Best. State. Ever. – Review

Dave Barry. Best. State. Ever. New York: Putnam, 2016. Print.

Best. State. Ever. is Dave Barry’s latest contribution to make us laugh. He tells us about his survey of offbeat places to visit in Florida. Barry seems to dismiss the usual tourist attractions. Indeed there is almost a hostile overtone to Disney World—which is surprising because some of his books are actually published by Disney. The places in this book, though, are places that cannot be found anywhere else. Perhaps that is why Florida is the best. state. ever.

As a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald, Barry begins by quoting odd headlines and news stories from Florida such as those that tell of a well-known rapper arrested for stealing a swimming pool heater or a man pulling his son’s loose tooth by tying a string around the tooth and the other end of the string around the bumper of his car.

Barry devotes a chapter to the Skunk Ape—the Everglades’ version of Bigfoot, Yeti, Jersey Devil, etc. Other chapters include the famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids, a town devoted to spiritualists, the world’s largest retirement community, Gatorland, a shooting range for machine gunners, Club 54 (LIV) in Miami, and a Key West bar crawl.

These all have potential for humor, and Barry does not disappoint. He does, however, project some admiration about some of his subjects, especially the non-Indians trying to hang on to family lands in the Everglades and the skills of the above mermaids. His style with hyperbolic metaphors follows the tradition of Jean Shepherd with a wider range.

Some samples:

Miami Woman does not own a loose-fitting anything. If she ever went camping in the wilderness—which she would not, because the wilderness lacks nail salons—she would sleep in a form-fitting sleeping bag inside a form-fitting tent. (25)

In Florida, cockroaches are called Palmetto bugs because if they hear you call them cockroaches, they will become enraged and destroy your kitchen. (44-45)

There are recurring jokes about mold-a-matic machines which a few of these attractions have but are consistently out of order. The machine at Gatorland actually works, and it molds a phosphorescent plastic model of a man wrestling an alligator.

The retirement community called The Villages sounds like it might be fun for old people, but it also comes across as escapist or Disneyesque in its own way like the asylum in the cult movie classic King of Hearts. As a birder, I have always wanted to spend some time in the Florida Keys because there are some birds there that are rarely seen anywhere else in the United States, but Dave Barry seems to have spent all this time there indoors. He is not much of a nature lover, I guess, but he is definitely good for some laughs.

Song of Solomon – Review

Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon. 1977; New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. (87)

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)

Song of Solomon is a strange, entrancing book. The story takes a little while to get going, but then it soars. After I had read two or three chapters, someone asked me how I liked it. I said that there were some interesting characters, but not much has happened—at least not to the characters the story had focused on.

That would change. By the end, we are privy to a family saga like something out of Faulkner—rich, deep, but askew enough to be Southern gothic at its core. No, many times we do not understand why we do the things we do, but like St. Paul in the above quotation, we know that there is something primal that moves us on.

The tite comes from the Bible, of course. The biblical Song of Solomon (a.k.a. the Song of Songs) is a love song sung by a husband and a wife. It is sexual. Rabbinical tradition said that Jewish men were not allowed to read it until they were thirty.

One of the story’s characters is named First Corinthians. She gets her name from another book of the Bible whose thirteenth chapter is called the Love Chapter. That name and the book’s title suggest an undercurrent of love. It seems as if all the characters are looking for love, but they have a hard time finding it or keeping it. Sometimes it is because they are looking in the wrong place, but mostly it is because they really do not know how to love. Brokenness takes a long time to heal. The question is simply this: Will it ever heal?

Macon “Milkman” Dead III loves and hates his father at the same time. His father is a wealthy landlord, and Milkman becomes his rent collector. He is learning the business. Like most sons, he longs for his father’s love, but Daddy is all business. His father also abuses Milkman’s mother Ruth, the daughter of the first black physician in their unnamed Michigan town.

Milkman learns from his father that land and property are what are important in life. Macon Dead, Sr., Milkman’s grandfather, was a prosperous land-owning farmer in central Pennsylvania after World War I. But, as the above quotation notes, the cards were stacked against him. A wealthy and covetous white landowner shot him and took his property to himself. The legal system sided with the white Butlers (distaff relations to Rhett?) and orphans Macon, Jr., and sister Pilate (yes, that is her name) have little recourse.

Brother and sister live in the same Michigan town now, but they are estranged. Milkman is told by his father to have nothing to do with his Aunt Pilate. As he begins to travel around town on his father’s business, he introduces himself to Pilate, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter Hagar, who is five years older than Milkman.

From the beginning, he finds Hagar attractive, and when he is seventeen, she seduces him. From the age of nineteen to thirty-one he is in a relationship with her. Milkman does not want to marry her because he is unsure if he loves her, and, besides, they are cousins. (If the generations seem a little off, Milkman was not born until his father was forty-two. His two sisters, Lena and First Corinthians, are both a dozen or more years older than he.)

Little things become significant. In her house, Pilate keeps a green canvas bag that she calls her inheritance. Her estranged brother and Milkman’s friend Guitar both think she is hoarding a treasure in the bag. Perhaps in a sense she is, but it is not what they think it is.

Pilate teaches her daughter and granddaughter a folk song that says, “Sugarman, don’t fly away.” On one level we can say, yes, Hagar’s “sugarman” Milkman tries to leave her, to “fly away.” But like many folk songs and nursery rhymes there may be a more literal meaning which became obscured over time and history.

I recall hearing an older version of the sixties’ folk song “Tom Dooley” which has some very direct lines such as: “You killed little Laurie Foster.” Another line says, “If it hadn’t been for Grayson/ I’d ‘a’ been in Tennessee.” Tom Dooley was sentenced to death by hanging for murdering Laurie Foster, apparently turned in or betrayed by someone named Grayson. While there is some known history associated with the song, there is also a certain amount of mystery. That is true of many ballads from the Middle Ages on (think “The Wife’s Lament,” “Sir Patrick Spens,” or “Lord Randall). I have read some mere speculations, for example, about “The Sloop John B.”

It is also true that sometimes we do know something about what caused the ballad to be sung as is true with “Tom Dooley” or “Casey Jones.” What curiosity is the Sugarman song about?

Milkman goes on a quest. Initially he thinks is to find the lost family treasure, but instead he discovers the real family treasure.

He goes to Pennsylvania where he meets some old friends of his father’s who are all delighted Macon Dead has become a success. He also visits the ancient midwife Circe who lives in the Butlers’ abandoned homestead. The last Butler died without an heir, so all the corrupt land-grabbing and deck-stacking was futile.

Without giving too much away, we finally do meet a character named Solomon around page 200. The other names may be significant in various ways, but I do not want to make too big of a deal of it.

Solomon – the fabulously wealthy King of Israel who had 300 wives and 700 concubines and from whom the royal family of Ethiopia claimed descent. The founder of the Solomon clan in the book has 21 children by almost as many women.

Circe – a witch in Homer’s Odyssey. Many American slaves were given names Greek or Latin classical names like Alexander, Cassius, Sylvester, Lucretia, and so on. Free blacks would continue to name children after their ancestors. Morrison’s Circe lives in a remote house with thirty dogs, not unlike the Homeric goddess surrounded by a variety of animals on her lonely island.

Hagar – the Egyptian concubine and slave, eventually cast out by Abraham. So Song of Solomon‘s Hagar is Milkman’s mistress and eventually rejected. The novel’s Hagar is angry and tries several times to murder Milkman unsuccessfully. She is angry but also looking for love and respect, perhaps typifying the way many African-Americans feel about white Americans—they are against us” (see above) and we hate them for that, but at the same time we need respect and love like any other human beings (perhaps even the way some women view men).

Pilate – perhaps the oddest name. No, she does not kill any Christ figure in the story. Her name seems more of a burden than anything. Her father randomly chose the names of both daughters out of the Bible. She freaks people out, including potential boyfriends and husbands because she has no navel. Does she represent Eve? Macon, Jr., calls her a snake, a different character from Eden. But didn’t the man blame the woman?

For what it is worth, I once knew a man who had no navel. Back when I was working as an editor for a scientific newsletter, some of the scientists actually examined him. It turned out that he did have a navel visible in an x-ray, but apparently when he was born his belly skin was sewn over the navel. I share that to note that such things are not entirely unknown in our wide world.

One recurring image in the novel is flight. Milkman is born in 1931 on a day when an insurance agent attempts to fly across the state of Michigan on a set of wings he invented. Of course, it does not work. Man has invented the airplane, the glider, the helicopter, the hot air balloon, the rocket, but he needs some kind of aid to make human flight work.

Trying not give too much away, others (note the Sugarman song) attempt to fly. Milkman does in the last chapter, which also coincides with the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Is there a relationship there? Or is it more personal?

How do we deal with conflict? Murder and anger? Love? Sex? Or do we try to escape, to fly away? Morrison brings a lot together in what becomes a family saga not unlike Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.

A few final notes. I read this because my high school administration suggested I find a book for a college-level American Literature course that was magical realism but did not have profane language like the Tim O’Brien book I had been teaching. This book was not that.

Although there is some talk of ghosts and dreams, I believe this is hard to peg as magical realism in the vein of Marquez or O’Brien. It is more like Wuthering Heights: gothic but rooted in reality.

And, well, if the reader is offended by profanity, this is probably not the book to read. I guess nowadays we call that a trigger warning.

Still Song of Solomon tells us explicitly that even though many blacks did migrate to the North, they brought a Southern understanding and sensibility with them. Morrison may have grown up in Ohio like Philip Roth, but she is much closer to Faulkner, O’Connor, or Percy than to her fellow Ohioan. This will open your eyes.

The Frontiersmen – Review

Allan W. Eckert. The Frontiersmen: A Narrative. 1967; Ashland KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2001. Print. The Winning of America.

The Frontiersmen is an excellent example of what today we call creative nonfiction. It also lets us see some of the people who made America what it is, warts and all. Like those films from the 1950s such as Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, one is tempted to call The Frontiersmen an epic saga.

The book is about the opening up of Kentucky and the Northwest Territory in the late 18th and early 19th century. It includes appearances by Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, George Rogers Clark, William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and other names we recognize from our history. However, the story focuses on a man who seems to have been everywhere during this time period and who typified the early white settlers in this region and who really represents some of the best of American exceptionalism. This heroic character was Simon Kenton.

The Frontiersmen begins in the area around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was the edge of the frontier in 1770. English-speaking settlers, mostly from New England and Virginia, were moving to wilderness to stake a claim. The region we know as Kentucky was especially wide open.

Kentucky of 1770 sounds almost like an earthly paradise for the rugged individual. Beyond its mountains were fertile plains with tall grass full of deer and bison. As can best be judged, no Indians permanently lived there, although they would come from other places, especially north of the Ohio River, to hunt there. When young Virginian Kenton thinks of settling there, an Indian tells him it is a place of blood. That is never explained, but we think that Indians may have fought over it and then decided to quit the battle and simply go there for seasonal hunting.

We read about how most, but not all, of the settlers in the west supported the Revolution. George Rogers Clark in particular created havoc for the British outposts in the west. Clark and Daniel Boone both became friends with Simon Kenton who was a scout and survival specialist. We learn that Clark was unable to settle down after the war and drifted into alcoholism. Boone remained a leader in Kentucky, but as it became too civilized for him, he moved farther west, eventually settling in Missouri which reminded him of Kentucky when he first moved there.

Parallel to the story of the white settlers, we are told the story of the Indians in the area. Each tribe and tribal group is named. It is interesting to note that there were some adoptions between the Indians and the whites in both directions. One Marmaduke van Swearingen would join the Shawnee tribe and eventually become Chief Blue Jacket. We learn his life story and how it shows the challenges the Indians faced and the challenges they made as they came in contact with the coastal settlers. (Eckert would also write a biography of Blue Jacket).

Another Indian who appears from time to time is Thayendaga, otherwise known by the name his adoptive parents gave him, Joseph Brant. But the Indian who becomes lead character in this saga is Tecumseh. Tecumseh was an educated and charismatic leader. At one point he asked for the hand of a daughter of a white settler in marriage. They were in love, but she realized that she could not give up her lifestyle for that of the wife of an Indian.

Tecumseh and his brother, known as the Prophet, seemed to understand better than most what was happening west of the Alleghenies. He almost succeeded in uniting most of the Indian tribes from Florida to Montana, but ultimately the tribal loyalties were too strong. Tecumseh allied himself with the British in the War of 1812, but the British were not the most respectful allies for native peoples.

One interesting detail The Frontiersmen shares about the Shawnee is their history narrative. They said that they crossed an ice bridge to North America with different Shawnee groups crossing at different times. After they were well settled in North America a new tribal group arrived, one of the last to cross before the ice bridge disappeared. They also spoke the Shawnee language and joined their brothers. This makes one think that some of the Native American population may not have been here as long as many people think.

When the southern parts of North America were first being settled and explored by the Spanish, the Shawnees were living in what is today Florida. By the middle of the 1700s, they had settled in Ohio where they were a major people group at the time European settlement of the region began.

As had already happened with many of the Indians closer to the coast, some stay on, convert to Christianity, and attempt to join the new order. Others dig in and resist, attacking vulnerable farms and villages. Others move farther west.

Simon Kenton himself was captured by Indians multiple times and survived their version of the gauntlet at least eight times. Most people are killed, but those who survive are nursed back to health and treated with respect.

Kenton entered into a blood covenant with fellow settler Simon Girty who decided to stay with the British during the Revolution. They would continue to meet from time to time, but they respected that personal covenant even through the War of 1812.

Although Kenton was wise in woodcraft, hunting, and scouting, he was illiterate. He initially claimed thousands of acres of land when Kentucky first opened up, but he had a difficult time holding on to any of it because someone else always seemed to have a written title or deed of some kind. Eventually he bought land in New Madrid, Missouri, where he hoped to settle. By then he made sure of his title. That land would totally disappear in the famous New Madrid earthquake, the largest earthquake in North America in historical times.

There were numerous battles, both with other people and with nature. We learn how Kenton and others would survive being out in a snowstorm. We see the Ohio River both as a thoroughfare for trade and people moving west, but also a place prone to attacks from Indians and occasionally the British. It was hard, rugged, beautiful, and full of promise. America owes a lot to these people.

The Frontiersmen is not the first to tell this story, but did Andrew Jackson really lead a group of pioneers into Kentucky when he was only a man-sized twelve, getting into at least one drunken brawl? Eckert notes the record of Jackson’s early life appears to have been covered over to some degree. Some sources indicate he was born before his parents arrived in America, as many as ten years earlier than officially noted, and that he may truly have been a president who was not a natural born citizen. I guess there were not many Jackson “birthers” in his day.

Few books give us an insight to the lives of the people who opened the Midwest. We understand a good deal about the heroes and villains, Americans, British, and Indians. This saga is worth sharing. Yes, Eckert does take some license with dialogue, though he claims all dialogue is based on existing historical documents, but he tells history as a story. In French the word histoire means both “story” and “history.” Isn’t that the way it should be?

In the Lake of the Woods – Review

Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

If anyone has read the story “On the Rainy River” from O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods bookends that story. “Rainy River” begins O’Brien’s Vietnam saga, and In the Lake of the Woods apparently ends it. At first it does not appear to be another war story like the works O’Brien is justly best known for like If I Die in a Combat Zone, Going After Cacciato, and The Things They Carried.

John Wade and his wife Kathy are staying in cabin in a remote area of Minnesota lake country. We find out that Wade, still a young 38 and the Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, has just lost a party primary for the U. S. Senate. The couple understandably want to get away for a while and re-connect and think things through.

Much of In the Lake of the Woods is flashback. At first the flashbacks tell of how the pair met in college and how they fell in love. We also find out John Wade’s father committed suicide when John was twelve and that as a boy his hobby was sleight of hand. By the time he was in high school he was putting on magic shows.

We also learn that he was drafted into the army out of college and went to Vietnam in 1968. At first the reminiscences about Vietnam mostly have to do with how he was trying to maintain a long distance relationship with Kathy, writing letters while she was finishing her studies. He used to do magic tricks to entertain his comrades in his platoon, so he got known by the nickname Sorcerer. Indeed, it seemed that soon everyone forgot his real name.

Although a few of the flashbacks are a little jarring, they are not too unusual. He does think about something that happened at Thuan Yen, and then about a third of the way through the novel the book mentions that his platoon leader was a Lt. Calley. That, of course, is not a fictional name. About two thirds of the way through the novel we learn that Thuan Yen became known to the outside world as My Lai.

So even though most of the story is set in 1980’s Minnesota back country, the Vietnam War still figures. One of the more interesting characters in the novel is Tony Carbo, Wade’s campaign manager and longtime political operative. Several times he asks if Wade has any skeletons in his closet so they can bring them out and minimize them before the campaign heats up. Wade says that he cannot think of anything.

Needless to say, his primary opponent has someone look into Wade’s background, including his service record, and discovers that he was involved in some way with the My Lai massacre. Wade had been seen as a shoo-in in the primary, but after that revelation his reputation and poll numbers tanked.

It is safe to say that In the Lake of the Woods is a study of PTSD—after a failed election on top of suppressed war memories and a father’s suicide. Still, the main story is a mystery.

One morning John Wade wakes up (it is nearly noon, he had been drinking the night before) and Kathy is gone. At first, he does not think much of it. An athlete in college, she still likes to jog or take walks. He figures she just was taking a walk—it was a few miles to the first general store. When she has not returned by dark, he gets worried. The next day the search begins.

For three weeks the search is quite extensive: sheriff’s department, volunteers, airplanes, with park rangers and border patrol from both the United States and Canada. No trace of her is found. A boat owned by the cabin owner is missing, so they think that she took off and got lost in the maze of waterways along the Minnesota-Canada border.

Wade himself becomes a suspect, and some people call for a search of the cabin and the property around it. Still, nothing is found.

The style of In the Lake of the Woods is reminiscent of Going After Cacciato, but there is not exactly any magical realism. Since Wade is a magician, perhaps O’Brien is making a little fun of the genre. There are a number of chapters entitle “Evidence” which include brief testimonies by Wade’s friends and family members, statements by political figures who knew the Wades, quotations from a variety of books on history and psychology, and observations by locals involved in the search.

There are also a few chapters named “Hypothesis” in which possible explanations for some of John’s and Kathy’s behaviors are explored. Perhaps Kathy just needed to get away and got lost. Perhaps John really killed her in a bloodless manner and sunk her in the boat. Will we ever know?

Ultimately, In the Lake of the Woods may well be the last of O’Brien’s Vietnam tales—even though the war is only on the novel’s periphery. The Rainy River flows out of the Lake of the Woods in real geography. With O’Brien it goes the other way. And at its core, O’Brien perhaps expresses his own views more clearly. He is no longer hiding as he was in the works mentioned earlier. And his views are existential:

But who will ever know? It’s all hypothesis, beginning to end. (300)

The title itself may give us a hint. It is not On the Lake or By the Lake or At the Lake but In the Lake. As Polonius put it: “By indirections, find directions out.” (Hamlet 2.1.66)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Review

Alan Bradley. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York: Random, 2009. Print.

This murder mystery is marketed to adults, but considering that the main character is a 12 year old girl with an unusual family, this could just as easily be marketed as a young adult novel. Flavia, our protagonist, has two sisters who torment her—of course, she can just as well torment them back. Flavia loves chemistry, and she uses her knowledge of chemistry to get back at sister Ophelia who had tied her up and locked her in their attic.

How could teenagers get away with such stuff? Their mother died when Flavia was a baby, and their father pretty much does nothing except work on his stamp collection. The family is minor British aristocracy, and they live in a large manor house with two hired help—the cook Mrs. Mullet and caretaker Dogger. The three kids are pretty much left on their own in the big house.

One day their father, Colonel De Luce, gets a mysterious delivery, a stuffed jacksnipe (a type of long-billed sandpiper) with an old postage stamp impaled on its bill. This unusual message disturbs the Colonel, and within a couple of days an intruder is found dead in their yard.

The story has quite a bit of action. The colonel is arrested for the murder of the stranger, and Flavia does some sleuthing and getting into trouble to try to find out who really did it. People who have a smattering knowledge of chemistry and stamp collecting will especially enjoy this story, though things are explained clearly enough for the uninitiated. It did help, for example, for this reader to know what urushiol is. Eventually Flavia tells us. (It is the active ingredient, if you will, in poison ivy.)

Similarly, if the reader knows anything about the earliest postage stamps which were first issued by the United Kingdom in 1840, the story becomes fascinating. Without giving away too much of the plot, the stamp stuck onto the snipe is a Penny Black – the first postage stamp ever issued. It has a picture of Queen Victoria in a frame. In the bottom of the frame are the words “ONE PENNY” in capital letters.

The Penny Black
The Penny Black

However, this stamp also had markings to indicate the position of each individual stamp on the sheet. In the lower left hand corner it has one letter to indicate the row the stamp was in. Letter A was the first row, B the second row, and so on through T, the twentieth and last row. In the lower right hand corner of the frame it had letters A through L, to indicate which of the twelve columns the stamp had been cut from. The stamp on the snipe had the letters B and H, so the writing along the bottom could be read as “B ONE PENNY H.” It turns out than a boarding school classmate of Col. De Luce was Horace Bonepenny. When putting the family name first as for alphabetizing, that becomes Bonepenny H.

There are a number of entertaining clues like that that help Flavia solve the mystery, but also get herself into many jams. This book is the first of a series, and I suspect that many readers will enjoy the clever Flavia and her humorous cheer.

One note on the American edition of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie cited above. The cover is all wrong. It has a picture of a totally black bird like a crow with an orange stamp impaled on the bill. The jacksnipe, like other snipe and sandpipers is spotted brown and shaped completely different from a crow. I can also assure the reader that any stamp known as the Penny Black is not orange; however, there is an orange stamp that does figure in the story: the Ulster Avenger. It got its name because it was orange like the favorite color of Ulstermen. Read the story and find out more about that one.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain. See

Ben-Hur (novel) – Review

Lewis Wallace. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 1880;, 30 March 2011. E-book.

With the recent films Hail, Caesar and Ben-Hur (the third at my count), I felt I ought to read the novel that inspired these movies, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. I have seen the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, and I do recall it pretty well, considering I saw it around 1960. The film is fairly faithful to the book, though of necessity much is cut out or collapsed. Wallace tells a very good story.

Like the 1959 film, the story begins with the three wise men or magi visiting the baby Jesus. Unlike the film, one of the wise men, an Egyptian named Balthasar, becomes an important character in the novel. Indeed, Balthasar is the theologian of the story whose influence ultimately steers the protagonist Judah Ben-Hur both to Jesus and to an understanding of the Kingdom of God.

(In fairness to the film, the occasional voice-overs of the 1959 production were given to the same actor who played Balthasar.)

When we think of the movie, we think of the chariot race. Indeed, about a third of the novel focuses on the chariot race, too. In other words, it is not like The Lord of the Rings’ Battle of Helm’s Deep which takes about half an hour of film time but only a couple of pages in the book. No, there is not a blow-by-blow description of the race for 180 pages, but it does focus on the many things that lead up to the race: Judah’s training as a Roman military officer, the betrayal by Messala, Judah’s desire for revenge, Judah’s connection with the Arab sheik Ilderim, the choosing of horses, and the horse training.

As most readers know, Wallace was a general in the American Civil War and knew horses. This part of the story is told well, even for those of us who are not that familiar with horses or who have seen the movie and know how the race turns out. I thought of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds which describe a fox hunt in such a way that even readers who know little of foxes or horses or hounds get a sense of why people enjoyed the sport.

The most surprising thing about Ben-Hur was that romance is a major element in the novel, though a minor one in the film. That’s right, Judah Ben-Hur was attracted to two lovely damsels: Iras, the seductive daughter of Balthasar, and Esther, the shy but intelligent daughter of the rich Jewish merchant and family retainer Simonides. Which one will he choose?

Although we may think of the story arc involving horse races and slave ships, one reason that Ben-Hur has continued to be enjoyed is that it portrays many important relationships. Most readers can relate to at least some of them. There is, of course, the betrayal of Judah Ben-Hur by his childhood friend Messala for political gain.

Throughout the book, Judah worries about his mother and sister. Their fate, until they meet Jesus, is worse than death. Yes, they have leprosy, but beyond that their imprisonment is most cruel and unusual.

As is well-known, Ben-Hur is sentenced to be a galley slave where he manages to survive for three years and rescue the Roman admiral Arrius who adopts him as a son. Ben-Hur then reconnects with his father’s steward Simonides, who is now the richest merchant in Syrian Antioch. Through Simonides he meets both Balthasar and Ilderim, along with Iras and Esther. Ilderim sets him up with the horses and chariots that will defeat Messala. But more than that, Ilderim helps him organize and army of Jews and Arabs that will rebel against Rome when the time is right. Simonides sympathizes with this plan, but Balthasar demurs.

Balthasar has told both Judah and Simonides about his visit to Bethlehem some three decades earlier to see the infant who was to become the King of the Jews. He understands with the two of them that the Jewish Messiah will rule the world in the name of the one true God.

Simonides and Ben-Hur see the Messiah as a political figure. He will conquer the Romans and set up a righteous government ruled by the Jews according to Jewish Law. Indeed, the army that Ben-Hur organizes, he organizes for the Messiah. When the Messiah, who must be a grown man by now, gives him the word, his armies will rise up.

Balthasar, of course, is a gentile Egyptian. Because of his studies as well as his encounter with the baby Jesus, he does believe in the one true God. However, being a gentile, he does not see the Messiah in the nationalistic terms that his Jewish friends do. He explains that if God is the God of all mankind and that if the Messiah is going to rule the world in righteousness, His kingdom will be different. He must first make people righteous. He has to somehow deal with the sinfulness of all mankind.

The novel is perhaps a little more realistic than the film. In the film, Judah’s mother and sister get healed of their leprosy at the cross. This was done, I believe, for the economy of time in the film. In the novel, they are healed as they call out to Jesus when He passes by. In other words, more like the way Jesus healed a number of people in the Gospels.

I think it is not much of a spoiler to say that Judah Ben-Hur will end up with the nice Jewish girl, but we also learn that Balthasar’s daughter reverts to polytheism. At one point when she takes Ben-Hur for a boat ride, most readers could not help thinking of another famous Egyptian beauty: Cleopatra on her barge. So Iras never accepts her father’s stories about the Christ or his belief in a single Creator God. As has been said, God has no grandchildren.

Wallace makes a few clever and subtle Biblical connections. The Bible in Acts 11:26 tells us that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch. While we cannot say that Esther of Antioch coined the term, the first time we hear the term used, Esther speaks it.

Judah Ben-Hur, we are told, was a Jewish prince—not unlike the rich young ruler who questioned Jesus. Ben-Hur’s family line goes back at least to the time of the resettlement of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. We find that Wallace named the family Ben-Hur because Nehemiah 3:9 describes Rephaiah the Son of Hur (i.e., ben Hur in Hebrew) as “the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem.” Jewish nobility indeed!

We see one interesting note of comparison with the film. In the chariot race, Ben-Hur does not wear a helmet the way that the rest of the racers do. I just figured this was typical Hollywood. The star does not wear a hat or helmet so we can see who is doing the daring deed (this goes from Rambo to Branagh’s Henry V). However, the book actually tells us that Ben-Hur did not wear a helmet in the race. They were serving the cameraman and the original source at the same time!

The story ends with a mention of the Catacombs of Callixtus (or Calixto). Those were rediscovered around 1850 (one reliable source says 1849, another 1854). Anyway, they had been in the news just prior to the Civil War, so that Wallace’s audience would have known something about them. Callixtus’s story parallels that of Ben-Hur in some ways: a slave who escaped by jumping off a ship, sentenced to slave labor in a mine where he got the attention of a mistress of the Emperor at the time (c. A.D. 200), and was eventually freed and became a priest and then the Bishop of Rome.

Chance Developments – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. Chance Developments. New York: Pantheon, 2015. Print.

I do not write a review of every book I read. Sometimes I do not do so because I could not write a good review. I have loved most of Alexander McCall Smith’s tales of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and have reviewed a number of them here. One, alas, was a dud. So was one of his other books. I was beginning to be concerned. Was Mr. Smith losing his touch?

I am happy to report that Chance Developments is a delightful and bittersweet look at humanity. Like some of the best of the Ladies’ Detective Agency books, we can see and understand that Smith loves people. Coming away from this, one cannot help but say with Miranda, “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

Chance Developments sounds like it may have been inspired by a writing class. Smith tells us that he was given some old (c. 1910-1940) black and white photographs of unknown provenance with unidentified people. He takes five of those photographs—each reproduced in the book—and develops a story around them.

“Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom” tells of a young woman in her early thirties who decides to leave her order of teaching nuns after ten years. She has the idea that she is going to go out into the world that she has been cut off from for a decade, buy some clothes, and find a nice man. Her naïveté is endearing, but so is her faith. A generation ago, this long short story—or, perhaps, novella—would have been serialized in a woman’s magazine.

“Angels in Italy” is a very different story. The main character, a teen boy who is a budding artist, is also a bit naïve. The way he is described, he almost sounds borderline autistic. He says very little, keeps to himself, and does not seem to have many social skills. Still, he understands in his own way the importance of human relationships. In the photo, he is only 7 or 8 and wearing a kilt. Indeed, most of the story is set in Scotland. Still, since our protagonist is an artist, there is a connection with Italy and the one friend who takes time to understand him.

“Dear Ventriloquist” is based on an unusual old photograph of a young man sitting on the lap of a young woman. The dress dates the photo from before World War I. That got Mr. Smith thinking of a ventriloquist, as if the man on the lady’s lap were her dummy. He adds another twist by telling the story from the point of view of the young man taking the picture, obviously unseen. No selfies in 1910! The approach does lead to some disappointment in the mind of the young photographer, but it is a lesson we all can learn something from.

“The Woman in the Beautiful Car” is based on another pre-World War I photo of a well-dressed woman standing next to a vintage automobile while two men change one of its tires. From this, Mr. Smith develops a very clever story line in which it appears everyone lives happily ever after.

The last story begins with a photo of a man in an Australian Army uniform and pretty woman looking out of the side of a sailboat. Smith imagines the picture being taken right before World War II, and the man spending most of the war in a Japanese slave labor camp. He returns from the war and marries the woman in the picture, but they have a rough go of it. Perhaps they both changed during the war; perhaps he had some PTSD problems he never dealt with. The tale takes some surprise twists, though, and one can say that through his suffering the ex-POW can relate to and serve others who are suffering. (See II Corinthians 1:4) And his wise observation at the end is something that perhaps we can all affirm in our own ways.

How much of life is intentional and deliberate? How much is chance? We may never know, but like Sister Flora, we can learn to appreciate that ultimately God is the blessed ruler of all things. (I Timothy 6:15)

Radio Fifth Grade – Review

Gordon Korman. Radio Fifth Grade. 1989; New York: Scholastic, 2010. Print.

If anyone is following this blog, the last few entries have been some pretty heady nonfiction works—brain function, infinity, education reform. I needed a break. Ah, who better to lighten the way than one of our favorite YA writers—Gordon Korman!

As is obvious from the title, Radio Fifth Grade has a slightly lower reading level than many Korman’s other titles which are geared more toward middle school or early high school. The content and style is not much different from his Swindle series, for example, but Radio Fifth Grade is a bit shorter. It is still a lot of fun.

The students at an elementary school in the city of Venice USA (the state is not specified) have been allowed half an hour of air time Saturday mornings on a local FM radio station. Benjy, Mark, and Ellen-Louise are the fifth grade producers of the show. Benjy idolizes a certain disk jockey whose autobiography he has practically memorized to become the host of the radio show. Mark does the physical labor, and Ellen-Louise is the teacher’s pet type who tries to keep the adults happy.

They get into some crazy situations on Saturday mornings for three main reasons. (1) Their classroom teacher suddenly leaves, and the new hire, Ms. Panagopolous, is fresh out of teachers’ college ready to get the kids to do a fifth grade seminar. (2) The school bully, a hulking sixth grader known as the Venice Menace, writes a totally lame story about two kittens who fight over a ball of yarn and gets to read it over the air (or else). (3) The show’s sponsor is local pet store whose grouchy owner is focused on the bottom line and wants to sell a talking macaw who only seems to want to say, “That parrot is a rip-off!”

I actually laughed out loud reading this book, something I do not do very often while reading. The story of the kittens Fuzzy and Puffy is so bad that it’s good. And the kids devise a plan to outsmart their teacher and get answers for the “seminar” homework, but they have to make sure that “Professor” Panagopolous does not listen to the show.

The kids are quite creative—not so much on the air, but in figuring out how to use the show to hoodwink their teacher and keeping the Menace from beating anyone up. Of course, it all begins to unravel. Technically, there are no break-ins in this story, but there are some other shenanigans that come pretty close.

Radio Fifth Grade will be great for nearly anyone from second or third grade on up to old-timers. Teachers should love the satire on their profession. Thank you, Mr. Korman, for keeping us smiling.

In case you are interested, other reviews here of books by Mr. Korman:

The Hypontists

The Dragonfly Effect
Masterminds: Criminal Destiny

Everything and More – Review

David Foster Wallace. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.

Having enjoyed and admired Infinite Jest, I had to read what its author would say about the concept of infinity. Everything and More keeps the reader’s interest. It is not what I expected, but that is OK. By the way, I spell out the word infinity in most cases in this review, except for a couple of equations. Wallace frequently uses the symbol for infinity, the lemniscate. Even the book’s subtitle is written A Compact History of ∞.

Everything and More is truly a mathematics-based history of the concept of infinity, starting with the ancient Greeks. This work is a combination of mathematics and philosophy. Wallace frequently quotes a high school AP math teacher of his. One of my high school math teachers actually majored in Philosophy and Mathematics at Harvard. If Mr. Galvin is still around, I am sure he would enjoy this book—if he has not already read it.

I will be honest. I did take math in college up to theoretical calculus, but I have not used much of the higher math I studied since taking those classes, so I did skim over some of the more formulaic parts. For any serious mathematicians, there is an erratum at However, the philosophical parts were fascinating, and I think I got the gist of the main arguments.

Wallace notes that it was the Greeks who, as far as we know, were the first people to look at numbers a potential abstractions. For example, the Egyptians and Babylonians knew about a 3-4-5 right triangle and used them to form and measure right angles. However, it was the Greek Pythagoras who showed the relationship among the sides by the theorem that still bears his name. Prior to some of those Greeks, numbers always stood for something—as Wallace puts it, five meant “five of something” like, say, five oranges. I guess one could say that numbers were adjectives that the Greeks began to see as nouns.

So they began looking at numbers as numbers. Indeed, Wallace asserts that Platonists and Aristotelians had a different view of number. The Platonists would see a number as a form or ideal. Aristotelians saw them as representing or describing something in the physical world. Aristotle dismissed the concept of infinity because nothing in the material world is infinite. Wallace has some fun with some ridiculously small and large numbers to illustrate that even the smallest measurable division of time or the number of electrons in the universe may be numbers so large or tiny as to be unimaginable, but they are still not infinite.

The Greeks were made aware of infinity largely through the infinitesimal, namely Zeno’s Paradox. Most students who have finished junior high math have heard of it. If you keep going halfway, you will never cross the street, yet how can two halves make a whole? What Zeno was suggesting was that between any two integers there are an infinite number of numbers.

As with so many things, the teachings of Aristotle held sway for about a millennium and a half (some still do). Yet people were aware not only of Zeno’s Paradox but others as well. For example, the invention of calculus brought a kind of corollary to Zeno—that in any given position or moment of time an object is at rest, so how does one account for motion?

Even the ancient Greeks had an idea that rational numbers (i.e., numbers that can be expressed as a ratio) do not account for all the numbers. Thanks to Pythagoras, they saw that the diagonal of a square is the square root of two [√ 2 ], which cannot be expressed as a ratio. Neither can pi [π]. So to have continuity on the number line—or even to account for motion mathematically—one has to account for every point, and there are an infinite number of points between any two rational points on a line.

Galileo came up with his own paradox: Even though there are many more numbers that are not perfect squares, when dealing with all the integers (an infinite number of integers) the number of integers and perfect squares are the same because every integer can be squared. Wallace explains this very clearly.

Everything and More focuses on Georg Cantor, the nineteenth century mathematician who developed much of modern set theory and, in doing so, was able to answer many of the questions people had about infinity such as the two paradoxes mentioned here. Unlike some of the calculations in the book, Wallace explains very clearly why there are different infinities. Although there are an infinite number of integers or squares or rational numbers, there are many more irrational numbers. This means that the set of real numbers is a degree of infinity greater than the set of integers or rational numbers.

Cantor used the Hebrew letter aleph [א]to designate an infinite set. A greater infinite set would then be designated by an aleph with a numerical subscript, with the first level aleph being aleph sub zero [א0] corresponding to the set of rational numbers. So aleph sub one [א1] would describe the set of real numbers, which corresponds to a line of one dimension. Since then, people have shown that there are sets of infinities based on dimensions. Yes, there are an infinite number of points on a plane, but that is a degree of infinity greater so that becomes aleph sub two [א2]. Three dimensional space has aleph sub three [א3], and so on. Other mathematicians have made a case that these different alephs can be expressed as two to the aleph power of the aleph that precedes it, so א1=2א0, א2=2א1, and so on. I think I presented this correctly.

Going back to Zeno, this “solves” the problems of continuity and motion mathematically from the perspective of number theory. Aristotle may have been correct saying that in the physical universe there are not an infinite number of anything, but when we observe motion and measurements, we take such an idea into account. This also becomes a topic of discussion in this book and among math scholars: Is induction a valid technique for finding what is true in mathematics or should we, like Euclid, stick to deduction?

Because Infinite Jest was a wonderfully funny work of speculative fiction, I expected Everything and More to be more speculative than it was. Of course, because its topic is infinity, a certain amount of speculation is unavoidable. Still, it was mostly history. And Wallace desires, though cannot quite bring himself, to agree with the professor in the Narnia stories who explains, “It’s all in Plato. What do they teach in the schools these days?”

Ironically, for someone who is contemplating infinity, Wallace takes a narrow view of things. He asserts sadly, “That our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrical pate.” (22) Well, as our last review notes, the mind and the brain are not identical. Similarly, he trivializes love as “a function of natural selection.” (23) How drearily mechanistic. How much like Roger Chillingworth!

Everything and More dismisses, for example, Aquinas’s speculation (and the old saint’s only disagreement with Aristotle) about infinity—that God is infinite and that eternity is infinite in time.

I confess that if I were writing about infinity, that is what I would be speculating about. Take one simple example I share with my students when we study Tom Stoppard. We know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that the universe is winding down. Stoppard tells us “the future is disorder” and some day “heat is gone from the earth.” However, eternity is different. Eternity means unlimited energy forever. I can prove it mathematically.

We learned about a hundred years ago that the inherent energy of something is its mass times the square of the speed of light, or E=mc2. Eternity is timeless. That means that speed, which is distance divided by time (d/t in math class) is infinite in eternity. Instead of c=186,000 miles/second, in a timeless environment the speed of anything, light and everything else, is the distance over zero because there is no time in eternity. Any number divided by zero is either nonsense or infinity. Wallace makes a case that any real number divided by infinity is zero [e.g., 1/0=∞]. If eternity exists, that means E equals m times infinity [E=m·∞], so E=infinity [E=∞], so eternity has infinite energy. That helps explain creation, miracles, and other things we might consider supernatural. It is a thought.

Everything and More is very well written. Wallace is first and foremost a story teller. Though nonfiction, this book tells a story in a pretty effective way even it its speculation is materialistic, something Infinite Jest starts with but does not end with. Indeed, the last three sentences of Everything and More suggest such things as I speculated on in the last paragraph, but instead of seeing eternity, Wallace saw the “Void.” (305, his capital) Alas.

P.S. The copy of this book that I obtained is the original edition. In 2013 an edition of Everything and More came out with a preface by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is also a very clever speculative writer. It would be interesting to see what he had to say about this book, but that will have to wait.

Switch on Your Brain – Review

Caroline Leaf. Switch on Your Brain. Grand Rapids MI: Baker, 2013. Print.

Switch on Your Brain is subtitled The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. The author is a doctor who specializes in communication pathology. The first two thirds of the book make a case for what she calls neuroplasticity, that the nerve cells in our brains can be made to work differently depending on our thoughts. Politically, theologically, practically, and scientifically, she would assert that people have free will.

The book could be seen as a kind of Pangloss or Norman Vincent Peale positive thinking book. To some degree it is. The author makes a case, however, that while we may not be able to do much to change our circumstances, we can choose to react to them in a positive way. A consistent attitude—whether positive or negative—begins to make a regular road in the neural pathways of the brain. In effect, Switch on Your Brain makes a scientific case for positive thinking. You might as well get those pathways headed in a positive directions.

One striking assertion of this presentation is how it parallels the experience of Dr. Eben Alexander in his Proof of Heaven, reviewed in this blog. That book is a testimony, not a how-to or self-help book. However, the author is a brain surgeon. He shares how he was brain-dead for a week and then revived. Even though his EEG was flatlined the entire time, he was conscious. Prior to that experience, he had always assumed that the mind and the brain were the same. He realized from this experience that that is not the case.

Dr. Leaf’s experience counseling and treating people has led her to the same conclusion—that the mind is not exactly the same as the brain. The brain is the physical manifestation of the mind. She notes, though, that they are not independent. She makes a case, as did Dr. Alexander, that there is a lot we do not know about the mind.

She notes that the scientific and mathematical models in recent years indicate that there are at least eleven dimensions to physical existence, and frankly, we know little about most of them. She notes that quantum leaps of subatomic particles like electrons are instantaneous. She notes that some subatomic particles seem to react to the manner in which they are being observed. In all this, and especially in her discussion of brain anatomy, she makes a case that there is much we do not know but that free will exists. To quote the title of a book from a generation ago on the psychology of happiness, this means that happiness is a choice.

The second section of Switch on Your Mind, approximately the last third of the book, covers five steps to renew the mind (see Romans 12:2), or as the author puts it, to “switch on” the brain. Those five steps do appear to be helpful and do make this a true self-help book.

That section might be a bit weaker simply because it does involve self-help. Dr. Leaf has devoted her life to helping others, and gives some fascinating case histories illustrating her steps and showing how they have helped her clients and patients. Still, it one thing to be led through therapy by a skilled expert and another thing to “do it yourself,” even if the directions were written by an expert.

Does it work? Well it worked, she tells us, for some very disadvantaged school students in a Johannesburg, South Africa, slum. It certainly cannot hurt. If nothing else, this book is a good reminder that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language