"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 12, 2021

A Potpouri of Books

I will give the credit to Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory for reminding me many years ago now that the one who studies and teaches theology, and who reads nothing but, is going to be a very intellectually impoverished teacher indeed. I don't know if I needed his imprimatur or not, but I have never had any trouble maintaining very active interests in all sorts of other areas both for their own sake, but also because they shed real and useful light on a context in which, say, some Eastern Christian group found itself, or some issue--e.g., socioeconomic conditions--which has an obvious impact on any Christian teachings about poverty and justice. 

In any event, I resume here some intermittent jottings I have done over the past year, highlighting books I spy while reading the London Review of Books and now also the New York Review of Books, copies of which are very portable and should always be kept at hand for when you find yourself waiting in some doctor's office or stuck on some tedious Zoom meeting. Employing your manservant, or one of your children, to hold the current issue at the same height as, but just out of sight of, your camera ensures you can look like you are paying rapt attention to the meeting while happily reading about some interesting new book. Or so others who have tried this technique tell me.....

In any event, there are just some thoughts from reading reviews of new books in the last several issues (in no especial order) of both periodicals. I am way behind in doing this, so I will give you some samples from issues going back to early December and coming forward to the most recent. I have not read the books themselves, but make notes here of especially interesting ones I hope some day, money and time allowing, to track down and read and which, moreover, I hope might likewise be of interest to you.

Eastern Christians, including especially a lot of Ukrainian Catholics, know only too well the problem of being a displaced person, a stateless being. I have several friends whose families found themselves in DP camps across Europe in1945, and sometimes for several years before they were gradually allowed to make their way to North America or the United Kingdom.

It was with great interest, then, that I read in the 17 December 2020 issue of the NYRB a review of two new books that reveal the problem of statelessness has not gone away, and the peril and acute vulnerability of such peoples even today is very bad indeed. The first book is Mira L. Siegelberg's Statelessness: A Modern History. The second is Dimitry Kochenov's Citizenship

The Second World War shows up later in this issue with a review essay discussing two new books: Roger Morehouse's Poland 1939: the Outbreak of World War II; and then Florian Huber, "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself": The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, trans. Imogen Taylor. The former book sounds like it covers well-trod territory, but the latter book explored mass death in a way, on a scale, and in an area I was far less familiar with. 

In the same issue I read with interest--as I have two friends, one with family there and the other having served with the US Marines there--a book about Okinawa: Akemi Johnson's Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the US Military Bases in Okinawa. Whatever utility this (and many other bases of the oft-disguised American Empire) may once have played sounds long ago now and in the present we instead have a place of myriad pathologies, including sexual violence and murder. 

This issue also contains a review of The Essential Scalia: on the Constitution, the Courts, and the Rule of Law. Not being either a citizen or a legal scholar, I have little to say about American jurisprudence, but Scalia was an entertaining personality who could turn a phrase, so I often listened to him or read parts of his opinions in these latter years before his death in 2016. 

From the 11 March 2021 issue of the NYRB, I note a fascinating new book devoted to the study of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King JR together: Brandon Terry reviews the new book of Peniel Joseph, The Sword and the Shield: the Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. 

From the same issue I note a review of Angels and Saints, a lavishly and beautifully illustrated book that the NYRB reviewer, along with one in the New York Times, have both raved about. The publisher has this to say about the book:

Angels have soared through Western culture and consciousness from Biblical to contemporary times. But what do we really know about these celestial beings? Where do they come from, what are they made of, how do they communicate and perceive? The celebrated essayist Eliot Weinberger has mined and deconstructed, resurrected and distilled centuries of theology into an awe-inspiring exploration of the heavenly host.

From a litany of angelic voices, Weinberger’s lyrical meditation then turns to the earthly counterparts, the saints, their lives retold in a series of vibrant and playful capsule biographies, followed by a glimpse of the afterlife. Threaded throughout Angels & Saints are the glorious illuminated grid poems by the eighteenth-century Benedictine monk Hrabanus Maurus. These astonishingly complex, proto-“concrete” poems are untangled in a lucid afterword by the medieval scholar and historian Mary Wellesley.

The same essay in the NYRB also discusses T.M. Luhrmann's new book How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, which looks at these questions around the world, but pays special attention to American evangelicals and their strange beliefs and peculiar fetishes, of which I need no convincing. 

There is a hilarious review by Ruth Bernard Yeazell of Anthony M. Amore's new book The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: the True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough Art Theft that takes us into all the strange and fascinating ways of the English aristocracy and their country houses, the absurd (and now discontinued) spectacle of their young women being "presented at court," and then the highly unusual turn of events when one such young woman stoll a Vermeer painting from her own family's country seat to sell the profits to aid the IRA with which she became involved. 

Nicholson Baker's new book sounds, from this review, about as depressing as you would imagine given the ever increasing capacity of governments to spy and then lie: Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act.

Catching up with the London Review of Books from its 17 December 2020 issue, I note a review of a fascinating new book by Robert Gerwarth, November 1918: the German Revolution. The First World War has long been far more fascinating to me than the second, and this book discusses aspects of the immediate post-war period I knew only in the vaguest outline. The myth of the "stab in the back" of Germany was seeded by Luddendorf in late 1918 before the imperial abdication and request for an armistice. 

This issue of the LRB reviews two new books about Lincoln, but before doing so, the reviewer, Eric Foner, notes that since his death in 1865, Lincoln has been featured in more than 16,000 books in English. The first of the new ones is David S. Reynolds, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times; while the second one is H.W. Brands, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom.

Finally, and briefly, I note the LRB reviews two new memoirs by politically prominent women: Barbara Amiel, Friends and Enemies: A Memoir; and Sacha Swire, Diary of an MP's Wife: Inside and Outside Power. 

I used to read Amiel occasionally when I lived in Canada and she wrote for Maclean's. I read her husband, Conrad Black, more frequently until he became a tedious blowhard writing paeans to Trump in exchange for favours rendered. The reviewer of Amiel's book says she, too, has become utterly tedious in her preoccupation with smiting enemies and settling scores.

That said, I will give credit to Black for an early book of his, which remains useful to those trying to understand the rapid and thoroughgoing collapse of Catholicism in Quebec after 1960, when it went from being as or even more intensely Catholic than Poland, Ireland, or Brazil: Render unto Caesar: The life and legacy of Maurice Duplessis shows that the theocratic (and frequently sinister) marriage between the Church and Quebec state is arguably the biggest reason behind the collapse inaugurated by the Quiet Revolution. 

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