Book Review Catch-Up

It’s been a while since I posted a book review on the site. That’s not because I haven’t been reading, but because I’ve just been lazy about posting the reviews. So, here’s one post to catch up on the outstanding reviews. For those who are interested in these reviews, sorry for the delay. For those who aren’t: too bad, it’s my blog. No one’s forcing you to read them.

So, starting from last read to most recent:

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam wrote this book to try to build an agenda that the Republican Party could get behind that would repair the damage done by the Bush administration and build a stronger America. Like any decent conservative book, it covers a lot of history showing the development of how the country reached where it is today. If there’s one thing conservatives should agree on it’s that we can’t figure out to get to where we want to be in the future until we figure out how we got to where we are now. Only by understanding the often unspoken assumptions of or political environment can we best address how to shift the environment in our favor.

And personally, I found this the best part of the book. They undercut some of the conservative assumptions about how we got here, and in ways that aren’t necessarily favorable to the conservative worldview. It’s always good to reassess your beliefs about the present and the past and they give ample evidence of the need to do so. They start with consensus America reached following the Great Depression and World War II and how that started to fray in the 1960s with the Great Society and the cultural issues going on at the time as those on the right and left who weren’t comfortable with that consensus chafed under it and broke free. The Age of Reagan brought a new political alignment and a new consensus that ushered what they refer to as the “conservative 90s.” I’ve said before, although I can’t seem to find where right now, that Clinton was the most conservative president we’ve had since Reagan. Think about the chief accomplishments of the Clinton era: welfare reform, free trade agreements, a balanced budget. Other initiatives included uniforms in public schools. After being rebuked for the rampant liberalism of his first two ears, Clinton (other than his unyielding support for abortion on demand with no exceptions) would have fit well in the mainstream of the GOP and was certainly to the right of at least a few Republican senators.

They argue this consensus is breaking down now in the 90s, but I’m not so sure that it is. What’s Bush being punished for? If I had to pick three items, I’d go with: Foreign military adventurism, incompetence and budget-busting spending levels. None of those are from the conservative playbook.

The second part of the book deals with the proposed policies that the GOP should get behind. Arguing that the GOP should think of itself as “The Party of Sam’s Club,” they focus their suggested agenda on the working class and how to deal with the issues they face in their daily lives. It has been a while since I read this book, so I can’t comment a lot on the details, but I didn’t particularly enjoy this part of the book. Part of it is my lack of policy wonkishness; another part is my general opposition to using the tax code to guide people’s behavior. Although, I am a huge fan of increasing the child deduction; it’s a trope, but it’s true: children are the future, and we should reduce the burdens that people face in having them. We don’t want to go the way of Europe and fail to replace ourselves. It’s a good read and has gotten great reviews from people whom I respect. (And Andrew Sullivan, too.)

The next book to be reviewed is Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. In this book, ESPN.com writer Rob Neyer examines a number of stories that people in baseball tell about the past and see how true they are. Some pass muster; most do not, many failing to even come close to the truth. He does this by comparing newspaper articles and other sources contemporary to the alleged event to see if they record the details of the story the same way.

It’s kind of depressing to see how wrong some people are about events they claim to have been involved in. Likely, many of these stories grew with each retelling. With the current movement to capture WWII veterans stories before they all pass away, it really makes you wonder how true those stories are going to be, so far removed from the actual event.

I’m reminded of a story I was told soon after my campaign’s loss to the incumbent Mayor in 1996. The candidate and his wife went out for a walk the next morning and one of their neighbors offered his condolences. Zuber responded, “Well, thirty and a half percent of the vote against an incumbent mayor in the City of Wilmington isn’t all that bad a total.” (That’s the correct percentage. It was actually a few hundredths of a percentage point higher, so it was actually the slightest bit of an understatement.) They kept walking and bumped into another neighbor who similarly offered condolences. Zuber responded the same way only this time changing the percentage of the vote to forty. His wife, an accountant, looked at him and said, “Forty? If we bump into a few people, you’re going to win this thing!” I imagine that’s how a lot of these stories end up: they start with a nugget of truth but over time, details get exaggerated or altered for dramatic effect until they bear almost no relation to what originally happened.

Despite the sadness of finding out stories I’d enjoyed since my childhood are largely untrue, Neyer makes this an interesting read. With the typical essay in it being 3-4 pages, it’s a perfect bathroom book. I definitely recommend it.

One of the nice things about having grandparents who loved to read and being one of their few grandchild who share that hobby is that you get first dibs on their books. Earlier this year, I came into possession of a great number of books, many of which I’ve wanted to read for a long time. One of those was G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Saint Francis of Assisi, sometimes called the greatest Christian since Christ. As a book, it really struck me more as a work of cultural criticism than a straightforward biography. It used instances from Saint Francis’ life to illustrate areas where modern society falls short or has failings.

He shows that the questioning of Saint Francis’ miracles reflects more a refusal to believe even more present in today’s society than when he wrote it back in the 1920s. He shows that no one really came closer to the ideal of Christ than Saint Francis in his total self-abnegation and devotion to the Lord. For example, his original intentions were to make his religious order so strict about mortifications and sacrifice that the Pope stepped in to lessen them as most people, even those who would choose such a life, couldn’t handle them. It’s evidence of Francis’ holiness that he could, but the rest of us can’t.

In fact, so severe were his penances, that many assumed him to be insane, and even with the benefit of hindsight, it can be hard to avoid that conclusion. If he was insane, at least the insanity was properly directed. This is a man who gave up everything and still made a great difference in the world of his time, and through his example and intercession continues to do so today.

It’s a nice book to learn not just about Saint Francis, but about ourselves. One word of caution: if you’re looking to learn a good bit about the great saint’s life, this is not the book for you. Many details are left out in favor of analyzing a few events and discussing their relation to modern society.

Two Sundays ago, I was meeting some friends to see The Dark Knight, and stopped into the Subway on Concord Pike for dinner. I took a book to read while eating. (I hate wasting time that could be devoted to reading.) While I was reading, the guy sweeping the floor asked me if I was reading the Bible. I said, “No, this is George Will,” but my first instinct was to reply, “No, but close.”

Yesterday, I was hanging out with a buddy of mine and mentioned I had just read it and he (a moderate conservative who not all that into politics) said, “You know, I don’t agree with him all the time, but I always get a lot out of reading him.” Which is also my assessment. He’s one of the few “must-read” columnists out there in my mind. Even when he’s wrong (like on Terry Schiavo), he’s articulate (or is that racist?), intelligent and always make interesting points. His vocabulary and logic are such that it makes you smarter just to read him, even if you don’t end up agreeing with him

It’s a collection of the columns he’s written for Newsweek and the Washington Post over the last few years, with a few from other sources thrown in. Many of these columns are so good, I can remember having read them years after the fact and enjoyed them again. Naturally, my favorite part of the book was the section titled simply, “The Game.” Just as there is only one “The Church,” there is only one “The Game”: baseball, which Will has an appropriate love for.

I didn’t use it for such, but with all the essays being just over two pages this is another perfect bathroom book. But it’s worth reading anywhere. Will’s likely the finest political writer out there, so get this and read it. Even if he doesn’t change, he’ll make you smarter.

Books

Books to the ceiling,/ Books to the sky,/ My pile of books is a mile high./ How I love them! How I need them!/ I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.
– Arnold Lobel

Book Review: Life of Christ by Fulton Sheen

I started this book back in December, figuring I’d make it my Advent reading, but it’s quite a read and I hardly got any reading done with the business of December. So, I made it my reading for Eucharistic Adoration and read it during my time in the presence of the Lord. It’s about 450 pages, with small print (at least the edition I have is), so it takes a while. I finally finished it up just a few minutes ago.

It’s a very profound book, raising many points about the life of Christ I hadn’t considered. it shows that despite his success on TV, Bishop Sheen wasn’t just telegenic and able to speak well: he was also a scholar. While reading it today, it hit me that it says something unique about Jesus that someone could write a book with over 50 pages about what He did after He died. Sheen concludes with a chapter about the Church as the Body of Christ, continuing His mission today.

There’s too much in this book, and I read some parts of it too long ago to write a thorough review, so I’ll just leave it at this: read this book, and you’ll learn a great deal about Jesus, notice a number of details you hadn’t noticed in the Biblical accounts and make connections you hadn’t either. You’ll learn a lot about Jesus and be given a lot to reflect on. It’s great spiritual reading in the best sense of that phrase.

Book Review: The Forgotten Man: A New History of The Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

Earlier this week, I finished Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, a re-examination of the Great Depression that points out the errors in the commonly believed myth of that period in our nation’s history.

One example is the belief that Herbert Hoover was a straight laissez-faire President who did nothing to attempt to revive the economy. In fact, Hoover was an activist as President, and even before during his tenure as Secretary of Commerce. The primary difference between Hoover and FDR was that Hoover restricted his activity to the Constitutionally permitted powers of the federal government; FDR showed no such respect for the will of law.

Similarly, FDR and his Brain Trust are commonly believed to have selfessly focused solely on reviving America’s economy. But like another President who promised to focus like a laser beam on the economy, the objectives spread far and wide from the promised goal. In fact, FDR’s advisors were open admirers of Communist Russia who were seeking to remake America in an image they chose. The Great Depression was actually viewed as a great opportunity to remake America, rather than something that needed to be overcome.

It’s also claimed that FDR’s policies brought us out the Depression. Shlaes shows that the US went into a double-dip Depression, with the economy getting worse just when the rest of the world was growing again. Others acknowledge that fact, and claim that it was World War II spending that brought us out of the economic funk. To the extent that World War II helped us, it was that focusing on the international situation took FDR’s focus away from the domestic realm, allowing the economy to grow without further fetters being placed on it.

It’s also claimed that FDR was a decisive leader who charted a bold course. In reality, he frustrated his advisers with his indecisiveness. On at least one occasion, he even sent representatives to an international economic conference with differing instructions, resulting in parts of the American delegation negotiating against each other, angering the British Prime Minister. On another occasion, after a conference that achieved the goals he had set for it, he repudiated it, rejecting the agreement reached.

This book was excellent in dispelling a number of myths about the Depression and careful readers will note a number of policy prescriptions for the future that will allow us to avoid similar situations in the future.

Book Review: More Christianity by Dwight Longenecker

I had picked this book up while on a retreat last November and read it after finishing “Mere Christianity,” as I thought it would make a good companion piece, as the author intended. Longenecker, a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism via Anglicanism and since ordained a Catholic priest, wrote this book to show the inadequacies of Lewis’ “mere Christianity” (as Lewis himself acknowledged) and to show that a true understanding of what “more” there is to Christianity will lead people to Catholicism, as it did Longenecker himself.

One common theme of Father Longenecker’s writing (here and elsewhere) is that come the day of his particular Judgment, he’d rather tell God he believed too much than not enough. For example, he’d rather believe that God does allow the communion of Christians and our ability to intercede for each other to extend beyond the grave than to deny the possibility. He’d rather be guilty of overestimating God’s goodness and love than underestimating it and this attitude helped bring him home to Rome.

He deals with a number of topics including Mary, the saints, the Eucharist, and the Papacy, among others, showing how those beliefs are present in the Bible, were held by the early Christians and also make logical sense.

It’s a quick read that’s worth the effort showing the limitations and failings of a “mere Christianity” and showing the path to the “more Christianity” God wishes us to have.

Book Review: A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement by J. William Mittendorf II

I’m a sucker for books about the 1964 Republican Presidential campaign, and this book was definitely worth the read. Mittendorf, one of the early backers of drafting Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for the 1964 GOP Presidential nomination, writes his version of the campaign’s history. It seems like he read one too many histories referring to his organization as “amateurs” and felt the need to set the record straight, as the organization pulled together many people with a great amount of political experience and those without (such as Clif White) turned out to be extremely talented in their own right. (In his own book, Bob Novak sys Clif White ran the best convention machine he’d ever seen. Not bad for a supposed amateur.) They were certainly a far more effective organization than the “Arizona Mafia” that Goldwater surrounded himself with following his nomination.

He shows the committee’s greatest work may have been its filling of vacant positions at the local level of the Republican party a year ahead of time allowing them to get conservatives into delegate slots for the convention, catching the old guard of the GOP off guard. He shows their concern when Goldwater repeatedly turned them down, as running for President could hurt him back in Arizona and could mean leaving his beloved Senate. Fortunately, Goldwater was convinced to run since for him not to run could set the conservative movement back a decade or more.

He actually continues the story beyond the ’64 election showing that many of those who helped get Goldwater the nomination were instrumental in winning Nixon the same prize in 1968. That’s hopefully a mistake he regrets.

It’s good read, perhaps the truest insider’s perspective I’ve read yet on that doomed, but ultimately victorious, campaign.

Book Review: The Prince of Darkness by Robert D. Novak

I took time during my “neighborhood watch” program for Italian Festival week to read Bob Novak’s memoir “The Prince of Darkness.” (The title is taken from a nickname he was given due to his dour and pessimistic nature. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.) I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while, having become a fan of his when I regularly watched “The Capital Gang” on CNN during my high school years. Reading his columns since then has been one of the most reliable ways to keep up on what’s really going on in Washington.

The book itself is refreshingly honest; he admits that he was frequently selfish during his marriage, often putting his career before his wife and kids. He acknowledges his failings, mistakes he made in his professional career and private life. (For example, he took full blame for the failure of his first marriage.) He chronicles his journey from a liberal nominal Republican to a solid conservative, albeit hardly a doctrinaire one and discusses his disagreements with the conservative movement on such issues as both Iraq Wars. (He spends a significant amount of time on the efforts of David Frum to to write him and others who opposed the second Iraq War out of the conservative movement. A few points to that: 1) There were many legitimate conservative reasons to oppose that war. 2) Who the hell is David Frum to be writing people out of the movement?)

Probably the most interesting parts of the book are his discussions of the various personalities he dealt with over the years. He shows Jimmy Carter to be a repeated liar, despite his promise to the American people never to lie to them. Nixon, obviously, doesn’t come off much better, although he argues that had Nixon been surrounded by better people than John Mitchell and H.R. Haldeman, things might have turned out better. Newt Gingrich is described as a Rockefeller Republican losing as a conservative to get ahead. (Which I had always felt: Gingrich’s fascination for authors like Alvin Toffler and some of his other more bizarre notions kept me from ever completely trusting him as a conservative. Once again, my gut was right.) RFK is described as cut-throat and his brother’s enforcer, while Ted Kennedy is portrayed as a lightweight and not up to the standards of his older brothers. Al Gore, Jr. is said to be only in politics to succeed where his father failed in becoming President, which was more his father’s goal than his own, which might explain his discomfort in campaigning and his “flame-out” after he was defeated in 2000, having lost the only purpose he had in life, which wasn’t even his own to begin with.

This book’s an excellent read, a little longer than most people want to deal with at just under 640 pages, but it’s a page-turner and worth the time you put into it.

Book Review: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

So, I finally decided to read this classic work of Christian apologetics and despite the buildup it’s been given over the years, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a very strong book and I can see why it’s been responsible for many conversions over the years. (Chuck Colson wrote an introduction to the version I have stating how this book brought him to believe.)

I’ve seen a few criticisms of it over the years, but I think those were from people who misunderstood the book. As he stated in his introduction, Lewis wasn’t trying to write a doctrinal essay expounding every point of Christian belief, but rather a book showing why belief in Christianity is rational and logical. He’s not writing the Summa Theologica, just trying to get people started on the road to Christianity. On that line though, I was surprised when he wrote about the Eucharist, given the number of Protestants who don’t believe in that doctrine. (They’re wrong not to, but there are a large number of them, so I’m surprised Lewis brought it into his work.)

This book covers a variety of topics in an easy to understand format, including:

* Why we can know God Exists
* Why there must be an absolute Truth
* Why Monotheism is the only theism that makes sense
* Why Christianity is true
* Why the failings and faults of Christians don’t disprove Christianity
* Why it makes sense that the one God must consist of multiple persons

Given the clarity and logic of this book, I’d be interested to see what disagreements atheists have with it. It’s hard to disagree with. If you’re interested in Christianity, this book will help you understand why it’s the true faith, and if you’re already Christian it will reaffirm your faith.

Book Review: Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver

So, I finally got around to reading Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver. Considered a conservative classic, I’ve been hearing great things about it since I was in college. Despite the buildup of a decade and a half, this book more than exceeded my expectations. It’s amazing how prescient this book is examining developments in contemporary society, even though it was published sixty years ago. It really brings home how long this process of our decline has been developing.

In fact, Weaver traces the decline to the acceptance of William Occam’s doctrine of nominalism, which denied the existence of universals. An absence of universals, of course, makes a truly united society or community impossible, as there can be no common beliefs or creed upon which unite. Early in the book, he makes a distinction between truth and fact. Facts are true, but in no way tell us anything of important or eternal value. A way of thinking about this is that it is a fact that Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs in his career, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the human condition.

He often decries an increasing selfishness in Western culture seeing examples of that run through many segments of society. He claims music took on an increasing selfishness since Beethoven who, Weaver claims, was too fond of the French Revolution. This continued on through jazz which was overtly sexual and focused on a self-centered definition of love. (I can’t imagine what he would think of rock’n’roll and even more recent music.) Television and, to a lesser extent, radio encourage this selfishness by focusing on the material possessions and encouraging consumerism. Science for its own sake, divorced from morality, also comes under attack.

City living and corporatism come under attack as well as they reduce men to mere cogs in a machine, rather than a more rural or agrarian lifestyle in which man can find greater fulfillment in working more directly for himself and producing directly for his own needs.

He makes a convincing case that our society is too focused on pleasing the individual’s physical or material needs, while working to deny the existence and the eternal or transcendent, much less acknowledge man’s need for them and the importance they play in our individual and societal life.

What continually surprised me is how Weaver could have such a Catholic outlook on life, without actually being Catholic. Even more amazing, he spent a great deal of time with the early conservative movement, which was very Catholic in makeup. The leaders of the movement, largely Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr. were very Catholic, as were others very active like Brent Bozell. Yet, with such a Catholic outlook on life, and being surrounded by Catholics, he apparently never converted, which is a great mystery to me.

By the second page of the introduction, I assumed him to be Catholic. At the end of the paragraph continuing from the first page he writes:

For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics, and the consequence is an anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.

It’s hard not to see a condemnation of Protestantism, where each Christian is left to his own devices to determine what the Word of God is for himself. He further claims that the perfect society was medieval Europe. How someone like that never became Catholic is beyond me.

But aside from that, this book is a great read and a truly important one. Despite the build-up it had been given over the years, it exceeded my expectations and really gave me something to think about. It’s a must-read.

Book Review: Benedict of Bavaria

I picked up this book after hearing an interview with the author on Catholic Answers Live. (Listen to the interview online.) By way of coincidence, the author Brennan Pursell is a professor at DeSales University in Allentown, run by the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales, who also run the best damn high school around. Oh, and while I’m on the subject of my high school: St. Mark’s sucks!

The point of this book is to draw a picture of Pope Benedict XVI not just as a theologian or a Bishop, but as a Bavarian. It does an excellent job of showing how growing up in Bavaria impacted the Pope’s life making him the person he is today. By the accounts of all who actually know him, he is a gentle, humble kind man who tries to lead and persuade, rather than impose his will as some stereotypes would have it. It should hardly need to be done, but Pursell takes the time to deflate the myths of the “Panzer Cardinal,” claims that Benedict was a Nazi who shot down American planes, or that he’s a hardliner who crushes all questioning on theological topics. He shows the falsity of all of those claims with specific examples from Benedict’s life.

He also provides an introduction to Benedict’s theological thought and beliefs which serves as an interesting starting point for learning more about his approach to Christianity. An interesting note: his thesis was rejected the first time it was presented due to his contradiction of the beliefs of a member of the board presenting it, and a poor typing job. He was given the opportunity to revise it and re-present it, only to have the board turn on each other debating his central arguments. He was, of course, ultimately allowed to pass. History could have taken a much different path had he been rejected again.

One thing I had read a while back, but forgotten, that the book brings out is that Bavarians do not really consider themselves German. Having had independence from greater Germany for much of history, they don’t feel as as strong a connection with the rest of the nation. (Religious difference likely exacerbate this: Bavaria tends to be very Catholic, especially when compared to the Protestantism of much of the rest of Germany.) Bavaria was one of the most anti-Hitler regions of Germany, as it wasn’t until Hitler was given dictatorial powers that there was much of a Nazi presence in Bavaria, and even then it tended to be “softer” than in the rest of Germany, while still quite deadly to those who openly opposed Hitler, and there were quite a few Bavarians who met their end this way.

This book serves as both a useful introduction to Pope’s theological views and his many theological books and a reminder that we can’t understand the person Joseph Ratzinger if we think of him as German. He’s not: he’s Bavarian as this book amply shows and explains. It’s a great way to get to know our “German Shepherd.”