Confronting Revisionist History

Title: The Myth of the Lost Cause:
Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won
Author: Edward H. Bonekemper III
Genre: History
Pages: 330
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In my high school American history book (published by Bob Jones University Press) the Civil War (always referred to as “The War Between the States”) was presented something like this: This conflict was about states’ rights flowing out of conflicting priorities in the industrial North and agricultural South. Slavery (a largely benevolent institution) had practically nothing to do with it and was a red herring brought into the narrative by the despotic, manipulative Abraham Lincoln to bolster Northern support for the unjust war. Robert E. Lee was one of the greatest generals of all time and one of the godliest men ever (second only to Stonewall Jackson in his piety) who led the South in a series of glorious victories. In the end these saintly men lost their noble cause only because Ulysses S. Grant (a profane, drunken butcher) had access to unlimited resources.

I never found this narrative believable, so I was excited when I ran across this book. In it, Edward H. Bonekemper III declares this “myth of the lost cause” to be “revisionist history” and “a tangle of falsehoods.” He vigorously backs up this assertion with solid research and well-constructed (though occasionally repetitive) argumentation.

His assertions that slavery was a brutal institution and that its preservation was indeed the primary cause of secession and the war are nearly indisputable given the primary source evidence he produces (e.g. the secession documents, the cornerstone speech, and similar primary sources from before and during the war). I would have liked to have seen him deal with the protectionist tariffs that my old history book went on about, but the evidence he did produce was damning enough without that.

Some of his analysis regarding Lee’s weaknesses as a general, Grant’s tactical acumen, and the winnability of the war for the South may be a bit more open to interpretation, but I found most of it compelling. I have seldom read a book where Lee is spoken of with anything other than practically religious awe or Grant with anything better than a dismissive attitude, so this part of the book definitely enhanced my understanding of the Civil War.

Overall: if you are at all interested in American Civil War history you need to read this book. Yes, the author has an axe to grind, but that does not change the value of his research in the pursuit of truth (even if you do not completely agree with the conclusions he draws from it).

Urban-ish Fantasy

Between Two Thorns: The Split Worlds - Book One by [Newman, Emma]Title: Between Two Thorns
(The Split Worlds – Book 1)
Author: Emma Newman
Genre: Urban(ish) Fantasy
Pages: 396
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The main thing that this book has going for it is the worldbuilding. Without giving away too much (since the author reveals her world a little bit at a time), much of the story focuses on a society existing parallel to our own that operates along the lines of the regency era under the patronage of fae/fairy lords and ladies.

The plot largely revolves around Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, a member of “fae-touched society” who no longer wants to be a part of it. Plot threads include Jane Austen-esque  high society maneuvering, political intrigue connected to the fairy court, and a possible kidnapping. The writing is okay. The pace is relatively slow, and most of the characters are pretty flat, but the main characters (especially Max the Arbiter) are interesting and the worldbuilding is great.

This is not a stand-alone book. It wraps up some of the mystery elements, but provides little resolution to other major threads.  Outside of major epic fantasy, I’m not a huge fan of “resolve a couple minor plot points but force you to read my next book to follow the main story” approach, but for me good worldbuilding covers a multitude of sins and I’ll probably read the next book in the series when I get the chance.

The Hero of Our Souls

Who has not heard   of the Hero of our souls?
Our almighty Maker   a man became.
Gladly foregoing   the glory he had,
In love, as a lamb,   came the Lion of Judah

To jealous judges   was Jesus betrayed.
His followers fled then;   in fear they scattered.
Submitting to malice,   no mercy was shown him.
In courage he quaffed   the cup of all woe

Thorned crown, fell cross   the Christ endured.
Cruel spikes, spear thrust   spilled his guiltless blood.
Man’s vilest vicious act   victory ensured.
The tempter trembled;   the triumph was not his.

God’s Son was slain;   savagely tortured.
His broken body   buried and guarded.
This hellish horror   our hope secured.
From wrath we were rescued;   our ransom he paid.

On Sunday the Son rose,   the Savior victorious.
Soon death will die;   done is his reign.
Freely by faith   our fellowship mended:
The glory of God   in grace revealed.

by Joel E Mitchell

A Disappointing “Translation”

Image result for Gilgamesh a verse narrativeTitle: Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative
Author: Unknown
Translator: Herbert Mason
Genre: Epic Poetry
Pages: 126
Rating: 2 of 5

The Gilgamesh Epic is the granddaddy of epic poetry, predating Homer by at least centuries and possibly millennia…and I am sad that this is the first version of it that I read. As I read about the deep friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the emotional devastation that death brings, I was quickly struck by the fact that the lengthy “talky” sections of the poem didn’t sound much like ancient thought. Obviously, the themes dealt with are universal but much of the wording and vocabulary (and the minimization of action sequences) was so modern as to make me question the accuracy of the translation. In the translator’s afterword it becomes apparent that this is indeed a very loose translation (bordering on selective retelling) that is primarily about trying to make you feel about this poem what the translator feels (and, by extension, what he thinks the original hearers felt). Personally, I strongly dislike this feeling-based “dynamic equivalence” model of translation and view the product of it as more of a commentary than an actual translation. I want to know what the ancient’s actually said, not what you think they felt!

Translation theory aside, Gilgamesh has a lot of interesting things going on. Some of the elements of the poem resemble accounts in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), most notably a flood/ark story (Genesis 6-9) and the possibility of Gilgamesh being identified with Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-12). The theme of Gilgamesh’s horror at Enkidu’s death that dominates most of the story grapples with universal themes of loss. Especially this time of year, it really shows the contrast between ancient (or atheistic) concepts of the afterlife (or lack thereof) and the “living hope” provided by the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christianity. Now I really have to go find a translation that tries to faithfully translate the words. (and for any of you Trekkies out there: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”)

Oh, and I’m using this as my “Pre-1800 Classic” for the Back to Classics Challenge.

Gory Military Sci-Fi

Title: Space Marines: The Omnibus
(Contains Heroes of the Space Marines, Legends of the Space Marines, and Victories of the Space Marines)
Editors: Christian Dunn, Nick Kyme, Lindsey Priestly
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 877
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Last year I worked my way through the Warhammer 40k short story collection called There Is Only War, and found it to be decent escapist ultra-violent sci-fi with buckets of gore and “good guys” who are often so brutal and pragmatic that they are only “good” in comparison to the forces of degenerate chaos. This omnibus was more of the same – in fact 10 of the 32 stories were the exact same ones found in the previous omnibus even though it was published only two years before and had the exact same editors….that’s just lazy and annoying!

Since all of the stories in this collection starred space marines (as per the title) it was pretty one-note. If you’re into uber-violent, morally ambiguous sci-fi, I’d go with the earlier collection (There Is Only War) over this one for the sake of variety.

A Complex Issue

Title: Understanding Gender Dysphoria:
Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture
Author: Mark A. Yarhouse
Genre: Psychiatry
Pages: 191
Rating: 3.5 of 5

As a Christian who trusts the Bible to be God’s inerrant self-revelation and “everything we need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3), my views on sexual morality are much narrower than society in general. However, I am frequently troubled by the disgust and animosity which many of my fellow Christians show toward those whose lifestyle falls “outside the boundaries” of what they believe to be morally right. The Bible talks about treating others as I want to be treated which includes showing compassion, gentleness, and respect toward those with whom I disagree. Part of doing that is trying to understand another person’s point of view even if I do not fully agree with them. Reading this book was an attempt to do that as a friend of my recently came out as transgender.

The author of this book is a psychiatrist who works primarily with people who are dealing with gender dysphoria (feeling that your gender does not match your physical sex). His approach is fairly objective, presenting gender dysphoria as viewed through three “frameworks” which he labels:

  • The integrity framework – a Christian worldview that sees gender dysphoria as compromising the integrity of the male/female distinction created by God
  • The disability framework – a clinical view that sees gender dysphoria as being a disorder with a physical / psychological cause
  • The diversity framework – a view that sees cross-gender identification as something that should be accepted and celebrated
    • Strong version – seeking the complete deconstruction of traditional gender and sexuality
    • Weak version – seeking to resolve the individual’s dysphoria by transitioning away from their birth/physical sex to their psychological/preferred gender

The author explores various theories of the causes of gender dysphoria (emphasizing that there is not currently enough data to know for sure), discusses different treatment approaches in children, teens, and adults (up to and including sex reassignment), and suggests how churches and Christians should navigate transgender issues and help transgender individuals. While I didn’t agree with all of his theological conclusions (and found his frequent repetition a bit irksome), this book was very helpful in understanding the complexity of the issue.

A Trope Is Born

Image result for the 39 steps book coverTitleThe 39 Steps
Author: John Buchan
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 120
Rating: 3 of 5

John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and its various movie adaptations were influential in developing the modern version of the “innocent man on the run with maybe a dash of political intrigue” plotline. The danger of reading a book that invented (or at least popularized) a literary/cinematographic trope is that by now you have probably read/seen the trope many times before, and some of the imitations surpass the original. Reading this was like reading a stripped-down less-glamorized version of North by NorthwestThe Fugitive, The Bourne Identity, etc.

During the first chapter I was afraid the plot was going to rest on extremely racist presuppositions (a bit like Sax Rohmer’s  Fu Manchu / “yellow peril” books), but the author quickly toned down the anti-Semitism. Overall, it was a fun, escapist adventure story (that had obviously been originally serialized), but that’s about it.

Also, I’m using this for my “Classic With a Number in the Title” over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Less Lovecraftian than I hoped

Title: Lovecraft Country
Author: Matt Ruff
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

This is one of those books that has a great central concept and a disappointing execution. The highly episodic story stars a number of black people living in the era of segregation, sundown towns, and Jim Crow. The author uses the fear, danger, and paranoia of their daily lives as the backdrop for the entire book, skillfully demonstrating that you don’t need hyper-intelligent tentacle monsters to evoke a feeling of dread. Man’s inhumanity to man (including H. P. Lovecraft’s own virulent racism) are bad enough to leave a whole ethnic group living in their own “Lovecraft country.”

My disappointment with the book stems from the supernatural elements that drive the story…they just aren’t very Lovecraftian (especially not after the first chapter). Yes, there is a weird cult from the back hills of New England that seeks supernatural knowledge. However, most of their shenanigans resemble pulp sci-fi (a major thread of the book is the difficulty of being a black sci-fi fan in the 1950’s), polite little Victorian ghost stories, or Scooby Doo episodes rather than the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

The author is certainly skilled and has a great sense of humor, but didn’t really deliver on the Lovecraft that is so prominent in the title. The Ballad of Black Tom that I read a couple weeks ago (and reviewed here) isn’t quite as clever in its treatment of racism, but does a much better job of incorporating the right kind of supernatural elements.

Visualize Ancient History

Title: The Landmark Herodotus:
The Histories
Author: Herodotus of Halicarnassus
Translator: Andrea L. Purvis
Genre: History
Pages: 914
Rating: 4 out of 5

Herodotus charts the course of the conflict between the “civilized” Hellenes (Greeks) and the “barbarian” Persians with many rabbit trails into geography, ethnography, biology, and any other “marvels” or entertaining stories that happen to capture his interest. While some of his information is so outlandish as to be unbelievable, he does frequently reference sources in a general sort of way and gives alternate versions of events when he is aware of them. The climax of the book is Xerxes’ invasion of Hellas which features the battles of Thermopylae (Leonidas and the 300 Spartans), Salamis, and Plataea.

If you are the kind of person who likes to sit down and read history, it is well worth the effort. Just don’t expect vivid descriptions and edge-of-your-seat suspense; the “father of history” didn’t write that way (and some of his ethnography can be tedious). Additionally, if you are into biblical studies it gives good background on a number of Persian kings who make an appearance in Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (no wonder she was worried about how her husband might react to an uninvited appearance in his presence – the man was spectacularly unstable/unpredictable in how he treated people).

This is the second time I have read Herodotus (Yes, I’m a history nerd.), and this edition of The Histories made for a much richer experience than the bare bones, public domain, Barnes & Noble edition that I read the first time. Each paragraph has a proposed date and location next to it (which is very helpful given how much Herodotus jumps around); every few pages are maps of varying scales that help you understand where the action is taking place and how it fits into the ancient world as a whole; additional pictures of archaeological sites, artifacts, etc. help flesh out the picture; and footnotes help you locate things on the map, explain certain customs, comment on how accurate modern historians regard an assertion to be, or direct you to one of the twenty-two informative appendices. The work that went into this edition is impressive and certainly enhances the content. This is a must-have for ancient history geeks!

Oh, and I’m using this as my “Classic in Translation” over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Holmes + Wooster = Wimsey

Related imageTitle: Lord Peter Views the Body
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 281
Rating: 4 of 5

Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey could be described as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster. This creation of Dorothy L. Sayers (friend of C. S. Lewis and his fellow Inklings) is a somewhat dandyish bibliophile with a keen analytical mind that he uses to solve crime as sort of a hobby (assisted by his talented butler, Bunter).

Unlike most of the Peter Wimsey books, this one is a collection of short stories. In some of them the “whodunit” is fairly obvious, but the light, breezy style and frequent literary references make them worth reading anyway. There was, perhaps, a bit more humor in this collection than in the novel-length stories, but I think it was a nice tradeoff for the complexity that is lost in the short story format. Overall: well worth reading for fans of “cozy mysteries” or the Inklings.