The Month in Reviews: September 2014

The onset of a new academic year seemed to bring a more serious tone to the collection of books I read this month. I looked at the question of what it means to be a saint, a collection of essays around the topic of language and literary criticism, a memoir by a leader of the Tienanmen demonstrations, a factbook about HIV/AIDS, and a challenging book on the nature of Christian love, among others. Not a light reading month! So here’s the recap:


1. Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity, Gordon T. Smith. Smith explores how sainthood is rooted in union with Christ and works out in holiness in every dimension of life.

2. Language and Silence, George Steiner. This collection of essays written in the 1950’s and ’60’s reflect Steiner’s attempt to articulate a philosophy of language in a post-Holocaust world.

3. A Heart for Freedom, Chai Ling. This is Chai Ling’s riveting account of the Tienanmen demonstrations and its aftermath, including her escape, and life in the West. She includes her concerns and advocacy against forced abortions that result from the “one child” policy.


4. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt. This biography gives us a narrative not only of Kuyper’s life but also an intellectual biography of the thought and writing of this formidable thinker, politician, and church leader.

5. Responding to HIV/AIDS: Tough Questions, Direct Answers, Dale Hanson Bourke. This book is a very helpful introduction to the facts about HIV/AIDS and also the global landscape of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Crisp and concise.

6. State of Wonder. Ann Patchett. This novel is a Conrad-esque type journey up the Amazon where Marina Singh confronts both her past and surprising present realities.


7. The Battle for Leyte Gulf, C. Vann Woodward. Woodward gives us a nearly moment-by-moment account of the last major naval battle of World War II, the near success of the Japanese strategy to divide American naval forces, the inexplicable retreat of Kurita’s force and the heroic defense of the San Bernadino Straits by an inferior force of destroyers and escort carriers.

8. Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in YoungstownRobert Bruno. Bruno explores how “working class identity” is distinctive from a middle class ethos even though incomes may be similar. He does this through interviews with those working in Youngstown’s steel industry from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

9. Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard. A searching reflection on the biblical passages that help define love in Christian terms.

10. Why Church History Matters, Robert F. Rea. Christians committed to the authority of the Bible are often suspicious of “tradition”. Rea explores how this actually can help us to be more faithful to scripture and to extend our “communion of the saints” beyond our own circle to those of other traditions, cultures, and times.

The links will take you to my reviews if you missed these the first time around. If you don’t want to miss them, I would encourage you to follow the blog, either via WordPress or by email (options for both are available on my homepage).

Next month will have a review mix of both theological and lighter books. I’ve begun reading Edmund Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt series and will also have reviews of a book on earthquake storms and some Jeff Shaara Civil War historical novels. Thanks to all of you who comment on reviews and other posts!


Review: The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle

The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle
The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle by C. Vann Woodward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The battle for Leyte Gulf could very easily have turned out differently. The Japanese had designed a strategy that succeeded in pulling the bulk of U.S. naval forces away from the critical San Bernadino Strait that gave Japanese Central Force under Admiral Kurita the opportunity to thwart our landings in the Philippines.

C. Vann Woodward gives us a moment-by-moment and battle-by-battle account of what was in fact our largest naval engagement in World War II, one which finished off the Japanese Navy as an effective force. The strategy itself was a desperation move that consisted of a three-pronged approach designed to draw off the bulk of the 3rd and 7th Fleets covering the landings at Leyte Gulf. The northern and southern prongs basically sacrificed a significant portion of Japan’s naval power to buy time for Kurita to strike at Leyte Gulf.

It nearly succeeded. First, aerial attacks on Kurita’s Central Force while it was steaming through the Sibuyan sea over-estimated the damage wrought against Kurita’s force, deceiving Admiral Halsey of the Third Fleet into thinking he could take his forces north to wipe out Ozawa’s decoy force of carriers coming from the north. Ozawa’s decoy was successful at the cost of his carriers and other shipping in the Battle of Engano. Halsey compounded his error of judgment by vague communication that suggested he was leaving “Task Group 34” to cover the San Bernadino Strait when he in fact took this force with him.

This vague communication led Admiral Kinkaid to conclude that he could take his Seventh Fleet to confront the southern prong of the attack in the Surigao Strait. Because of communication and other problems Admirals Nishimura and Shima failed to coordinate and American forces were for the last time able to “cross the T” with devastating effect on Nishimura’s force. While victorious, Kinkaid has used up most of his firepower and was not in position or adequately prepared to respond to the threat that emerged from the San Bernadino Strait as Kurita’s force emerged. The only force there were poorly armed escort carriers and a screening destroyer force, seemingly no match for Kurita.

Only heroic action by the American destroyers and covering aircraft prevented the rapid destruction of the fleet. Yet all appeared lost when suddenly Kurita stopped and turned around and went back to the Sibuyan Sea. It was clear that had he pressed on, he could have won the engagement, having removed the destroyer screen and begun attacks on the carriers. From post-war interviews which Woodward includes, it appears that Kurita rationalized his decision based on the delay he had with the attacks in the Sibuyan sea, thinking he was encountering a greater force, losses to his own shipping, and the opportunity for engagement with Halsey’s returning force. In actuality, after a brief reconnaissance of the area, he turned back, having sacrificed the Japanese Navy without achieving his aim of repelling the American landings in the Philippines.

Woodward explores this mix of strategy, communications and miscommunications, and the relative strengths of each force. In the end, the outcome came down to the perception and resolution of a key leader, Admiral Kurita and the heroism of the escort carrier forces. A different outcome would still have meant catastrophic losses to the Japanese Navy and only delayed the inevitable.

Perhaps that was what was on Kurita’s mind…

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