Book Reviews

The Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson MD

Anatomy of the Soul by Curt ThompsonSummary: Neuroscience and psychology can be helpful to understanding our spiritual life. 

After having read The Body Keeps Score on the science and psychology of Trauma, I wanted to read something similar from an explicitly Christian perspective and Anatomy of the Soul was recommended to me. (I also picked up This is Your Brain on Joy to read later.)

Part of the message of The Body Keeps Score is that our mental, spiritual, and emotional states impact our body and vice versa. The wholeness of our physical, emotional, and spiritual states matters. As Christians, especially as a Christian that is interested in the spiritual development of others, we need to think about how we can incorporate the knowledge of the physical into the practice of spiritual direction without attempting to be a psychologist or neurologist.

Anatomy of the Soul is broadly divided into two parts. The science and background about neurology, trauma, attachment, emotions, the prefrontal cortex, etc. and the shorter spiritual implications to our understanding of sin, repentance and forgiveness, and community.

Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri Nouwen

Spiritual Direction by Henri NouwenSummary: Spiritual Direction from a book.

As I have mentioned a number of times in these reviews, I have been meeting with a spiritual director for more than five years now. I also am considering seeking formal training to become a spiritual director in the future. My current commitment is to read at least one book broadly related to spiritual direction a month. In February, three books ‘by Henri Nouwen’ were on sale and Spiritual Direction was the first of the three that I have read.

Henri Nouwen passend away in 1996. In addition to the many books that he directly wrote, several of his students compiled additional books based on his lectures, unpublished essays, and notes. Nouwen is worth reading for his spiritual insight, even if this book is not directly written by him for publication. There are hint here of things that I have read before, especially the chapter on solitude, community and service that feels like a shortened form of Out of Solitude.

A book cannot replace spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is personal and more about the individual receiving the direction than just wisdom from the director. But there is a sense of how this book does hint at what spiritual direction is like because of Nouwen’s self disclosure and focus on his own spiritual growth.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory by Graham GreeneSummary: A bad priest suffers persecution in Mexico in the 1920-30s.

I can’t really review or even comment on a book that is on almost every best of the 20th century list. The Power and the Glory is not long and I spend a week pretty much only reading it. I can not help but compare it to Shūsaku Endo’s Silence. Endo’s book was written later, but I read it first and I have read it twice. Greene has one of the most famous endorsements ever included in the book Silence, “Endo, to my mind, is one of the finest living novelists.”

Both books are about persecution, but the level of persecution did not rise to the same level in The Power and the Glory as it did in Silence. The real story that Silence is based on, there were likely around 300,000 Christians killed. The Mexican persecution, while serious, was much more limited and as mentioned in the book was also much more regional. The church, alcohol, and jazz were all banned.

The strength of the book I think hinges on the discussion about what motivates the self-admitted bad priest (he has fathered a child, is an alcoholic, and a coward, facing a crisis of faith), in spite of it all, to stay in the area of the persecution and continue to minister to the Catholics there. I find the discussion both realistic to faith and fascinating. But I can also see how apart from faith, the motivation is ridiculous.

The story is fairly simple. There are a number of characters for a simple story and the movement is not quite wrapped up in all of the threads. The priest is being sought by the police. He is considered much more dangerous than an American serial killer, who is also being pursued, because the priest is a traitor to the state, while the killer is just killing people. The police eventually start taking captives and killing them in order to motivate someone to turn the Priest in. But as much as the priest would like to escape, someone’s spiritual need keeps pulling him back.

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph Vogel

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Withnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph VogelSummary: Baldwin continued to grow and think keeping into the 1980s. 

As someone born in the early 1970s, I am aware of the 1980s, I lived the 1980s, but I have not studied well the 1980s. James Baldwin and the 1980s was helpful, not just in better understanding James Baldwin, but helping me think about the 1980s as history.

Baldwin has become the historic voice of the Black Lives Matters moment. The new documentary I am Not Your Negro and the rise of Ta’Nehisi Coates means that book on Baldwin will get attention that they may not have previously. James Baldwin is mostly known for his earlier work. But he continued to write and teach and create into the 1980s.

James Baldwin and the 1980s has five main chapters, each mostly focused on exploring one of the works that Baldwin created in the 1980s.

The most interesting part for me was the cultural/religious history of the 1980s in the 4th chapter. As someone that identifies as Christian and has been through seminary and reads about theology for fun, I am not sure that I agree with all of the assertions about the Religious Right and James Baldwin. But the important, and interesting part, is that this was written at all. I think that part of what is interesting to me is that the religious right got a significant amount of Christianity wrong. And I think that James Baldwin misunderstood Christianity, in a similar way, as many in the religious right.

His critique of televangelists and the moral majority I think has sway, not because it is wrong, but because it is at least partially right theologically. But I also think it is wrong in significant ways. As a Christian, I agree that the implicit racism of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority was contrary to Christ’s teachings. But I also think the his misunderstands part of the church’s teaching. Confining sex to marriage and monogamous relationships is not denying the body as the book, and Baldwin asserts, but a part of what it means to hold sexuality as sacred.

City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin (Hainish Cycle)

City of Illusions by Ursula Le GuinSummary: A man who appears to have had his brain completely erased is found in the woods in a future post-apocalyptic Earth.

I have been very slowly working through Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. These are a series of science fiction books that are only very loosely related. Most within the series have almost no connection to any other book in the series. But they all are set in a future where hundreds of worlds have been settled by humanity. But due to genetic manipulation and isolation due to war or other reasons there have been evolutionary shifts that have altered humanity to be a number of different species. This has allowed Le Guin to explore a number of features of what it means to be human or in society. Although they are considered a series, Le Guin says they are not intended to have internal cohesion and form a single story or even have a suggested reading order.

The Disposessed explored how societies organize politically and socially as a scientist moved from an anarchist utopia (described as non-authoritarian communism’ to a repressive capitalist system that permits a type of slavery. The Left Hand of Darkness is a more physical exploration of what gender means. An outsider comes to a isolated world to attempt to bring them into an intergalactic United Nations style system. But this isolated world does not have fixed gender. Everyone is genderless except once a month when they create gender to mate, each person sometimes becoming male and sometimes becoming female. Most people will be both fathers and mothers at different times and in general mating is temporary and not a permanent marriage arrangement. Children after infancy are raised communally.

The City of Illusions was the third published book in 1967. The Earth has been reduced to a small fraction of its population, most of whom live in small villages or in nomadic tribal system. There is very little trust of outsiders, but a man is found without memory and with the bodily control of an newborn. He is nursed to health and taught so that after about 5 years he has developed the skills and understanding of an adult, but without any knowledge of where he came from or how he came to be in the woods near the community that found him.

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson (Wingfeather #4)

Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew PetersonSummary: The conclusion of the series.

As I read The Warden and the Wolf King, the last of the series, I kept thinking about how it is impossible to communicate an epic fantasy story without intentionally or unintentionally referencing other stories. The very act of creating an epic fantasy book, whether young adult or not, means both either following some conventions or breaking some conventions in a way that acknowledges the conventions.

I very much enjoyed the series (reviews of book 1 and books 2 and 3.) Peterson has created a world that is internally coherent, that still is new and creative, while referencing older stories. His faith is present in his writing without being too direct or only allegorical.

The children both have real roles to play in the story without being too far beyond their place as children. The fantasy aspects are real, but the magic does not go too far and circumvent reality and struggle. Suffering is not upheld as a value by itself, but there is real conflict that drives the story toward the conclusion. There is good and evil, but the evil has motivation, even if twisted, and the good is not perfect.

The ending of The Warden and the Wolf King has tragedy, but also hope. As a young adult/middle grade series it was very good. I look forward to reading these some day with my own children.

The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson (Wingfeather #4) Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

The Third Man by Graham Greene

The Third Man by Graham GreeneSummary: A post WWII mystery set in Vienna. 

In general I like to know almost nothing about fiction books going into them. I picked up the audiobook during an Audible sale almost two years ago because of the comparisons between Graham Green and Shusaku Endo. Prior to picking this up I had listened to the excellent End of the Affair only because it was narrated by Colin Firth. (After picking this up original I also listened to the Comedians, which was good, but not as good.)

The Third Man is a mystery set soon after the end of the Second World War. A novelist specializing in pulp westerns is invited to Vienna to visit a old school friend and arrives just in time to attend his funeral. What appears to be an accidental death (hit by a car while crossing the street) eventually grows into something bigger.

The Third Man was originally written as a screen play and only turned into novella after the movie was completed. I have not seen the movie (or either of the movies of the End of the Affair). This feels like a screen play and I think may have been a better screen play than novel. The jumping narration was not enhanced in audiobook (although the narrator was fine, it was difficult to figure out who was narrating the story for much of the early parts of the book.) The narration alternates between the novelist and an British military detective working in Vienna.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

The Color of LawSummary: One of the enduring realities of racism in the United States is the persistence of housing segregation. Many believe that housing segregation today is largely a result of personal preference. But the historic role of government in creating and maintaining segregation has been largely ignored.

In the United States homeownership is one of the most significant methods of wealth creation and generational wealth transfer. Because of that, differences in rates of home ownership plays a significant role in the difference in personal wealth between racial groups and the transfer of that wealth from one generation to the next.

Discussion of race in the US often will eventually come to a question similar to, ‘slavery ended over 150 years ago and the Civil Rights era was 50 years ago, how can the aggregate differences between economic and social realities continue to be persistent.’ The Color of Law attempts to tell part of the story about how persistence of economic and social realities is at least partially dependent upon historic (and sometimes recent) role of government.

Color of Law is not an anti or pro-government book, but an attempt at an honest accounting of the role of government. Throughout the book there is a continual question of whether particular actions were the responsibility of individual actors that happened to have government positions or if the actions were part of an intentional or unintentional action of a branch or level of government as a whole.

Paul: A Biography by NT Wright

Paul: A biography by NT WrightSummary: Known primarily for his theological and biblical writing, NT Wright’s biographical work on Paul may be more helpful to understanding Wright’s perspective on Paul than anything else I have read.

I have read a lot of NT Wright; none of the really big Paul books, but much of his books that are targeted outside of the academy. Because of how Wright thinks and writes, the same themes come up over and over again in slight variations. I find most of Wright’s books really helpful, but I was surprised how much I found this biography, in part because it was a biography and not straight theology, really helpful to understanding Wright’s project with Paul.

Our ability to know ancient figures is limited. But we probably know about as much about Paul as we do about almost any other ancient figure. First we have relatively large amount of his own writing. But we also have the book of Acts, which was written either toward the end of Paul’s life or soon after he died.

There is a clear limit to what we can and cannot know about who Paul was. Wright has to speculate about a number of things in ways that would not have to be done in a biography of a modern figure. But Wright is clear in the text when he is speculating and with what data he is speculating. And he is clear about what is fairly firm historical ground.

North or Be Eaten and Monster in the Hollows by Andrew Peterson

Summary: Books 2 and 3 develop characters and move the story along well.

I am quite late to the Wingfeather series. The books were published between 2008 and 2014 and while I have owned them from 2011 for the first three and 2014 for the last, I didn’t start reading them, until a couple weeks ago.

I am not surprised that I like them as much as I do, too many people that I know and respect have praised them enough that I knew they would be good. But I have been interested in how they develop the story.

The first was introductory and mostly action based. I was engaged fairly quickly. The second was really focused around character development, and much of that was showing weaknesses and motivations. Not everything thought or action is based in purely noble motives, even if we find out that the main characters are actually nobility. That nobility is not genetic, but developed. It is part of why the theme of humble origins of great kings and leaders is so common.

Personal growth and development often comes through struggle. The second books has lots of struggle. Some of it works out well. Some shows that not all struggle comes out well.

Monster in the Hollows by Andrew PetersonThe third book, Monster in the Hollows, is about development in a different way. I can’t talk about it without revealing that at the end of the second book the family is back together after being separated. They are living in a relatively normal community that has been impacted by the problems of the world around them, but is still relatively safe and without being ruled by the Fangs. The children are able to go to school, although are clearly outsiders. They are able to learn not only normal school subjects, but because of the culture of the community they are in, they learn to fight and develop that way as well.