A Blog of Book Reviews

These book reviews are also featured on my blog, Scorpion Stalking Duck. Here they are distilled out of the rest of the posts, kind of like that scum at the top of a pot full of boiled potatoes. The title of this blog - and the quote above - come from the forward of Hillaire Belloc's book, The Path to Rome.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age

Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson.

This was published as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer review on January 21, 2013.  

It was several months late.  

They haven't asked me to review any books since then.

Mr. Johnson has a lot of good ideas in this book. Unfortunately, he advocates that these ideas should be in some way incorporated into government programs. I cannot agree with him on this; the only thing our government(at the federal level) has demonstrated any proficiency in is killing people and blowing things up. Even these functions have been failing us lately, as the withering conflicts in the Middle East and Africa continue into the second term of our Nobel Peace Prize-toting president. But I digress.

Mr. Johnson begins by describing two very effective systems which show how progress is made in a random, somewhat uncontrolled fashion. Often these 'grassroot' systems, when compared with the governmental or bureaucratic solution, clearly demonstrate their superiority. One example is a comparison of the railroad systems of France and Germany during the 19th century. France had a 'centralized' railway, where all paths led through Paris. Germany, on the other hand, had a combination of railways which went hither and yon, forming more of a net covering Germany. France's system looked more like spokes of a wheel, with Paris as the center. When these countries went to war, the Germans were able to efficiently transport more soldiers and material via the network of railways. This gave them a strategic advantage.

The other example is the internet. With multiple pathways available, information can pass with greater safety as well as efficiency. The ‘net,’ or the ‘World Wide Web’ has enabled us to communicate more freely than before, and with almost no cost. Of course we don’t always use this gift wisely. I recently saw a comment on facebook which pointed out that we now have a device that fits in our pocket, and can communicate with anyone or anything in the world - yet we typically use it for looking at pictures of grumpy cats and getting into arguments with total strangers. Once again I digress.

So after presenting these examples of progress which comes from the free market, Johnson seems to switch and start making the argument that these programs should be incorporated into the government bureaucracy. He introduces the website ‘Kickstarter.‘ Kickstarter assists artists, craftsmen, musicians, and other creative people who need financial support for their particular project. For example, when I clicked on the web page this morning, it featured a video of an attractive young woman who wants to create an instructional video series on woodworking. People can pledge money for a project, but - here’s the kicker - they only are responsible for putting up the money if the project reaches its pledge target. The nice thing about this project is that people can directly support projects they like, and typically they receive some sort of recognition in the completed project. With the young woodworking woman, she would give the largest donors some of the furniture she made herself.

Please understand that I have nothing against Kickstarter; in fact, I wish Kickstarter would replace the National Endowment for the Arts(NEA). This is especially true when Johnson points out that Kickstarter has financed more creative projects than the NEA has. Johnson declares that Kickstarter has financed more than $200 million so far, while the budget for the NEA is $154 million. Consider that a lot of that money does not even reach the artists. Personally, I would prefer to see artists funded by the NEA - especially those who specialize in offending Catholicism - get their funding from somewhere other than my taxes. I suspect they would find adequate support through Kickstarter.

Here is where Johnson completely loses me, when he states that the government should set up its own Kickstarter. This is just a few pages after he mentions that Kickstarter provides more money than the NEA:

“Yet there is nothing in Kickstarter’s DNA that says it has to be a for-profit company. We could easily decide as a society that the $200 million Kickstarter is disbursing is not nearly enough to support the kind of creative innovation we need in our culture. At which point, the government could create its own Kickstarter and promote it via its own channels, or it could use taxpayer dollars as matching grants to amplify the effect of each Kickstarter donation. This, in the nutshell, is the difference between a libertarian and a peer-progressive approach. The libertarian looks at Kickstarter and says, “Great, now we can do away with the NEA.” The peer progressive says, “Now we can made the NEA look more like Kickstarter.” (pages 46-47)

So I guess I’m a libertarian, I thought, as I threw the book at a wall.....

Despite my criticisms, there is still a lot to be said for this book. Steven Johnson challenged my thinking on a lot of subjects in his book. While I do not agree with everything he said, I still think the book has merit because it urged me to think of how individuals still have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to our culture.

Addendum: I wrote a lot of comments in this book, and some of them I think were worth adding to this review. Remember, these are my comments, not quotes from the book:

‘shades of the pragmatometer from c.s. lewis that hideous strength’ p. 38

‘what about Hurricane Sandy?’ I was reading this book while Sandy was pounding New York. p. 66

‘do you really, honestly think people give a rat’s a$$? really!’ p.74

‘consider arab spring/sharia spanish revolution occupy wall street as a crime scene’ p. 106 

‘wait. isn’t this what he wants out of the net?’ next to this quote: “If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes.” p.117

‘BS. all influence ends up being sold/bought’ p. 171

‘dumbing down’ pp. 172, 173

‘no. it would morph back into politicians. do you really think politicians will give up this fiscal largesse?’ p. 176

‘yes. innovation started here but now all is MADE IN CHINA’ p. 185

‘on the other hand, if you really stink at teaching, you should die on the vine’ p. 191

‘note he doesn’t have an example of this where the EOB (employee-owned business) is applied to teaching!’ p.192

‘so facebook’s stock is WHERE today?’ p. 195

‘what about the writers for huffington post who got stiffed when she sold it?’ inside back cover

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home

Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home

David Philipps

Soldiers returning home from war have always had it rough.  When I did my psychiatry rotation in medical school, I was assigned to the Veteran’s Administration(VA) hospital.  The psychiatric ward took up almost one entire floor of the main building, and was divided into two wings.  One was for patients suffering from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, while the other treated just about every other psychiatric malady.  With the typical cynicism which comes with being a medical student, we referred to the floors more by their nicknames than by their proper titles.  The section which dealt with a variety of psychopathology was called either the ‘Smorgasbord’ or the ‘Salad Bar,’ while the PTSD wing was more commonly called the ‘FTVA’ wing.  I shall leave it to the reader to decipher the meaning of the letters preceding Veteran’s Administration.  I was assigned to the Smorgasbord, and so had very little contact with the patients - most of them Vietnam Veterans - that filled the other wing of the hospital. 

Over the past twenty-three years, the military and the VA have continued to struggle with those who have experienced the horror of war.  Judging from David Philipps’ book, Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home, it appears as if the challenge is even greater today.  This book left me wondering if the ‘War is Hell’ which General Sherman spoke about has gotten worse, or perhaps the American soldier is entering combat unprepared for the tremendous moral, spiritual, and psychological upheaval which comes with it.

Philipps reports on the events that followed the return of an Army unit to their home base in Colorado Springs, Colorado from combat in Iraq.  Within a short time, the rate of violent crimes in the city increased, with most of them involving soldiers who had just returned from some of the most dangerous areas in Iraq.  Philipps interviewed soldiers who were in prison, as well as their family and friends, commanding officers, and a few of the people who were treating soldiers with PTSD.  He describes the plight of young men who went off to serve our country, and how the traumatic experience of serving in Iraq had changed so many of them for the worse.  He also relates how the medical and psychological support for them was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of personnel who exhibited signs of PTSD.  In addition, he poignantly describes how the military culture made it difficult for soldiers to seek help from the medical community.

This book was very sobering to read, from the recollection of encounters with an elusive enemy in Iraq to the descent of various characters in the book into depression and violence.  There was also a lot of strong language as well.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is considering a military career, as it shows how ordinary men could be affected by the stress of combat.  I spoke to some folks I know who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they all agreed that no one leaves there without being changed in some way.  All of them talked of survivor’s guilt, and the strange desire to return despite knowing the danger.

I think this book will increase awareness for the need for more mental health care in the military, the Veteran’s Administration hospitals, and in the private sector.  Some of the changes made by General Graham while he was in command at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs sounded great, but programs like that may be eliminated by those who follow him. 

There were two things about the book which I found troubling.  One is that very few medical personnel were included in the narrative.  Throughout the book, physician or psychologist encounters were described as brief, usually after waiting a long time for an appointment.  Invariably, the soldiers were prescribed medications as a first means of treatment, with little counseling added to the therapy.  It was disturbing to read that a lot of the soldiers were taking prescription drugs while out on patrol.  I think that it is possible that the military medical community did not want to discuss this issue, and so their perspective was not included in the book.  Perhaps, like my initial encounter with PTSD in medical school, it is still considered a difficult area for discussion. 

The other thing which I found quite remarkable is that Philipps seems to totally ignore the importance of faith - any faith - in the life of these men.  He did not comment on the religious background of any of the soldiers; I would think that he would have at least mentioned if they had no faith at all.  This is an important issue for this book, because the type of fighting in Iraq after President Bush’s infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ declaration was not clearly defined.  The enemy blended in with the people, and made identifying friend from foe difficult.  The soldiers even comment that it was often safer to  shoot first in an encounter, which sometimes resulted in the death of innocent civilians.  Fighting under conditions which forced the soldier to make morally unpleasant decisions must have caused some amount of spiritual anguish among even the most hardened men, and yet this aspect is ignored by the author. 

I can think of several explanations for this.  One is that serving in Iraq limited our freedom of Religion; I recall that when I was in the Air Force we were told that certain religious items were not permitted in the Middle East.  Another is that there is a shortage of chaplains in the military; for some of these soldiers in remote locations, a visit from the Padre is a rare event.  But far more important is the way our government is gradually downplaying the importance of religion in our society as a whole.  In 2009, the military published an epidemiological study trying to determine factors which influenced the sudden increase of homicides at Fort Carson.  I looked over the report - all 126 pages of it - and found no mention of faith, or religion, or God in it anywhere.  The only reference to religion is the inclusion of a Chaplain in the epidemiology team.  Perhaps the faith of the soldiers was not investigated because, like other variables in psychology, it is difficult to quantify or analyze statistically.  Whatever the case, no discussion of religion, or God in both the Army’s report and Philipp’s book was very disappointing.

It seems to me that the de-emphasis of faith in our society and in the military in particular is to blame for a lot of the troubles which followed the return of these soldiers to the United States.  War has always been Hell, but the way that man faced it certainly has changed.  During the Civil War, mothers would make sure to include a Bible in their son’s belongings.  One of the books we have in our library is the ‘Catholic Prayer Book for the Marine Corps’ originally published during World War II.  Even in my own time, in the late 1980’s, faith was seen as important in the military.  I recall a Sergeant telling me about ‘GI Parties’ which were held on Sunday mornings for those who were not going to services.  A GI party consisted of thoroughly cleaning the inside and outside of the barracks.  It didn’t take long for those who wanted to sleep in on Sunday to ‘get religion,’ as it was called.  I don’t know about the current situation in the military, but if David Philipps’ book is any indication, religion, faith, and God have been pushed aside.  The events described in Lethal Warriors suggest what happens when the ‘Army of One’ has no One to fall back on.

I would recommend this book to only mature readers because of content and language.  I think it would be a good read for anyone considering serving in the military because it depicts the reality of war.  The subject of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is something every man contemplating the military should think about before making such a serious commitment.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The United States Coast Guard and National Defense

 The United States Coast Guard and National Defense

Thomas P. Ostrom

McFarland, 2011

I know several young men and women who are Officers in the Coast Guard, and that was my main reason for requesting this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers.  I hoped to get a feel for the history and adventure that has to be a part of this vital but overlooked component of our national defense.  I anticipated a book full of history, fleshed out with biographies and information that would increase my admiration for the men and women of the United States Coast Guard.  Instead, I got a book which read as if it were constructed from a collection of after-action reports. 

For the reader who is looking for detailed information about the Coast Guard, this book would be an excellent reference.  The footnotes and bibliography are very thorough.  This book will one day be an excellent reference for a future historian who needs to find out ‘which ship was where when.’

I don’t like writing negative reviews, but this book was not written in a style to inspire any young man or woman considering a career in the Coast Guard.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cameras in the Wild: A History of Early Wildlife and Expedition Filmmaking, 1895-1928

Cameras in the Wild: A History of Early Wildlife and Expedition Filmmaking, 1895-1928

Palle B. Petterson

McFarland & Company

Dr. Petterson has written a remarkable book about the early history of film.  I expected this book to be just a collection of short biographies on the first contributors to the film industry, but it actually includes more than that.  Petterson not only writes about the personalities of these early fimmakers, but he also writes about the development of the cameras they used, the venues where these movies were displayed, and how movies were becoming more a part of the social fabric. 

This book describes the works of photographers and film makers in Europe and the United States.  Their major works are briefly mentioned, as well as some of their travels to places such as Antarctica and the jungles of Africa.  Nearly every story mentions the hazards faced by these pioneers while trying to capture nature on film.  Sometimes their journeys ended with the discovery that their film was either destroyed or ruined.  They are all to be commended for their persistence in their work.

The evolution of camera and theater technology is also briefly discussed in each time period.  A lot of this was a little more technical than I care for, but those who have an interest in the subject will appreciate Petterson’s writing here.  One thing that struck me is that a little over one hundred years ago, people would go to the theater to watch movies of waves crashing into the shoreline.  When I think about how our modern society is accustomed to such visual stimulation as 3-D movies with surround sound, I am just amazed how we have been changed by motion pictures - and even more so by television.

This book contains an extensive list of references consisting of a Filmography for the time periods covered, Chapter Notes, and a Bibliography.  With this work, Dr. Petterson has written an excellent book for those who are students of the theater arts, while still making the subject fascinating for those of us who have the privilege to review it for the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Different...Not Less

Future Horizons


There are many books which are written to inspire the reader with stories of real people who have overcome tremendous obstacles and challenges.  The list of books which I would refer to as the ‘been there/done that/you can, too’ genre is enormous.  For me, the greatest example would be the many books on the lives of the Saints.  In perusing these books, one can find people from all walks of life: nuns, priests, criminals, hardened sinners - even married men and women - who have succeeded in their efforts to know, love and serve God in this world in order to live with Him in Heaven for all eternity.  I find their stories to be a source of inspiration and consolation as I work to emulate them.

Dr. Temple Grandin’s new book, Different...Not Less is a new addition to the list of books meant to inspire and console those who find life challenging.  The complete title indicates which people will find this book helpful:  Different...Not Less: Inspiring Stories of Achievement and Successful Employment from Adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD.  I think parents, friends and associates of these people will also learn from these first-person accounts of men and women who have lived with some or all of the diagnoses included in the title.

The main part of this book consists of fourteen chapters, each one written by a man or a woman ranging in age from 30 to 60 years.  Dr. Grandin presents each person in an introductory paragraph; the remainder of the chapter is written by the subject.  Each writer discusses the same issues, such as childhood and development, education, interpersonal relations, and his or her current occupation and personal situation.  Some of them emphasized certain aspects of their lives more than others, which I appreciated, as it gave some variety and originality to each chapter.  The writers also addressed the question of who were their mentors and who inspired them.  I appreciated the frank manner in which each writer related some events in their lives which must have been extremely painful to recall.

I found two things which were present in almost all of the writers.  One was that most of them are highly educated; half of them had doctoral degrees.  This goes along with another observation I made: that all of these men and women found success by finding a certain ‘niche’ work in which to specialize, and they have succeeded by discovering and then holding on to that spot.  Dr. Grandin is a good example of this in her specialized work on cattle management.  In the epilogue, Dr. Grandin even goes as far as to encourage affected individuals to seek out a ‘niche’ career.

The second thing that struck me was that many of the writers used the same words or phrases to describe how they have succeeded in their lives.  The phrases ‘work around,’ ‘tough it out,’ ‘managing,’ and ‘survival’ were used to describe the ways that each individual conquered the various challenges that came in their careers or personal life.  I had noticed this in my own son Theodore, that while he could not tell us what he wanted, he could figure out a way to get it without our help. 

The greatest area of disagreement among the writers has to be on the question of diagnosis.  Some of the writers thought that being labeled as autistic, or Asperger’s, was beneficial to them, while others saw it as an obstacle.  Karla Fisher, the author of Chapter 4  and self-described “Techie,”  was surprised to find out that a psychologist she knew assumed that children would be pleased to know that they were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  For Karla,

“With my diagnosis came a realization that the unexplained hardships, medical issues, and struggles were not something I could just ‘get over.’”   (p.120)

Karla goes on to present arguments for and against labeling patients.  She even relates how having the diagnosis helped resolve several personal and professional issues which occurred since being labeled as a patient with Asperger’s.  Of all the chapters, I was most impressed with her thoughts on managing life with the diagnosis of Asperger’s.

Finally, I kept finding myself relating so well with many of the comments made by Dr. Grandin and the authors of each chapter.  Twice, Dr. Grandin mentions that she “sold my work instead of myself.”  I would say that I do the same.  Lord help me if I had to work as a salesman.  Even something as simple as Leonora Gregory (Chapter 12) talking about how she hated to get her hair wet made me recall the struggle my parents had to go through to wash my hair when I was a little child.  And then there is Stewart Forge relating in Chapter 14 how he deals with socializing at parties:

“Staying on the move kept me from having to sustain long and awkward social conversations or having to chit-chat with people I didn’t know well about things I don’t care about.”  (p. 354)

I recall thinking almost the exact words in the past.

Dr. Grandin makes a few remarks at the end of the book about Steve Jobs, the former head of Apple Computer, who died in 2011.  She wonders what would have happened if Steve Jobs were a child today.  Would he be put on medications like so many children - especially boys - in order to control them?  Would he have done what he did if he were on medications?  I don’t know, but I certainly am glad that a lot of these diagnoses such as Attention Deficit Disorder were not around when I was a child. 

I think that Autism Spectrum Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome have been around a lot longer than my lifetime.  The stories in this book support my contention.  At some point while I was previewing this book I recalled a short story I read in grade school, The Language of Men, by Norman Mailer.  It was originally published in Esquire magazine back in 1953, and it tells the story of a man who just doesn’t have the social skills necessary to get along with his fellow soldiers.  It struck me that the main character had some traits of Asperger’s.  I suspect that many people are dealing with some characteristics of autism or Asperger’s, and that this book may be a help to them as well as to the parents of affected children.  I think all of those who are connected to Autism or Asperger’s could benefit from carefully reading this book.

Stephen M. Donahue, M.D.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners

This book review was originally published in The Linacre Quarterly 78.4 (November 2011): 476-478. Used by permission

Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners

Peter E. Dans

"There must be something better you can be doing with your time."  My confessor made this comment one day after I told him about a movie I watched recently.  It was a war movie complete with scenes of not only violence but also of some of the more crude aspects of life experienced by men in combat.  This priest was pointing out to me that my time could be used better by doing something - anything - other than watching that movie. Father’s words kept coming back to me as I read the later part of Peter Dans' book Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners.   Thankfully, Dr. Dans has spared all of us hours of constructive time by watching - and reviewing - numerous movies as the movie reviewer and critic for Pharos, the quarterly publication of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society.  Out of the considerable list of movies he has watched over the past twenty years, he has selected nearly 200 which feature either Catholics or Christians in prominent roles.  In Christians in the Movies, Dr. Dans observes that respect for Christians, and the religious in particular, has gradually eroded over the past century of motion pictures.

This is not the first book where Dr. Dans has reviewed how Hollywood portrays various parts of our society; in 2000, he published Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah.  I suspect this book would also be interesting to readers of the Linacre Quarterly.

In his preface, Dans relates how the obligations of work and family kept him away from the movies for a long period, during which there were tremendous changes in American society as well as the film industry.  Most of the priests and religious featured in the movies which he enjoyed as a child were admirable characters.  This kind treatment of both Catholic, Protestant, and - to a lesser extent - Jewish ministers had changed when he started reviewing films in the early 1990's:

"As a practicing Catholic, I was also struck by the ridicule of organized religion, especially Christianity.  The movie clergymen of my youth were tough-yet-good-hearted priests, often portrayed by the big stars like Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien, and Bing Crosby.  Now it appeared that all orthodox clergy and believers were either vicious predators or narrow-minded, mean-spirited Pharisees." (xv)

Dans asks and answers the question “[w]hy had Christians gone from being portrayed as saints in the early and mid-century films to sinners in later ones?” (xvi)  He makes the point that any religion which requires a commitment to an orthodox set of beliefs or rules is denigrated by Hollywood.  Most present-day films glorify a society where there is no definite right or wrong, and rejecting any moral code in favor of personal freedom is seen as true heroism.  Any institution which contradicts this trend of modernity has to be rendered ineffective; hence, Christians are belittled in all types of the media, especially film.  It is ironic that while I was writing this, I came across this quote from a book which described our present society rather accurately:

“How long had it been in England since anyone had seen a play? For generations, people had lain on their backs in the darkness of their bedrooms, their eyes on the blue watery screen on the ceiling: mechanical stories about good people not having children and bad people having them, homos in love with each other, Origen-like heroes castrating themselves for the sake of global stability.”

This quote is from The Wanting Seed, a dystopian novel written by Anthony Burgess in 1962.  It describes the world in 2011 rather well, and Dr. Dans’ book clearly shows how the film industry, by gradually rejecting Christian beliefs and morals, have contributed to society’s condition.

Dr. Dans has written a well organized book which is easy to read either straight through or by randomly selecting a place to start.  He begins by discussing the establishment of various organizations which were responsible for determining the appropriateness of films produced by Hollywood, such as the Motion Picture Production Code and the Legion of Decency.  Following that , each decade of movies is presented in a separate chapter.  Dr. Dans begins each chapter with a brief synopsis of the major events of that decade; for example, the 1940‘s are remembered by World War II and other changes in society such as the role of women in the work force.  He also discusses how the movies of that particular decade depict religious characters.  What follows are several in-depth reviews of selected films, complete with commentary by the author.  In addition, Dr. Dans includes what he calls ‘Backstories,’ which focus on stories about directors, actors, or historical vignettes which add to the appreciation of the role of Christianity in movies.  I found these stories behind the stories to be sometimes more interesting than the movies.

There is one thing which I found questionable in this book.  In the chapter on the 1960‘s, Dr. Dans reviews a movie called The Cardinal.  Apparently in this movie, a character is faced with the choice of either having an abortion (in crushing the skull of the unborn child) or dying.  To add a bit of controversy to the plot, one reads that the unfortunate woman is the sister of the Cardinal himself.  Dr. Dans ends the discussion of this movie with the sentence, “Most important is the abortion issue and the need to obey the law spouted by a priest who seems not to remember that Catholic teaching permits sacrificing the child to save the life of the mother.” (p. 168)  I still cannot reconcile this sentence with what I know of Catholic morality; specifically, I do not see how crushing the skull of a living, unborn child can satisfy several of the conditions of the doctrine of double effect.

Another thing which I found rather disturbing as I read the last several chapters of this book was the depiction of religious characters and homosexuality in movies.  When did sodomy become entertainment?  It is bad enough that the marital act has been desecrated in so many films, but where is the beauty of seeing one man violate another?  At least in years past the religious characters were tempted and fell to a natural inclination for the opposite sex, and perhaps homosexuality was avoided as a taboo subject.  Not so any more.  I asked this question out loud one day, when only my wife and adult children were within earshot.  Without hesitation, my oldest daughter replied that we are living in what amounts to Sodom and Gomorrah.  This appears to be the case.

Dr. Dans has written an excellent book on a subject which affects all of us.  As Catholics who are trying to practice the art and science of medicine in accordance with the Magesterium, it is good to see how our Faith has been torn down by one of the most influential forms of communication in our society.  For those who are looking for good Catholic movies to add to a DVD library, this book is an excellent review for some of the greatest movies ever made.  For those who are inclined to view some of the more recently released movies, this book may keep them from also deciding that their time could have been spent better by reading a book.

Stephen M. Donahue, M.D.
Midlothian, TX
September 4, 2011

Published in The Linacre Quarterly 78.4 (November 2011): 476-478. Used by permission. 

The Linacre Quarterly is the official journal of the Catholic Medical Association.  For more information, please check out this link:  http://www.cathmed.org/issues_resources/linacre_quarterly/

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Edited by Jason Fisher

McFarland & Company, 2011

I finally broke down and let one of the children buy Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.  I did insist that only those who have read the books would be allowed to watch the movie, though.  So on a lazy afternoon, with popcorn and drinks at hand, two of my sons and I settled in to watch the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Although the movie was good, it still left out so much of the book that I finished watching it with a feeling of disappointment, and a desire to go back and read the books again.  I also had to admire the beauty and complexity of Tolkien's work, and not for the first time I had to ask myself, 'what was he thinking when he wrote this book?'

Jason Fisher's book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, answers this question by looking at where he received the inspiration for his epic tales.  While I personally see it as a story influenced heavily by Tolkien’s Catholic Faith, many of the contributors to this book indicate that there are other, some older, sources which were used in his writings.  The Old Testament, Greek mythology, Barbarian tribes which conquered Europe, and even more recent authors such as George MacDonald are all implicated as sources of inspiration for the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.       I found it curious that Tolkien himself discouraged the very discipline which makes up this fascinating book.  Several of the contributors acknowledged this while making a good argument for this literary endeavor.  Tom Shippey said it best with this rationalization:

“It is true, as they say, that you do not have to have the recipe to appreciate a cake: (sic) but it is also true that you can learn a lot from seeing what a great cook has in his kitchen.”

J.R.R. Tolkien is a fascinating man in so many ways.  This book sheds light on just one aspect of this man’s life.  For those who are true enthusiasts of literature, and particularly Tolkien, this book is indeed a treasure.  In this day where the greatest literary works appear to be stories of vampires and werewolves, it is sad to think that there are not more authors around who will tackle such subjects as the burden shouldered by Frodo at the end of the book The Return of the King:

“Alas!  there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,” said Gandalf.

“I fear it may be so with mine,” said Frodo.  “There is no real going back.  Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.  I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden.  Where shall I find rest?”

Gandalf did not answer.

One comment I would have to make about this book is that it is extremely esoteric at times.  I had to constantly refer to online sources (that is a nice way to say Wikipedia) to understand what the author was talking about in each chapter.  Still, this book is an excellent starting point for those interested in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Then there is this aberration, which is also part of the fascination with all things Tolkien:

Consider that all of these pretty young women are probably grandmothers now:

"Grandma, tell us again how you danced around with Leonard Nimoy, singing about a Hobbit?"

"Not now, dear. Grannie is tired."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lifting the Wheel of Karma, by Paul H. Magid

Lifting the Wheel of Karma: A Profound Spiritual Journey of Extraordinary Healing and Redemption, by Paul H. Magid

Point Dume Press, 2012

"Ergo silebo."  -  J.R.R. Tolkien

"I think we must get it firmly fixed in our minds that the very occasions on which we should most like to write a slashing review are precisely those on which we had much better hold our tongues."

-  C.S. Lewis

I seem to always be in the minority.  I did not care for this book, and would not recommend it.  I looked in vain for anyone who shared my opinion.  When I keep finding objectionable things as I read a book, I finally get to the point where I have to reject the whole thing.  And now, meditating on the words of Tolkien and Lewis up above, I shall make this review as constructive as possible.

I should start by saying that I do not reject this book because it presents Eastern religion or mysticism.  I actually enjoyed the part of the book which discussed the various aspects of the Indian religions.  As a reader, knowing this to be fiction, there were certain things which happened in this book (spoilers) which I took as plausible because they were consistent with the eastern mysticism presented in this book.  In short, I went ahead and, for argument's sake, assumed some things to be true which I know to be not true.  I would be more specific, but I would have to mention a spoiler.

I'll start with the things I did liked about the book.  I think Mr. Magid described the settings very well, especially those of the scenes in India. I especially thought that he did a good job describing Lahiri's village and environs. Perhaps it's just reminded me of the time I spent in the mountains of Switzerland when I was a little boy.  Either way, I felt as if I were in India, in the mountains.

Now onto the negatives........

Joseph's brother Bill accompanies him all the way to the other side of the world, traveling by airplane, rail, taxi, and finally even by ox-cart to reach their final destination in the Himalayas.  Then, once Joseph meets up with Lahiri, Bill turns around and leaves.  Just like that. He doesn't rest overnight before starting on the long journey home.  He doesn't eat.  Heck, he doesn't even go to the bathroom before leaving his brother.  What about his return ticket?  Did he know how long it would take to escort his brother to the mountains?  These are the kind of inconsistencies which bother me about books.  I finished the book still fretting over Bill leaving so abruptly.
Then there is the question of the wheelchair.  Unless I misunderstood, the main character needs a wheelchair to get around.  Not only does he need a wheelchair, but I think he also had use of only one hand, which would make an electric wheelchair an absolute necessity.  I have a little experience with wheelchairs, from assisting my brother with his wheelchair, to transporting patients throughout a hospital while I was a college student, to spending an arduous day in one as part of our training in medical school.  So it seemed a bit farfetched to have a character who relies on an electric wheelchair go off to a village so remote that he had to reach it riding in an ox cart.  Every rock, carpeting, any slight pitch or camber in the sidewalk - not to mention curbs - were like insurmountable obstructions to my patients and I as we traveled along; just imagine that same wheelchair in a village without any 'advanced' amenities.

Don't get me started on things which were snuck through airport security......

Finally, there is the question of what constitutes a novel.  Reading this book, I suddenly realized that I was halfway through it when I reached page ninety-five.  Around the same time, I noticed the phrase 'A Novel' on the front cover.  While the definition of a novel does not stipulate a certain number of pages to qualify, it does suggest that a novel should encompass a span of time completely, not sketchily.  This book covers about fifty-five years in less than two hundred pages, leaving a lot of questions as to what happened in the gaps in the story.  I figure that there could have been a lot of friendships made and broken, loves found and lost, and mayhem created which the author could have included in his book.  This was the ultimate disappointment.

I suspect that most readers will disagree with me, but thats how it goes sometimes.  I welcome you to read this book and make your own judgement on the merits of this book.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The San Joaquin Siren: An American Ace in WW II's CBI

The San Joaquin Siren: An American Ace in WW II's CBI

by William M. Behrns, with Kenneth Moore

The San Joaquin Siren, by William Behrns, with Kenneth Moore, is the story of Mr. Behrns' service during the Second World War.  Mr. Behrns served in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying the P-38 Lightning in the China/Burma/India theatre of operations; this little known part of the conflict with Japan was better known by its initials, CBI.

The story begins with his childhood, and how he was born prematurely and was always smaller than all his peers as he grew up.  This never stopped him from achieving his goals in life, and one of them was to some day fly fighter planes for the military.  He describes how determination, hard work, and a bit of Divine Providence got him into flight school.  He describes the thrill of flying solo for the first time, and the excitement as he heads off to the CBI to face the enemy in combat.

The portion of the book in which he describes his time in combat is presented in diary form, with the days when he flew missions reported, including the objective, the success of the mission, and any aircraft he shot down on each mission.  One of the most harrowing parts of the book doesn't even take place in combat.  He describes crash-landing along the Burma road, and spending the night in the jungle, waiting for rescue.

Mr. Behrns mentions a few things which struck me as rather disturbing.  One was that he observed that none of his fellow airmen were from the same city or state.  He suggests in the book that this was done to minimize the reaction by the American people when the casualties from the CBI theatre started to increase.  The number of pilots who died in the CBI were rather high, and this was a way to avoid any kind of public outcry over the loss of so many from one part of the United States.  It seems rather hard to believe that our military could execute such a subtle and devious plan, but Mr. Behrns does make a good case for it.

Another thing that I found disappointing was that Mr. Behrns described his attempts to get credit for one 'kill' which he could only count as a 'probable.'  Briefly, whenever an enemy aircraft was shot down, there had to be evidence to corroborate the pilot's report.  That evidence could be from eyewitnesses, such as other pilots or personnel on the ground, or from enemy records, or from gun cameras which would start filming while an aircraft's guns were firing.  If these means confirmed that an aircraft were shot down, the pilot was awarded a 'kill' for it; if not, he would be assigned what is known as a 'probable.'  If one had more than 5 confirmed 'kills' one could be called an 'Ace.'  In Mr. Behrns' case, one of his 'kills' was witnessed by one of his comrades who unfortunately disappeared shortly afterwards.  The 'kill' ended up being credited to that pilot rather than to Mr. Behrns. 

Recently, Mr. Behrns started doing some research into this 'kill' which he never got credit for.  Eventually he did enough research, and with the help of his local State Representative, was able to add that additional victory to his military record.  This is what I found to be rather sad.  At the end of his life, Mr. Behrns wanted to be sure to add another life to the list of people he had killed during the war.  Granted, this was a combatant, an enemy fighter pilot determined to kill as many American soldiers and airmen.  But it seems as if desiring such an ephemeral honor when one is so close to death would only be a hollow victory.  I do not mean to derogate Mr. Behrns' service to our country in any way; I thank him and all of his generation who served our country during such a tumultuous period of the past century.

Mr. Moore apparently died shortly before the completion of the book, and I did get the impression that the book seemed to wrap up rather abruptly.  Still, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed reading this book which described another part of a war which truly did involve every part of the world.

Bonus:  Here is the picture of the San Joaquin Siren itself.  Unfortunately it crashed while another pilot was flying it.  The story behind that crash is in the book.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy

Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy

by John Janaro
Servant Books (January 2010)

The only criticism I have about this book is that Dr. Janaro never revealed how he got the fish to leap from one bowl to another. Other than this one deficiency, I have nothing but praise for this book.

John Janaro has written a meditation on pain and suffering; in this case, he writes about his own struggle with chronic pain. He discusses his own physical problems as well as the mental challenges which often accompany patients with chronic pain. Where other men (like me) would probably have given up under the weight of the physical and mental anguish, John has wrestled with his sorrow in order to make sense of it. In the process, he has given us a book which helps all of those who deal with physical pain and depression. To rephrase a line from his book, I would say that it is good to be John Janaro. Anyone can benefit from reading this book; I showed it to a psychologist friend, and plan on sending one to a person who suffers from chronic depression.

As is mentioned in the title, the concept of God's Mercy runs through the whole book. There are four sections in this book; the first deals with Janaro's background, and how he got to where he is today. The second looks at a typical day in the life of a person with chronic pain. The third and fourth sections are on help for those who are suffering; the third is practical, or worldly help, while the fourth centers on spiritual help. Throughout each section, Janaro has some great insights into dealing with chronic pain and depression - for both the patient and for those who treat them. I shall briefly list the ones which I especially liked:

1. Depression can be transformed into an awareness of our total dependence on God (p. 22).
2. A great quote for our slacker society from Blessed John Henry Newman: "the aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious...is, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him (p. 49)."
3. The fact that suffering does not necessarily go away when we receive the Grace to endure it.
4. Despite his suffering, Janaro has to acknowledge the Mercy of God at work throughout his life. He writes about four things which have been constant in his life. He might have been writing it about me. You will have to buy the book to find this insight. Sorry.

Janaro ends the book writing about how devotion to the Blessed Mother and prayer - especially before the Blessed Sacrament - can help deal with physical and mental illness. I enjoyed this book, and I recommend it for those who suffer from chronic pain and depression as well as for those who care for them.