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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 1999.
Also see the full index of books I've read.


George Eliot: The Emergent Self

by Ruby V. Redinger
About 30 pages into this book, I almost put it down. Written over a 15-year period and published in 1975, the book starts out by deconstructing John Cross's hagiographic biography of George Eliot; the writing in this section is liberally seasoned with "psychobabble" (as I think of it). Fortunately, I kept on reading. The book settles down into true biographic mode and I was rewarded with a detailed and fascinating account of George Eliot's life, particularly her earlier years.
At first, I was a little put off by the way in which every event, large or small, in Eliot's life was portrayed as having a lasting psychological impact on her. I initially attributed this to Professor Redinger's perspective, but, as I read on, the frequent excerpts from George Eliot's correspondence make it seem more likely that Redinger was simply reporting Eliot's own feelings.
(At the time the book was published, Ruby Redinger was a Professor of Literature at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.)
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Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

by Heiko A. Oberman. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart.
I was hoping for a straight biography of Martin Luther, but this book struck me as about ... well, "Man Between God and the Devil". It's still a good book, it just was not quite what I had expected.
The first chapter of the book provides an interesting history of religion and politics in Europe and the Catholic Church in the years immediately preceding the Reformation. The book goes on to describe Luther's early years. When it gets to the point at which Luther is becoming active in theology, the book seems to start jumping around a lot in time. Consequently, I didn't come away from the book with a good grasp on Luther's life history.
The book is profusely illustrated with contemporary woodcuts, which are an education in themselves - people back then were not much different than they are now! The book covers the theological issues pretty well. A couple of my favorite quotes:
The infant in its nonage at the baptismal font and the dying man receiving his last communion are not marginal figures in the Church of Christ. They stand for man at his weakest - whether at the beginning, the height of his powers, or the end of his strength. The idea that God is genuinely "there", outside the person, and can be found beyond the individual powers of thought and strength of faith is what the controversy of that time bestowed on posterity.
It is not only modern man who can make little sense of infant baptism and the real presence of Christ. But they are meaningful to man in conflict, to man between God and the Devil, who does not ignore Luther's words: We are beggars, that is true.

Endless Night

by Agatha Christie
(Light reading while I had the flu ...) I love British mysteries, but I overdosed on Agatha Christie about 20 years ago and I hadn't read any of her books since. This was the first time I had read this particular book of her's and I enjoyed it - I'll have to dip my toes in the Christie "waters" again!

The Wreck of the Mary Deare

by Hammond Innes
(Light reading while I had the flu ...) A long-time favorite of mine that ably captures the essence of man against the sea for a landlubber like me. A sailor boss of mine in college dismissed it as being in the same vein as The Poseidon Adventure, but, then again, she hadn't actually read the book. Then again, I just discovered that The Wreck of the Mary Deare had been made into a movie in 1959!

Dark Imaginings: A Collection of Gothic Fantasy

edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski © 1978
(Light reading while I had the flu ...)

Saying What You Mean: A Commonsense Guide to American Usage

by Robert Claiborne © 1986
(Light reading for odd moments ...)
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A Short History of Christian Thought

by Linwood Urban
I'm trying to read this again, this time without trying so hard to understand what I am reading. The book provides an excellent illustration of man's insatiable desire to develop a system for anything and everything, whether it be scientific theories to describe the facts of nature, or religious beliefs to fit "facts" gleaned from the Scriptures. In this case, developing a coherent set of beliefs that are consistent with the disparate accounts, styles, and targets of the New Testament may be impossible or, if such a set of beliefs were developed, meaningless. The only person who knows the truth is Jesus and, in some of the Gospels, even He isn't sure (at least prior to the Crucifixion).
(Also see Henry P. Van Dusen's "The Trinity In Experience and Theology" in Theology Today.)

The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

edited by Hugh Greene © 1976  

65 Great Murder Mysteries

edited by Mary Danby © 1983
The first book contains an uneven selection of mysteries by various authors, featuring, among others, Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine in "The Scarlet Thread". Ironically, that's the one story I didn't read, since I have read it so often in the past!
65 Great Murder Mysteries is an all-star collection of stories by an all-star collection of authors: Allingham, Ambler, Bloch, Chesterton, Christie, Dahl, Dickens, Doyle, Forester, Graves, James, Kipling, London, Maugham, de Maupassant, Orczy, Poe, Sayers, Sharp, Steinbeck, Stevenson, Stoker, Walpole, Wells, and others. My long-time favorite story is Fredric Brown's short (2 pages!), but sweet, "Nightmare in Yellow".
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Historical Whodunits

edited by Mike Ashley, foreword by Ellis Peters
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by David Herbert Donald

Self-Inflicted Wounds: From LBJ's Guns and Butter to Reagan's Voodoo Economics

by Hobart Rowen
A fascinating book by the late Hobart Rowen that makes your blood boil at times ...
In an interview with Rowen in 1976, Ronald Reagan said:
The pity is that the magic of the marketplace is so little understood.
Not quoted in the book, but apt given the above, is Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood):
A man has got to know his limitations.
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The Wisdom of the Body

by Sherwin B. Nuland, MD (Wikipedia)
This book is the flip side of the coin to Nuland's How We Die and, in fact, was renamed How We Live in subsequent printings. A more apt title than the original would have been The Wonder of the Body, since that is the underlying theme of the book: the wonder of how all the systems and mechanisms in the body, from the molecular level on up, are constantly fine-tuning themselves and working with other systems and mechanisms to maintain homeostasis, or the internal equilibrium of the body. Dr. Nuland describes the various systems separately; intercourse, conception, and early development are covered in a more orderly fashion.
What Dr. Nuland describes is wonderful - and you'll have to depend on his descriptions because there are very few illustrations - but he doesn't let the descriptions speak for themselves. Too frequently, he lapses into flowery prose in a conspicuous effort to ensure that the reader is properly impressed at the wonder of it all. An example:
In the gradual process of concocting the ingredients that are biology into the cassoulet that is man, the sauces of instinct have simmered into the motivations and yearnings that give flavor to human life.
Read the book anyway. As I said, the body is wonderful, Dr. Nuland conveys that idea well, and you wouldn't want to miss pearls such as the following (emphasis in the original):
Elsewhere, I have written that the proper state of mind of a skeptic is uncertainty - to believe, as I do, that even while questioning everything around us, we must also be prepared to accept the premise that anything is possible. Lack of evidence is not convincing proof against a proposition - it is simply lack of evidence and not the presence of powerfully opposing evidence, which is quite a different thing. We have no evidence that there is no God, nor is it imaginable that we will ever discover any.

Mapping the Next Millennium: How Computer-Driven Cartography is Revolutionizing the Face of Science

by Stephen S. Hall

Time Detectives: How Archeologists Use Technology to Recapture the Past

by Brian Fagan

The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories

edited by Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert © 1996

Medicine and Society in America: 1660-1860

by Richard H. Shryock © 1960
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The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images

by John Dominic Crossan
Another example of a well-known writer having an essay-length thought and the writer and/or publisher deciding to publish it as a book. As the subtitle of the book indicates, the book is a compilation of Jesus' "actual" sayings and pre-Constantine Christian images.
Chapter 1, the first twenty pages of the book, briefly places Jesus in the historical, political, and religious contexts of his time. It then discusses early Christian imagery, both verbal imagery from the Scriptures themselves and third-century Christian art - earlier art is too ambiguous to positively classify it as specifically Christian. Crossan divides the extant Christian art into various types of scenes and notes a significant preponderance of eating and healing scenes that, significantly, corresponds with an emphasis in the Scriptures on "a reciprocal program of healing one another and eating together".
Chapter 2, the next 120 pages in the book, contains the "original" sayings of Jesus (considered so by Crossan and the Jesus Seminar) in concise translations by Crossan himself. (At the end of Chapter 1, Crossan discusses his own rationales for determining which sayings are original - which he does at two levels: aphorism or attitude - and for how he translates them.) Sayings are printed one per page, frequently resulting in only one or two lines of text per page. Interspersed with the sayings are unrelated, poor-quality, black and white reproductions of early Christian art (e.g., scenes from frescoes and sarcophagi).
Chapter 3, the final 50 pages of the book, has notes on each of the sayings in Chapter 2. This is the meatiest and perhaps most interesting part of the book. Aesthetic reasons probably dictated the layout of Chapter 2, but the book would have been so much more readable and convenient to read, not to mention shorter, if the notes had simply been placed below the sayings to which they applied.
As I said earlier, an essay would have sufficed for what I found to be a very interesting subject. However, the book was in the bargain bin, so the book-length presentation cost me little more than the time taken to read the book and the endless flipping back and forth between notes and sayings.

Alex Measday  /  E-mail