Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

One of my favorite fictional detectives is the combination of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  The two of them rank up there with Holmes and Watson and compliment each other perfectly.  Each would be incomplete without the other.  More than Holmes, though, Wolfe comes up with many wonderful lines, and I need to write down if only to remember them or be able to look them up quickly.

“A woman who is not a fool is dangerous.”  The Silent Speaker

“How far have you got?” Cramer interrupted.  “Well.”  Wolfe smirked.  He is most intolerable when he smirks.  “Further than you, or you wouldn’t be here.”  The Silent Speaker

“In a world that operates largely at random coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted.”  Champagne for One

“Nothing is as pitiable as a man afraid of a woman.”  Champagne for One


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The War of the WorldsThe War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent work of science fiction by one of its founding fathers. Wells vision of an alien invasion and the impotent human response is dark and troubling. There is no institution to which man can turn for salvation. The church is reduced to incoherent babbling, the military is outgunned, apathetic and lazy, and man is too self-interested to mount any type of effective response once he finds that his first lines of defense have failed him. It is only by an accident of evolution that man survives at all, and this is no guarantee of survival in the future. It is by no mere coincidence that the last word in the book is “death”.

Of course I disagree with Mr. Wells’ presuppositions, but his skill as an author and the force of his imagination ameliorate any faults in his reasoning.

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The Time Machine

The Time MachineThe Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though I disagree with H.G. Wells’ worldview, I admit that I admire him and his writing. He did not flinch from facing the logical conclusions of what he believed. As a Darwinist and materialist, he understood the full implications of those theories, and in “The Time Machine” he follows their implications to their ends, as horrible as they may be. There are no happy endings for the Darwinist, humanist, or materialist. The universe will one day wind down. Long before that happens, man will have died, and all of his greatest achievements will be dust. This is the world of “The Time Machine”. The great question left unasked, and unanswered at the end, is “why bother?”

As with all his works, “The Time Machine” is a well-executed work of art and worth reading. Wells was a master storyteller and “The Time Machine” provides ample evidence to support that assertion.

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That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy, #3)That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The reader who comes to “That Hideous Strength” for the first time after reading “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra” could be excused for wondering how it fits in with the rest of the Space Trilogy. It bears little resemblance to its companion volumes. There is no journey through space, no exploration of strange, beautiful worlds, and no alien races. Dr. Ransom, far from being the central character, is absent from the first third of the book, Lewis makes no appearance at all, and nowhere are there hints of an un-fallen creation. The story is more complicated, the cast of characters larger, and the scale of the battle between good and evil far greater, and far more subtle, than the first two books. From every angle, “That Hideous Strength” appears to be stubbornly Earthbound and cut from a completely different cloth.

Those, however, who are familiar with C.S. Lewis, know that there is always more to his books than meets the eye. In spite of the many substantial differences between That Hideous Strength and its predecessors, the patient and careful reader will discover profound similarities, and an even more profound, startling and ambitious purpose.

When the book opens, a young, progressive, academically minded couple is making the difficult transition from single to married life. Mark Studdock is a fellow at a small college trying to work his way into an influential inner circle in the hopes of advancing his career. His wife, Jane, works at home on a dissertation. Mark is forced to spend long hours at the college wrangling for position and his wife is, understandably, frustrated. But the trappings of a domestic soap opera disappear before they can take root. Jane begins to experience visions of a gruesome, disembodied head speaking to her in a strange tongue and a giant, ancient man about to be awakened from an ages long sleep.

Deeply disturbed by her visions and her husband’s absences, Jane sets aside her progressive feminism to consult the housemother of her former college, the very old-fashioned Mrs. Dimble. Older, wiser, childless but still matronly, Mother Dimble invites Jane to consult with a man she refers to as “The Director” who lives in a mansion at St.-Anne’s-on-the-Hill.

Mark, in the meantime, succeeds in penetrating the inner circle of his college, only to find that there is a deeper circle still, larger, more influential, and connected with an organization known as the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, or the N.I.C.E. The N.I.C.E. exists, ostensibly, to de-couple science from the restrictions of government, streamlining discovery and facilitating invention. Freed from the shackles of government oversight and accountability, it exercises a great deal of power both within its walls and in the world outside. Mark is encouraged to pursue a position with the N.I.C.E., and is invited to spend a long weekend there to secure the situation.

He and Jane each depart without the other’s knowledge for their respective destinations, moving in opposite directions physically and spiritually. Mark learns that nothing about the N.I.C.E. bears any resemblance to its name. Those who exercise power there draw him in, manipulating his desire to be included and fear of being left out. He is disoriented by a combination of ugly secrets, lies, and frightening mysteries until he slowly realizes that, not only is his career in jeopardy, but his life, his wife’s, and the future of everyone in England.

Jane, too, is drawn in to the inner circle of the mansion at St. Anne’s, but she is attracted by a Good that is absolute and beautiful. There are secrets and mysteries at St. Anne’s, but, far from being manipulative and disorienting, they bring clarity and freedom. Her discoveries lead her to a life that is larger, richer and more beautiful than she had ever imagined.

As Jane and Mark learn more about St. Anne’s and the N.I.C.E., the plot of “That Hideous Strength” deepens and the pace quickens. They find themselves caught on opposing sides of a new battle in a war as old as time. They both encounter characters and situations that, though normal in appearance, possess a subtle strangeness. The mundane around them melts away, and they find themselves in an old faery tale world of kings and wizards, monsters, evil faeries, lesser gods and animals that are far more than mere beasts. When the battle is joined, all of these will play their part. Many will die and be overthrown, but much will also be restored to its rightful place before the end.

To reveal more about the story would be to rob the reader of the delights too numerous to mention. Suffice to say that there is more than enough to entertain and satisfy the imagination of even a superficial reader. But “That Hideous Strength” is about so much more than just its story. It is as rich and full of various types of meaning as “Faery Queene” or “The Divine Comedy”, and his purpose is no less ambitious than Spencer’s or Dante’s.

Primarily, “That Hideous Strength” is about redemption, and that on many levels. At the highest level is about the redemption of Mark and Jane. When they are introduced, neither of them are likeable. Mark’s fixation with being in the most progressive inner circle betrays a desperate insecurity. It is more important for him to be in the know than to know anything worthwhile or to know his wife. His enemies play on this weakness to ensnare him in the culture of the N.I.C.E. For most of the book, he is willing to do anything to be on the inside, ignoring the evil around him, descending to ridiculous levels of self-deception and compromise, almost to the point of sacrificing his wife.

Jane is equally vapid, devoted to a feminist ideology bent on the abandonment and destruction of anything remotely feminine. She eschews the traditional roles of male and female in marriage, especially that of bearing children. She carries a hidden resentment of her husband simply because he is a man. The road to redemption for both of them is perilous, but as they travel it, they become more and more attractive, more like the kind of people we might like, and want to be like.

Deeper than the redemption of Mark and Jane, it is about the redemption of marriage and childbearing. In Mark and Jane, he embodies the prevailing mindset about marriage among the more intelligent and affluent; that marriage is a partnership of mutual convenience, an arrangement between equals. It is sterile and dry, ignoring the obvious differences between men and women in the name of political correctness. Sex is for recreation and entertainment. Children are an imposition, a necessary evil for the purpose of perpetuating the race, to be disposed of in childcare and state schools as soon as possible so that we can have our time back.

Lewis dares to step in and say “no”. Marriage is a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman where each gives their all for the other. There are no equals in marriage. Men and women are so different that equality does not enter the equation. Marriage cannot be about getting our rights as equals. If we insist only on equality, marriage fails because we focus on what we are getting and making sure that it is equal to what we are giving. If marriage is to work, men and women must give their all as men and women to be servants of one another. This is one of the hardest lessons about marriage, but when it is learned, when we come to grips with the glorious complementary inequality between man and woman, it makes marriage the most beautiful of relationships.

Lewis also makes the bold claim that one of the chief aims of marriage is childbearing. When we intentionally prevent conception, we violate the created order of things. The physical pleasure that accompanies copulation is a byproduct of the act that produces children, not the other way around. It was never meant to be only a form of entertainment, but re-creation in the truest sense of the word. It is in the mutual submission of marriage and the successful rearing of children that we find joys that far transcend mere physicality.

All of this is accomplished without preaching or quoting Scripture. Instead, Lewis uses illustrations of healthy marriages and prose that borders on poetry to shame the cold institution that passes for marriage today. For example, in one of the most famous episodes in the book, the Director confronts a stranger in a battle of wits and words that includes the following exchange:

“The Stranger mused for a few seconds; then, speaking in a slightly sing-song voice, as though he repeated on old lesson, he asked, in two Latin hexameters, the following question:

‘Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?’

Ransom replied, ‘Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned toward us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would be he who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages are cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.'”

In another passage, the same stranger asks permission to kill Jane for the crime of avoiding conception.

“…the Stranger was speaking and pointing at her as he spoke.

‘Sir, you have in your house the falsest lady of any at this time alive.’

‘Sir, you are mistaken. She is doubtless like all of us a sinner; but the woman is chaste.’

‘Sir,’ said [the stranger], ‘know well that she has done in Logres a thing of which no less sorrow shall come than came of the stroke that Balinus struck. For sir, it was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres for a thousand years.’

‘She is but lately married,’ said Ransom. ‘The child may yet be born.’

‘Sir,’ said [the stranger], ‘be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva were so common among you. For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.’

‘Enough said,’ answered Ransom. ‘The woman perceives that we are speaking of her.’

‘It would be great charity,’ said [the stranger] ‘if you gave order that her head should be cut from her shoulders; for it is a weariness to look at her.’”

This is a common enough argument against contraception and abortion; who knows how many great men and women have been killed in the womb? The physician who would have found a cure for cancer, the engineer that would have discovered a clean, renewable source of energy; have they died before they could give their gift to the world? It is impossible to know.

Juxtaposed against the justly harsh critique of contemporary marriage are the healthy marriages of Mother Dimble and her husband Cecil, and Arthur and Camilla Deniston. They provide an attractive model of what marriage can be. Though far from perfect, their marriages are marked by a love that is other-centered and self-sacrificial. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but the weaknesses provide opportunities to serve, not correct. A beautiful example of this comes when Mother Dimble and another resident of the mansion are discussing their husbands:

“‘That’s how they treat us once they’re married. They don’t even listen to what we say,’ I said. And do you know what she said? ‘Ivy Maggs,’ said she, ‘did it ever come into your mind to ask whether anyone could listen to all we say?'”

Mother Dimble does not chide her husband for not listening to every word she said. She understands that men do not work that way, and serves her husband by allowing him to be a man. The promise of beauty in marriage and childrearing is alive in the Dimbles and the Denistons. By divine intervention, Jane and Mark are given the opportunity to enter into both.

Going even deeper, “That Hideous Strength” about the redemption of beauty and innocence on Earth. In both “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra” he created scenes of heartbreaking beauty amid a setting of un-fallen, innocent creatures. At first glance, “That Hideous Strength” is devoid of those things. But near the end, there is a chapter devoted to reconciliation that takes place in a scene of humble domesticity: a bridal chamber in a simple cottage, with a fire on the hearth and dinner cooking on the stove. After the horror of the recent battle, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and Lewis’ purpose comes into sharp focus. He had to take us away from Earth to Malacandra and Perelandra to reintroduce us to beauty and innocence. Our eyes and consciences had to be reopened and refreshed, and we had to be reminded of the hideous nature of evil, before he could bring us back to Earth and show us that beauty and innocence can still be found here. The infection had to be removed before we could remember health.

There is so much more that could be discussed. There is the redemption of the relationship between man and the lower animals; there is a critique of the evils of postmodernism, there are contrasts and ironies galore, and the bringing together of elements of Arthurian legend, medieval cosmology, and even the curse of the Tower of Babel to tie all of it together. There is also his love of language, which is equal to that of Tolkien and every bit as enjoyable, though of a slightly different savor. But I have gone on long enough. There are treasures in “That Hideous Strength” rich enough to reward all who are willing to take the plunge, and I heartily encourage everyone who comes this way to do so.

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A War Like No Other

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian WarA War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoy reading classical Greek and Latin literature of all sorts: drama, poetry, and history, as well as books about these topics. So it was with a great anticipation of something good that I sat down to read Hanson’s “A War Like No Other”. Hanson is a noted author, historian and classicist, so what could be more interesting than his take on the Peloponnesian war? A lot of things, actually.

Not that “A War Like No Other” is bad. Hanson, as has been noted in many reviews, departs from the typical linear presentation of the war, taking instead a topical approach. In each chapter he examines the war as a whole through the lens of a particular aspect of the war. In “Armor”, he focuses on the life of the Greek Hoplite soldier, the main Hoplite battles, and how the nature of those battles changed radically from the opening to the closing of the war. Likewise in “Walls” he investigates the ancient Greek practice of siege warfare. Naval battles are discussed in “Ships”, cavalry in “Horses”, and so on. As he examines these topics in detail he also touches on several recurring themes, chief among them the cost of the war in material treasure, human lives, and the way the Peloponnesian war changed Western concepts of war forever. All of this is fascinating.

The issue I had was not with the information presented, but how it was presented. The topical approach simply did not work for me. It was too fragmented and disjoint. I felt like I was reading the same story over and over again. True, each chapter varied from the last in topic, but too many of the events and characters were repeated. The narrative thread provided by a linear history was disrupted as those characters and events lost their normal place in a timeline. It did not help that this was my first reading of a book on the Peloponnesian war. Perhaps if I had already read Thucydides, “A War Like No Other” would have been more accessible.

On the whole, Hanson’s book is worthwhile, but I cannot recommend it to the newcomer to the war between Athens and Sparta. Start with Thucydides. I intend to make him my next stop.

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What's Wrong with the WorldWhat’s Wrong with the World by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Times of London once invited a number of well-known authors to write essays on the theme “What’s Wrong With the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote his reply in the form of a letter. It read “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” It is a letter that showcases his genius; humble, honest, humorous, with a profound understanding of the seriousness and far-reaching effects of individual sin. Apparently, though, Chesterton was not satisfied with just that letter, for he went on to write a book dedicated to the topic of what is wrong with the world.

His answer to that question is not immediately clear. It unfolds slowly, and even obliquely because his answer, by itself, makes no sense. Chesterton argues, in short, that what is wrong with the world is that the world is always trying to solve the most basic problems by treating only the symptoms. In other words, he says, we are always starting at the wrong end. The most startling example he cites in support of his argument is a movement among the intelligentsia of his time to eradicate an infestation of lice among the poor by shaving the heads of the children. Yes, Chesterton acknowledges, that would alleviate the symptom of the lice, but it does nothing to address the ultimate cause: that people are living in conditions of abject poverty that are conducive to the spread of lice. Address the issue of poverty and the symptom of lice will take care of itself.

Chesterton illustrates his argument by examining the mistakes society makes about men, women, children and their proper place in the world and in relationship with each other. He repeatedly shows how those in power nearly always mistake a symptom for the problem, and frequently make things worse when they start “helping”. His observations are profound and incisive, in the most literal sense of the word. They cut into the reader who, if honest, sees his or her own folly reflected back from the pages.

Overall, this is a good book and one worth reading. I must admit, however, that some parts seem dated. Chesterton addresses issues that are specific to his time and place in history. Some of the evils he cites are no longer going concerns. Having said that, the general principles remain relevant, and we ignore him at the risk of committing what he referred to as “chronological snobbery.” There is much to be learned from Mr. Chesterton, and we would all do well to allow him to educate us. The sooner, the better.

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The Ballad of the White HorseThe Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time there was a king who ruled a small country. He was a good king who loved his people, his country, and God. But he was beset with enemies on every side. He fought and lost many battles against these enemies and was on the brink of absolute defeat. Then one day, as he walked through the woods, a vision appeared to him of a beautiful woman. She encouraged him to take heart and go into battle once more. She did not promise him victory, but her appearance filled him with hope, and he knew he must obey. Gathering his remaining friends around him, they engaged in one last, desperate battle. The king and his friends rose up and killed many of the enemy, but each of his friends fell, until he alone was left to lead the army. In his wrath, he took up his sword against the foe with such fury that they fell away before him, and the enemy king surrendered and became his prisoner. The good king brought peace to his kingdom, his people flourished, and they called him Great for the mighty deliverance he worked for them, and for the prosperity they enjoyed under his reign.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but it is the story of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex and the Anglo-Saxons in the ninth century. “The Ballad of the White Horse” is G.K. Chesterton’s magnificent epic poem based on King Alfred’s climactic victory over the Danish Vikings at the battle of Ethendun. Stirring and bold, it is one of Chesterton’s best works, showing him to be a master of verse as well as prose. It functions not only as the story of Alfred’s victory over the heathen Danes, but also as an allegory of the ongoing war between Christianity and paganism. Chesterton writes of the Danes with their Norse gods:

Their souls were drifting as the sea,
And all good towns and lands,
They only saw with heavy eyes,
And broke with heavy hands.

Their gods were sadder than the sea,
Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
Sadly, from hill to hill

The Danes are the pagans of old with gods of death who, even in victory, give no hope or help:

They seemed as trees walking the earth,
As witless and as tall,
Yet they took hold upon the heavens
And no help came at all.

The White Horse of the title is the ancient White Horse of Uffington, a giant horse cut into the chalk of the hillside sometime during the bronze age. Chesterton sets Alfred’s battle in the White Horse vale, for the horse represents both England and the Church. At the beginning of the poem, the horse is grey, overgrown with weeds that threaten to cover and obscure it forever. It is his job to cleanse it, to expel the Danes from England, the pagans from the Church. He is to fight for the purity of both, whether he succeeds or not. Of course, that leaves the Saxons as representative of Christianity, perpetually fighting a terrifying enemy, always seeming on the brink of defeat, but always surviving to glorify God.

“The Ballad of the White Horse” is not just excellent literature. It is Chesterton’s call to the Church; an alarm and a rallying cry. The Church is to be ever on the watch for the invasion of paganism, ever ready to take up arms against its influence to keep it from corrupting and obscuring the beauty and glory it reflects as an image of God. He makes this abundantly clear in a striking passage where Chesterton describes the paganism of his own time directly. Alfred, near the end of his life, prophesies about the enemies that the Church will face in years to come:

They shall not come in war-ships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.

Not with the humour of hunters,
Or savage skill in war,
But ordering all things with dead words,
Strings shall they make of beasts and birds,
And wheels of wind and star.

They shall come mild as a monkish clerk,
With many a scroll and pen,
And backward shall ye wonder and gaze,
Desiring one of Alfred’s days,
When pagans still were men.

These are the pagans that Chesterton fought, and that the Church still faces today. There is a distinct note of longing here. Chesterton is nostalgic for a past when one could meet the enemy openly, clearly in pitched battle. That same nostalgia resonates deeply with me. If it were only as simple as taking up a sword against a flesh and blood enemy, and not having to sift through twisted words and tortured reasoning to reach to the heart of the enemy. There is no guarantee of victory in either case, but on a physical battlefield, you know who the enemy is.

Filled with Chesterton’s trademark wit and wordplay, “The Ballad of the White Horse” is a thrilling read that tells the story of the ancient battle between God’s people and their enemy in the heroic rhythms to which a man’s heart beats. It is the type of poem that all boys should grow up reading until they are men as an example of what true manhood looks like. As men, they should keep reading it as a reminder that they have a responsibility to scour the horse, to keep it white and pure, to engage their enemy until they hear the words “well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

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