Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled on this book while on a bookstore raid in Winnipeg. I'd been keeping an eye out for a book like this because I've been assigned World History to teach this coming semester, so I was really needing a book which would cover pre-history and which would connect the Americas in more clear way. What I got was a book which did that and more.

It is, however, difficult to explain what this book really is. It talks about the origin of inequality, but it isn't really just that. It takes on the false dichotomy between Rousseau's Noble Savage and Hobbes "nasty, brutish and short' as the primal condition of humanity by suggesting that the picture is really more complex than either extreme conceives. It offers a comprehensive view of what anthropology and archaeology can tell us about prehistory, but with a twist.

That twist is that the authors look at the rise of civilization (already a problematic definition) with the critique of North American indigenous groups in the 18th century in mind. Their contention is that this critique, mediated through Enlightenment political debate, both indicates a complexity to the prehistory and may have influenced the anti-authoritarian spin of the last three centuries. From this critique, the authors suggest that the contemporary model which presumes that complex social structures demand a hierarchical form of governance isn't a given and, for much of human history, wasn't necessary. They consider where we got stuck into this opinion.

The key to this discussion, of course, is the indigenous critique, which is drawn from their appearance in European commentators. There are, of course, problems with that. Many critics dismiss these discussions as Graeco-Roman tropes in indigenous dress, but the authors insist that these are authentic political critiques. My own take is that it is possible that both are going on. I think there may well be a historical core, but that the writers, immersed in Graeco-Roman literature, may have used those images in the accounts. That makes them hard to interpret, but not necessarily impossible.

What you get with this book is an incredible erudite, but quite diffuse discussion about how we understand human societies in pre-history. I'm still trying to assimilate what I've learned and, of course, distill it for classroom work, but this is a fascinating book for those interested in the questions of what constitutes civilization and how humanity came to adopt it.

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Friday, July 22, 2022

Review: Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to read this book because of Herrin's Ravenna book which I read in the spring. She is a gifted historian, but I already knew that because of some of her earlier scholarly works which I've read over the years. This is an excellent survey of the important elements of Byzantine history.

The structure is, like the Ravenna book, a bit episodic, in the sense that Dr. Herrin doesn't focus on a connected narrative, but in giving a sense of the times. That is a common approach I'm finding in more popular history books, especially for the Middle Ages. The aim here is to convince the reader that there is something intrinsically valuable about Byzantine history, which has been obscured over the centuries. For that, that's preaching to the choir, but I've been interested in the Byzantines for three or four decades, so that goes without saying. There is the standard defensiveness about the Renaissance and Enlightenment dismissal of the Middle Ages (the term itself is dismissive) as superstitious and of limited historical value, which being a Byzantinist only increases because of the Orientalist dismissal on top of the standard medievalist dismissal. Herrin is making a case that we need to pay attention to Byzantium.

This is a good survey of the important aspects of the Byzantine Empire and its legacy to the West. I do wonder sometimes how long we have to keep measure ourselves against the theoretical ideal of the West and fitting into its development. But that is probably the subject of another book.

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Review: The Privilege of Love: Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality

The Privilege of Love: Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality The Privilege of Love: Camaldolese Benedictine Spirituality by Peter-Damian Belisle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up, largely because I've been watching talks from the New Camaldoli Hermitage over Youtube over the last few years and this book kept getting referred to as the starting point of Camaldolese spirituality. And, since I really found that spirituality helpful for me, I thought this was worth getting.

This is, of course, a collection of essays on Camaldolese history, practice and theology by several authors, ranging from monks from the various communities to oblates and friends. All in English, they draw on the thousand year history of the Camaldolese communities, which, even among the rather de-centralized Benedictines, seem unusually diverse in approach. I found the essays helpful in understanding some of the confusing elements of Camaldolese monasticism and really enjoyed learning about them.

Like any collection, the essays are a wide range of styles and approaches. Some are pretty broad and give good background and context, others are much more specialized. But the volume is worth reading for those interested in Benedictine monasticism and the Camaldolese in particular.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Review: How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living Dying, Purpose Prayer, Forgiveness Friendship

How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living  Dying, Purpose  Prayer, Forgiveness  Friendship How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living Dying, Purpose Prayer, Forgiveness Friendship by Judith Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was rather slow to pick up this book, considering that I motored through the Valente's other two books in the spring, and I'm not entirely sure why. So, I decided a couple of weeks ago to pick it up and I'm glad I did. This is written in the form of letters between Valente and Paul Quinon, a monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. They are set just before the outbreak of the pandemic and in the early stages, and reflect on life, vocation and so much more.

The letters are really quite lovely. They show great vulnerability and honesty and really resonated with much of my own experience over the last few years. I enjoyed their reflection and the genuine kindness in the correspondance. They take up each of the writer's daily struggles and reflect, really reflect on what those struggles mean. And I find that an irresistible combination.

I read these slowly, I'll note. I think that really is the best way. Read a couple at a time and take time to reflect on how it fits your life. You won't regret it .

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Review: How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living Dying, Purpose Prayer, Forgiveness Friendship

How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living  Dying, Purpose  Prayer, Forgiveness  Friendship How to Be: A Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living Dying, Purpose Prayer, Forgiveness Friendship by Judith Valente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was rather slow to pick up this book, considering that I motored through the Valente's other two books in the spring, and I'm not entirely sure why. So, I decided a couple of weeks ago to pick it up and I'm glad I did. This is written in the form of letters between Valente and Paul Quinon, a monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. They are set just before the outbreak of the pandemic and in the early stages, and reflect on life, vocation and so much more.

The letters are really quite lovely. They show great vulnerability and honesty and really resonated with much of my own experience over the last few years. I enjoyed their reflection and the genuine kindness in the correspondance. They take up each of the writer's daily struggles and reflect, really reflect on what those struggles mean. And I find that an irresistible combination.

I read these slowly, I'll note. I think that really is the best way. Read a couple at a time and take time to reflect on how it fits your life. You won't regret it .

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Review: The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han

The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han by Mark Edward Lewis
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I got this book because I was looking for a fairly comprehensive took on early China, as a way to expand my knowledge of the ancient world away from my familiar Graeco-Roman world. So I found this book which is the first of a series on Chinese history.

I enjoyed this book very much, although I did occasionally struggle to keep the period straight in my head. That is, of course, a sign of my unfamiliarity of the narrative of Chinese history, but was remedied by just going back and making sure I understood the sweep of the Qin and Han dynasties (well, add the Zhou as well). The structure is by topic, so the narrative is understood.

The result is a fascinating exploration of the politics, society and culture of ancient China, which really filled out a lot of what I didn't understand in my previous forays into Chinese history. As an introduction, this book is really quite excellent. It is clear and well supported by the sources. It is truly worth reading and I'm looking forward to starting the next in the series on the Tang dynasty.

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Review: Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History by John Dickson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Christian book, but one with a difference. It is a book which tries to take seriously both the good that Christians have done in history and the evil that we have also done. It is written with the criticisms of the 'New Atheism' in mind, but also with a progressivist defence of what religion and, Christianity, brings to the historical record.

So, first off, I can't say I love the title. 'Bullies' sounds a false note for me, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it feels like it trivializes the negative aspect just a trifle. The fact is that Christians over history have done some pretty evil stuff, far past the 'bullies' level would suggest, so I'm not entirely sure it is the best comparison to Saints. I'm not sure I quite know what I'd use, but it just sounds too weak.

That quibble aside, I generally liked this book. It is written in a popular style, so sometimes goes a little fast and loose with the evidence, but it isn't unsound. It does lay out a case that Christians also contributed constructively to the social fabric of the societies they found themselves in. It highlights their intellectual achievements, even in those periods that moderns dismiss as 'dark ages'.

I also like that it calls out that Renaissance/Enlightenment dismissal of the Middle Ages, which really isn't borne out in the vibrancy of those periods. The mediaeval age is a very different time to our own, but it wasn't without its own virtues and, yes, vices, just like our own time.

This is still a work of apologetics, even if it isn't aggressively or blindly pro-Christian. It is a chastened narrative, mindful of the wrongs that Christians have done over history, but also calling to mind the good. And that is really all anyone can ask in a historical narrative of any group.

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Review: New Seeds of Contemplation

New Seeds of Contemplation New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, of course, a classic in spiritual writing in the 20th century. It is Thomas Merton's introduction to the contemplative life, which he sees as accessible for anyone- monk, lay person, whoever. It is a series of reflections on how to contemplate God and his world, including many of the pitfalls and the joys, written in the inimitable Merton's prose.

Many of the things that I love about Merton comes out in the book. His writing is lovely, of course, but what captures me more is his inherent good sense and his commitment to the belief that contemplation is for all. This is a valuable starting point and a book that I wish I had read years ago. Of course, I'm not entirely sure I would have understood it years ago, if I truly understand it now. A re-reading or many re-readings, I think, are in my future.

My advice with this book is to take it slow. Don't try to read to much. Read a section, read it again, think about it, reflect on it. I read New Seeds on the subway over the course of three months, reading a small section. Frequently, I had to re-read a section two, three or four times over as many days to get a glimmer. Other sections were gloriously clear. But let all of it sink in, and, I think, you'll be better for it.

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Saturday, June 04, 2022

Review: Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices

Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices Thomas Merton: An Introduction to His Life, Teachings, and Practices by Jon M. Sweeney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About a week and a half ago, I was thinking that I'd like to read a biography of Thomas Merton. As my followers will have noticed, I've been reading a fair bit of Merton in the last two or three years and I'm currently reading (slowly! as one should) New Seeds of Contemplation. And, of course, I'm reasonably familiar with Merton's life. But I thought a decent biography might be interested and this is the first one I decided to read- available through my local library app.

This is a sound biography. It uses the various sources-Merton's writings, journals, other perspectives- quite effectively to build a picture of the man. It also, interestingly, reflects on the ambivalence some Catholics feel towards Merton, who was and is popular as a spiritual writer, but who also wrote on issues of the day (many of which are surprisingly current today) quite critically. That is, of course, one of the reasons I like him so much, as a spiritual writer who is grounded in the issues of justice and peace.

Not much new and startling comes out of this book, but it is a good start in trying to understand the complex man that Merton was. So, well worth the read.

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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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