Sunday, May 15, 2022

Review: The Time of Troubles II

The Time of Troubles II The Time of Troubles II by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: Domestic Monastery

Domestic Monastery Domestic Monastery by Ronald Rolheiser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Truthfully, this was entirely an impulse purchase for me. I was looking for another book on the Chapters/Indigo website and this popped up. I knew the author, having read and enjoyed a couple of his books. And this blending of the secular everyday and monastic wisdom drew me, as you might expect from my reading list in the last few years. I'm glad I purchased it because this was, while a very slim volume, a wonderful discovery.

This very slim volume was sparked by an observation that Rohlheiser made about the common advice that, if one devotes an hour a day to prayer, one can't help advance spiritually. When he was challenged by a young mother who noted that she doesn't have that kind of time because all her waking hours are taken up with caring for children, Rohlheiser, with a wisdom he didn't know he had, noted that he thought that that mother didn't need to worry about that time because she is learning what the prayer is supposed to teach her- being selfless, caring for others. It is, although Rohlheiser doesn't really say this, because that childcare was a prayer just as work can be prayer.

What I like about this book is that it genuinely values the experience of those who do work in the everyday world of children, marriages and jobs. And that isn't always easy for a Catholic priest to see. I love that each of the chapters is almost a meditation on aspects of finding God in the every day. And, even if there are occasional false notes, those meditations are useful guides to reflection.

This really is a good book to consider one's relationship with God and with the everyday. Read it slowly, mediate, really think about how those interact in your life. It is worth the time spent.

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Review: Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks

Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks by Michael Patrick O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ran into this book because of a webinar that I attended with this author and Kathleen Norris, so, of course, I had to hunt the book up. The book itself is a memoir in which the author talks about his relationship with the monks of the Trappist monastery, Monastery of Our Lady of the Trinity, now closed. It follows the author as a boy as he struggles to make sense of the normal stresses of growing up, mingled with the aftermath of abuse and marriage breakdown in the 60s and 70s.

The book really is quite lovely. O'Brien evokes a different time and talks about this community with genuine love and gratitude. The result is something of a reflection on Benedictine hospitality and the good that it brings. The way that the community takes him and his family in really sparks healing. Nor is that healing limited to this family. The presence of this monastery in a very Morman area was initially viewed with suspicion, but the monks steadily changed the minds of their neighbours through their persistent peaceableness.

This is really worth reading, both as a memoir and as a reflection of the impact of Benedictine spirituality. While this monastery is closed, it's impact still seems to linger.

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Saturday, April 16, 2022

Review: Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus

Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus by James Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another book that I read for a Christian Education series at church. It was a good choice, I must say, but, then, I really do like Father James Martin as a writer, so that was kind of a forgone conclusion. It is also an ideal Lent book, which is why we did it, with the added twist of getting some speakers to reflect on the words on their own as well.

This book originates in a series of reflections which Father Martin made on the Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ, during his crucifixion. The seven words (or sayings) are dispersed through Matthew, Luke and John as statements of Christ from the Cross. Martin reflects on them and applies them to various aspects of the Christian life. I know that that sounds pretty flat as a description, but the reflections are touching, occasionally funny and often profound. I appreciated Father Martin's insights and really enjoyed reading them.

This is a book to read slowly and reflectively. It is, as I said, ideal for Lent or Holy Week. And it is really quite short. Take your time with this and I think you'll see the benefits.

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Review: The Time of Troubles I

The Time of Troubles I The Time of Troubles I by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the start of a re-read of a Harry Turtledove Videssos series from the 90s. It bundles The Stolen Throne and Hammer and Anvil together in a story set in the Empires of Videssos and Makuran, which are basically the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires with working magic. The names are changed, of course, but we're talking about the crisis in Byzantium and Persia just prior to the Islamic invasions, when Byzantium was ruled by Heraclius I and Persia by Chosroes II.

The points of view are interesting when compared to the other Videssos series. The first half (The Stolen Throne) is based in Makuran instead of Videssos, and follows the adventures of a minor noble, Abivard, who, unexpectedly, gets involved in royal politics and emerges as the brother-in-law to the king. The second half (Hammer and Anvil) focuses on the minor general, Maniakes (a character in the first novel), who returns from exile from the back end of beyond to overthrow the tyrannical emperor of Videssos and then to try to restore the mess that that tyrant created.

The result is very, well, Harry Turtledove. The heroes are standard Turtledove fare- honest to a fault, thoughtful, politically savvy, clever. Yet, it is put together in aa convincing way as we see the two heroes navigating their (forgive the allusion) byzantine court politics. I enjoyed back in the 90s and I am enjoying it again. And, of course, I got the second book....

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Review: By Way of Grace: Moving from Faithfulness to Holiness

By Way of Grace: Moving from Faithfulness to Holiness By Way of Grace: Moving from Faithfulness to Holiness by Paula Huston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is my third Paula Huston book inside of a year, which is a good thing mostly. I really do enjoy her writing and I enjoyed this book as well. It is written with that blend of personal reflection and theological connections which I enjoy.

The premise of the book is centred around the theological virtues and intersperses personal reflections on the virtue in question and theological discussion of the virtue. In this book, those two sections are really clearly marked, which is different from the other two books which interweave them more organically. The insights are still good and the theology is as well, but I found the more clear lines between the two experiences of virtue a little jarring at times. Both are valuable, but the transitions felt a little sharp at times.

This is only a minor criticism and I wonder how much of it is influenced by the rather rapid immersion I did with this author. I do that sometimes- discover a writer and then read everything quickly. That has its benefits, but it does mean by later in the process, I start going 'ah, that story', not dismissively, but as a little too much shorthand, which inhibits my ability to listen. So, I wonder if I was listening well to this book. A break and a re-read may be in order.

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Review: The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures

The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures The World Encyclopedia of Archaeology: The World's Most Significant Sites and Cultural Treasures by Aedeen Cremin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an odd review because I don't know a lot of people who read encyclopedias, but, then, apparently I do. And, really, while this is clearly a reference work, it is a good encyclopedia to read, given that it has a pretty narrow focus (ish, it is world archaeology, after all). That is, it's pretty comprehensive within a fairly narrow disciplinary focus.

The format is pretty straightforward. The guts of the encyclopedia are the entries on various of the most important archaeological sites in the world, along with short articles on various archaeological foci important to some of these sites. They are grouped geographically by region and represent a pretty thorough sampling of the most important sites and topics in archaeology from the paleolithic to the modern era. They are, of course, thumb-nail sketches, but they are written to address the main issues and questions which the reader can follow up on.

For anyone interested in archaeology, this is a very good book and well worth reading to get some familiarity with the archaeologies of various cultures and regions, as well as given the big picture look that we sometimes miss.

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Sunday, March 20, 2022

Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree

The Cross and the Lynching Tree The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been sitting on my wife's work theological shelf (I'm sure she's read it- just not me) for a while and the title has always intrigued me. It is a striking juxtaposition and, of course, the subject of the essays within combine a robust theology of the cross with an equally robust remembrance of the practice of lynching which was the Black experience in the US for several generations after the Civil War. It is a striking and painful contrast.

Cone's main thesis in the several essays has two threads. The first, is the Black recognition of the parallel between Jesus' death of the cross and the practice of lynching Black men, women and children perpetrated by the white community. Cone draws out that parallel clearly in the words of the victims themselves, their religious leaders, activists, artists. The recognition of that parallel fed the Black community through all those years of lynchings and explains many things about the vitality of the Black church and its reliance on Jesus through this time.

The second theme is the incomprehension of the white liberals or white Christians in seeing this parallel. This is true both of those sympathetic to the lynchers and those who were not. It is, as Cone suggests, an indictment on both white liberals and white Christians that we missed this and that we didn't push harder against lynching, insisting on, if anything, a gradualist approach at a time that people were dying. As someone who does try to take a moderate stance on many issues, it is a clear warning that there are times and places where moderation is not called for, but rather a cry for justice is what is needed.

This is a brilliant book and well worth reading. It does and should make the reader uncomfortable, especially if they're white. But that discomfort is a good thing.

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Saturday, March 12, 2022

Review: Justinian

Justinian Justinian by H.N. Turteltaub
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting historical fiction offering, written by Harry Turtledove with a pseudonym, charting the story of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II Rhinotmetus (the slit-nosed), who qualifies as one the crazier of the crazy Byzantine Emperors. Mind you, I get the craziness of the second reign. I'm not sure I'd be best pleased with people who had cut my nose off.

The novel tells the tale of this Emperor by interposing a narrative featuring Justinian himself as the author, interposed by the reactions and additions of a fictional guardsman and loyal supporter of Justinian who corrects the main story from the prospect of twenty years later In the course of the story, we see various luminaries and future emperors appear and disappear from the story. The story itself is compelling and largely based on the Byzantines sources. That makes sense because Turtledove was studying Byzantine history before he because a sci-fi/fantasy writer.

The narrative itself is very much in Turtledove's style and is compelling. The fictional guardsman, Myakes, is a standard Turtledove hero- sensible, brave, loyal. Justinian, well, Justinian, he's a mess-spoiled, entitled, brilliant, stubborn, proud and ultimately crazy for revenge (again, not sure I'd be in a good mood if someone chopped my nose off). The story watches Justinian's first downfall, his recovery and his ultimate self-destruction in sometimes painful detail. Justinian is not an easy character, but he is vivid and is a study of a person undone by his faults. In that sense, he is a bit of a tragic hero.

This is book is worth reading and I enjoyed it a lot. A knowledge of Byzantine history is helpful, but not essential for reading this. But it is a fascinating story and an interesting reconstruction.

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Review: Twelve Ordinary Men

Twelve Ordinary Men Twelve Ordinary Men by John F. MacArthur Jr.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book as part of a men's group I belong to. I must admit that I was a little nervous about it when we starting, knowing MacArthur's reputation. I have to admit that that nervousness was rather justified.

This book is a compilation of a couple versions of sermon series on the lives of the twelve apostles. Now, as anyone who has some acquaintance with the Bible will quickly realise, that isn't necessarily an easy prospect. Some apostles are mentioned a lot in the Bible, so sketching their character isn't that difficult. Some, well, are hardly mentioned past the lists of apostles in each of the Gospels. MacArthur solves this by grouping the apostles at times and sometimes by extrapolating from the admittedly scanty information we have. The result is certainly a lively piece of writing which is highly readable and often helpful.

Yet, this book left a lot of sour notes for me. MacArthur does play a little fast and loose with the Biblial accounts at times, and especially in his deployment of Greek words to support his argument. That is subtle, but can lead to some false conclusions. In addition, there is very much a Christian self-help on manhood vibe under some of these biographies, which can get a bit frustrating because it very much feels forced a lot of the time.

I'm not sure I would recommend this book, without a lot of caveats. While readable, I'm not sure I trust its readings a lot of the time.

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Review: Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop

Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop by J.N.D. Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a re-read from my patristics reading craze in the early 2000s. I've had this in my library for years and read it a few times, but never got around to reviewing here, so here we go.

This is a biography of the Church Father, theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople and, above all, sermon writer, St. John Chrysostom (the Golden-Tongued). Written by J.N.D. Kelly, a giant in patristics from the last couple of generations, this is a thorough biography of this brilliant, if controversial figure. Kelly does a good job with the abundant sources for John's life (his own sermons and treatises, the histories of the big three fourth century church historians- Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomon and Theodoret of Cirrhus, as well as assorted saint's lives etc). He pieces together John's dramatic life, especially in his dealing with the imperial court of Arcadius.

It is a good, readable biography which explains much about John's career. The reconstructions make sense, although a thorough review would involved a lot of reading. It is a good introduction to this fascinating early Christian writer. Now, go out and find some of St. John's sermons, because they are worth reading on their own.

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Sunday, February 27, 2022

Review: The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabriele
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those popularizing books on the Middle Ages (sorry, Bright Ages) which come out every once in a while, which are trying to make it clear that the Middle Ages were not a swamp of illiteracy, superstition and nastiness as Renaissance thinkings characterized it, but a vibrant and interesting time in its own right. As someone who is drawn to elements of the Middle Ages, I have to admit my sympathies here and now. It is tedious to constantly hear the tired, old characterizations of that era over and over again.

So, the author's answer is to call these years (roughly 450s to 1350s) the Bright Ages. I have to admit that my reaction to that was to wonder if was a bit 'Monty Python, Life of Brian "You Always have to Live on the Bright Side of Life'. And it is...a little. That is, unlike many takes on these years, the focus is on the positive and as a corrective it is useful. That said, the authors also don't shy away from the darker sides of those years too, so there is more balance than one normally finds in these kinds of books.

The writing is quite superb, if episodic. The authors focus on important moments in the period to give a sense of the culture, often anchoring it in great works of art. That means having a good sense of the general narrative of the mediaeval period is a good thing, otherwise, I can see getting a bit lost in the episodes. That said, the writing is beautiful and really insightful. The reflections on the Crusades in the era of the alt.right and the Black Plague in the age of COVID are particularly affecting for their connection to today. The breadth of the discussion, taking in not only Western Europe, but also the Byzantine and Islamic East (and south), is also fascinating, bringing in episodes which most people will not be aware of and revealing the connections within the mediaeval world which most people aren't aware of.

This is a really great book and worth taking time to savour.

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Review: Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way by Richard Twiss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is actually one of my wife's books, but I wanted to pick it up because I do think I need to diversify my theological reading. I'm glad I did because this takes an interesting approach to a critical question, that of acculturation. The perspective, of course, is an indigenous one and is taking on the heavy hand of Western conceptions of Christianity within indigenous communities. Twiss brings an abundance of experience in finding a new way to worship Christ within a specifically indigenous context, adapting such practices as drumming, singing and sweat lodges (to name a few) to a Christian one.

The main point of the book is the argument that this kind of incorporation of various indigenous practices into Christian worship is not only acceptable practice (contrary to those who argue that only the Western concepts are free of idolatry etc), but is preferential. His point that Christianity has always acculturated itself to the cultures it encounters is, for me, pretty transparently obvious- any look at Christian history such, for instance, the patristic era, will make that clear enough. However, I also recognize that the Western prejudice towards its own acculturated practices is so prevalent that the point has to be made and argued. And Twiss does that quite clearly.

This is a valuable book and, I think, an important one in order to understand what indigenous Christian spirituality contributes to the mosaic of Christian expressions.

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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Review: Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Re-appropriating Monastic Practice for the Humanities

Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Re-appropriating Monastic Practice for the Humanities Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Re-appropriating Monastic Practice for the Humanities by Mary Keator
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was something of a chance purchase because I bought it pretty much sight unseen while looking around on my online bookstore. It intrigued me because it combined two parts of my life, my vocation as a teacher and interest in Benedictine spirituality. I mean, how could I leave this on the virtual shelf?

This book, of course, has to be understood within the context of the contemplative teaching movement, which has been gaining steam since the 1990s, with the writings, especially, of Parker Palmer, bell hicks and such educational commentators. It is an attempt to recover a spiritual focus on the whole learner by deepening the experience of learning through contemplative techniques. Much of the literature has tended to draw its inspiration from Buddhism or a secularized version of Buddhist thinking around mindfulness. This book caught my eye because it was trying to apply a specifically Christian spiritual discipline to contemplative learning.

The focus of the book is trying to use the spiritual practice of lectio divina, a monastic way of reading texts (especially the Bible) slowly and reflectively. Keator applies the lectio approach to her college literature courses, discusses the background to the practices, how one can reflect them in a modern classroom and what the pedagogical challenges are. She isn't the first to think of this- Maria Lichtmann did it before her- but what I like about this book is that she applies it very practically and gives suggestions about how to do it with a flesh and blood class. It is still a difficult process because it runs counter to so much in our culture- careerism, the speed of technology, the reluctance to dig deep. But Keator makes it feel possible.

A caveat though. This approach works best, I think, when the instructor has more or less total control over the curriculum. That is, it presumes that one person is making the decisions and can structure their course whatever way they like. I'm a high school teacher and, while I teach Latin and have that freedom, I also teach English and that is a little harder to manage. Full independence is difficult to achieve in a high school, which may explain why the contemplative teaching movement seems to be slower to catch on in that context.

However, I still think it is important to consider these insights and, honestly, I think this is going to be a book that I read and re-read several times to see what I can do. I may not be able to structure my whole course like this, but I think that I can take some of the insights and use them to good effect.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Review: Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ran into this book browsing the electronic offerings of my public library. I was searching for Byzantine books and this one, written by one of the more notable Byzantinists of this generation, leaped out at me. Ravenna,that bastion of Byzantine power in Italy, was, it turns out a labour of love for the author, who visited Ravenna when she was younger and was inspired by the fusion of Byzantine, Gothic and Roman art and architecture.

This book looks at the history of this remarkable city. That is not an easy task because, like many cities in the Mediterranean at this time, sources are lacking and there are substantial gaps in the records. Herrin uses written sources such as histories as well as inscriptions and physical evidence to produce a coherent narrative of this city from the fifth century, when it rose to prominence as the capital of the Western Roman Empire into the 9th century, as an outpost of Byzantine control until its fall to the Lombards. The story is complicated and more and more focused on the ecclesiastical politics which characterized the mediaeval era in Italy.

This is a fascinating book, which gives a clear sense of the history of Ravenna, but just as importantly, a real sense of the physical setting of the city and its art. I've never visited Ravenna on my various travels in Italy, but, I admit, this puts it firmly on my list.

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Review: A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a throwback to my high school days, when I read this book on a rather regular basis. It is an account, heavily based on eyewitnesses and on detailed archive research, of the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden, the British offensive in September of 1944, which sought to drive the German army out of the Netherlands and gain a bridgehead on the Rhine at Arnheim. The strategy to gain that objective was the most massive airborne landing in history, which was designed to capture the bridges along one highway leading to the Rhine bridge at Arnheim. Then, a armoured spearhead would push up that one highway and reach the Rhine within two days, establish a bridgehead and, maybe, even drive for Berlin. Conceived in the heady days of the liberation of France in the summer and fall of 1944, the plan assumed the Germans were close to collapse. Despite the heady optimism, one of the commanders, during the planning, wondered openly whether they might be trying to going one bridge too far.

The book offers a vivid narrative of the planning and execution of this ambitious and, well, rather fool-hardy offensive. It covers the over-confidence of the planners, who missed two battered SS panzer divisions who arrived in the Arnheim area to rest and the chaos as the troops on the ground faced both heavier than expected resistance, but also more difficult weather, logistics and support. Despite everything that went wrong, Ryan conveys an effort which almost, but not quite managed to succeed. His meticulous research gives a clear sense of what was going on at any point on both sides and among the Dutch civilians. It makes for fascinating reading.

Despite its age, this book is a classic in World War Ii battle history. It is so well written that it was even made into a movie, which popularized the story. It is a really worthwhile book to read for those who want to get a sense of what World War II was like on the ground.

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Review: Day by Day with Saint Benedict

Day by Day with Saint Benedict Day by Day with Saint Benedict by Terrence G. Kardong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up just over a year ago and decided to use it as part of my daily spiritual routine each day for 2021. It is, as one suggests, a setting of readings organized daily throughout the year. The readings, equally obviously, are drawn from the Rule of Benedict, the handbook of monastic life. The excerpts are arranged by Father Terrence Kardong, of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, who was a noted expert in the Rule of Benedict and Benedictine monk, who passed away recently.

The excerpts are arranged for each day and followed by some commentary on the day's excerpt, written by Father Kardong. The commentary ranges from giving background, connections to the monastic context and sometimes stories involving the principle at the time. They aren't arranged in the sequence they occur in the Rule. In fact, I'm not sure if I quite understand how they are organized. That could get a bit confusing at times, even for someone, like me, who is moderately familiar with the Rule.

I found it a helpful resource most days, but occasionally verging on abstruse or downright unclear. The stories are often amusing, but sometimes not clear about what their point is. There is much that is useful in this book, so it is definitely worth reading, but the organization can sometimes fight the final result.

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