Four short reviews to help clear the desk
In the last month, my reading of books has outstripped my reviews. Consequently, stacks of books surround the desk at which I write — a huge, old-fashioned roll-top that long ago lost its roll-top and wears many scars and age spots, much like me.
So I’ll throw on a construction worker’s helmet, crank up the dozer, and get to work.
First up is Tim Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. One of the more dated books I’ve read — Rubicon was published in 2003 — Holland’s musings on the transformation of the Roman Republic to Empire in the first century B.C. left a mark on my thinking. Although I first selected the book for reading because I teach Latin and history, I found that Holland’s account of the demise and wreckage of the Roman Republic struck a chord with our own contemporary troubles. The Romans of this period were very different from my fellow Americans — much more violent, much more openly ambitious, much more shamelessly greedy — and yet we share commonalities: the dying away of old ideals, the influence of wealth on elections, the replacement of participation in the state with bread and circuses, that is, entertainment.
Jared Brock’s A Year of Living Prayerfully: How a Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life (2015) was informative, amusing, and somewhat annoying. Brock writes that he “wanted to spice up my prayer life,” and he does so, traveling to Rome and Jerusalem, living with the monks on Mount Athos in Greece, walking the Camino De Santiago in Spain, interviewing Quakers in the United States, and even visiting Westboro Baptist Church, who aren’t really Baptists but who are the idiots who picket the funerals of dead soldiers with signs like “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Brock writes with verve and wit, and he seems sincere in his wish to bring people to prayer and to God, but there are so many similar works of literature in the last 10 years — The Year of Living Biblically, The Year of Living Blonde, The Year of Living Virtuously, plus accounts of marathon reading of various encyclopedias and literary canons — that the book somehow felt jaded. (I wonder: should I write a book called A Year of Living Licentiously: How a Curious Traveler Encountered 365 Days of Booze, Tobacco, and Women).
William Hazelgrove’s Real Santa (2014) tells the story of George Kronenfeldt, a man whose life is falling apart but who is determined to preserve his daughter’s belief in Santa Claus. The premise of Hazelgrove’s novel seems unlikely from the first few pages because 1) George’s daughter Megan seems much too precocious to proclaim to her schoolmates that she will film Santa Claus in action on Christmas Eve and 2) George, eccentric as he is, has recently been fired and seems unlikely to spend his entire savings hiring a film crew, a team of reindeer, and a sled to convince his daughter that Santa Claus exists. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this novel, in part because I believe in Santa Claus. (Hey, I’m a Catholic and know the story of St. Nicholas, which you can look up online. There is a Santa Claus).
In Personal (2014), Lee Child brings us yet another novel of Jack Reacher, the retired military cop who travels around the United States — and now Europe — without luggage, not even a change of clothes, but who again and again confronts criminals. In this case, Reacher pursues a sniper who may have tried to assassinate the president of France, a sniper with whom Reacher has a personal history. About four years ago, a friend who loves this series told me to give Jack Reacher a try. I did, and I have continued reading some of the novels, and can only say that these are popcorn books. By that, I mean that they bring pleasure and enjoyment, but lack any nutritional value; I forget the plots as soon as I read them. If you’re looking for action, sometimes a little unrealistic, and a place in which to slip away from your daily stress, then the Jack Reacher novels are for you.
Finally, there is Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004). Previously in The Smoky Mountain News, I reviewed this chronicle of the role of the Scots-Irish in American history, but I mention it here again because Webb is this year one of the Democrat candidates for the presidency. A Naval Academy graduate, a hero in Vietnam, a law school graduate, an acclaimed novelist, a former Secretary of the Navy, a former United States Senator from Virginia, and a man who is in touch with his roots and with the common man, Webb is unknown to many of his fellow Democrats. His story of the Scots-Irish and of his own family history is, as John McCain once wrote, “a remarkable story — how the Scots-Irish and their fighting faith in America shaped the great nation we are today.” It is regrettable that so few in the Democrats know this man. Of all the candidates in that party, he is the most outstanding.
So there. Next review: William Forstchen’s One Year After.