Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Bullies and Saints

I confess that it’s been a while since I had an actual summer reading list and endeavored to not only get through a few books but also share my thoughts with my subscribers.

Let the fun begin again!

I’m starting with a book, Bullies and Saints by John Dickson, that was recommended to me by a friend because it combines two of my favorite subjects, faith and history. I’ll share up front that I so thoroughly enjoyed it that I attempted to schedule an interview with Mr. Dickson for my Wayfarer Podcast. I’m sorry to say that I was unsuccessful. I would have enjoyed the conversation.

In the post Christian era in which we find ourselves, I have observed that the narratives and views of those outside of the faith can be filled with a cocktail of ignorance and antipathy that leads to both honest misunderstandings and malicious myths about the actual historical record when it comes to both the good and the bad that Christianity has brought to our world. In Bullies and Saints, Australian historian John Dickson does a masterful job of honestly exploring both the good and evil through his bifocal lens as scholar and follower of Christ.

Don’t let the scholar lens intimidate you. Bullies and Saints is an easy read for the average person, and Dickson does not get bogged down in the historical minutiae or academic vocabulary. He moves at a steady pace through his overview of Christian history. That said, he does not shy away from the difficult subjects that critics of religion and Christianity are typically quick to bring up: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Troubles of Ireland, and the religious motivations for war, conquest, and colonization. He also does not shy away from the hot-button issues of racism, anti-semitism, slavery, and the sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church that have rocked the world in the past few decades.

Dickson does not get defensive or make excuses in his reporting of the institutional church’s many failings over the years. In fact, I found him to be quite transparent about his own failings, as well as those of the church, personally exemplifying the honest transparency he strives to achieve in examination of the institution. He does, however, attempt to put certain historic facts into needed context. Particularly those I have so often found to have been used out of context by critics. For example, he makes a case that the number of victims of the religiously motivated Inquisition pales in comparison to the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, which had far more secular and humanistic motivations and three times the number of victims in a much shorter period of time.

Some of the more enjoyable tidbits I found in Dickson’s book were the many positive things that the Christian understanding of Imago Dei and the Judeo-Christian belief system have given to the world. Some things we typically take for granted such as a weekend. It was the Christian emperor Constantine who first gave everyone a day off in honor of God’s command for a Sabbath. Charity, abolition, education, and social justice all have their roots in the Jesus Movement of the first three centuries.

In my chapter-a-day posts over the years, I have often made a distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the Jesus Movement He inspired and the human institution of “the Church” that emerged when the Jesus Movement morphed into the Holy Roman Empire. Bullies and Saints does a beautiful job of describing and solidifying this distinction with the historical record.

I highly recommend Bullies and Saints. It’s also a great audiobook read by the author in his enjoyable Australian accent in a wonderfully conversational style.

Meet Kingman & Reed

Confession: I am a terrible reader. There is a stack of “must read” books in my office that never shrinks. It remains a perpetual source of shame. For this reason, it took a while for me to make down the stack to my autographed copy of Officer Involved, the debut novel of Iowa author Bill Zahren. I’m so glad I got to it!

For the record, I love the mystery novel. I will always love Chandler and Hammet’s hard-boiled detectives. In my opinion, Sharon Kay Penman does not get enough credit for her historical Queen’s Man series. My heart, however, especially melts for those authors who can, tongue-in-cheek, make me laugh while compelling me to keep turning the pages. The greatest compliment I can give Bill Zahren is that he has officially joined the hallowed ranks of Gregory McDonald (Fletch) and Laurence Klavan (The Cutting Room) in my list of authors who can spin a great yarn while making me guffaw out loud as I read.

Officer Involved is set in Sioux City, Iowa. You read that correctly. Sioux land in northwest Iowa is not exactly known as a hotbed of mystery and intrigue. That’s part of the enjoyment. Despite the media’s constant, willful ignorance interesting things actually happen in flyover country. While we resent the snubs from both coasts, we also appreciate being left alone. Zahren is one of us. He gets this and uses it to make Officer Involved a novel with a unique setting.

Tom Kingman, deft investigative journalist covering the latest Iowa heat wave, finds himself an unexpected witness to a police shooting. Assistant District Attorney Hillary Reed asks Kingman to sit on some of the facts of the even to protect a much larger story. In return for his silence, Reed promises Kingman an exclusive once the larger story breaks. As suddenly as a midwest thunderstorm, the pair find themselves embroiled in circumstances far deeper and more dangerous than either anticipated. I chuckled and kept turning the pages as Zahren swept me along for the ride.

I had a lot of fun with the story and the budding relationship between Kingman and Reed. I appreciate the humanity Bill writes into both characters and the subtext to which he allows us to be privy. I found them not to be cookie cutter protagonists. In Officer Involved I was introduced to both Tom and Hillary, but finished the book wanting to know more about each of them, and I was itching to find out where Bill is taking us in future installments.

I have HUGE respect for Bill and his courageous leap into publishing. I’m so glad he followed his passion, brushed off the manuscript, repressed his doubts, and worked his butt off to introduce us to Kingman and Reed. If you’re looking for a good yarn for the summer reading list support a local author and enjoy Officer Involved!

Officer Involved is available on Amazon.

You can find Bill Zahren on Facebook and follow him on twitter @BillZahren.


My Summer Reading List

I have a confession to make: I’m a terrible reader. I envy those who can consume mass quantities of books, and I get jealous of people who write columns about the boat load of books they read over the summer months. Don’t get me wrong. I love books, but I read relatively slowly and books tend to stimulate my brain in such a way that I can barely get through a page before I’m thinking about how what I’ve just read relates to other things and I start pondering all sorts of connections and ideas. Pretty soon I’m staring off into space as my brain whirrs and minutes go by before I realize I better get back to the book. C’est la vie.

I made it a point this summer to actually get through a book or two, and I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. So I’m giving myself a guilty pleasure of writing a post about my summer reading list.

Moneyball ImageMoneyball by Michael Lewis. I loved the movie and had been told by two people I respect (one who’s not a baseball fan) that the book was a must read. They were right. While the movie did a masterful job of telling the true and enthralling story, there was no way to relate on screen just how much Billy Beane and his stat geeks changed the game of baseball and why. I loved this book and it prompted a lot of late night baseball conversations. The book made me love the movie even more.

Holy Shit ImageHoly Sh*t (A Brief History of Swearing) by Melissa Mohr. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about Melissa Mohr’s book about how swearing has developed in the English language from ancient Rome to modern times. Swearing has always involved the profaning of the sacred (the holy) or exclaiming what is scatological (the shit). The real story is in how the pendulum has swung between the two in history. It’s a fascinating book and Mohr does a nice job of taking what is really an academic work and layering it with her own sarcastic wit. It’s a helluva good read.

Whos on Worst ImageWho’s on Worst by Filip Bondy. If you read this blog with any regularity you know that Wendy and I are baseball fans. This quick, trivial read is a fun look at the worst of the worst in baseball history. I was pleasantly surprised at how few Cubs actually made the list (you knew there had to be a few). Perhaps my favorite chapter listed the worst deals the New York Yankees ever made, paying players millions of dollars for a few hapless innings of work. Amazing. It’s an easy, enjoyable read for baseball fans. And, it may help win me a few game of Lunchtime Trivia at Buffalo Wild Wings.

Tolkien Letters ImageThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. For a life long lover of Middle Earth, I can’t believe what a treasure trove Tolkien’s letters actually are. Sometimes personal letters are rather uninteresting, but Tolkien writes long letters to fans explaining things that have long eluded me about the mythology he created. I was amazed to discover in his letters just how central his personal faith (he was Roman Catholic) was to everything he did and wrote (he called Lord of the Rings essentially a religious and Catholic story). I was also fascinated to find out how often he references C.S. Lewis (it’s actually a lot) and what good friends and colleagues they were.

Saints and Sinners imageSaints and Sinners (A History of the Popes) by Eamon Duffy. I am not Roman Catholic (I have some irreconcilable differences on non-essential doctrinal issues with my Catholic brothers), but I have been fascinated by the long and complex history of the Popes who have shaped the history of the world. I found myself intrigued by the conclave that elected Pope Francis this past summer and have been impressed with the man himself. He’s a leader I could and would follow. So, on the recommendation of the Wall Street Journal I ordered Duffy’s survey of the popes. I’m just getting into it as I write this, but am finding his objectivity and honesty refreshing. It’s already stimulating and challenging my thoughts about the Great Story and the part the church of Rome has played in it.

My Own 30 Day Blogging Challenge

On my 35th birthday, my daughters gave me a little book called “If… (Questions for the Game of Life)” by Evelyn McFarlane & James Saywell. The book is filled with interesting and provocative questions that begin with the word “If.” The book became a popular meal time conversation starter for family and friends, and to this day it gets pulled out at the lake when we have a table full of interesting individuals and an evening to sit, eat, drink, and talk for hours.

So, for my own 30 day blogging challenge I have pulled 30 of my favorite questions from McFarlane & Saywell’s book. By the way, this book spawned several others with different categories and themes. I highly recommend them for your own meal time or family time conversational adventures.

Starting tomorrow I’ll be blogging through the questions. If you have a blog, I invite you to take up the challenge in your own posts. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to post your own answers in a comment on my blogpost and further the on-line conversation. Props to the authors and thanks to Taylor & Madison for one of the most enjoyable gifts I’ve ever received.

  1. If you could physically transport yourself to any place in the world at this moment, where would you go?
  2. If you could have an elegant dinner along with anyone presently alive, whether you know them or not, who would you want it to be?
  3. If you could inherit a comfortable home in any city in the world that you could use but not sell, where would you want it to be?
  4. If you could own one painting from any collection in the world but were not allowed to sell it, which work of art would you select?
  5. If you had to choose the color that describes you most accurately, what would it be?
  6. If you could possess one supernatural ability, what would it be?
  7. If you could have any single writer either current, or from history, write your biography, who would it be?
  8. If you were on trial and someone you know (who is not an attorney) had to act as your legal representative, who would you want to defend you?
  9. If you could have a dinner party in any room in the world (without having to clean up), where would you want to have it?
  10. If you could host a dinner party inviting four people from history, who would you invite and where would the party take place?
  11. If you were to receive a letter today from anyone you have known during your lifetime, who would it be from and what would it say?
  12. If you could steal one thing in the world, other than money, without getting caught, what would you take?
  13. If you had one piece of music softly playing in your mind for the rest of your life, what would you want it to be?
  14. If you could run any single company, institution, or organization in the world, which would you choose?
  15. If you could choose any historic figure to read your eulogy, who would you want to do it?
  16. If you could dance any one dance perfectly, which dance would you choose?
  17. If you could be a guest on any television talk show, which would it be?
  18. If you could teach your children only one lesson in life, what would it be?
  19. If you were to choose a musical instrument that best describes your character, what would it be?
  20. If you had to pick the worst movie in history, which one would get the dubious honor?
  21. If you had to choose the worst work experience you’ve ever had, what would you pick?
  22. If you learned that you were to die in exactly one hour, what would you do?
  23. If your own ashes were to be kept in an urn, after you die, where would you want the urn kept?
  24. If you could have any view from your home, what would it be of?
  25. If you could have the world’s largest collection of one thing, what would it be?
  26. If you were to be given an acting role in a current TV show, who would you want to play?
  27. If you could have a servant come to your house every day for one hour, what would you have them do?
  28. If you could choose the very last thing you would see before you die, what would it be?
  29. If you could make a film from any book never produced as a film, what book would you pick?
  30. If you could visit only one more place in the world that you have never been, where would you go for this final voyage?

Dark Magus: The Mad Genius of Miles Davis

Miles While on vacation a few weeks ago, I read the book "Dark Magus – The Jekyl and Hyde Life of Miles Davis" by Miles’ son Gregory Davis. I’ve been a fan of Miles Davis since I was a kid and first heard the masterful album Kind of Blue. Miles is an icon – and I thought it would be interesting to read his own son’s account of Miles’ life.

Gregory Davis offers an interesting perspective. I find it fascinating that he became a psychotherapist, especially in light of the chaos of his family system. Davis has clearly worked through his past – and he relates very painful stories and experiences with objective candor and deference.

Davis summed up his father when he begins "Miles was no saint". He was, however, a gifted musician and a passionate artist. It’s interesting that so many gifted artists teeter on the brink of mental and behavioral chaos. It seems that there is a spiritual restlessness that often accompanies artistic genius. Does it have to? I don’t believe so. But, it clearly happens in some cases – nonetheless. I found myself saddened – that a man who brought such beauty into the world and into my own life experience should suffer so much with his own demons. Peace seemed to escape Miles – even on his death bed.

The only thing I didn’t particularly like about the book was the writing style, which I found a bit hard to follow. The chapters seem to be a stream of consciousness meandering of stories strung together in loose themes. A bit of a crazy maker for those who like point A to point B prose. Nevertheless, for those interested in Miles and in Jazz – this is essential reading.