’t make a direct connection as, at the time (1842), it was thought that malaria came from “night vapors.” Clavell also seems to spend too much time in what goes on in the heads of various characters. People act or seem one way, but often have different ideas, which is especially true for the Chinese and their secret societies that even place mistresses so they can know what the British are up to. Clavell seems to embellish certain “kinky” sexual fantasies, from playful spankings of a lover to more harsh beatings and torture (he especially seems drawn to thumbscrews). I also felt he had a love for the sound of “reefed” sails. In his wonderful descriptions of sailing, he almost always has something to say about them being reefed (sails shortened due to excessive wind).

 

However, I did like how he worked in principles of economics, the advantage of free trade, the world views that tied together or put in conflict the interest of a variety of nations (from Britain, to Russia, and the America), and a main character (Dirk Sturan, a Scotsman) who is open and interested in what he and the English can learn from the Chinese. Staran is the “Tai-pan” or the leader of the strongest trading group in China. He has a number of other challengers including his arch-enemy, Tyler Brock. Staran is planning on leaving Asia and turning the operation of this company over to his son, Culum, which happens to be in love with Brock’s daughter.

 

The dream of the traders is to have a safe harbor where they are free to trade in China without Chinese control, and their fleets (the British navy and merchant ships of many nations) can survive storms. The book ends with a terrible typhoon (foreshadowed by the constant checking of the barometer), that destroys much of Hong Kong. But the fleet is spared. The trade will continue and Hong Kong will rebuild. Upon the death of his father, Culum assumes the role of the new Tai-pan while this half-brother (half Chinese and half Scot from Staran’s mistress plots to control the city.

 

While Clavell’s story does try to give value to the Chinese (their customs and their medicine), it is very much written from a Western point-of-view. I found myself wondering, while reading, how the book would be received in today’s more culturally sensitive and “Me-too” climate. While I’m glad I read the book, I won’t recommend it to anyone else (but I might make you a good deal on a used copy of the book 😊).

Looking way back: 3 Reviews of History Books

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), 720 pages including notes and index.  Some plates of photos and artwork.

 

The world, or at least Western Europe, seemed to be coming apart in the 1300s. England and France was involved in a 100-year war.  Whenever they took a break in fighting, it was time to attack (crusade) the Muslin invaders who had invaded parts of Europe or Muslin pirates hindering shipping along the African coast. The Black Death kept reappearing. The nobles and noble want-a-be’s wore fashionable shoes, pointed and curly ends, that were condemned by the church. In England, the followers of Wycliffe provided a precursor to the Protestant Reformation (which would be another 2 centuries in the future). During this century, the population of Europe fell, mostly due to plague, but also from war. This had a dramatic impact on the economy.  Without people to work the fields, forest took over farmland. Taxes to finance wars and to keep the nobility in luxury became a burden to everyone, especially to the lower class who paid a much higher rate of taxes than those with affluence. The Roman Catholic Church split. With both an Italian and a French pope, who excommunicated each other, people worried about their salvation (which was seen as coming through the Church) for no one knew which church was the right one.  A lot happened in the 14th Century as Barbara Tuchman skillfully tells in this mammoth work. But, when you think of all that happened, it’s amazed that she can touch on so much of the events in 700 pages.

This was the age of the knights, although these warriors weren’t nearly as noble as we’re led to believe. Knights with their heavy armor, fighting it out on a battlefield, was the ultimate. When the English began to use commoners and arming them with longbows, it was seen by the French (who mostly was on the losing side of battles) as denying the knights their glory. It was also a shift in power, lifting commoners while demoting the power of the nobility. Instead of revising their tactics, the French started using heavier armor to protect them from arrows and made them even less mobile.

The key figure in this book is Sire de Coucy, a man who appeared to be almost as large as his huge fortified castle in Picardy. Coucy seemed to dominate all the great events of the second half of the century. Although he was not the king of France, he held more power and controlled more wealth. He was involved in many of the great battles and, at a time where military judgment was not a defining characteristic of the armies of France, he was one of their successful military leaders. During the last crusade, he was captured by the Turks and died in prison, awaiting ransom. Ransom was a part of war back then, as nobles were “sold” back to the country from which they came. Coucy had a modern vision of war that most of his French contemporaries refused to see.

This book reads well, but there are just too many names and dates and events to keep everything straight. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and learned a lot about life in the premodern world.

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Edward Dolnick, A Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World, 2012 (Audible 10 hours and 4 minutes).

 

I am not a math person, but I found myself listening to this book and wishing I could go back and study math once more. But then, Dolrick notes that most great mathematic discoveries are discovered by younger geniuses (especially before 25), so I realized that my math ship has sailed. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book immensely. The mid-17th Century was a time of change as the world was moving into the modern area. But as exciting of a time it was for a few intellectuals, for most people it was a dreadful age. Filth and disease abound, as cities did not yet have sewers or safe drinking water. London, the location in which much of the book occurs, was ravaged by fire and famine. But there, within the Royal Society of Science, men began to ask questions and ponder new solutions. Some, at least to my mind, were crazy, but this drive to know more about God’s creation (and most of these men were religious) led to breakthroughs in mathematics and science, especially in the understanding of space. Calculus became the language for much of this understanding and the two men most responsible were Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz—a Brit and German. The two appeared to have discovered it independently, but both insisted they were first. In the end, Newton had the best PR, but Leibniz wasn’t forgotten and was resurrected more recently as his binary system predated the development of the computer by three centuries.

This book has a lot in it. We meet many of the great men of the era who pushed math and science beyond the ancient Greek thinkers: Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, and Haley (who, in addition to discovering and predicting a comet’s path was the catalyst behind Newton publishing his thoughts). But the two main characters are Newton and Leibniz, who both admired and were jealous of the other. Their relationship forms a tension that holds the book together.

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John H. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1973), 127 pages.

 

I first read the Westminster Confession of Faith as a high school student and have studied much of it throughout my adult life, but I have never read any detailed account of the assembly of “Westminster Divines” who wrote the work. In this short work, the late John Leith provides the background and the setting for the Assembly. The authors of the confession were living on the edge of the modern world, yet they had been raised in the medieval world. The politics of what was going on in England during the Puritan era, as well as what was happening on the continent played a great role in both the writing and influence of this work. After the restoration of the crown in England in 1660, the Confession would no longer play a role in English society, but due to the number of Scottish members of the Assembly, the confession would be adopted in Scotland and become the main confessional document for Presbyterians around the world. In this book, Leith covers the make-up of the Assembly, the political and theological context in which they worked, how they went about their tasks, the nature of confessions, and the key doctrines of the Westminster Confession. He also discusses the limits and fallibility of confessions. This is a good starting point for learning more about Westminster.

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Three Book Reviews (Short Stories, Sailing, and the Environment)

From my recent readings. They’re all different! 

Anjali Sachdeva, All the Names They Used for God (Siegel & Grau, 2018), 257 pages.

This is a collection of short stories and the first book by Ms. Sachdeva. I heard Sachdeva read from her book last summer when I was at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. She held a reading at the Prairie Lights bookstore. I was impressed with her writing and that she’s from Pittsburgh!  I purchased a copy of her book, read a couple of stories and put it down. Almost a year later, I picked the book back up and reread some of the stories along with the others. Each story is a surprise..

The stories are all unique with a bizarre twist. Some are darker, such as Pleiades,” which tells the story of a scientific couple who, in the interest of science, gives birth to seven twin sisters. Then slowly, they all die off.  In “Killer of Kings,” she tells the story of an aged John Milton as he writes Paradise Lost. While this is the only historical character in the stories, even this story has a twist with an angel sent as a muse and scribe for the blind poet. Some stories seem more normal, like “Logging Lake”, where couple set out hiking in Glacier National Park. But she disappears, leaving everything behind. Did she run off with the wolves? “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid” tells the parallel story of a mermaid who is drawn to a shark while she lures fishermen. The details of the commercial fishing shows Sachdeva’s research into the stories. Another story, “Manus,” is a dystopian world controlled by aliens. The story that provides the title of the book, “All the Names for God,” recreates the lives of the girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped by Islamic terrorist and, because of their special powers, are able to exact revenge.  While all the stories have twists, they’re all different, but a delight to read and leaves the reader with something to ponder.

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John Vigor, Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Sailing, (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Sheridan House, 2005), 187 pages.

Maybe I should have read this book ten years ago. Instead, when I started sailing, I picked up a copy of John Rousmaniere, The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, which is very serious and covers a little of everything. Since then I picked up a few other books that deal with sail shape and racing techniques, which I can only take in small chunks at a time (or I can read them and quickly fall asleep). But this book was fun to read. It’s sort of a dictionary to random things about sailing. Each entry, which appear alphabetically (there are approximately 200 of them), covers different topics. By drawing from a variety of entries, one learns incredible things. Like the chance of a boat being hit by lightning is 6 in 1,000 (according to the insurance industry). But you’ll probably not be hurt, but you might if you’re hugging the mast or holding on to a wire shroud. But it’s more likely that lightning will blow out your electronics. However, occasionally it’s been known to blow a hole through the boat in which case you’re really screwed because a 2 inch hole a foot underwater will allow 4000 gallons of water an hour to seep into your boat (and what self-respecting lightning bolt only blows a two inch hole into anything). But 4000 gallons of water an hour is about a 1000 gallons more water than a good bilge pump can remove, so you’ll be playing a losing game. But that doesn’t matter because with your electronics fried, your bilge pump won’t work. This led me to look at his recommendations for life jackets (or PFDs, and there’s no entry for what is essentially an important piece of equipment when you have a two inch hole in the hull). There is, however, an entry for life rafts. The author basically says they’re worthless.  Despite this, there’s some good information in this book and it’s conveyed in a humorous manner.

Just in case you wanted to know, there are also some formulas that are obviously provided as a way to make celestial navigation seem easy. To determine how much water will be flooding into a boat, one only has to take the diameter (in inches) times the square root of the height the water must rise to equal the outside water level (or how far below the water level the hole is). By the time you’ve done this calculation, you’re probably no longer breathing air. Another helpful formula predicts the resistance of a given boat to capsizing. All you have to do is to divide your boats displacement (in pounds) by 64, find the cube root of that number. Take the beam (in feet and tenths of a foot) and divided it by the cube root above. If your answer is less than 2 you boat is relatively safe from capsizing. It would be advisable to do these calculations before you sail into a rogue wave, and regardless of your boat’s number on the capsizing scale, you might want to put on your PFD while the wave is still on the horizon. Remember the Poseidon Adventure!

Of course, don’t think this is a technical book. The author also discusses luck and suggest that the most valuable instrument in sailing around the world is a depth finder. And there is ideas for a “boat renaming” ceremony to placate the ocean gods.

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Alice Outwater, Wild at Heart: America’s Turbulent Relationship with Nature, from Exploitation to Redemption, read by Joyce Bean (2019), 9 hours 31 minutes

Outwater has written a history of America’s relationship with nature, and how we have moved from seeing nature something to be conquered and tamed, to something with value to be preserved. She begins by discussing how several Native American tribes approached nature. The Hopi saw themselves as guardians of nature. The Abenaki sought balance with nature. And the Chinook gave thanks. I was beginning to think she was going back to an idea that we just had to go back to how the tribes lived, but that was not her purpose. Instead, she sat out the beginning of our thoughts about the environment. Then she moves on to discuss the idea of the “commons.” What isn’t owned by an individual, but is seen as owned by everyone and about to be exploited. At one time, land was seen in this way, until it was “claimed” and “used.” The air and the water, until more recently, was seen this way, which led to people dumping all kinds of stuff into his “common” space. But over time, we realized how it is all interrelated.

I found it interesting how the pollution of our rivers began as an attempt to “clean up” urban areas as we tried to get sewage out of the streets. Treatment centers came about relatively recently and have resulted in much cleaner rivers. The same is true for air.

I had a sense that she was attempting to make a political wake-up call for Republicans. From Teddy Roosevelt, to Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush, she lifted up achievements in how they have worked toward or approved attempts to save wilderness, to clean water and air, to reduce acid rain and save the ozone layer, all which have been somewhat successful. But the danger of rolling back such gains for short term profits, as she has more recently seen, is problematic. Instead of being a doom-day prophet, she calls for rational approaches to the use of resources. She sees the removal of dams, the attempts to rebuild species that have been nearly wiped out by hunting or habitat loss, as positive signs that we can move quickly to address climate change.

This is a good book to understand how our views of nature has shifted over the years. I listened to the Audible version of this book.