Review: A Rule Against Murder

A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache #4), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2008.

Summary: The Gamache’s getaway to a peaceful lodge is interrupted, first by an unloving family reunion, and then by the death of one of the family, crushed under a statue. Meanwhile, the naming of a child forces Gamache to face his own family history.

Manoir Bellechasse is one of the most exclusive and peaceful getaways in Quebec, and just a stone’s throw from Three Pines. Armand and Reine Marie Gamache have come here for anniversaries for many years, reveling in the hospitality of Madame Dubois. Displaced by a family reunion of a demanding and unhappy family, they are once again in the smaller back room where they had spent their first visit to the auberge. They are treated by the family as “shopkeepers” who didn’t belong. They observe and befriend the strange child, Bean, whose gender is unknown. S/he is Mariannas’s child, a quirky single mom. There is Thomas, the seeming business success, Julia, perfect it seems in every way, but recovering from divorcing her husband, in prison for securities fraud. They talk disparagingly of “Spot and Clare” called the greediest of all. Given this, imagine the surprise of the Gamaches when they discover that Spot and Clare are Peter and Clara Morrow, artists from Three Pines who have become good friends. The family is together for their mother Irene, and their barely tolerated step-father, Bert Finney. The father, Charles Morrow had died some years earlier and would be remembered by the unveiling of a statue that Manoir Bellechasse agreed to give a home in exchange for a substantial gift.

The place to which they have come offers peace, attentive hospitality, and safety, away from the world’s troubles. Madame Dubois and her deceased husband turned an old hunting lodge into a premiere getaway. She remembers her husband in every corner of the inn. Pierre Patenaude is the maitre d’ and along with Chef Veronique are the two permanent residents, alongside Madame Dubois. Pierre oversees the wait staff, young people from all over English-speaking Canada to learn French, and the skills of serving and attending to the needs of guests. Most are trying to “find” themselves. One, Elliot from Vancouver, the same city as Julia, is the exception to the rest who are grateful for Pierre and Veronique’s attentions. He is determined to defy Pierre.

The statue of Charles is unveiled, surprising all with its expression of sadness. That night, the family’s ugliness unfolds in front of the Gamache’s. Julie throws a cup to the floor, crying out “Stop it, I’ve had enough.” and proceeds to eviscerate each of her siblings, including Peter, who she calls cruel and greedy. She concludes by looking around at all of them, and says “I know Daddy’s secret.” Overnight, a terrible storm hits. The next morning, Gamache is aroused from his breakfast reveries by screams, coming from the gardener, Colleen, who has found Julia crushed beneath the statue of her father, arms out as in an embrace.

The question is not only who could have done this but how. The heavy statue would be impossible to push off the pedestal. Furthermore, there were no marks on the pedestal. Even the sculptor has no explanation for this. Gamache, de Beauvoir, and LaCoste gather, and patiently unravel the stories of the family, and those who work at the inn. But “how” eludes them.

Meanwhile Gamache wrestles with his own family’s past, thrown in his face both by his son Daniel, and by the Finney family. His father had been a pacifist, and had been accused of lack of courage. This is brought up by the family in their anger and grief. But his son has gotten their first. The son wants to name their first child, if he is a boy, Honore’, Gamache’s father’s name. Because of the disgrace with which his father was regarded, Armand opposes this, at the risk of estranging his son.

Penny continues to develop Gamache, exploring the ways his father’s life, who he lost at eleven, shaped who he is. We also discover that Peter Morrow may be a more complicated character than we thought, the one other character in a previous murder that Gamache thought capable of becoming a murderer. The conversations between him and Gamache offer Peter the chance to expose the complications of his story.

After the intricate plot and tense climax involving Bean, Gamache sits with Bert Finney on the dock by the lake. Throughout the book, it was thought that Bert, an accountant was doing his sums. It turns out that he was, counting his blessings. He leaves us with a stunning piece of wisdom:

We’re all blessed and we’re all blighted, Chief Inspector,” said Finney. “Every day each of us does our sums. The question is, what do we count?”

Review: White Evangelical Racism

White Evangelical Racism, Anthea Butler. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, (Forthcoming, March) 2021.

Summary: A short history of the evangelical movement in the United States, showing its ties to racism and white supremacy from the time of slavery down to the present.

This was an uncomfortable book for me to read and review. In our racialized society, I would be identified as white. By conviction, I would identify as evangelical. What troubles me about this account is that it makes a good case that the evangelicalism in America with which I am identified is inextricably bound up with the history of racism, America’s original sin, as Jim Wallis has called it.

Anthea Butler offers in this book a concise historical account of white evangelicalism’s complicity in racism. She traces that history from the support of slavery in white, mostly southern churches. She follows this through post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the support of white churches for segregation, and the participation of churches in lynchings. While some mainline denominations gave support to the civil rights movement, evangelicals remained on the sideline, calling this a “social gospel.”

Butler is not the first to note that the coalescing of evangelical political engagement in the Seventies and Eighties came as much around the denial of tax exemption for segregated schools like Bob Jones University as it did around opposition to abortion, which was originally not an evangelical cause. She traces the rise of organizations like Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition that led to an increasing alliance of evangelicalism with the Republican party, culminating in the support of 81 percent of self-identifying evangelicals with Donald Trump in 2016 despite race-baiting language, anti-immigration stances, and support of white nationalistic aims.

Perhaps no one person has defined American evangelicalism more than Billy Graham and so Butler devotes a chapter to him. While he desegregated his meetings, and hosted black speakers on his platform, and even include a black evangelist on his team, he took care to distance himself from the civil rights movement as it embraced nonviolent civil disobedience. King may have shared his platform once, but no more. Graham also preached against communism, associated by many in the South with the civil rights movement. His record was ambiguous at best and in the end, the focus remained on winning people to Christ rather than unequivocal stands for racial justice.

Parts of me wanted to protest against this sweeping indictment by citing the abolitionist efforts of northern evangelicals, and other socially engaged efforts in the nineteenth century. Butler does mention this as well as other forays like that of the Promise Keepers into racial reconciliation. The sad fact is none of these movements prevailed over the long haul in standing against white supremacism. The first decade and a half of the twenty-first century saw some promising evangelical initiatives around racial reconciliation and immigration reform, only for these to wither over the last five years.

I also wanted to protest that evangelicalism is not inherently white. Black and Latino churches in this country share the same theology. And people globally identify with the same theological convictions that form the core of American evangelical belief. I’ve been in a meeting with representatives of over 150 countries where this was the case, where those of my skin color were a minority. But in the ways American evangelicalism has separated itself from its Black and Latino kindred, the judgment stands. The typical first response of many white evangelicals to a Christian person of color trying to talk about racial injustice is to defend and argue rather than listen to a fellow Christian. We seem remarkably untroubled that divisions by race in our churches mirror our political divisions.

Butler, a former evangelical who still cares about this movement, reaches this sobering conclusion:

“Evangelicalism is at a precipice. It is no longer a movement to which Americans look for a moral center. American evangelicalism lacks social, political, and spiritual effectiveness in the twentyfirst century. It has become a religion lodged within political party. It is a religion that promotes issues important almost exclusively to white conservatives. Evangelicalism embraces racists and says that evangelicals’ interests, and only theirs, are the most important for all American citizens.”

I have no defense against this. I fear evangelicalism in the United States may be like the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2:1-7. The church was marked by its orthodoxy and yet Jesus has this to say: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV). I fear we are at imminent risk of losing our lampstand, that is, our witness within the culture. In fact, I find most churches are more concerned about political interests than even their historical distinction of seeing lost people come to Christ. Butler’s message mirrors that of Jesus in Revelation. This book is a call to repentance. The trajectory of history is not inevitable. We can turn away from the precipice. But I fear the time is short.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Universe Next Door, Sixth Edition

The Universe Next Door, Sixth Edition, James W. Sire (Foreword by Jim Hoover). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A new edition of this foundational work on comparative worldviews, exploring the contours of various worldviews, including a new chapter on Islam, through the use of eight questions.

This book, in its six editions, has framed my adult working life. I first heard about the idea of worldview in lectures drawn from the author’s work while I was still a student. The first edition of The Universe Next Door was published during my first year working with InterVarsity/USA on their field staff. Now, forty-four years later, I still work with InterVarsity in a national role, and was delighted to receive a copy of the sixth edition of this work. During the intervening years, I came to know the author well enough when we collaborated on some student training and when I hosted him for several lecture opportunities. I learned he was working on the sixth edition the month before his passing. I am so glad to see its completion, with the able help of former InterVarsity Press editor Jim Hoover (who also happens to be a fellow Youngstown native!).

While the basic framework of the book hasn’t changed from forty four years ago, there have been a number of changes that reflect both growth in the author’s concept of worldview, as well as newly emerging trends in thought. For one thing, Sire’s understanding of worldview changed from one of ideas to the recognition of how we live and orient our affections and commitments in light of them. To his seven worldview questions around which each chapter was organized, he added an eighth: What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

Sire was one of the first to recognize the coalescing ideas of new age thought as early as his first edition when he wrote of the “new consciousness.” Later he changed the name of this chapter to “the New Age” and recognized the rise of those who were “spiritual but not religious.” More recently, he added a chapter on post-modernism. With this edition, given the rise of Islam not only in the Middle East, but in Western countries, Winfried Corduan was invited to add a chapter on the Middle East.

I didn’t read editions two through five. What I can say is that in addition to the changes I’ve already noted each chapter shows signs of updating. For example, the chapter on deism includes a section on “moral therapeutic deism,” first described by sociologist Christian Smith. The new age material has been supplemented by discussions of the work of Ken Wilber and Deepak Chopra. In addition, sidebars added posthumously by Jim Hoover further elucidate the work. In addition, discussion questions have been added to each chapter and a chart is included at the end using the eight world view questions offering a brief side-by-side comparison of each of the worldviews.

The idea of worldview has come in for criticism. One critique is the overly intellectualized approach to worldview. Sire has recognized this, as noted above and newer editions recognize the affective and volitional aspects of worldview. Worldview has also been criticized for its polemical use in arguing for “the Christian worldview,” sometimes very narrowly defined. Sire’s Christian theism has a breadth to it lacking in some treatments, but there is no avoiding the fact that this text argues for the Christian faith over other worldviews. Jim Sire spent a good part of his life lecturing as a Christian apologist, and unapologetically so. He did not think contradictory things could all be true and elsewhere argued that one should only believe what one is convinced is true (Why Believe Anything at All?). What one finds here though is someone who loves ideas, even those he would disagree with, tries to understand others on their own terms, and represent them as they would themselves.

This is a work that respects its readers, candid not only about its intentions but its shortcomings. Sire admits his framework doesn’t easily fit Eastern thought. Worldviews are a means of understanding others, not pigeonholing them and dismissing them with a facile apologetic argument. He acknowledges recent challenges and the things he is still grappling with as well as the things of which he is convinced. This is a book that continued to grow through succeeding editions, reflecting an author who also was always learning, always growing. His last email to me was about questions related to new content in this book.

Would that all of us could be like him in this regard! I’m glad InterVarsity Press and Jim Hoover completed and published this work. It is not only a model of engagement but also a tribute to a gifted writer and apologist who did so much to develop the idea of worldview and gave so much encouragement to people who wondered if it was possible to think as well as live Christianly.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Angry Weather

Angry Weather, Friederike Otto. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2020.

Summary: A description of the use of attribution science to assess the probability that anthropogenic-caused climate change is a factor in particular extreme weather events.

You’ve heard the discussions. An extreme drought results in unprecedented forest fires. A record and extended heatwave results in hundreds of heat-related deaths. A hurricane stalls over a major coastal city and dumps record amounts of rainfall resulting in extensive flooding, property damage, and deaths. Record spring rainfalls flood farmlands resulting in major crop losses. Commentators will cite these as yet more examples of climate change, while those denying climate change will argue that these are rare but naturally occurring events.

It turns out that many climate scientists are quiet during these discussions. Weather is complicated. Most climate scientists observe long term trends and the impacts these have as inputs to weather systems. But they are reluctant to opine on individual events. In the last decade, a new area of climate science has developed called attribution science that is used to determine to what extent anthropogenic climate change has contributed to the magnitude or probability of an individual event. Friederike Otto is one of the scientists on the forefront of this emerging field and this book serves as a description of this field and its uses for the lay reader interested in climate research. (For those wanting a more technical version of this material, this article, co-authored by this author, goes deeper into their research methodologies and studies of climate events.)

She uses her team’s real-time research of Hurricane Harvey that dropped over 40 inches of rain on the Houston metro area as an example of attribution science, which has also studied European heatwaves. She details how they isolated the variable they would look at, which in this case was rainfall amounts. Then there is the work of collecting, modelling and analyzing large amounts of data, both about this particular storm and weather data going as far back as possible, in many cases from 30 to 100 years. Using peer-reviewed mathematical modelling, within three weeks the team estimates that climate change makes an event like Harvey three times more likely at the current state of change. In Harvey’s case, this was an event that would occur every 9,000 years under historic conditions, but three times more probable due to climate change. That’s still very unlikely, but also signals the increased likelihood of lesser flooding events.

The account of their study of Harvey is interlaced with explanations about how rising global temperatures from CO2 emissions contribute to changes in weather patterns contributing to more extreme events. She also describes the fossil fuel industry’s spending to cast doubts on climate research. She is honest about the number of weather events they studied where climate change played little or no part and the kinds of events currently not amenable to this approach. One of the most valuable aspects of this research is the information it gives governmental bodies to take steps to prepare when once rare events–floods, storms, droughts, can be predicted to be more common. She describes steps taken in Europe for the sheltering of vulnerable populations during heat waves as an example. If flooding becomes more popular, permits for construction in what were once infrequent flood plains need to be re-evaluated.

There are aspects of this work that are controversial. For one thing, studies like the one on Harvey, are published in real-time, and only subsequently in journals that are peer-reviewed. The argument is that the models are peer-reviewed, as are subsequent articles, but that in the elapse of time, and given the obscurity of most academic journals, this information is most timely and helpful in policy discussions in the immediate context of an event rather than when it is in the rear view mirror.

The other controversial element is to use the results of attribution science in lawsuits for damages against fossil fuel companies who have contributed to climate change. She describes such efforts. I am concerned that these models, built on multiple variables and probabilities may be better to use in future planning than to assess damages arising from past actions, whether the actors were aware of or not of the possible consequences of the actions.

I don’t think the energy companies are without fault in all this, but there seemed a bit too much of a “go after ExxonMobil” in this book for my liking, and I think this can backfire on what seems to be an emerging and useful area of research. Far better it seems to me to use this research for good public policy decisions going forward. Also, the author notes how even 30 years of data is a bare minimum in climate research. This area of research is in its infancy, and while promising, will be proven out more definitively as they continue to produce studies of events, particularly ones with similar variables. But if I were a planner concerned with both the economic viability and disaster preparedness of my region, I would be paying attention.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Your Favorites of 2020

Liberty Plaza, probably in the 1960’s. Photo by Hank Perkins, used with permission of the Mahoning Valley History Society Business and Media Archives collection (http://mahoninghistory.org).

Hard to believe this is the last weekend of 2020. I suspect most of us are glad to see it go.

It has continued to be a joy to write about our home town and to read all the comments, many of which add valuable information to the article that I had not come across. In fact one of the top posts this year was suggested by a reader! So with that teaser, here is the top 10 countdown of your favorites, based on the number of views each received. The links will take you to the original post.

10. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Elijah Boardman and Family. Boardman was one of the investors in the Connecticut Land Company which held and sold the land in the Western Reserve. A political career in Connecticut prevented Boardman from living in the township but bore his name, but he surveyed the land and died during a visit to Boardman. This post led to the suggestion that I write about the Simon family, which turned out to be the second most popular post of the year.

9. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Forest Lawn Memorial Park. My parents and my grandparents on my mother’s side are buried here. I wrote about why the land ended up a cemetery rather than a real estate development and how it represented a new trend in cemeteries when it was developed.

8. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Struthers. Another of those individuals after whom one of the smaller towns near Youngstown is named. One of the interesting stories is that the town didn’t bear his name until his more successful son reacquired the land his father had owned and sold along Yellow Creek and renamed the settlement in his father’s honor.

7. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Our Parents Worked. Written on Labor Day weekend, I remembered how hard our parents worked in Youngstown’s businesses and industries to give us a better life. Many of you responded with stories of your parents.

6. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Frank Sinkwich. He was one of the football greats to come out of Chaney High School, winning a Heisman Trophy, playing for the Georgia Bulldogs.

5. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ed Matey. Former teacher, football coach, and athletic director Ed Matey died this summer. He was one of my teachers at Chaney High School and I wrote a piece combining my memories and a retrospective of his career.

4. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–The 1918 Pandemic in Youngstown. With this year’s pandemic, I thought it would be interesting to look back on the 1918 pandemic, going through Vindicator issues from 1918 to give an account of what things were like in Youngstown.

3. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — William R. Stewart. He was Youngstown’s first Black legislator in the state house. He was also one of Youngstown’s most successful attorneys. To my knowledge, there is no structure or monument to remember him in the city.

2. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Simon Family. This was one of those suggested posts. I wrote the post about Elijah Boardman. A Simon family descendent (who at the time lived in our neighborhood unbeknownst to us) suggested I write about the Simon family and arranged to have a number of great photographs sent. This was fun to write and I loved the great response!

1. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Liberty Township. I suspect the great Hank Perkins picture of Liberty Plaza drew people in. But I also heard from many former and present Liberty Township residents.

I can’t tell you how interesting it is to learn and write about our local history. Often one story leads to another, as was the case in this list. I hope you enjoy these ten snapshots of our local history. I look forward to the things we will discover together in 2021!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Light in the Darkness

Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”
–Matthew 4:15-16

I’ve been meditating of late how Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Savior from the margins. He was from an oppressed nation under Roman domination. Nazareth was in the remote north, far from the religious center of Jerusalem. He was likely of darker complexion. From a human point of view, his conception seemed questionable. The circumstances of his birth were “lowly.” The first to pay him homage were shepherds, people who lived on society’s margins. His early years were as a refugee, his parents fleeing to Egypt to save his life. His was in the building trades, working as a carpenter. 

I’ve read a number of books by people on the margins this year–people of color, women who have been abused, even in the church, climate refugees, the poor. It strikes me Jesus would have much in common with these people, and it was for such as them, those living on the margins in the land of Galilee that he came, light into the darkness.

In one sense, I’m one of those, apart from our shared humanity, with whom Jesus had the least in common. The wonder of it all is that he came even for me. The truth is I am no more deserving and perhaps less than these. What has become increasingly clear is that I don’t get to remake him into a middle class, educated, American, white guy. This reminds me of a book of poems from my Jesus movement days, “Good Old Plastic Jesus” by Ernest Larsen, which is about all the ways we try to re-make Jesus. Instead, he came to those in darkness and dying to remake them, to bring light. So I find myself, especially in this tumultuous year of protests and pandemic, asking, “how would Jesus come and remake me?”

For much of my life I’ve been taught that those on the margins are “them,” the “other,” and to be feared and guarded against. I like to think of Jesus as with me. What a shattering thought that Jesus may likely be with “them,” that he is the “other.” One thing I’ve noticed about Jesus though. He doesn’t exclude. Sinners, tax collectors, women of questionable reputation are all at his table. Pharisees and religious leaders are as well, when they choose to be, and outside when they choose that. Usually they are outside to distance themselves from “them.” When I distance myself from others, I distance myself from Jesus. Then who is in the light of Jesus, and who in the darkness?

At the end of this year of protests, politics, and pandemics, I am weary of those who would separate us and them and make me choose. I want to choose to be where Jesus is, bringing light into darkness rather than cursing it. And I need Jesus to come and shine his light into all the hidden, dark places in me, the places where I still divide the world into us and them, the enlightened and the benighted.

Come, Lord Jesus and bring light into our darkness!

Review: Stained Glass

Stained Glass (Blackford Oakes #2), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published in 1978).

Summary: When a charismatic German who fought against the Nazis in the resistance in Norway campaigns to become Chancellor on a platform to reunite Germany, Soviets and Americans come together to block this, with Blackford Oakes at the center, restoring a family chapel of the candidate.

Count Axel Wintergren participated in the Nazi invasion of Poland, disappearing and turning over Nazi invasion plans to the Poles. For the remainder of the war, he fought with the resistance in Norway, returning to his village and family enclosure after the war. Elections for the Chancellorship in West Germany are coming with Konrad Adenauer the leading candidate. That is until Wintergren. Over the months, he has slowly built a following throughout the country, then announced his candidacy. The country is electrified with this youthful face with a radical idea that captures their hearts: reunite Germany. Outside of Germany no one likes this idea. Not the Soviets whose sphere of influence includes East Germany. Not the Americans who recognize the possibility that World War III could break out with NATO dangerously unprepared and the only deterrent being America’s nuclear arsenal.

Enter Blackford Oakes, whose engineering skills qualify him to restore the St. Anselm chapel on Wintergren’s estate, allowing him to get close to Wintergren, to pass along intelligence, to dissuade…and more? There are two surprises for the Americans. One is that Oakes cover is blown. Chief KBG agent for Europe Boris Bolgin know who he’s working on. The other is that the Soviets have their own agent, Erika Chadinoff, working as Wintergren’s translator. The bug in Oakes’ room at the chateau traces back to her room.

All of this brings the Americans and Soviets into a most unlikely alliance. Wintergren must be stopped. When attempts to torpedo his standings in the polls through apparently compromising personal information fail and backfire, they conclude there is only one option left, to eliminate Wintergren. Both Bolgin and his CIA counterpart look to Oakes to do the deed.

There is just one problem. Oakes has come to respect and admire Wintergren as one of a kind in his generation. Meanwhile, Wintergren’s security man has growing suspicions of Oakes, as does Wintergren’s mother. All this with global thermonuclear conflict hanging in the balance.

Actually, it doesn’t fall to Oakes alone. Erika Chadinoff is in on the alliance. Actually, they had already formed an intimate alliance of sorts, the typical spies in bed trope, despite Blackford’s relationship with Sally back home. It almost felt to me a bit obligatory and predictable. Far better, and more consonant with Buckley’s values would have been an unconsummated relationship, albeit with some sexual tension thrown in. That would have been more interesting.

The shame of this is that it wasn’t needed. The build up to the election, the moral dilemma and the international ramifications are plenty to make this an interesting story. The bromance between Wintergren and Oakes is far more riveting than the romance.

Review: Dawn

Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), Octavia Butler. New York: Popular Library (Warner Books), 1988 (publisher link is to a different, in print, edition).

Summary: Lilith is chosen to lead a handful of humans preserved after a thermonuclear war by an alien race but faces difficult choices when she realizes the price she and her people must pay for their survival.

She remembers periods of wakefulness, a strange interior, a voice questioning her, bland tasteless food, and then sleep. After she is awakened again, she finds a scar on her abdomen. Slowly it comes back. Husband and son killed in an auto accident. A then the war. The destruction of nearly all life on earth. The cold of nuclear winter.

Lilith discovers she has survived because she was taken by an alien race, the Oankali, aboard their ship, orbiting outside the moon’s orbit. Centuries have passed during which she was in suspended animation in pod-like organic containers that sustained her life. The Oankali are creatures covered with tentacles and her first challenge is to become comfortable being in their presence, a hideous sight at first for humans. Jdaya is the creature’s name. He tells her that she has been asleep apart from the brief periods of wakefulness for 250 years while Earth has been healed by his people. She has been healed as well from a cancer that they treated by altering her body to reabsorb it while they gained the knowledge of cancer, calling it “beautiful.”

As she becomes acculturated into the Oankali, she learns that their intention is that she lead a colony of humans back to earth to re-settle the planet. There is a price. The Oankali are traders, not of commodities, but themselves. As they cross the galaxy, they trade something of their genetic substance for the peoples they encounter. They will do this with Lilith and her people–no choice is given.

Eventually, she is matched up with a different Oankali, of a third gender, Ooloi, neither male nor female, and referred to as “it.” “Its” name is Nikanj, and it is a young member of the species, and part of her task is to accompany “it” as it sexually matures, leading to a bonding between them. She also is tasked with choosing and awakening the first group of settlers to be trained to go to earth.

And this is where it gets interesting. The awakened learn from but become suspicious of Lilith, because of “enhancements” that have already altered her. The awakened pair off and each is joined with an Ooloi in what turns out to be a highly pleasurable human-alien “three way,” But resistance grows both to the Oankali and to Lilith, dangerous resistance. She is faced both with danger and the dilemma of a better understanding the true situation of the control the Oankali hold, trying to make the group understand their only options to have a chance at freedom on their own planet. Meanwhile, she must wrestle with the bond that has formed between her and Nikanj, and her unwillingness to be part of any “trade” resulting in offspring even a little less human.

Butler takes the human-alien encounter in a fascinating direction, exploring and enlarging the range of emotions and experiences that might come with this. What kind of “intercourse” (in all the senses of the word) can happen, and is the price of giving something essentially human away one that should be accepted?

Furthermore, Butler explores the human psyche, and the tension between intelligence and distrust of hierarchies that exist among us. We both look to leaders and try to cut the legs out from under them. Can people shaped with this outlook, no matter how “enhanced” they may be, return to Eden and create a new civilization?

This is the first of three books in the Xenogenesis series, followed by Adulthood Rites and Imago. I look forward to seeing how all this plays out.

Review: The Fantasy Literature of England

The Fantasy Literature of England, Colin Manlove. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2020 (first published in 1999).

Summary: A study focusing on and surveying the fantasy literature of England, distinguishing it from that of other countries, identifying six types, and discussing a tremendous variety of writers.

For most of us, when we hear of English fantasy, we think of J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or Charles Williams. If we think further, we might include Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne and George MacDonald (actually Scottish). Also, we tend not to think of English fantasy having a particular character. This book opens up our bibliography of English authors far beyond the few I’ve mentioned. And the author maintains that there is a particular character to English fantasy distinguishing it from other countries.

To begin, Manlove defines fantasy as “a fiction involving the supernatural or impossible,” fitting what he sees as an English preoccupation with the supernatural. Beyond this simple definition, Manlove identifies six types that define the structure of the book, one chapter on each. First of all, there is second world fantasy, the outstanding example of which is The Lord of the Rings. Metaphysical fantasy involves the presence of the supernatural. Charles Williams novels are a good example. The third type is emotive fantasy is characterized as works that evoke feelings from wonder to horror, from Kenneth Grahame to M.R. James (who wrote ghost stories). Comic fantasy involves “parody, satire, nonsense or play. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is a recent example. The fifth follows, subversive fantasy, reflects the rise of postmodernism and the fixities of reason, morality, or reality. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is an example of this type. Children’s fantasy is his last type. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

For each type, Manlove surveys the literature from its earliest examples to the most contemporary (in his case, the late 1990’s). He explores both themes under each type and offers brief descriptions of a number of the works. With many authors, there is overlap, and they will turn up in the discussion of several types. This can be dizzying at times, keeping track of the various authors and themes. I was unfamiliar with many of the works, which I think would help in following the discussion.

Manlove draws together the threads of these different types and summarizes the distinctives of English fantasy. His first conclusion is the sheer diversity of material, a fact not appreciated by many readers including this one. There is an expansiveness to this literature, an emphasis on the social circle (the fellowship of the ring), a general inclination away from ambiguity, the conquest of chaos by order, and an ultimately conservative character.

There are several things I wish the author would have done. Some subheadings in chapters might have made following the thread of his discussion easier amid the avalanche of authors discussed. While authors are listed in the text and index, a bibliography of authors, perhaps by the types would be very useful to readers. Finally, the book could no doubt use an updating, for Harry Potter alone!

Nevertheless, I came away with a number of new ideas for authors to explore. I appreciated the distinctions of type, and Manlove opened my eyes to the national character of fantasy literature. This is a good resource both for scholars and readers of fantasy literature wanting to go deeper in reading the literature of England.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Bob on Books Best Books of 2020

This has been a weird year in the book world as the pandemic has affected our reading habits (for better or worse), bookselling, publishing schedules and authors’ efforts to promote their books. Yet books have been there to inspire, to comfort, and divert. Many of the books here were published in 2020, but a few were such outstanding reads from earlier years I needed to include them. One difference this year is the inclusion of Ohio authors, not only in their own category, but in a few others.

Best of the Year:

A Promised Land, Barack Obama. New York: Crown Publishing, 2020. I delayed this post to finish this book. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, the disciplined and flowing prose offers insight not only into the events of his rise and presidency but his thought processes, his conception of and respect for the office, his vision for the nation, as well as insights into his family life. Review

Best Memoirs:

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. I wrote about this book: “This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.” Review

Answering the CallNathaniel R. Jones. New York: The New Press, 2016. Nathaniel R. Jones was a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and former general counsel of the NAACP. His memoir reflects a single vision to answer the call to use the law to fight for equal rights for Blacks. Jones was not only an Ohio author but from my home town of Youngstown. He died this year. Review

Best Biography:

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of HopeJon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020. Meacham gives us an account not only of the events of the late Congressman John Lewis’s life but also the faith that sustained his efforts and the non-violent methods of his resistance. Review

Best History:

City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismAbram C. Van Engen. New Haven: Yale University Press, Forthcoming, February 25, 2020. Van Engen traces the history of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon that included the phrase “city on a hill” and how this became a metaphor for American exceptionalism. Review

To Think ChristianlyCharles E. Cotherman (Foreword by Kenneth G. Elzinga).  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. This is a well-researched and written account of the Christian study center movement beginning with Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. I wrote: “It also reminds me of the great debt of gratitude I owe to the places and people Cotherman chronicles–from Francis Schaeffer and how he first helped me think Christianly, to Jim Houston and the influence he and Regent had on a close ministry colleague, to the vision of the doctrine and life that I acquired through Ligonier, and the vision of campus engagement Ken Elzinga and the Center for Christian Study has given so many of us.” Review

Best Graphic non-fiction:

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, Derf Backderf. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2020. Backderf is an Ohio native and in this graphic novel, he traces the last days of the four students who died at Kent State on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings. He captures the setting, the swirl of events and the tragic moments on May 4, 1970, as well as any I’ve seen. Review

Best Ohio Authors: (In addition to those elsewhere in this list)

Goshen RoadBonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020. Bonnie Proudfoot is a first time author from southeast Ohio whose lean yet descriptive prose narrates the lives of two sisters, their husbands and families making a go at life in rural Appalachia. Review

Barnstorming Ohio To Understand AmericaDavid Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020. Akron native spent a year traveling around Ohio, which he describes as “an All-American buffet.” He proposes that Ohio is a political microcosm of the U.S. political landscape, with which I would agree. His rendering of Ohio is one I recognized as ringing true. Review

Best Books on Race:

The Cross and the Lynching TreeJames H. Cone. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2013. Black theologian James Cone’s reflection on the parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, the perplexing reality that this has been missed within the white community, and how an understanding of this connection and the meaning of the cross has offered hope for the long struggle of the African-American community. Probably one of the most powerful books I read in 2020. Review

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants. The author refutes the idea that the Latina/o church was an instrument of oppression, but rather sustained the resistance to oppression of the Latina/o community. An interview I did back in June with the author was one of the highlights of this year. Review

Best Essays:

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. These are exquisitely written essays on both nature and literary figures by poet Mary Oliver. Oliver is another Ohio-born author, growing up in Maple Heights, Ohio, where we also lived for nine years. Review

Make A ListMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018. McEntyre explores the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists we might create. Review

Best Theology:

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of CreationGavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Ortlund discusses how Augustine approached the Genesis accounts of beginnings and suggests his approach may be helpful in our present day origins controversies. Review

Best Books on Existential Issues:

Companions in the DarknessDiana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle. The author skillfully interweaves her own experience with depression with those of whom she writes.

The Lost Art of DyingL. S. Dugdale. New York: Harper One, 2020. Dugdale is a physician on the front line of treating COVID patients. She challenges our over-medicalized treatment of the dying, advocating a recovery of the “art of dying,” which also makes it possible to live well. She draws on ancient texts known as the Ars Moriendi and recovers their wisdom at a time when it is greatly needed. Review

Best Fiction:

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018. A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin. Hannah evokes the terrible splendor of the Alaskan wilderness and the fine line between love and peril in this troubled family. Review

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943). A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn. I finally got around to reading a classic which was among the most popular books among soldiers in World War II. Smith draws us into a Brooklyn setting of the past to tell an ageless story. Review

I realize this is a bit different list than some years. More books that touch in some way on the experiences of people of color. It has been that kind of year. Books on serious questions like depression and death. I have less fiction than usual. I did read other fiction, more in the diverting rather than great category. The exception perhaps is that I began reading the Chief Inspector Gamache books by author Louise Penny. I’m only three books in but am taken with Gamache and the people of Three Pines and the deeply insightful writing of Penny on the human condition. I’ve begun reading some Octavia Butler and Georges Simenon. All have been quite good but somehow didn’t fit this list. At any rate I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my choices, and feel free to let me know your “best books” choices as well. So many good books!