All posts by jbair

Famous Authors I Have Known – Review

James Magnuson. Famous Authors I Have Known. New York: Norton, 2015. E-book.

Frankie and Barry are career confidence men in New York City. As the story opens, Barry has found a victim who is willing to pay thousands for a forged winning lottery ticket worth millions. It all seems to be going smoothly enough for these hustlers. Barry sells the ticket to a guy named Joey who takes a stack of hundred dollar bills out of the book for the ticket.

Afterwards, the bank withdrawal ticket found among the Benjamins tells them their mark was Joseph Cannetti, Jr., of New Jersey. Joseph Cannetti, Sr., is a Mafia capo. Sure enough, Frankie finds Barry in his apartment bleeding to death and a giant hit man cleaning up in the next room.

Frankie immediately takes a taxi to LaGuardia Airport and finds the next plane he can leave on. He does not care where it is going. He has enough forged plastic and identifications to last for a while. It turns out his destination is Austin, Texas. While waiting in line, he notices a little scuffle involving a man who looks a lot like Frankie himself. Some people in line seemed to recognize this man as he suddenly tears up his boarding pass and heads for the exit.

When Frankie arrives at the Austin airport, three attractive female graduate students come to him and tell him they are there to pick him up. They think he is the famous recluse author V. S. Mohle whom they are taking to the Fiction Institute of Texas where he is supposed to be teaching as semester-long writing workshop. Being out of ideas, this looks relatively safe, so Frankie goes along with it. No hitman is going to attack a famous writer.

Mohle is a J. D. Salinger-type character, author of one perennially popular teen novel called Eat Your Wheaties. He has lived on an island off the coast of Maine for twenty-five years and has made no public appearance—nor written anything else—since he had a run-in with the prolific Rex Schoeninger, author of thick historical-geographical novels that have sold millions. Schoeninger is like an aging and slightly infirm James Michener.

We get a few details about Eat Your Wheaties. It is about two teenage boys from New York City who try to find some adventure in the city, not unlike Holden Caulfield. They then go on cross-country trip looking for the father of one of the boys. On the Road anyone? The book title itself suggest Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Yeah, we see.

That is the setup. If you, the reader, are still with me, then you have to check this out. Frankie does a very clever job at pretending to be Mohle. He has these MFA students in awe. Since Eat Your Wheaties, like Catcher in the Rye, is set in New York, he tells stories of his own experiences in the city which his students see as inspiring the novel. He is a confidence man, so conning is what he does well. Any literary reader will get a kick out of how he pulls the wool over the eyes of the self-important.

It turns out that Rex Schoeninger is footing the bill for “V. S. Mohle’s” class in order to make things right before he shuffles off his mortal coil. Of course, it gets complicated, especially when Schoeninger is nominated for a European writing award which our con artist Frankie suspects is a con itself. This is where Frankie does interact with a few other famous writers, notably Günter Grass.

Famous Writers I Have Known is not unlike a one-man caper story, but it cleverly satirizes writers’ institutes, MFA programs, and some literary prizes. I once roomed with the author of a novel that won a regional literary prize who complained that the prize did not help him sell one more book. It should appeal to English majors, MFA students, and other “literary” readers—as well as those who enjoy a good con.

How Dante Can Save Your Life – Review

Rod Dreher. How Dante Can Save Your Life. New York: Regan Arts, 2015. E-book.

This book begins with a comment that should get the reader’s attention: “I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” But the author then proceeds to tell how reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy helped him cope with difficulties in life.

Believe it or not, this book in some ways was not unlike Lost Among the Birds. That book told of the author’s struggle with depression and how recovery from that paralleled his pursuit of a big year. So How Dante Can Save Your Life is really an autobiography in which Dante’s epic plays a significant part.

I was familiar with Dreher, having read some articles he had written, and I knew he had written The Benedict Option, which is written for a Christian audience. I have enjoyed The Divine Comedy, though I have never read it analytically or studied it academically. Dreher’s book was (and still is as of this posting) a bargain on Amazon. Why not?

Unlike the author of the Lost Among the Birds, Dreher was not struggling with depression specifically. His problem was more elemental: family conflict. Dreher grew up in rural Louisiana and pursued a fairly successful career as a journalist, actually ending up at the New York Post.

But his family never accepted his career choice. Both his father and his only sister felt that he had abandoned the family and everything that they stood for. Both of them were highly esteemed in the home parish (Louisiana has parishes instead of counties), so there was a tendency to see him as a rebel or a black sheep. From his perspective, he really was not those things, he just had other interests. He writes: “There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father.” (7)

(I could identify with this to a degree; I always felt my father was disappointed that I majored in English rather than pursuing a career in finance.)

Dreher with his wife and kids moved back to his hometown. He made friends and established himself there but never was able to connect to most of his close relatives other than one niece. There were other issues, but this long-simmering conflict would continue to beset him, and he was at a loss what to do.

Sadly, his sister died in her early forties. Dreher wrote a book in her honor, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It really is a hagiography, and he received many compliments and a few honors for it. In spite of the very positive presentation of Ruthie in the book, most of his family considered it self-serving and were still convinced that he did not like them or even his sister whom he praises so much in the book.

He did become involved in some counseling both from a licensed counselor and his priest (he tells how he joined the Orthodox Church). At the same time he picked up a copy of Dante. Much of this tells how it spoke to him. It also is not a bad introduction to the Divine Comedy itself.

Dreher tells how as a reporter he had reported on the priest sexual abuse and cover-up scandal in the Catholic Church. He continued to remain Catholic because of his beliefs. He and his wife found a parish that they really liked and appreciated the priests, until it was revealed that even one of those priests had been involved in the abuse and the diocese had covered it up. Shortly after that, they joined an Orthodox congregation.

Dreher notes that Dante really spoke to him because in Dante’s day the Roman Church was corrupt. Dante places one of the recent popes and a number of other clerics in hell. But Dante remained faithful to the church because it still represented what is true and holy even if some of its practitioners did not.

Perhaps the most helpful thing for the reader is that he explains how the Divine Comedy really represents the Christian life on earth as much as it does the afterlife. The Inferno shows us the consequences of sin, and not simply the final punishment of sin. Each of the punishments reflects the hearts of the people who would commit that sin. For Dreher, as for others, this becomes a kind of mirror. He does not describe every circle, but only those that convicted him in his life, but he does an admirable job.

Throughout the book as Dreher looks at his own life and Dante’s epic, he focuses on love. So he notes, as does Dante, “sin is not at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. In Dante, sinners—and we are all sinners—are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way.” (76)

How then, can he love his family? In a right way? Can they love him? In a right way?

Dreher admits that he does not believe in Purgatory. It is a dogma only of the Catholic Church. Neither Protestant nor Orthodox teach it. Dante’s Purgatorio describes people who believe in God but who are not yet pure enough to enter heaven. Each person there has to climb a mountain to gradually slough off their sin nature so they can enter heaven.

Dreher says that this is like the Christian walk in this earth. As we go through life, if the Lord is working in our lives, He gradually works on our emotions, mind, and will to make us more the kinds of people He wants us to be. So Dreher compares his own struggles to the struggles of some of those mountain climbers in Purgatory.

Dreher spends little time reacting to or describing the Paradisio. Perhaps that is because he does not believe he has arrived yet. Still, he understands it as an ideal and perfect place with Christ Himself at the center.

Hell is a dark and loveless place of absolute egotism. Heaven is filled with love, light, and the complete absence of ego. Purgatory is life as we experience it: a never-ending contest between love and hate, altruism and selfishness, good and evil—and the way we respond to these challenges matters. (44)

The author did not become a Catholic until he was nearly thirty. He understands current mores in the wider society. He sometimes interprets for a modern audience:

To be a heretic in Dante’s era was to disbelieve Catholic orthodoxy. Today, a broader, more secular definition is to believe that partial truths are whole truths. It takes steady, unflinching examination of our own consciences to uncover idol-making heresies—that is, beliefs that hold relative goods to be absolute.(127)

So Dreher examines his own life and looks for the half-truths. Was he expecting too much of his father and sister? Why did he need the approval of others? How do these things affect his relationship with his own wife and children? With God?

There is much more. This book takes a look at contemporary culture. Dante’s story begins “in a dark wood.” That is how Dreher felt. Alas, so many people today end up that way because they feel they have to achieve. Dreher had done very well in his chosen field, but still felt rejected by his family.

Dante’s own life was one of achievement until he found himself on the wrong side of a political controversy and was exiled from his thriving Florence home for the rest of his life. Only then could he write The Divine Comedy. So we learn about the poet as well his poem.

In the Inferno Dante and Dreher learn the truth about themselves. In Purgatorio they live out the truth in their daily lives. (186) One thing that Dreher said that both he and Dante had to learn to give up “on the possibility of getting justice in this life.” (229)

In Paradisio we see God’s design and plan for His people.

God does not expect you to be the same as everyone else. He only wants you to be perfected in the nature that he gave you and find your place in the harmony of the cosmos. (281)

We also have to understand that God’s salvation is not earned. To Dreher, Dante, and the Bible, it is to an act of mercy. (275) Blessed be the name of the Lord. In heaven:

Everything within Dante has been mystically and flawlessly joined to the will of God. He has reached the end of all his strivings. He has been perfected in Love. [author’s capital letter] No longer subject to the highs and the lows of Fortune’s wheel, the pilgrim now abides at the hub, the fixed point around which the universe turns. (279)

Dreher’s discovery of Dante results in recovery. He says he came back to Louisiana to find Utopia but instead found God. Eternity matters. Dreher notes near the end:

Boris Pasternak wrote that his suffering under communism made him see the Bible “not so much as a book with hard and fast text as the notebook of humanity and a key to everything eternal.” (292)

Life is short. Eternity is everlasting.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is actually an excellent book for counselors. Dreher shares a lot about what both his Baptist counselor and his Orthodox priest shared in counseling and confessional sessions. It is a moving tale that reminds us of the power of the word and the challenges of forgiveness.

The author has a bibliography for anyone who wants to get into Dante more. He also quotes from a few different translations to give us English speakers a taste of which one we might prefer. It might get a reader looking into it once again.

Revelation of the Magi – Review

Revelation of the Magi. Trans. & ed. Brent Landau. New York: Harper, 2010. E-book.

Revelation of the Magi is from an eighth-century Syriac (Aramaic) manuscript that had never been translated into English until Dr. Landau did it. The book is therefore subtitled The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem.

Even though this is being posted around Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany, these are not your typical three kings. Of course, the Bible does not actually tell us how many wise men there were. Generally people portray three of them because the Bible mentions three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

While the Bible only says that they came from the East to Judea, usually it is assumed that they were Persian because the Septuagint and other Jewish writings in Greek use the term magi to describe the Mandarin class royal advisors to the Persian kings.

The twelve wise men in this tale come from the far East. Their land of Shir is said to border the Ocean. (Yes, educated people in the Middle Ages understood the world was round, even if they did not know about the continent between East Asia and Western Europe. The writer tells us that they believed in a supreme God even though they did not have knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, perhaps like the Chinese who traditionally acknowledged the King of Heaven.

In this tale the star was not a planet, nova, comet, or anything like that. It was a supernatural star that only the wise men could see. Sometimes the star would contain or turn into the Christ Child who would speak to them. Not only does the child tell them how to get to Bethlehem, but he shares lots of orthodox teaching about the Messiah. Parts echo the first chapter of the Gospel of John or the Athanasian Creed.

Painting by Rogier van Weyden c. 1450 showing child in star with Three Magi. Altarpiece, Middleburg, Belgium. Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons.

The wise men do stop in Jerusalem and consult with Herod and the city elders. Nowhere does it mention what the gifts they gave were other than to say that they came from a secret cave in their homeland.

The story itself is straight from the Middle Ages. The various apparitions, magic caves, hidden treasures, magical foods and fountains that show up reminded this reader of various King Arthur stories, especially ones about the search for the Holy Grail, with some Arabian Nights thrown in. The theology is consciously quite orthodox. Even though it varies significantly from the Gospel account and comes across as a work of fiction, it does not have the doctrines of any of the Gnostic writings.

The translator has an extensive introduction and detailed footnotes. He tells of the provenance of the story and how it compares to similar Medieval tales from Ireland to Arabia (there used to be Christians there). He is a scholar of Biblical languages, but he does tell the reader up front that he does not believe Matthew’s account of the magi, either.

He also notes a number of Medieval and Renaissance works of art portraying the wise men that include such things as a cave, a fountain, or a child in a star which would indicate that the Revelation of the Magi tale had traction in some form through Christendom. We will not get particular insight on the magi from reading this , but it is an interesting historical artifact.

Smithsonian Baseball – Review

Stephen Wong. Smithsonian Baseball. New York: Harper, 2005. Print.

Smithsonian Baseball‘s title misleads a little. It is not about baseball related items in the Smithsonian Institution, America’s national museum. As the subtitle tells us, it is a look Inside the World’s Finest Private Collections. The author himself is a collector of baseball memorabilia, and each of the 21 chapters features a different baseball related collection with plenty of great photographs. Indeed, the layout and photography by Susan Einstein makes the presentation exceptional.

There are three chapters devoted to collectors of nineteenth and/or early twentieth century memorabilia and equipment. Here we see evidence for some of the actual history of the game, for example, a printed rule book from the 1850s which has rules for both the Massachusetts and New York games. One collection specializes in World Series scorecards and programs from 1903 to the present. There are collections of baseball cards (the famous Honus Wagner tobacco card gets some attention) and advertising ephemera.

We learn about early photographers who specialized in sports, along with collections of pins, folk art, trophies from baseball. One collector specializes in trophies and championship rings. Another focuses on material from overseas tours, which American players took periodically between 1874 and 1934.

There are, of course, interesting autographs and game-used gloves, bats, and uniforms. We get discussions of provenance. How can we prove that an old bat was actually used by, say, Home Run Baker in games? What advice does the author have for collectors of today?

Some collectors are quite specialized. Dan Knoll collects material connected with the 1969 Chicago Cubs. Among other things we learn about the goat jinx. Actress and director Penny Marshall specializes in older baseball folk art. That she is a baseball collector should come as no surprise; after all, she directed A League of Their Own, about a women’s professional baseball league.

The author specializes in what he calls “immortal brethren,” memorabilia from players who are linked together in some way. He has material from Tinker, Evans, and Chance, even some uniforms; the 1951-55 Brooklyn Dodger Boys of Summer (Snider, Hodges, Robinson, Reese, and Campanella); the Dean brothers; the 1946 Red Sox “Team Mates” who remained lifelong friends (Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Pesky, and Williams); and the Joe DiMaggio-Ted Williams “rivalry.” This is probably the best written chapter because we see the author’s heart behind it and get more in touch with the humanity of professional athletes.

There are many fascinating pictures and great collections. My own memorabilia? Just a few things that somehow survived my childhood. But maybe if I ever did want to sell, I might have an idea about who to contact.

The Case for a Creator – Review

Lee Strobel. The Case for a Creator. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2004. E-book.

The Case for a Creator follows a pattern that journalist Lee Strobel has successfully used in other works. He interviews various experts to present his “cases”: for Christ, for Faith, for Easter, and so on. Here he interviews a series of scientists and philosophers on the problems and significance of evolutionary theory. In addition, he quotes many other authors and speakers on the subject.

In the beginning of the book, Strobel notes:

Science has become identified with a philosophy known as materialism or scientific naturalism. This philosophy insists that nature is all there is, or at least the only thing about which we can have any knowledge. (17)

He also notes that according to pro-evolution debater William Provine there are “five inescapable conclusions” if Darwinism is true:
(1) There is no evidence for God
(2) No life after death
(3) No foundation for right and wrong
(4) No meaning for life, and
(5) There is no free will

As an aside, I would be interested in seeing this proponent of evolution debate Jason Lisle or Greg Bahnsen. If there is no meaning, no right and wrong, and no free will, how is it possible to know that anything is true, even evolution? It appears to be a self-defeating argument. But that is a different discussion.

In other words, for Strobel and most people the issue of nature creating itself is not just about science. It is philosophical and moral. Strobel then shares his own experience of how, like so many Westerners, he became a religious skeptic when he studied evolution in high school. As I would note from my own experience, I believed in evolution because it was the only show in town.

Strobel gets it. As an adult, he has been on both sides of the issue. He knows the arguments for both. Now he is an evolutionary skeptic. He presents a fairly detailed case for why he is.

First, he explains or tries to show that belief in a different origin story does not mean one is unscientific. Indeed, there is very little religion in this book until close to the end because that is its purpose. At one point he notes that creationists often quibble over the age of the earth. Strobel explicitly tells the reader that that discussion is beyond the scope of this book. He does seem to accept the uniformitarian idea that the earth is very old, but for his case that is beside the point. He presents challenges to Darwinism.

There are many challenges to Darwinism. Most have been discussed in other works, but Strobel puts many of them together.

One idea we read about is the anthropic principle—that if there were even very slight differences in the measurable forces in the universe, life and even matter could not exist. Strobel cites the work of many on gravity, atomic forces, the presence of elements heavier than helium, among other things to show how it appears that the universe must have been ordered by a very skillful mathematician. This is similar to Ivey’s argument, though Strobel’s language is plain and more direct. Even the Solar System’s location in the Milky Way is significant for the existence of our “privileged planet.”

Strobel discusses the Cambrian Explosion with scientists. The sedimentary layer known as the Cambrian layer has virtually all new species appear at the same time. Even Darwin recognized this and said that if people could not find earlier examples of transitional and intermediate forms, his theory was doomed. 170 years later, people are still looking. Strobel shows that the “punctuated equilibrium” theory to explain this was simply an attempt to avoid bringing creation into the discussion.

There are a couple of chapters on biochemistry. Back in Darwin’s day people knew next to nothing about microbes and biochemistry. I recall reading a book from the 1950s saying that all cells were basically made of the same organic jelly called protoplasm and that the only difference between plants and animals was that plant cells had a stiff “cell wall” surrounding the protoplasm and animals had flexible membranes around their cells.

Now we know that cells are very complex. They have numerous organelles and their biochemistry is often irreducible. In other words, if one piece of an organelle or one step in a biochemical process is left out, the cell dies. For one creature to change into another would require multiple changes at the same time that were successful and recurring at relatively high rates. We have never observed either. Indeed, most such changes or mutations are deadly. And the probability of even one such change is infinitesimal.

At one point one of Strobel’s interviewees briefly discusses and effectively dismissed the multiverse theory, which this reviewer mentioned was espoused by Josh Gribbin. To sum it up, there is no evidence.

Strobel also does readers a favor because one of his interviewees debunks a popular myth about evolutionary thought. When I critiqued The Beak of the Finch, I pointed this out, but I thought it was just an error on the part of the author of that book. Apparently it is a widely held belief: Received Academic Tradition tells students that the scientific revolution, which began around the time of Copernicus when Westerners began using the scientific method, put an end to a religious perspective. That was just not so. Copernicus was a monk. Galileo was a lay brother. Newton was a devout Bible believer who wrote books on Bible prophecy. Later, Priestly was a Unitarian minister.

The Case for Creation correctly points out that the early scientific astronomers tended to see the scope of the universe as a sign of God’s greatness and man’s relative insignificance. Newton saw the mathematical precision of the motions of the heavenly bodies as a sign of intelligent design. (If you have any doubts, read the conclusion of his Principia.)

It was the skeptics of the so-called Enlightenment like Rousseau, Hobbes, and Voltaire (later Kant) who emphasized that “man is the measure of all things.” The evolutionary interpretation of cosmic history that both the universe and mankind are some kind of random accident was (and still is) more of a challenge to that man-centered enlightenment thinking than to any traditional or Medieval religious thought. Man is no longer the measure of all things, but even his thought processes are suspect.

To this reader, the most original argument is one that Strobel saves for last. How do we explain consciousness?

Although many people (including Darwin) see consciousness as simply neural activity in the brain, it is pretty clear that there is more to it. We do make choices. We do have wills. Even people with severe brain damage still have awareness. And there are too many out of body and near death experiences which testify that people are more than just “computers made of meat.” (We reviewed a great book written by a brain surgeon on this subject a few years ago.)

Strobel quotes a Darwinist who asks rhetorically, “Why should a bunch of atoms have thinking ability?…The point is there is no scientific answer.” (247) One interviewee said:

A scientist could know more about what is happening in my brain than I do, but he couldn’t know more about what was happening in my mind than I do. He has to ask me. (259)

As he makes his case for a creator here, Strobel notes that just as man’s mind is rational, intelligent, creative, sentient, and invisible, so is the Creator. Superficial thinkers dismiss the idea of God because He cannot be seen. Neither can our thoughts, creativity, and sensations. We see their evidence. So it is with God.

Strobel also notes that all living creatures contain and pass on genetic information. This is what DNA, RNA, genes, and chromosomes are all about. “Information is the hallmark of mind,” said one scientist being interviewed, and “no hypothesis has come close to explaining how information got into biological matter by naturalistic means.” (282)

There is a lot more to this. The Case for a Creator presents a solid challenge to the believer in evolution. Ultimately, the experience of most scientists who believe in design note that “some people don’t just disagree; many of them jump up and down and get red in the face.” (215) For what is supposedly an intellectual scientific theory (and it is still only a theory), the issue of evolution seems to create a lot of emotional responses. Readers with an open mind can learn as Strobel himself did. Read it and see.

The Missing Heir – Review

Recently we reviewed a book about the Sherlock Holmes stories and a Sherlock Holmes spinoff. This is another spinoff, geared towards later elementary or middle school readers. The Missing Heirs is Book 4 in The Sherlock Files series.

Xena and Xander Holmes are descendants of Sherlock (Don’t you know he married?). Their friend Andrew Watson is a descendant of you-know-who (He did marry). With some adults, these kids are members of SPFD, the Society for the Preservation of Famous Detectives. They solve mysteries.

Xander and Xena are Americans living in London where they attend an international boarding school. One of their schoolmates is Alice Banders, the heir apparent to the throne of Borogovia. Her nanny is Miss Mimsy, so, yes, we are to think of Alice in Wonderland. (“All mimsy were the borogoves”; “the frumious bandersnatch”). Well, Doyle himself did something similar when he wrote of the ocean liner Ruritania in homage to The Prisoner of Zenda.

Alice knows that the Holmes siblings have a reputation as detectives and asks them for help. They do not have an occasion to go over Alice’s problem in detail when she is kidnapped from her mansion in London. The mansion has been owned by Borogovia for over a hundred years. It is technically a private residence but is known for very curious trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) paintings on some of its walls.

To solve the kidnapping, Xena and Xander refer to some old files of Sherlock Holmes. These files contain not only successful Holmes cases (such as “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”—hint, hint—not The Sign of the Four) but also unsolved cases including a strange kidnapping of a Borogovian princess in 1894. The child was returned in a few months without a ransom payment or any explanation. Still ancestor Sherlock did not think that the case was closed.

These kid detectives do some homage to Sherlock, though at this level, readers may be ready to read the originals. Still, for young mystery lovers, this may be just the thing.

Seeds – Review

Greg Belliveau. Seeds. Colorado Springs: Crosslink, 2017. Print.

Seeds is subtitled Meditations on Grace in World with Teeth. Sooner or later we all discover that the world has teeth. Usually this begins in junior high, at least on a small scale. College teacher Belliveau gives an example that he uses in one of his classes. Here is an arc of life: college, work, marriage, children, promotions, comfortable retirement, grandchildren, and eventually death after a long, happy life.

He admits that most of the students recognize that such goals do not usually work out in such a simple manner. Life is hard. The oldest book in the Bible is Job which points this out and deals with the reality of God’s grace in an evil world.

Belliveau tells stories. One is about a childhood friend who had a poor memory. As a kid, he tied strings around his fingers to help him remember things, but then he forgot what he was supposed to remember. As an adult, he used stones for the same purpose with a similar result. Eventually, he had four reminders tattooed so that he would not forget.

Another story is about another friend who was a successful and prosperous surgeon until he nicked a blood vessel while operating on a twelve-year-old boy who died as a result. He lost nearly everything in the subsequent lawsuit. Life has teeth.

A recurring theme derives from the literary term in medias res—in the middle of the thing. Stories are often told this way: begin in the middle of the action. So in life we are always in the middle of the action. We cannot know for sure what will happen tomorrow. Belliveau vividly tells us we can look ahead with fear or with grace.

Along with those things, he meditates on truth. What if we had the ability to know what people were thinking, or if they knew what we were thinking. Would we be willing to acknowledge the truth? Belliveau considers Nicodemus and the woman at the well (see John 3 and 4). Jesus started out speaking in symbols (“born again,” “ living water”), but then becomes direct. Would they be willing to acknowledge the truth?

Seeds is direct with the reader: short (only 75 pages) but worth taking a look. Each separate meditation stands on its own, but like those potato chips, I bet you cannot eat just one.

Disclosure of Material: We received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the book review program, which requires an honest, though not necessarily positive, review.

Creating Sherlock Holmes – Review

Charlotte Montague. Creating Sherlock Holmes. New York: Chartwell, 2017. Print.

Creating Sherlock Holmes is a picture-filled resource for the Sherlock Holmes fan. It is a basic biography of Arthur Conan Doyle: his family, his education, his unorthodox religious beliefs, his writing, with a focus on Sherlock Holmes.

There are copies of numerous family photographs and illustrations from the original magazine and book issues of the Holmes stories. It has, for example, a photograph of the cover of the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, which carried the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and which was a key property in Elementary, She Read, a novel recently reviewed in these pages.

For the fan, there are also photos and brief descriptions of some of the better known film and television adaptations of Holmes stories. There is also something else that would make this not only an appealing book to look at and read, but also a helpful resource. Creating Sherlock Holmes contains a summary of each of the 56 (or so) Holmes stories written by Doyle. This can be helpful for the reader who has read the stories, even The Complete Collection but may not recall the details of each one.

Like most readers, Montague believes that The Hound of the Baskervilles may be the best of all the Holmes stories. She does not necessarily subscribe to the idea that the stories after Holmes’1903 resurrection were inferior. Indeed, she calls The Valley of Fear “one of his [Doyle’s] greatest achievements.” (128)

Because there are many illustrations from the original magazines, we can see how Holmes got to be imagined a certain way. All the stories tell us is that Holmes was taller than average and had boxed when he was younger. The tweed coat, aquiline nose, and deerstalker hat seem to have been used by illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele. And Steele may have been partly inspired by actor William Gillette who began portraying Holmes on stage in 1899.

Creating Sherlock Holmes also describes most of the other works Doyle is known for, including some of his science fiction, notably The Lost World, and his political writings such as The Crime of the Congo. This reviewer recommends the latter for anyone interested in Joseph Conrad and especially Heart of Darkness. Doyle was a studious researcher, though there is probably a reason that today he is best known for Mr. Holmes.

Creating Sherlock Holmes
is a relaxing trek into the world of Arthur Conan Doyle, especially the ins and out of 221B Baker Street. It is best appreciated at a leisurely pace, taking in all the text and illustrations.

Emma (Smith) – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. Emma. Prince Frederick MD: Recorded Books, 2015. CD-ROM.

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books which we like so much. Here he retells the Jane Austen story with a modern cast of characters. I cannot say that it is really a modern setting, since the rural setting is very similar to the original.

Emma Woodhouse is the somewhat spoiled daughter of a landed property owner. Like the original, Mr. Woodhouse is a hypochondriac, only with modern diseases and all we now know about microbes and nutrition, he is a much more fully developed character.

The names have rarely been changed. In the modern setting Frank Churchill was raised in Australia and Harriet works for an aging hippie teaching English to foreign students, mostly from Italy and Poland. There are no gypsies. There are some drugs rather than fortune tellers. It also seems that everyone goes on a honeymoon before they get married. Even in America, many couples “live together” first, but Smith would have us believe that the English take it a step further.

Still, this is a lot of fun. Emma was certainly Austen’s funniest novel, and with Smith’s modern perspective, the retelling is even funnier. To use the title of another Emma retelling, our modern Emma is probably more clueless than the original. Because of that, the Emma-Knightley relationship is not as developed as in the original, but we still get a kick out of nearly everything that goes on. Those who know the story will still relish the dramatic irony.

A pattern we have noticed with most of Smith’s other novels is that he loves his characters. He loves the ladies of the detective agency and the men of Speedy Motors. Here he really enjoys the characters he has re-created, and once again the love and joy comes through. Smith has a knack for making readers happy.

We listened to this on the audio book. Susan Lyons does a delightful job of reading. In an auto or to rest the eyes, that is not a bad way to take the story in.

The Forgotten Jesus – Review

Robert Gallaty. The Forgotten Jesus. Grand Rapids MI; Zondervan, 2017. E-book.

The Forgotten Jesus is subtitled How Western Christians Should Follow an Eastern Rabbi. This is not some Dan Brown type “secret life of Jesus” book, but rather an attempt to look at some of the Gospel narratives from a Jewish perspective. This can be valuable to many people interested in understanding the New Testament better.

Gallaty starts out noting some of the differences in Jewish thought as opposed to Western (i.e., rooted in Greek and Roman) philosophy. He does mention, for example, the classic book by Thorleif Boman Hebrew Thought Compared to Greek, but Gallaty tends to be more concrete. Here is something Jesus said or did: How would a first-century Jew understand this? There is little of Boman’s comparison, but Gallaty has a different purpose.

He notes that to the Jew, “all attempts to systematize God fall short.” (27) This is reassuring to this reviewer. Most if not all divisions among Christians come from someone’s attempt to systematize something. If another believer either does not understand or does not experience the system in the same way, that person is separated, whether he or she is dismissed or leaves. To me both sides miss out.

So Gallaty says, “God revealed himself to the Israelites in history, and not in ideas…His being was not learned through propositions but known in actions.” (29) When I came to the Lord, I recall the Holy Spirit telling me two things “preach my presence in history” and “love” (the verb). Thanks to the many remarkable Bible prophecies that had been fulfilled, when I saw that the God of the Bible was the God of history, I was on my way to becoming a Christian.

Gallaty says that in the West:

“We have bought into the fallacy that we grow by the introduction of new information alone. We focus on new teachings and more information, rather than a single teaching to saturate our minds by meditating on it and applying it to our lives. (34)

I am reminded of the Athenians in Acts 17 who listened to Paul because they “spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear of some new thing.” (Acts 17:15) We are more like those ancient Greeks than we think.

Rabbis, on the other hand, valued going over old teachings and meditating on something till it becomes part of who we are. Some Christians in the West are becoming more aware of this. Caroline Leaf’s Switch on Your Brain tells us that for a new thought to really take hold so that we change, we have to think about it for at least twenty-one days.

There are many insights in this book. Gallaty’s observations concerning Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac are especially profound and meaningful.

Some have wondered why God would ask a man like Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Remember that when God asked this of Abraham, God did not expect anything he wasn’t going to do himself. (52)

He also notes that Isaac was a grown man when this happened. He also carried the firewood for his own sacrifice as Jesus carried his own cross.

Gallaty’s observations about the Last Supper also is eye-opening. Gallaty compares this to a Jewish supper between two fathers who have come to an agreement on terms for marrying one’s son to the other’s daughter. Gallaty says that there are enough specifics in the meal to indicate that the disciples would have understood that Jesus “had just negotiated the price for them to belong to him. The price was his body; the covenant was sealed with his blood.” (114)

Gallaty notes that the term “Son of Man” is not just a “code word” for Messiah as in Daniel 7, but “it is an implied reference to Cain and Abel.” The Bible says that “Abel’s blood is crying out for vindication.” (115) So I have learned elsewhere that some rabbis thought the Messiah would actually be Abel because he was killed by his brother and his blood was still looking for justice. Even those who did not take it that literally understood that Messiah would have to become a man because only one who had been a man would be able to understand what it was like to be human and to judge people fairly.

Even the term “pass by” in the New Testament may mean more than simply strolling beyond someone. In the Old Testament God “passes by” Moses and later Elijah on the mountain to reveal something of his nature to each of them.

There is a lot more in this little book. It is clear that the author is in awe of God. I am sure that it is his prayer that readers will be also after reading this book—not, of course, so we can impress others with our new knowledge, but so that the living God can become more real in our lives.