Book Review: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now by John Crossan


Author: John Crossan
TitleGod and empire : Jesus against Rome, then and now
Publication Info: [San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
Summary/Review:

This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year.  The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today.  Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality.  Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence.  This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
Favorite Passages:

As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.

As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).

I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.

It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.

Recommended books:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan , The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart, and Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Rating: ****

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Book Review: The Boston Irish by Thomas H. O’Connor


Author: Thomas H. O’Connor
Title: The Boston Irish
Publication Info: 9780316626613
ISBN: Back Bay Books (1997)

Previously Read by the Same Author: Eminent Bostonians

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A Political History” this is the Dean of Boston History’s story of the rise of Irish from subjugated minority to political power in Boston.  While there is a lot more that could be said of Boston Irish history this book focuses on the Irish mayors and a few other political leaders as well as Irish-American Catholic bishops attempts to help lead their flock into the Boston mainstream.  O’Connor follows to trends – the business-like, accommodationist attempts to work with the traditional Yankee power elite and the more confrontational, neighborhood-focused style emphasized by John Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley.  This was an interesting summary of politics in Boston history and especially informative of the big figures in recent history of Boston.

Recommended booksHow the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald, and Ethnics and Enclaves by William Michael Demarco.

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle


Author: Roddy Doyle
Title: The Dead Republic
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2010.
ISBN: 9780670021772

By the same author:

  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
  • A Star Called Henry
  • The Woman Who Walked into Doors
  • The Commitments
  • The Snapper
  • The Van
  • Oh, Play That Thing
  • Paula Spencer
  • The Deportees: and Other Stories

Summary/Review: Doyle completes The Last Roundup trilogy, a story of Ireland and the Irish in the 20th century through the lens of one everyman – Henry Smart.    The first book in this series A Star Called Henry is one of my favorite novels of all time.  The sequel which follows Henry to America in the Roaring Twenties – Oh, Play That Thing –  starts of brilliantly but then collapses due to some poor narrative choices.  The final installment brings Henry back to Ireland and is a return to form albeit still failing to approach the brilliance of the first novel.

Henry accompanies John Ford to make a film based on his own life which Ford turns into The Quiet Man.  Escaping Ford’s green-tinted lens view of Ireland, Henry settles into working as a janitor at a school in a modern Dublin suburb where he may or may not be reacquainted with his long-lost wife.  Henry gets caught in the 17 May 1974 terrorist bombings in Dublin (coincidentally the second book this month I’ve read where these bombings play a crucial role after Let the Great World Spin) and his true identity is revealed.  He’s hailed as a hero of the rebellion and called back into action by the modern IRA.  Yet, Henry soon comes to realize that the IRA’s vision of Ireland is as false and idealistic as Fords.

Overall, Doyle does a great job in this series at taking on modern Irish history – warts and all – through the lens of this fascinating (if not always likable) character.  I highly recommend reading all three books even if you have to slog through the second half of Oh, Play That Thing.

Rating: ****

Book Review: I’jaam by Sinan Antoon


Author: Sinan Antoon
Title: I’jaam : an Iraqi rhapsody
Publication Info: San Francisco : City Lights, c2007.
ISBN: 9780872864573

Summary/Review: This short book is set in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and purports to be the memoir of a student who ends up as a political prisoner.  The conceit of the novel is that the i’jaam – dots added to Arabic script – have been left off leading to ambiguous (and presumably comical) meanings to some of the words, but even the author gets tired of this after a while.  I wasn’t too impressed by this book as it seemed to be trying to be too avant guarde without really delivering.

Recommended books: A Sky So Close: A Novel by Betool Khedairi
Rating: **

Book Review: The Gardner Heist by Ulrish Boser


Author: Ulrich Boser
Title: The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft
Publication Info: Smithsonian (2009)
ISBN: 0061451835

Summary/Review:

For the 20th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I read this book detailing the heist. The first chapter gives a blow-by-blow of all the known details of the heist itself in the early-morning hours of March 17, 1990.  Next, Boser introduces Harold Smith, an art detective who dedicates many of the remaining years of his life gathering clues and following leads about the heist.  After Smith dies in 2005, Boser himself picks up Smith’s casebook and begins immersing himself in the case to the point of obsession.  The trail of the crime leads Boser to look into various Boston underworld characters such as a noted art thief, Whitey Bulger and his mob cronies, and even the Irish Republican Army.  At one point the obsession gets ridiculous as Boser visits a town in Ireland thinking he’ll be able to pick Bulger off the street.  In the end, there’s no solution yet for the mystery of missing art, but Boser gives some interesting insights into how art theft is perpetrated and how that art may hopefully be returned.

Recommended booksDead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama, Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson, and  Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.


Author: Harvey Karp, M.D.
Title: The Happiest Toddler on the Block
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Bantam Books, 2008.
ISBN: 9780553805215

Summary/Review:

Karp’s follow-up to The Happiest Baby on the Block offers very practical advice to parents for dealing with the toddler years of 1 to 4 years old.  I think it’s an even better book partly because it avoids the “infomercial style” of writing and is a more practical manual.  The basic gist of the book is that when a child starts to throw a tantrum the parent should acknowledge what is upsetting by repeating back it back (“the fast food rule”) and to use a simple vocabulary of words called “toddlerese” that toddlers will understand most when they are upset.  This book doesn’t have all the answers, for example, what to say to your son when you have no idea what is making him upset.  Overall though I found it a book with useful advice and practically organized.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Protest Singer by Alec Wilkinson


Author: Alec Wilkinson
Title: The Protest Singer : an intimate portrait of Pete Seeger
Publication Info:  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
ISBN: 9780307269959

Summary/Review:

This is a short and easy read that summarizes Seeger’s life & career succinctly but still captures why he’s in important.  Seeger himself who never wants much attention focused on him wanted a book that someone could read in one sitting.  Much of the book is based on interviews between Wilkinson and Seeger and takes on a conversational tone.  The book jumps around between events in Seeger’s life similar to the way that one memory can prompt another only tangentially related.  It’s also good for seeing what Seeger finds memorable and important from his own past.  While are more thorough books on Seeger out there, I recommend that anyone interested in learning about this remarkable man start with this book and then check out his albums and a concert if possible.  Then start to make your own music.

Favorite Passages:

After consulting with his lawyer, Seeger said, “I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known.  I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.  I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am  not interested in who listened to them.” – p. 81

Recommended books: Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing? by David King Dunaway, and Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry


Author: Rohinton Mistry
Title: A Fine Balance
Publication Info: Books on Tape, Inc. (2001)
ISBN: 0736684425

Summary/Review:

This novel – epic in length – tells the story of four people in Mumbai, India who come together during The Emergency of the mid-1970’s.  They are:

  • Dina Dalal – a young widow who takes up clothing manufacture to maintain her independence from her controlling brother.
  • Ishvar Darji – a kindly tailor from a low caste background who comes to Mumbai to work for Dina.
  • Omprakash – Ishvar’s more unruly nephew who works with him as a tailor.
  • Maneck – a young man from a mountain village studying at the university and staying with Dina as a paying guest.

In the first part of A Fine Balance, Mistry tells the life stories of each of these characters which actually could be four gripping novellas in their own right.  Then the story is told of how they all come together under one roof and after a rocky start forming a friendship.

This novel is marked by stark descriptions of poverty and injustice in India which Mistry none-too-subtly lays at feet of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s corrupt regime.  This novel does not have a happy ending, but there is joy and love in the brief time of friendship of the principal characters that shows that their is some hope in the most dire of circumstances.

Favorite Passages:

She envisioned two leaky faucets: one said Money, the other, Sanity. And both were dripping away simultaneously.

Recommended books: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Faith and Fear in Flushing by Greg Prince


Author: Greg Prince
Title: Faith and Fear in Flushing
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2009)
ISBN: 1602396817

Summary/Review:

Greg Prince, one of the co-authors of the Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing – the most intelligent and literate Mets blog there is – writes about his 40 years as the guy everyone knows as the big Mets fan.  Part memoir, part baseball history this book explores the ups & downs of fandom in parallel with the events of his life.  If this sounds familiar it’s because it is very similar in concept and execution to Fever Pitch.  That is Fever Pitch the autobiographical book by Nick Hornby about his love for the Arsenal Football club, not the wholly fictional romantic comedy film about the Red Sox.

Prince’s ruminations on the Mets are a pleasure to read for the most part although he does have a tendency for repetition especially in the more navel-gazing portions of the book.  As a fellow Mets fan, I enjoyed reliving the Mets good years and many fallow years from the perspective of another fan.  I think this book could be enjoyable as well to someone unfamiliar with the Mets or with baseball, especially since it gives a literary perspective on the game that breaks from the mold of Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers.

If there’s one thing I quibble with in this book is Prince’s characterization of Mets fans loving the Mets but hating the players.  While I think that negative attitude has become prominent in the past five years or so, historically that “win or your a bum” kind of thinking has been more of a Yankee fan ideology.  Mets fans used to be opposite, the cult of the underdog, a humanistic approach to accepting the players despite their flaws and celebrating their accomplishments and commiserating with their failures.  The Mets were a team the ordinary guy could identify with and thus players like Marv Throneberry, Lee Mazzili, Mookie Wilson, Butch Huskey, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo became local heroes despite never leading the league in anything.

At any rate, I find it harder to be a Mets fan these days not because of the Mets but because of the hostile and vulgar attitude of my fellow “fans.”  This book gives me hope because it shows that there are still thoughtful and literate fans among our numbers.

Favorite Passages:

Blogging revealed itself to me as Banner Day’s logical and technological successor.  Mets fans are always dying to tell you about being Mets fans.  We each fancy ourselves Mr. Met, except Mr. Met is mute and never stops smiling, whereas we never shut up and expend loads of bandwidth contemplating, complaining, and, only on infrequent occasion, complimenting.  -p. 255

I don’t love the Mets because it gives me license to behave as a “crazy fan.”  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to give one’s mental well-being over to the fickle physical fortunes of a batch of youthful millionaires.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to risk vast quantities of disappointment in the longshot search for a modicum of solace.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to think the angst I incur as a preoccupational hazard is, in fact, maybe its own reward.  But I’m a big fan.  I’m not a crazy fan. – p. 270.

Recommended books: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, Mets by the Numbers: A Complete Team History of the Amazin’ Mets by Uniform Number by Jon Springer, and Playing Hard Ball: A Kent Crickter’s Journey into Big League Baseball by Ed Smith.
Rating:

Book Review: All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer


Author: Stephen Kinzer
Title: All the Shah’s Men
Publication Info: [San Clemente, Calif.] : Tantor Media, 2003.
ISBN: 9781400151066

Summary/Review:

A gripping history of the first covert operation by the CIA to overthrow the popularly elected government of another nation in 1953.  That nation is Iran and the deposed leader is Mohammad Mosaddeq, the Iranian prime minister who dared stand up against Western imperialism.  The fascinating thing about this book is that for much of Mosaddeq’s reign many US leaders supported Iran’s self-determination and attempts at democracy.  Iran’s squabble was with Great Britain, especially regarding the exploitative nature of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  When Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian oil, British leaders wanted him removed, but needed US approval which was eventually gained by the specter of Communism.  A number of familiar names play a role in the plot: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA director Allan Dulles, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.  (grandson of Theodore), and Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. (father of the Desert Storm commander).  Kinzer tells the story in great detail with the ultimate outcome balanced on the coming together of some very unlikely events

Kinzer concludes that the immediate result – a stable and anti-communist Iran under the Shah – was beneficial to the United States but the long-term results were disastrous.  The Shah’s tyrannical rule in Iran, and the knowledge that the US supported him, turned most Iranians virulently against the United States.  When revolutionary Iranians took hostages at the US embassy in 1979 it was because the embassy had been a base of covert activity in 1953.  Finally, it set a pattern of CIA-sponsored activities in other parts of the world that have contributed to the loss of the USA’s image as a standard-bearer of freedom.

Recommended books: The Devil We Know by Robert Baer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland


Author: Karen Maitland
Title: Company of Liars
Publication Info: Delacorte Press (2008)
ISBN: 978-0385341691

Summary/Review:

Set in Medieval England just as the deadly pestilence is landing on the shores of that island nation, Company of Liars follows the travels of a group of nine who band together for safety as the first hope to find profit and then simply find safety with the plague – and maybe a wolf – licking at their heals. The characters are all archetypes of some sort but are fully developed as the novel progresses: the narrator and relic seller Camelot, the courtly musician Rodrigo of Venice and his moody apprentice Geoffrey, the cranky magician Zophiel, a young  painter Osmond and his pregnant wife Adela, Cygnus the storyteller who has a wing in place of one arm, Pleasance the healer, and the creepy albino child Narigorm who foretells the future by reading runes.

Maitland creates an overwhelming sense of menace as the company has to escape the pestilence and other external threats while not even knowing if they can trust their fellow travelers.  For each of the nine has a secret, some quite obvious, some less so but all compelling.  The conclusion of the novel is quite abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which I’m okay with.  I was disappointed that after creating uncertainty between supernatural and rational explanations for the incidents that befall the company that Maitland comes down clearly on the side of supernatural in the concluding chapters.  That is, of course, if Camelot is a reliable narrator.

This is an excellent book full of suspense, intriguing characters, and a well-researched slice of life of the medieval world during the plague.  Many reviews compare it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but apart from being a band of travelers who tell stories the similarities end there.   I think the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson are more complementary books to Company of Liars.

Recommended books: The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson
Rating: ****

Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt


I expected Traffic (2008) by Tom Vanderbilt to be an interesting but it proved to be a fascinating and provocative book about driving.  There’s a lot of stuff here about the assumptions and practices of driving that amazed even me someone who hates driving and obsesses over how dangerous it is.  Vanderbilt surveys the world, history, and numerous studies to evaluate the way humans operate machines at high speeds in a changing environment. Some things learned:

  • every driver has an optimistic bias – thinking they’re above average – and in the worst cases this leads to narcissism and aggressive driving
  • driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis
  • sober speeders and cell phone users (even hands free variety) can be as dangerous as drunken drivers but are not restricted, stigmatized or punished in the same way
  • incorrect to refer to auto collisions as “accidents” as if they were out of the driver’s power to prevent.  This is seen in media portrayal of celebrity “accidents” like baseball pitcher Josh Hancock and politician Bill Janklow who were obviously at fault
  • unintentional blindness to things the driver is not looking for, as proved by the famous attention test with the basketball players:
  • there is safety in numbers for pedestrians
  • SUV & pick up truck drivers speed more
  • the Leibowitz Hypothesis that says that human beings are very bad at judging the speed of oncoming objects
  • remote traffic engineers adjust traffic signals and road use on Oscar Night so that 100’s of celebrity-laden limousines arrive on time (I think some gutsy celeb should take the Metro to Hollywood & Highland next time)
  • some Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles have “Sabbath Crossing” lights that change automatically for observant pedestrians who cannot push a button
  • roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections, although their perceived danger encourages the more vigilant driving that contributes to their safety
  • on Dagen H in Sweden in 1967, drivers moved from driving on the left to driving on the right: video
  • the more divisions between the “traffic space” and the “social space” in a city the more dangerous it is for everyone
  • there is a linkage between low GDP and traffic fatalities throughout the world although greater corruption also affects traffic safety
  • safety devices on cars have not made in significant impact in reducing traffic fatalities over the past 50 years.  It seems that the greater the sense of “safety” leads to more risky or inattentive driving behaviors although the issues are complex

I highly recommend that everyone who drives, bikes and/or walks to read or listen to this illuminating book.  It might make you as paranoid about driving as I am, but it also may make you safer.  This book challenges the assumptions we make about driving in the same way The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenges the assumptions of urban planning.

Author Vanderbilt, Tom. Title Traffic [sound recording] : [why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)] / by Tom Vanderbilt. Publication Info. Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2008. Edition Unabridged. Description 11 sound discs (ca. 74 min. each) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

Book Review: A Portrait of Jesus by Joseph Girzone


In A Portrait of Jesus(1998), Joseph Girzone uses a similar approach that he uses in his fictional series of Joshua novels to understanding the historical Jesus.  That is, to avoid theology, doctrine, and Christology and look at Jesus as a real person who came to earth to spread His message of love and freedom through creating relationships with other people.  It’s a simple yet revolutionary approach and proves very enlightening and inspirational, especially in the early chapters.  Yet, even as something of a Fr. Girzone fan I have to admit that while full of faith and prayerful contemplation, Fr. Girzone is not the best writer and comes across a bit hokey.  In the later chapters he sort of recreates the Gospels in a more common language, but kind of cherry picks stories from all the Gospels into one narrative.  Fr. Girzone also depicts Jesus as unique in relationship with the poor, oppressed, and women against a rule-following, monolithic Jewish religious leadership, which is a fallacy according to what I read last Lent in Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew.  Still, for all it’s flaws this is a good inspirational book.

Favorite Passages

Even though you may be weak, are you focused on God, are you sensitive to the pain and hurt all around you?  This is the essence of the person who is pleasing to God.   Not that accuracy in belief and disciplining human weakness are not important, but loving the Father in heaven and caring for others is absolutely essential  They were the teachings that were critical to Jesus.  Jesus realized few people will ever have an accurate understanding of the nature of God and even the identity of the Son of God, but He knew that it was within the heard of everyone to care for others.  – p. 32-33

And in telling His followers to love as He loved, it constrains us to continually deepen our intimacy with Him so we can understand Him and what He expects of us as His friends, and grow as love grows, naturally from within, without imposing on ourselves artificial imperatives from outside.

As a result, following Jesus and knowing what is expected will always be confusing, as walking in faith is destined to be, Jesus may have explained things more clearly to the apostles, as the writings of the early Fathers of the Church indicate, but even the apostles did not comprehend everything the way we would have desired. – p. 91

Author : Girzone, Joseph F.
Title : A portrait of Jesus / Joseph F. Grizone.
Edition : 1st ed.
Published : New York : Doubleday, 1998.
Description : 179 p. ; 22 cm.
ISBN : 0385482639

Book Review: Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills


My annual Lincoln Day book for 2009 is Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) by cultural historian Garry Wills (previously, I’ve read Wills’ works on Catholicism Why I’m A Catholic and Papal Sin).  In this book Wills sets out to analize the 272 words spoken by Lincoln when he consecrated the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863.  In a prologue, Wills sums up the events of Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg.  Here he debunks some common myths.  Lincoln did not write his speech on the back of the envelope en route to Gettysburg.  In fact, Lincoln loathed extemporaneous speech and spent much time preparing his words including this speech which he probably drafted prior to leaving Washington.  The other myth is that the crowds were shocked by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks especially in comparison to the lengthy oration by Edward Everett.  According to the programs and contemporary accounts, Everett was the primary speaker of the day with Lincoln only expected to make a few ancillary remarks to officially dedicate the cemetery.

It’s what Lincoln made of those few remarks that Wills dedicates the rest of the book to explicating.  Wills sees Lincoln’s funeral oratory in the tradition of Greek Revival then in vogue.  Lincoln’s address is compared favorably to the tradition of the ancients such as Pericles in that it contrasts things  as the mortal and immortal, the exceptionalism of Americans, word and deed, and life and death. The culture of death in 19th-century American – and especially during the Civil War (see This Republic of Suffering for more detail) – also informs the Gettysburg Address.  Cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn in Cambridge served a moral and instructive role and Gettysburg National Cemetery would fit into that continiuum.

For Lincoln, of course, that lesson is “the new birth of freedom” passed down to us from the Declaration of Indpendence.  Lincoln saw the Declaration as the nation’s true founding document,as opposed to the Constitution, as it holds the promise of equality for all in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  He also sees that through the revolution and joint declaration of independence the states are bound as a union, not as a simple agreement among autonomous states.  This informs the way in which Lincoln pursues the war treating the Southern states as insurrectionists within the union as opposed to a foreign power and only resorting to emancipation where it is a military necessity since he believes it cannot be done by unilateral decree.  The Gettysburg Address has resulted in many if not most Americans viewing the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Union the way that Lincoln did:

“…the professors, the textbooks, the politicians, the press have overwhelmingly accepted Lincoln’s vision.  The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.  For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.  It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless.  The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind.  By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.” – p. 146-47

The final chapter analyzes Lincoln’s oratorial style, its brevity, rhythmns, and lack of flowery language and tropes common to speech writing of the time (see Everett’s speech in the appendices for a contrasting example).  Writes Wills, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn.  It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address,” (p. 148).  In fact Wills contends that Lincoln prefigured “soundbite politics” by more than a century by crafting his words to meet the needs of the new technology of the telegraph.  Perhaps the satirical Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation is more on the mark than its creators intended.

This shorts but incisive book concludes with appendices that include research on the actual text that Lincol delivered that day.  There are multiple drafts and the newspaper accounts of the day are not all in agreement.  The Library of Congress has a good online exhibit of the many drafts of the address, as well as the only picture of Lincoln of that day.  There are also the full text of Everett’s oration and two ancient Greek forebearers (I confess I skipped these).  Finally, there’s a little detective work on where Lincoln actually stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  All and all, a fascinating a rewarding read for Lincoln Day ’09!

Title Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Re-Made America
Author Garry Wills
Publication Simon & Schuster (1992), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 1992
ISBN 0671769561 / 9780671769567

Book Review: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson


The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) by Chris Anderson has been so discussed, cited, and praised the past few years that listening to the first few chapters I almost felt that I knew it all already.  The basic gist is that businesses can profit from selling just a few units of lots and lots and lots of different products instead of just focusing on selling lots and lots and lots of units of a few “hit” products.  On a graph, the traditional hit economy appears as a short head, while the niche economy appears as a long tail, thus the origins of the term.  Anderson’s original article on The Long Tail is still online at Wired (Issue 12.10 – October 2004) and is worth reading for a summary of the theory behind this book.

Anderson contends that the Hit Economy is actually unusual in economic history.  Examples of the hit economy include Casey Casem’s American Top 40 (which I listened to devotedly as  child), television programing dominated by three networks, and blockbuster films.  All were designed to appeal to a lowest common denominator to attract as many people as possible with the outlets for production controlled by a few.  Prior to mass broadcasting culture was regional, and thus the things people bought as well.   Today, internet communities are gathering around common interests in niches similar to the old regional cultures although the people using them are geographically disparate.

While Anderson credits the internet with providing the resources that allow the Long Tail to flourish, he also provides a history of the Long Tail dating back to Sear, Roebuck’s Wish Book in 1897 and 1-800 numbers in the 1960’s.  The internet allowed the democritization of the tools of production and distribution and allowing enterpreneurs like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia to find success. The economics of scarcity were replaced by the economics of abundance.  It turns out that customers really like lots of choice contrary to the earlier conventional wisdom.  The difference is that consumers need filters like recommendations and reviews.

I like the examples Anderson cites such as the history of house music, the study of jams, and the punk rock revolution.  He makes a very compelling argument of the advantages of niche markets for the future of business.  On the other hand, I wonder how permanent this change is.  Anderson makes a point of the last big blockbuster pop album being an N*Sync record from 2001, their success in sales not repeated since.  Yet this is a very short period of time. Despite the influence of the internet on exposing niche bands to communities who’ll support them, whose to say that commercial forces won’t co-opt these new tools of distribution and production to recreate the Hit Culture?  I’ve read bloggers who are already complaining that blogs are no longer successful unless they have a staff of multiple writers with commercial support behind them.  Another example was the success of the internet phenemom Lonely Island conquering Saturday Night Live with their “Lazy Sunday” skit.  But is that the case?  Could it not be said that the SNL’s of the world will just keep swallowing up the Lonely Islands?

Author Anderson, Chris, 1961-
Title The long tail [sound recording] : [why the future of business is selling less of more] / Chris Anderson.
Publication Info. New York : Hyperion Audiobooks, c2006.
Edition Unabridged.
Description 7 sound discs (approx. 8 hrs.) : digital, 4 3/4 in.

Book Review: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama


Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006) by Simon Schama (author of the excellent Dead Certainties) tells the story of people who found liberty at the time of American Revolution, but not from the Americans.  Enslaved blacks served in British regiments trading their loyalty to the king for promises of freedom (which makes this book an excellent companion to the Octavian Nothing novels).  After the war, freed blacks attempt to establish their own colonies first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.  These efforts struggle against elements of the British government and commerce as well as internal divisions.

Schama’s work introduces a number of fascinating characters including, many of whom I previously knew little or nothing about

  • Colonel Tye — African-American Loyalist guerilla leader who had many military successes against the Continentals.
  • William Wilberforce — Member of Parliament and abolitionist who headed the effort that lead to the end of the slave trade in Britain.
  • James Ramsey — minister and abolitionist who was a prominent leader in bringing an end to the slave trade.
  • Granville Sharp — one of the earliest voices in England to take up the cause of abolition and attempt to have slavery ended by legal means.
  • Olaudah Equiano — freed blackman who became a prominent writer and speaker for abolition in Britain.
  • John Clarkson — an abolotionist along with his brother Thomas.  John acted nobly as an agent for the Sierra Leone company trying to get promises made to the black settlers fulfilled.
  • Thomas Peters — escaped slave who recruited fellow Loyalist blacks from Nova Scotia to found Sierra Leone and is remembered as a founding father of that nation.

This well-written narrative really brings alive an overlooked period in history.  I enjoyed listening to Schama himself narrate the audiobook in his lively, lilting voice. This is also the first time I’ve listened to a book as a downloadable audio file from the Boston Public Library.

Rough crossings [electronic resource] : Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution / Simon Schama.Publisher:[New York, N.Y.] : HarperAudio, 2006.
ISBN:0061171522 (sound recording : OverDrive Audio Book) 9780061137020
Notes: Downloadable audio file.
Title from: Title details screen.
Abridged.
Duration: 11:52:30.

Book Review: Snakepit by Moses Isegawa


Set in the 1970’s during the brutal regime of Idi Amin, Snakepit (2004) by Moses Isegawa is my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Uganda.  The novel tells the story of Bat, a young man returning to Uganda after getting an education at Cambridge University.  He figures that a government job in this lawless, emerging nation will be a great way to get rich quick.  While you can’t say that the ethically-challenged Bat is naive, he is certainly unprepared for the way things in work in Uganda and over the course of the novel ends up facing a great deal of suffering at the hands of his new enemies.

The landscape of Ugandan politics and military rule include General Bazooka, Bat’s superior who has fallen out of favor with Amin.  In between orgies of sex and drugs, Bazooka tries to regain his position through intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and murder of, well, just about anyone.  While Bazooka has it out for Bat from the beginning, his main rival is the Englishman Robert Ashes who has won Amin’s affections.  Hard to believe it but Ashes is even more brutal in his methods, making Uganda his post-colonial playground.  All through the story there are gun battles on the street as various military and para-military forces abuse the citizenry and battle with one another.

This is a really unsettling book to read.  Page after page details characters stating in vulgar terms what they wish to do to their rivals and then doing it: torture, rape, murder, you name it.  Reading each page is like having someone rub your skin with a piece of sandpaper until it is raw and oozing, and turning the page is like asking them to pour lemon juice on it.  The writing style is a bit disjointed and uneven, but I guess overall it gives a sense of the rough and wild times Uganda in the 1970’s.

Author Isegawa, Moses, 1963-
Title Snakepit / Moses Isegawa.
Publication Info. New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2004.
Edition 1st ed.