Masterminds: Payback – Review

Gordon Korman. Masterminds: Payback. New York: Harper, 2017. Print.

Brand new (dated 2017!) from Gordon Korman, one of our favorite YA writers—Masterminds: Payback is the third installment of the Masterminds series, and it does bring the tale to a close. We highly recommend that readers take in the books in the order that they were written.

Part two, Masterminds: Criminal Destiny, left two of our cloned protagonists escaping both the law and criminals down a Texas river. The other two manage to wangle rides to Los Angeles where they start a Girl Scout cookie scam. The fifth friend, well, he turned out to be a traitor under the influence of P. J. Rackoff (sounds like Bernie Madoff?) from whom he was cloned.

The character are at loose ends. Tamara Dunleavy—the retired billionaire backer of Project Osiris, the human cloning experiment—has denied all knowledge. Some of the Purple People Eaters, the security detail from the experimental village in New Mexico, are actively looking for them. Except for some notorious criminals, no one believes their story. They have no money and nowhere to go.

Two manage to get to Chicago where they connect with Gus Alabaster, the gangland don whom Malik Bruder was cloned from. When he tells Gus that he is his son, everyone believes him because he looks just like Gus when Gus was younger. But now Gus has been granted parole from prison because he is terminally ill. Still, Malik and Amber have some time to learn the ways of organized crime and of helping in an urban soup kitchen. When Gus’s men peel off a hundred dollar bill for a tip each time Malik does an errand for them, he tells himself, “I could learn to like this.”

One of the recurring questions among each of the cloned kids is simply this: Was I born evil? Am I to be a criminal, too? At times I sure have been acting and living like one.

That is not an uncommon question in the history of the world. Yes, Oedipus asked it. But if we examine ourselves, maybe all of us can ask the same question. Solzhenitsyn quotes a fellow prisoner:

“…if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.” (The Gulag Archipelago II.612)

Eli and Tori go to Los Angeles. People recognize Eli as the spitting image of a teen TV star, a Zac Efron type. Eli gets to meet him, but this raises more questions. Are he and the teen heartthrob related? Is this actor another clone? No spoilers here, but it is complicated.

Masterminds: Payback ends up in a wild melee in the Bahamas involving a water park, a stolen boat, a huge fish tank, and some Purple People Eaters. In other words, it is typical but crazy Gordon Korman. As always, there is a lot of humor. One portion of the Bahama adventure does seem similar to one from one of the Swindle tales, but it is a lot of fun.

By the way, this is the third and last book in the Masterminds trilogy. Things do get wrapped up, and justice is served. We have gotten to know and like the four or five main characters. Most of us do wonder sometimes where we came from and whether we really do fit in anywhere. We would not be shocked if, like the Swindle stories, more Masterminds tales appear in the future.

The Black Count – Review

Tom Reiss. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. New York: Random, 2012. E-book.

We often read and read about Alexandre Dumas, père (father), the author of beloved novels like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, and Alexandre Dumas, fils (son), a popular playwright and novelist in his day. The Black Count is about a third Alexandre Dumas, one could say, Dumas, grand-père (grandfather).

This book tells us not only a fascinating story of a French military hero caught up in the Revolution but suggests that some of this soldier’s experiences inspired events and episodes in the writings of his son the novelist. To help the reader, The Black Count refers to him as Alex. Not only does that distinguish him from his novelist son, but that is the way he most commonly signed his name.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was the son of a French nobleman and a freed slave who lived in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue, known as Haiti today. His father was a small but successful planter in a remote part of the island. He went by an assumed name, so when his Norman marquis father died, even authorities in Saint-Domingue did not know if Monseigneur de la Pailleterie was dead or alive.

Thomas’s mother would die on the island. Eventually, after being away from France for thirty years, Alex’s father returned. His brother’s family had taken on the role of Marquis de la Pailleterie, but he was able to get the title and his father’s estate since he was the eldest. His son would arrive a year later. He had to sail to Europe under the pretense that he was a slave of a friend of his father who was making the trip.

Even though his father was a Marquis, Alex did have some difficulties because his mother had been a slave. However, he was welcome at a Paris military academy which had a few other “American” students. The French called black Frenchmen Americans because they had all come from French colonies in the Americas.

Technically, Alex was a count because he was the son of a marquis. However, he also had true republican sympathies and saw more opportunities for a black Frenchman after the Revolution. Although the country would go back a little under Napoleon, France was the first European country to outlaw slavery. By the time Alex graduated from the academy, he was over six feet tall, exceptionally strong, and capable as a horseman, swordsman, and sharpshooter.

As a count, Alex could have received an officer’s commission upon graduation, but he had spurned his noble connections and enlisted under the name of Alexandre Dumas, his second name followed by his mother’s maiden name. He distinguished himself in battle and within a few years was commissioned.

He was promoted rapidly and became a minor national hero in defeating the Austrians in the Alps. During the Reign of Terror, now-General Dumas was able to avoid having to follow some of the more extreme orders he had received, and just when the Committee of Public Safety had called him back to Paris for questioning, Robespierre and the other radicals were overthrown.

Alex would serve in Egypt during Napoleon’s ill-fated foray into that country. Reiss makes a case that Napoleon was trying to imitate both Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. The General was captured in Italy on his way back to France and spent two years in a Neapolitan fortress as a prisoner of war. A few elements of his imprisonment were incorporated into The Count of Monte Cristo. I would add that this was also likely true with The Man in the Iron Mask.

There is a lot more to the story of Alex dumas. His son the novelist was only four when he died, but Alexandre would claim that he had many memories of his father, and he heard many stories about him from his father’s friends.

The Black Count also fills the reader in on many things going on in France and its colonies at the time. We learn about the changing legal status of slaves. We learn a lot about the Revolution. We also get a good sense of how Napoleon came to power and of various injustices even General Dumas suffered because of his race. This is a rich tale told well.

Anyone interested in Alexandre Dumas and especially The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers will see some connections. Along with Jacques Peuchet’s “A Family Crime” and “The Diamond and the Vengeance”—translations available from English Plus—the reader can learn of some more inspiration for some of Dumas’s best work. We also begin to understand how personally significant his late father was to him so that his stories come alive even more. Whether Dantès, D’Artagnan, or the man in the iron mask, the theme of an outsider gaining justice and possibly some sweet revenge is the kind of story people never seem to tire of hearing.

The Second Coming – Review

Walker Percy. The Second Coming. New York: Farar, 1980. Print.

No, this is not an interpretation of Bible prophecies, this is a novel. I read it perhaps for the same reason that I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The Second Coming in some ways is a second coming of The Moviegoer. The main character is a prosperous man in the Southern United States who is at loose ends. At the end, there are a marriage and hints of a religious conversion taking place.

Will Barrett is a widower with an adult daughter. A Georgia native, he was a Wall Street lawyer and now lives in North Carolina. He plays a lot of golf and has occasional fainting episodes. He calls them petit mal epilepsy until they are diagnosed as an unusual hereditary syndrome.

Alternating scenes introduce us to Allison Huger, who has engineered an escape from a mental institution. She is the adult daughter of Kitty Vaught Huger, an old flame of Will’s. It seems that Allie may have been institutionalized by her parents to prevent her from taking an inheritance of valuable and mostly undeveloped land near Will’s country club.

At first, Will’s story is the less interesting of the two, except for his fainting episodes, which seem to mostly happen on the golf course. Being a well-off man in his fifties or sixties who plays golf and whose only child has become a born-again Christian, he sounds like he could be one of those boring Saul Bellow characters I mentioned previously—except for two things.

His own father at one time tried to kill him. Apparently, this may have been an unsuccessful attempt at murder-suicide because Will would witness his father’s suicide later. Partly because of those intense life events, Will does not believe in God. In a short time now he encounters a variety of religious believers—his daughter, some Episcopalians, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a new ager—so he decides to conduct an experiment to see if God really exists, and perhaps, as a corollary, whether or not God is good.

His test is to conceal himself in a cave and see whether he is rescued in time. The cave is actually a large underground cavern system part of which is under the golf course. This could be seen like Tom Sawyer’s cave adventure as being a parody of Christ’s resurrection, but Will Barrett is fairly serious about this.

Typical of Walker Percy, there is a lot of humor and some pointed and pity social commentary. (No lectures, just humorous asides.) Will does come to believe in God, not because of any special supernatural experience, but because it appears that God answers his questions/prayers in a way that may be surprising or unexpected, but in a way that only He could orchestrate.

The title suggests that Mr. Barrett has a second chance, that he in some way has been born again. But of course, the term Second Coming normally refers to Jesus return to earth “in glory to judge both the living and the dead” and “whose kingdom shall have no end,” to quote the Creed. Will’s born-again daughter believes we are living in the end times. Keep in mind this was published in 1980. The biggest selling book in the United States in the 1970s was Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth.

One sign of the end times that is often noted in Jewish and Christian writings is the return of many Jews to Palestine and the re-establishment of a Jewish state. Will understands this and believes that it indeed may be a sign of the last days, but he says that he has not noticed any Jews leaving North Carolina yet. Still, he does see that God has not abandoned either him or the world, and that fact gives Will and the reader hope.

The Templars – Review

Barbara Frale. The Templars: The Secret History Revealed. Trans. Gregory Conti. New York: Arcade, 2009. E-book.

If you decide not to read this book, at least read the introduction. The introduction is written by Umberto Eco, one of the most acclaimed writers of this generation. Because the Knights Templar were both a military and religious order and because they were harassed by the French government, many rumors and tales grew around them. Even today they appear as a larger than life organization in people’s conspiracy theories. (For one hypothesis connecting them with the Grail Legend, see Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which inspired Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Frale tries to present the reality. She is a research librarian at the Vatican Library, so she has access to historical records of the Roman Catholic Church going back to the early Middle Ages. The introduction explains how she rediscovered the actual papal inquest on the Knights Templar in the early fourteenth century which explained in some detail their mission and also exonerated its leadership of any wrongdoing.

That did not keep Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charny from being executed by the King of France in 1314. That effectively put an end to the order, but the Pope’s inquest lets the reader see some of the issues and accusations concerning the order at the time.

To a Protestant reader in the English-speaking world, perhaps the most interesting detail is that King Philip IV of France was attempting to create a French church independent of the Vatican more than two centuries before Henry VIII successfully did it in England.

The Templars does not focus on that episode, though it has a lot to say about it. This is a document-based history of the order from its founding at the end of the eleventh century until its disbandment after De Molay’s death.

We read about each of seven Crusades, some more organized than others, and how the Knights Templar along with the Knights of St. John (more famous today for their defense of Malta in the sixteenth century) protected pilgrims and worked with the “Frankish” Crusader Kingdoms that were established in the Near East.

We do read about things from the Knights’ point of view. Christian pilgrims had been traveling to the Holy Land for centuries, but at the time of the Crusades the Moslem governments in the area were putting more restrictions on trade and travel. The initial impetus for the First Crusade was simply to keep the holy sites, especially those in Jerusalem, open. The Knights Templar received their name because it was their call to guard the sacred locations in Jerusalem such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the site of the Jerusalem Temple (today Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall).

Perhaps the most interesting and surprising figure in this story is Bernard of Clairvaux, the pre-eminent Catholic scholar and saint in the thirteenth century. He was the person who drafted, with input from the Knights and the Pope, the rules for the Order of the Knights Templar.

To be an officer, once had to prove noble lineage for several generations. The knights also took monastic vows of poverty and chastity. They preferred widowers. Other than their simple monastic garments, their weapons, and their armor, they were only allowed to own four francs worth of possessions. They also had to obey all orders from superiors. In other words, they also took a vow of obedience.

Men from the middle class could serve as sergeants in the order, but as with any army at the time period, they would be foot soldiers and servants. Their vows, however, were similar to those of the officers.

Two rumors about the Knights may have contributed to some hostility towards them. According to some testimonies, the initiation ceremony of a Knight Templar included having the initiate do something considered blasphemous like spitting on a cross. This was supposedly done to test his obedience. Frale suggests that these tales may be spurious, or the testimonies may have been coerced by French law enforcement.

This reviewer was curious to see if the author mentioned anything about the connection with the Shroud of Turin, a hypothesis first proposed by Ian Wilson in his book on the Shroud. Like Wilson, the author mentions rumors that the Knights Templar had some idol that they worshiped, but draws no conclusion from that observation other than to note the idea that the idol was the Shroud first was proposed in the 1970s, when the first edition of Wilson’s book came out.

In effect, this is a sober, unsensational story of some historically significant religious knights. She notes that after the final fall of Acre, both the Knights of St. John and the Knights Templar set up headquarters in Cyprus. The Knights of St. John would go to Rhodes until driven out by the Turks and make their most famous stand in 1563. But that, as we have seen, is another story.

Robinson Crusoe 2244 – Review

Erik James Robinson. Robinson Crusoe 2244. MN: E. J. Robinson, 2014. E-book.

I had to bite. I was just putting together a project for a class’s Robinson Crusoe unit and had listed a number of things inspired by Crusoe (Julie, Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan, among others) when I opened an email that mentioned this title. Why not? I had enjoyed reading the first sequel to the original Robinson Crusoe. Defoe wrote two. It looks like E. J. Robinson has turned his tale into a trilogy as well. This is the first of the three.

Robison Crusoe 2244 is Crusoe-ish. It is more like Jack Bauer in the zombie apocalypse. Only instead of zombies, there are bloodthirsty nocturnal creatures called renders. These renders are various animals, some with human DNA, that were infected by some kind of virus that mutated after a nuclear holocaust—or maybe they were first mutated by evil scientists, it is not entirely clear.

The humans who have survived the nuclear decimation live in selected cities walled off from the countryside full of these renders. On the island of Great Britain there are eight such locations, or regens, including London and Glasgow. People are afraid to go outside the walls. Being sent outside the walls is a death sentence.

Without giving away too much of the plot, our future Robinson Crusoe (yes, that is his name) is the seventeen-year-old son of a nobe—a noble. The New London government comes up with trumped-up charges against the Crusoe family and some of their friends in a political power play. To escape, Robinson steals a twenty-third century flying machine and flies to North America.

North America apparently has no regens and is supposed to be completely off limits for human beings. Every night he battles renders, but he teams up with some tribal human survivors who call themselves the Aserra. He becomes friendly with a girl about his age with a name longer than Dances with Wolves’ Sioux name, so Robinson calls her Friday.

They are surviving in what remains of Washington D.C. Crusoe sets up his little fort behind the Lincoln Memorial. Another somewhat friendly tribal man camps in a sheltered room in the former Library of Congress, where Crusoe reads up on recent history to give readers some background. Periodically, a pirate ships sails up the river to hunt and to torture prisoners. Neverland anyone?

Some of the survival elements reminded this reader of the Indian John in Brave New World. However, John is from the tribal areas while Crusoe is a New English noble who has to learn to survive. Like John and other Native Americans in story and film, he learns to stoically endure pain. And he endures a lot of it—it seems like he gets attacked at least once each night just like Jack Bauer got attacked in each of his 24 “real-time” hours.

There are a few other minor echoes of the original Robinson Crusoe besides the survival in wild America by a young Englishman. The pirates are not cannibals, but they show up periodically just as the cannibals from the mainland come to Crusoe’s island on occasion. At one point there are a group of clay pots on the riverbank. It was Virginia Woolf who called Crusoe’s clay pots on the sand the “foreground image” of the original, but they mostly seem incidental here.

Unlike the original, Robinson Crusoe 2244 does not have any spiritual lessons or allegories. It is a science fiction survival story set in a future dystopia. Readers who get a kick out of such apocalyptic stories might enjoy this. It does not have the depth of Divergent or the social satire of The Hunger Games, but readers might find the renders an interesting variation of the zombies or mutants that often populate such post-disaster tales.

Erik James Robinson’s web page tells us that the author cut his teeth as a film and television screen writer. It does not take too much imagination to see this series as a film or television show as well.

Prisoner of the State – Review

Zhao Ziyang. Prisoner of the State. Trans. Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. New York: Simon, 2009. Print.

One could quibble that the translation of Prisoner of the State may be a bit dry in places. However, it miraculous that such a book even exists. Zhao Ziyang was the Chinese Premier under Chairman Deng Xiaoping when China began experimenting with free enterprise after three disastrous decades under state collectivism.

After the Tienanmen Square crackdown in 1989, Zhao was blamed by many Chinese Communist Party hardliners for supporting the unrest and spent the last fifteen years of his life from 1991 to 2006 under house arrest. He recorded his memories on overwritten cassette tapes. They were discovered, transcribed, and published, though apparently not on mainland China. This is an English translation.

Zhao notes:

After the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, there were good harvests several years in a row 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984. The rural areas experienced new prosperity, in large part because we resolved the issue of “those who farm will have land” by implementing a “rural land contract” policy. The old situation, where farmers were employees of a production team, had changed; farmers began to plant for themselves. (97)

This is a lesson that mankind seems to have to learn in nearly every generation. The Plymouth Pilgrims learned the lesson more quickly, in less than two years, because they were a settlement of about fifty people, not an ideological nation of a billion.

Zhao does concede that a government-directed economy might be a necessity in war time. He also notes that probably Mao’s biggest economic mistake was trying to make China self-sufficient. Once, under Deng and Zhao, the Chinese began exporting their products and importing things that they could not make themselves, the country began to prosper.

Zhao does tell in some detail about Tienanmen. He tried to persuade the students to leave, and tried to mediate between the demonstrators and the government. However, this time Deng was persuaded by the hardliners and hundreds were killed, and many more all over the country were rounded up.

This also tells us something about the Chinese military. It is an arm of the government, not a protector of the people. Around the same time, the government of Romania ordered its army to attack a few hundred people who were demonstrating in Timisoara. The Romanian general who was given the order refused, saying that his job was to protect the lives of the people, not kill them. When the Romanian Securitate (secret police) attacked the army, the army overthrew the government and Communism in Romania.

The Chinese generals were not as courageous and, ultimately, more ruthless. They followed the orders to kill unarmed, peaceful citizens of their own country.

Zhao also noted that the Communist system as set up by both Stalin and Mao was very similar to feudalism. He saw that his challenge was to help promote a modern industrial state. He also could see, especially after Tienanmen in 1989, that the feudalists in the Party were gaining power.

Zhao also recommended in the early eighties that the Chinese export things it can make. If they are successful, then they will be able to make more technologically advanced items later. That is exactly what happened. Even today the hardliners cannot dispute that.

Just this past week I was reading a newspaper which spoke about “China’s opaque government.” Since China is ruled by a party, much of its inner dealings and even how decisions and laws are made are largely unknown. At times such things appear arbitrary. Zhao wanted a “rule of law” rather than a “rule of men.” Those are his words, repeated through the book, but they sound like they could be something from an American Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

But in America, most such hearings are public.

Perhaps, then, the greatest thing that Prisoner of the State does is to give us a look into the machinations of the Chinese government. Yes, they were twenty years old at the time the book was published, now almost thirty years. But we rarely have had any look behind the scenes since 1949. for that reason alone, this book is something special.

Two things especially struck this reviewer about the way the Party at the highest level works. (1) Most of the Party leaders are paranoid. They fear the people and each other. (2) The hardliners are clearly on top today. It remains to be seen how long before the Party implodes or China retreats into its fortress mentality. Both things would be disasters for China in the long run.

How long will the current dynasty, the Party, retain its feudal hold? How can it maintain its mandate of Heaven?

The Moviegoer – Review

Walker Percy. The Moviegoer. 1960; New York: Random, 1989. Print.

When I was in high school, I read a book by Saul Bellow. He had won a Pulitzer or two and was critically acclaimed. I thought I would check this famous writer out. It had to be one of the most boring books I ever read. I have never read another thing by Bellow except maybe short stories in anthologies, though I do not recall. I thought to myself, how could anyone be interested in this boring person’s life?

Now, long after graduating from high school, I think I understand a bit. Bellow, Updike, maybe Roth, and others are writing about adults for adults.

A kid whose parents are still married and faithful, for example, may not be able to relate to a man or woman tempted by adultery. They also seem very self-absorbed. Who cares?

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is like that in some ways. It is about John aka Jack aka Binx Bolling, a Louisianan who drifts along. He is in a line of work that he finds interesting, but he has no real purpose in life. In one or two paragraphs we find out that he was left for dead in the Korean War, and that may have unsettled him—literally and psychologically.

Like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, he finds meaning in movies. Little things he sees remind him of different films or actors—and the films are always more interesting than his routine life. He is single, about to turn thirty. He flirts with his secretaries. If he seduced any of them, the novel does not tell us specifically that he did. His aunt, the family matriarch, wants him to marry a certain cousin who would have the proper social cachet. John and his cousin Kate have always been friends, but is this the same as being in love?

Most of the story, then, is about John drifting, especially during the week preceding Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. He wanders. He flirts. He goes on a swim date with his secretary and flirts with her roommate. He sees his aunt. He has a close relationship with his fifteen-year-old brother who is dying of an inherited disease. (His widowed mother remarried). He goes to a few movies and talks about other films.

It is a nice little tour of New Orleans neighborhoods and some of the nearby coastal bayous. Nothing much seems to be happening, except that by the end, for reasons not explained in this review (no spoilers!), Binx has matured.

Yes, it is his thirtieth birthday, when we expect even immature men to act like grown-ups. But it is also Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday, also known as Carnival, which means “goodbye to the flesh.” Carnival season is a time to indulge before the serious fasting and repentance of Lent. Binx is doing that. But it is a time to say goodbye to the flesh and start growing up…and growing up in God.

He is standing on the sidewalk on Ash Wednesday outside a Catholic church. He is surprised to see so many people going to church on a weekday until he remembers what day it is. The one person he notices leaving the church is a black man. Because of his dark skin and hat, Binx can’t even tell if the man has ashes on his forehead.

That is symbolic, too. I tis not the outward sign, but the inward change that is important. We might not be able to see the change right away, but if it is real, he will become mature. Even Moses admonished the Israelites that it was the circumcision of the heart that mattered. (See Deuteronomy 10:16 or 30:6)

In festal New Orleans, the parades, the parties, and the social clubs are a big deal, yes. But they are meant to lead us to the ashes. We must remember that we are dust. (See Psalm 103:14, cf. Job 42:6) We must start looking for the things that last. Maybe, even likely, the healing will follow and the sense of abandonment will disappear. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5)

Having gained some understanding form this story of a rootless upper middle class American, will I try Bellow or Updike now after all these years? I doubt it. In high school I was too young. Now, I suspect, I am too old.

I Kill the Mockingbird – Review

Paul Acampora. I Kill the Mockingbird. New York: Macmillan, 2014. Print.

I Kill the Mockingbird is a lot of fun. It is full of clever repartee and observations—young adult style—and the characters in the story are having a lot fun themselves.

I Kill the Mockingbird is told by Lucy who is finishing eighth grade as her mother is finishing chemotherapy. Her father happens to be principal of the Catholic grammar school she is graduating from. Her best friends are her neighbor Michael and classmate Elena. The three of them are friends in part because they all like to read. Readers will get a kick out of the story because there are references to many works of literature from the Bible to Cory Doctorow.

Elena’s Uncle Mort, her legal guardian, owns an independent bookstore in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. One of their summer reading books is To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that they have all read but don’t mind re-reading. They want to help out Uncle Mort’s business by cooking up a scheme that looks like To Kill a Mockingbird is being banned or attacked so that Uncle Mort will sell more copies.

As summer vacation begins, they start visiting bookstores and libraries within transit bus distance and placing the copies of the novel on other shelves where they do not belong. As any librarian will tell you, a mis-shelved book is as good as lost.

They also put flyers on the racks of the bookstores and libraries with the words “I kill the mockingbird.” Word starts spreading. They set up a web site, and the prank goes viral. By August there are copycats all over the country.

Their stunt grows out of their control. They are glad of one thing: Their ultimate goal—to get people reading more—seems to be working.

Lucy and her friends and family are quotable. While Lucy has not completely made up her mind, her father is a committed Catholic, as one might guess from his job. (Maybe a bit like Scout who has not made up her mind but whose father Atticus is a committed Methodist who reads Lorenzo Dow for pleasure?) Lucy is still wrestling with Friday’s question, if God is good why is there evil? But her parents display adult wisdom and irony.

Her father says, “Life is a gift. Going to church is like a thank-you note.” (28)

For understandable reasons, Lucy worries about her mother’s health. Her mother favors junk food. When her mother says that she would like a hot dog, Lucy tries to dissuade her of that idea.

“Hot dogs? Why don’t we just go buy a bag of chemicals so that you can gobble it up with a spoon?”

“We did that,” says Mom. “It was called chemotherapy. It saved my life.” (111-112)

When the three friends are coming up with things to do to pursue their kill-the-mockingbird plan, Elena makes a suggestion.

“How about we go online and start a rumor that To Kill a Mockingbird is violent and lewd?” she suggests.

“The story’s got rape, murder, lynching, and rabies,” I remind her. “There’s a man named Boo, an old lady drug addict, and a kid dressed as a pork chop. How are we going to top that?” (105,106)

There is much more. Michael has to move up to the next level of the baseball league because some of the managers think that he must be older than he is because he is so good. Lucy has developed a crush on Michael, but how do you approach someone who is almost like a brother? And then there is the axe-wielding Santa, the attempted book burning, and the memory of everyone’s favorite English teacher, Mr. Nowak, known by all including himself as Fat Bob.

One subplot involves a conflict with the manager of the nearby nationally franchised bookstore that might remind people of The Shop Around the Corner or its remake, You’ve Got Mail.

This is a gem. It might turn more middle schoolers into readers.

P.S. I do have one criticism of the book, one which I consider serious. The bird on the book’s cover and the one depicted on the illustrations of the I Kill the Mockingbird flyers look nothing like a real mockingbird. It looks like a cross between a bluebird and a chickadee.

I noted the same problem with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie where what was supposed to be a snipe looked like a crow. Don’t the cover artists try to find out what their subject looks like? I did notice that at least the bird on the cover of Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch is indeed a European Goldfinch.

A Higher Call – Review

Adam Makos and Larry Alexander. A Higher Call. New York: Berkley, 2012. Print.

A Higher Call was given to this reviewer by a friend who said it was one of the best books he ever read. This is a very moving, eye-opening story. It might go well alongside All the Light We Cannot See.

As I got about fifty pages into this nonfiction war story, I could begin to see why my friend said what he said. This book, especially the first part, is one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long time. Whatever else one may say, Messrs. Makos and Alexander know how to tell a story.

The pacing is very effective. Occasionally it alternates between Charlie Brown, an American bomber pilot flying from England to bomb Germany in World War II, and Franz Stigler, a German fighter pilot who seems to have been almost everywhere in the war. We get an excellent sense of what it was like to fly in the war, both in a bomber and in the plane whose main job was to attack the bomber.

Franz Stigler loved to fly. Even as a boy, his brother, a helpful Catholic priest, and he made a working glider. His older brother joined the German Air Force and Franz trained as a commercial pilot. Eventually in 1942, he joined the German Air Force—interestingly, until near the war’s end Nazi party members could not be pilots. The other pilots drilled into them that the Air Force Officers were not just the heirs of the Red Baron, but also of the Teutonic Knights. They understood that if they treated opposing pilots with respect, they would be treated better if they were captured.

This was largely true, as most downed Axis and Allied pilots who were captured would testify, unless they were captured by the Russian Communists or the Gestapo. Sadly, that was not the way the Japanese saw it, so Allied pilots captured by them were usually treated even worse than other prisoners of war. Unbroken is a well-known recently published example.

We follow Stigler—who flew a total of 487 combat missions from 1942 to 1945 in North Africa, Italy, and Germany. We also follow the rise and fall of the German Air Force, meeting challenges in North Africa and Sicily, to being a mere rump force greatly outnumbered once the United States turned on it manufacturing prowess.

We meet many of the top German pilots including all-time #1 and #2 aces Erich Hartmann (352 confirmed downed planes) and Gerd Barkhorn (301). We get an airman’s view of Hermann Goering, the mercurial head of the Air Force and Nazi ideologue.

And we meet bomber pilot Charlie Brown and his crew. Brown was a West Virginia native who flew 28 bombing raids out of English in 1943 and 1944.

While we get the background of both pilots and their associates, many of the events lead up to one unusual event where the lives of the two pilots crossed.

In December of 1943 after a successful bombing run over Bremem, Brown’s B-17 was shot up to the point where it could barely fly. At least one crewman was killed and several were severely injured. Stigler “escorted” Brown’s beaten-up bomber to the North Sea so that the German antiaircraft batteries did not shoot and the plane returned, crippled but safe in England.

Why did Stigler do this? Simply put, it was the chivalrous thing to do. A Higher Call briefly notes other instances of the Knights of the Air doing similar things, but the story does not end there.

Not only do we see the decline and fall of the German Air Force, once the greatest in the world, but learn about the lives of Stigler and Brown afterward. Stigler always wondered what happened to that wounded B-17. Brown wondered if the pilot of the Messerschmitt-109 was still alive and if he could find out why he did what he did.

The last few chapters describe how they two men finally got to meet each other and how their story got to be known.

The primary author, Adam Makos, tells how surprised he was that after the war there was generally great mutual respect between Allied and German airmen. Makos had made a hobby of collecting stories from World War II veterans, and even started a publishing enterprise sharing them. When he asked Charlie Brown about his story, Brown told him simply, “If you really want the whole story, learn about Franz Stigler first.” (5)

Stigler was still alive, Makos contacted him, and that was how the story was told.

There is, of course, a lot more. One thing worth considering is how both men expressed hope in God. Stigler carried a rosary in his breast pocked and prayed enough during the war that the beads lost all their paint. Meanwhile, Brown carried a New Testament in his breast pocket, and even when flying would occasionally tap it as a godly reminder.

Stigler continued to pray even though he had been excommunicated for something which today might sound humorous. (If the Catholic Church in America had the same rule as that in Germany, there would never have been a Scarlett O’Hara and her Irish Catholic clan…) Ironically, that excommunication might have save Stigler’s life because the Gestapo found some anti-Nazi literature written by two German Catholic bishops in possession of his widowed sister-in-law. When he told the Gestapo that he had been excommunicated, they let him go. By the way, he was readily readmitted to the Communion years later when he told what happened.

We are reminded by both men that there are things more important than adherence to political leaders or movements. Such things as duty, honor, and God’s purpose call all of us to a higher service.

Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace

“Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace
By Benjamin J. Chase – Guest Contributor

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace reads like a modernized, land-locked Billy Budd for its depiction of vulnerable innocence. Two friends, Gene and Finny, rise and fall at the New England Devon School against the distant backdrop of World War II. The continual interplay between their tragic story and World War II events creates a message that reads on both a personal and global level: ignorance often vilifies innocence.

At first, Gene and Finny are “best pals,” a “sincere emotion” that Finny admits during their adventure at the beach. Nevertheless, Gene’s ignorance soon creates a deep rift. As he mistakenly identifies Finny’s ideas for adventures as a way to ruin his academics, Gene begins to view Finny as an enemy. When Finny finally dismantles these misconceptions by encouraging Gene to skip an adventure in order to pursue excellence in his academics, Gene’s sense of rivalry morphs into envy of Finny’s purity: “Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.”

In the next scene, the boys are jumping out of trees into the Devon River. In an episode echoing Cain and Abel, which Brinker later labels “practically fratricide,” Gene deliberately “jounces” a tree branch and sends Finny hurtling to the riverbank. Finny falls from the tree, but does not know for certain what caused his fall. Gene’s motive is not directly stated at this point because Gene himself does not fully understand his act until the end of the novel.

After learning that Finny has a shattered leg and will never play sports again, Gene, racked with guilt, visits Finny in the infirmary. Ironically, Finny is not completely demoralized about the accident, although he notes that Gene looks “worse” and “personally shocked.” At this point, the injury has poisoned Gene internally, but only affected Finny externally.

Over the summer, Gene goes to visit Finny in Boston because he feels compelled to confess his terrible secret. As he tries to confess, he is interrupted by Finny’s purity of heart: “Of course you didn’t do it. You fool.” Gene stops his confession, believing that it might actually do more damage to Gene than the accident itself: “It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this might be an even deeper injury than what I had done before.”

As the months go on, Finny continues to evade the reality of World War II and comes to represent “a separate peace” of youth and innocence.

Noticing that Gene continues to pity Finny in some guilt-ridden fashion, Brinker decides to investigate Finny’s accident. He calls a mock trial in the First Building of Devon, which bears a symbolical crest above the door: “Here Boys Come to Be Made Men.” In an Edenic sense, this scene will contaminate Finny with the knowledge of good and evil—or at least the knowledge of Gene’s evil side.

As a part of the mock trial, Brinker examines two witnesses—Finny and Leper. Finny reveals that he harbors suspicions about the branch being shaken, but adds nothing conclusive to the case. Leper, however, adds the missing piece of information—there was in fact another figure on the branch with Finny. Although he refuses to name the other figure, Finny finally realizes that Gene has betrayed him. Leper’s special insight was also alluded to earlier when he pointedly says to Gene, “You always were a savage underneath…like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree.” For the first time in the novel, Finny begins to cry, and he tries to end the trial.

As he suddenly leaves the trial, Finny falls down the marble staircase in a passage that carefully parallels his first fall. The descriptions make this connection clear: he turns around as if he has been “attacked from behind,” “plunges” out the door, and then falls “clumsily” down the marble steps. Couched in the same language as the original fall, this is the fulfillment of Gene’s greatest fear—this is the fall of recognition.

This time when Gene visits Finny in the infirmary, Finny is hostile and reveals that he has understood the betrayal. When he presses Gene for the motive, all Gene can tell him is that it was an “ignorant…crazy thing.” If Gene is to be believed, than this ignorance depicts the way that he first misunderstood Finny as a rival, and then envied his purity of heart.

In another passage that parallels Finny’s first accident, Gene finds Dr. Stanpole and asks him about Finny. Dr. Stanpole says here that Finny has died, and he describes the cause of death as the result of some “marrow” that had escaped during the resetting of his broken bone “into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it.” The symbolism could not be more apparent—this accident has killed Finny because the recognition of Gene’s betrayal has finally traveled from Finny’s broken leg to his heart. True to Gene’s own concern, the recognition has done more damage than the accident itself. This truth is only compounded by the ironic differences of severity between the accidents: Finny survives the shattered leg and even manages to have a good attitude, but he later dies of a simpler broken leg when it interferes with his heart.

The intermittent comparisons between Finny’s accident and the war further advance this point. In both the original accident and Finny’s death, the staff at Devon mention how tragically ironic it is that a boy would be so maimed in the freedom of his youth, before his military service. Similarly, after Finny has died, Dr. Stanpole notes that the risks are the same on “an operating table and a war.” The tree is also symbolically associated with war when Gene notes that “in 1942…jumping out of trees stood for abandoning a torpedoed ship.” These cross-references keep associating Gene’s act with war, thus fusing the two scenarios into a common form of human failure.

Because Gene’s life has been so symbiotically connected to Finny’s, he does not even cry at Finny’s funeral because it feels more like his own funeral, and “you do not cry in that case.” In his so-called “killing” of Finny, Gene notes that he has “killed his enemy” long before he ever joined the army. Because of this, Gene adds that he did not kill anyone during his time in the army or need some clear sense of another enemy. Nevertheless, Gene’s acknowledged loss is that in killing Finny, he has also killed a vital part of himself.

At the very end of the novel, Gene makes an observation that serves as a linchpin for the whole novel: Gene says that he believes wars are not the result of “generations and their special stupidities,” but the product of “something ignorant in the human heart.” Because this motive parrots his expressed reason for hurting Finny, this passage creates the conclusive link between Gene’s crime of “fratricide” and war at large. Both are motivated by some sort of ignorance, or misunderstanding of others.

Gene also notes that everyone except Finny needed to attack something external to themselves as “the enemy.” For example, Mr. Ludsbury developed a sense of superiority; Quackenbush developed something to attack; Brinker developed a sense of general resentment; and Leper developed a paralyzing fear of the war. In this way, everyone lost their innocence.

Gene found his enemy in Finny because he was envious and threatened by Finny’s purity. Gene uses the World War II image of “Maginot Lines” here as a symbol of the “us-them” mentality that people feel they must construct in order to feel a sense of confidence in their own identity and place. He ends the novel claiming that people instinctively attack constructed enemies, even if they are not really the enemy: “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed…these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.” Finny himself was the only character who did not harbor this kind of malice, but his innocence led to his death.

Clearly, Finny was not Gene’s enemy, but only the threatening reminder of a purity Gene himself did not possess. By extension, the ending of A Separate Peace suggests that humans draw hard-and-fast lines between friends and foes, almost out of some depraved necessity, but often mistake the two. This conflict is primarily an interpersonal problem between Gene and Finny in the novel, but because it is so carefully linked to war throughout the whole novel, it is also applicable to international conflicts. In this sense, the novel’s closing statement suggests that people are their own worst enemies when they vilify their friends.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language