Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

Book Review: Book of Yes

Book Review:  Book of Yes by Tessie Jayme

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book of Yes

The subtitle of this book is “A Reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments for the New Millennium.”  While a close look at what the classic rule set means to us in the 21st Century would certainly be a worthy project, it turns out that’s not the “New Millennium” the author is talking about.  Instead, she means the spiritual New Millennium which has no fixed date, but represents humanity moving on from its current toxic ways into a better place.

What this results in is not so much a reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments, but using each of the commandments as a starting point for a riff on New Age philosophy.  Alien wisdom, astrology, psychics, chakra energy and other such subjects are all mixed together in a stew of optimism and positive thinking.  Those unfamiliar with every fringe movement out there might get confused when she uses the lingo without explanation as of course her main audience will get it.  (For example, when she talks about being a “double Virgo” who dated an “Aries.”)  She even uses the “10% of your brain” myth.

While the author has some good points about not letting toxic people drag you down with them, and finding the positive in any situation, they’re buried under multiple layers of dubious pseudo-philosophy and could be picked up from any number of more solid self-help books.  Which is not to say that there aren’t some entertaining stories here about the author’s experiences in the New Age community.

The author at one point talks about her publisher and editor, but the book is self-published, and the spellchecker typos lead me to wonder about the editor’s existence or competence.  The book was originally published in 1996, and this is an updated version from 2011.  The most obvious revision is that one passage clearly was originally about the year 2000 (end of the Twentieth Century), but was patched to 2012 (end of the Mayan calendar cycle); the author wisely gives herself an out by saying that visible results might not arrive until 2017.

Not recommended for serious Bible scholars, or people who are triggered by heresy.  Might be of some interest to New Age aficionados.

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Book Review: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton

At the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, there were no scientists as we understand the term, and no science.  Received wisdom from Aristotle and Galen ruled knowledge and philosophy.  Then a series of changes in technology and the way people investigated nature brought a new way of thinking.  By the end of the Seventeenth Century there were scientists, an intellectual community of people who had created a process we call “science.”

The Invention of Science

This book covers the history of those centuries, and how the Scientific Revolution began.  David Wootton is a professor of Intellectual History at the University of London and an Anniversary Professor at the University of York, and the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries are part of his focus.

There were, according to this book, several contributing factors to the Scientific Revolution.  The printing press allowed ideas to be widely spread and preserved for long times.  Perspective drawing allowed more accurate pictures to be published–you could build something from plans!  The telescope and microscope opened up new worlds to human vision.  Readily available compasses improved navigation.

Plus of course, the “discovery” of America showing there were entire landmasses unknown to the ancient philosophers, and a nova in 1572 that revealed the heavens were not fixed and unchangeable as Aristotle had decreed.  The old answers no longer satisfied, and people began methodically testing to see what actually happened when, for example, you floated ice in water.

It wasn’t an overnight change; several of the pieces took a while before their true significance or usefulness was understood.  At first, much of it was simply mathematicians applying their skills to astronomy or ballistics.  But over time, the changes accelerated, so that by the time of Isaac Newton, what he did with refraction of light was clearly the scientific method.

This is a college level text, with copious footnotes and end notes, bibliography and index.  Professor Wootton spends a great deal of time tracking down earliest uses of various words used for science in a science-related context, like “fact” and “hypothesis.”  This can get tedious, but he’s trying to show how the new way of thinking had to adapt and invent vocabulary for ideas that simply didn’t exist in that form before.  Thankfully, there are also illustrations throughout, and a center section of color plates.

The author also has a section devoted to calling out historians he disagrees with, primarily relativists.  Apparently, there is a school of thought that science is effectively a group delusion, with more socially prominent or connected scientists imposing their views on their colleagues.  Creationism is just as good science as evolution, it would seem.  The author claims that there are such things as theories that don’t stand up to facts.  I am not educated enough to evaluate his conclusions or his description of other historical philosophies; he may have misrepresented them.

Recommended primarily for history students and science buffs.  The casual reader would probably be better off with biographies of the various individual people involved, many of whom led interesting lives that are barely touched on in this volume.  (Women and non-Europeans who helped advance the cause of science are barely mentioned, mostly to say they existed.)

 

 

Comic Book Review: Child of the Sun

Comic Book Review: Child of the Sun written by Michael Van Cleve, art by Mervyn McCoy

Disclaimer:  I was provided with free downloads of this comic book for the purposes of review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Child of the Sun

It is 1300 B.C.E., and the people of Israel have fallen into wickedness.  Thus they are unprepared when the People of the Sea invade and conquer their land.  But all is not lost, it seems, for a divine messenger tells of a baby soon to be born.  A baby that will be named Samson.

This is an independently published comic book series loosely based on the Biblical story of Samson.  How loosely?  One of the supporting characters is Heracles of Zorah, who may or may not be the Heracles of Greek myth.   I have to hand the first two issues.

After a nearly silent prelude showing the advent of the People of the Sea and the annunciation of Samson’s impending birth, the comic skips ahead to introduce us to Heracles, who then meets the now-teenage Samson after a drunken celebration (as Samson does not drink alcohol, he is the clear-headed one here.)  Heracles takes Samson to Timnath, and introduces him  to Adriana, a priest of Astarte, goddess of love and sex.

The naive Samson falls in love with Adriana, but her life has made her cynical about such things, and her job is, after all, to give sexual pleasure.  While Samson’s Nazirite vows don’t prevent him from having sex, they do cause some friction between the couple, and he strongly objects to Adriana having sex with people who are not him.  She seems to be warming up to him when Samson punches out a man who wanted to rape her.

And cue a flashback to Samson’s childhood and him pulling the head off an oversized cobra.

The third issue concerns “Samson’s riddle”, one of those Bible stories where no one comes off well.  At the beginning of the feast celebrating his wedding to Adriana, Samson sets a riddle that cannot be answered without knowing an experience only he had.  The guests are not well pleased, and cheat in an ugly way, causing the marriage to collapse almost immediately.

This comic is “suggested for mature readers” due to violence, sex , lots of nudity and a rape scene.   I really can’t recommend it to more conservative Christian readers.

The art is pretty good–primarily in black and white, with color for important or emotionally relevant pages by Jonathan Hunt.   The depiction of women is heavy on the “sexy”; mostly excused in these issues by the majority of women in question being in the entertainment industry, but Samson’s mother is in a distractingly iffy pose during the annunciation.

It’s not quite clear where the plot is going, as the scenes flit back and forth in time.  This series is set for seven issues, so presumably the fourth issue will be clearer as to the direction the author intends.

It’s difficult to judge a mini-series by only the beginning–the creators may pull everything together nicely, or it could fall flat.   If it sounds like it may be your sort of thing, please consider buying the individual issues to support the creators and increase the chances they’ll be able to finish and release a collected edition.

Book Review: The Beauty of Grace

Book Review: The Beauty of Grace edited by Dawn Camp

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would read and review it.

The Beauty of Grace

God’s love is a wonderful thing.  It is not dependent on our earning it, it comes to us free of charge and all we have to do is accept it.  But sometimes it can be hard to feel that love, trapped in our own circumstances and beset with difficulties–or sometimes too much luxury distracts us from what’s important.

This book is a collection of short essays and personal stories about grace, and the writers’ relationships with God. They are divided by general themes:  purpose, trust, hope and encouragement, etc.  It’s firmly in the Christian inspirational genre, so will be most useful to those who already believe.  Most of the writers are women, with one token man, most are mothers and many are bloggers.

There is of course some sameness of topics, and you may have to look at the author’s name to see if it is a different person from a previous essay or not.  Thankfully, there is little glurge, and most of the essays are at least readable.

My personal favorite of the essays is “When God Says ‘Stop,’ He Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Quit'” by Rachel Anne Ridge.  It’s about a traffic sign that seems misplaced and useless where it is, but go on a bit further and the meaning becomes more obvious.  A parallel is drawn to roadblocks in our lives; they may not be meant to be permanent obstacles to our goals, but a way of telling us about hazards ahead.

“And So We Are Carried Along” by Amanda Williams is a powerful piece about her family’s time on food stamps.  “When Giving Up Is the Right Thing to Do” by Kristen Strong is about learning to accept when something is impossible and moving on.

Dawn Camp, the editor, also contributed several pieces, and the photographs throughout the book.  I think a bit more care could have been used to pick photos that look “right” in black and white; several of these lose something without color.

There’s an author bio section in the back if any of the essays intrigue you and you want to check out their blogs.

Overall, a decent book that will introduce you to many writers in the Christian inspirational field you may not have heard of before, and a nice gift for, say, Mother’s Day.

And speaking of grace, let’s have a video.  If you have never heard Sacred Harp singing before, give it a short while–the beauty will be there.

Book Review: My Soul Is a Witness

Book Review: My Soul Is a Witness by Marsha Hansen

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

My Soul Is a Witness

 

Marsha Hansen is a concert vocalist and inspirational speaker who sings and teaches about African-American sacred music.  This book is an extension of that, writing about spirituals and their messages.

Because of slavery, those kidnapped and sold from Africa and their descendants had a very different experience of Christianity than their purchasers and enslavers.  They identified strongly with Job and the Israelite slaves in Egypt.  (Indeed, some white people who preached to slaves deliberately skipped the Exodus story, or changed the ending to have the Israelites voluntarily going back into slavery.)

Since literacy among slaves was discouraged (and in some states illegal), music was one of the few ways they could express their religion, and the songs sung at camp meetings became the spirituals we know of today.

The book comes with a CD of Ms. Hansen, her friends and family performing many of the songs discussed.  Several were recorded at family gatherings, with the rest being done in a more formal studio setting.  Some of the home recordings are a bit rougher than is to my taste, with the drum drowning out bits of the lyrics.  Those of you who prefer an “authentic” sound may like those tracks better.

The writing is stirring, explaining the significance and emotional resonance of each song.   I found it moving.  This book would be best appreciated, I think, by those with a fondness for spirituals, but anyone with an interest in Christian music will probably enjoy it.  There’s also a discussion of slavery in the Bible and how verses were taken to justify cruel oppression.  We now interpret those passages differently, and so our understanding grows.

There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul

 

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church by A.C. Graziano

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I received is the first edition, which has a number of typos I am told were fixed in the second edition.

From the Cross to the Church

This book is a basic introduction to the subject of the creation of the canonical New Testament and the formation of the Roman Catholic church from the early community of Christian believers.  It covers what scholars now believe (although there are great differences in opinion among Biblical scholars as to details) as to when the books were written, by whom as far as can be determined, and where they might have been altered to match then-current concerns.

This is a fascinating subject for those interested in learning more about where the Scriptures came from.  It is likely to be less pleasing to one whose framework for interpreting the Bible requires it to be immutable, and by the writers tradition has assigned, directly inspired by God.

I found this volume poorly organized, with bullet points not always recapping the previous material, and inserted in non-intuitive places.  A chapter on documentary sources of Genesis is just sort of plopped down at the end.

The author does not claim any original research, describing himself instead as a “journalist.”  To that end, the list of sources at the end of the volume, ranked by importance and accessibility (but not by credibility, let the reader beware!) may be of more use to the interested scholar.

If you need a quick introduction to the concepts covered here, this book will do.  For better choices, consult your pastor or a Biblical scholar of your acquaintance

Book Review: Wounded Tiger

Book Review: Wounded Tiger by T. Martin Bennett

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wounded Tiger

Mitsuo Fuchida was the flight leader in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier who participated in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.  The Covell family were missionaries.  This book weaves together their stories.  The author bills this as “a nonfiction novel,” recreating conversations and thoughts as much as possible from the real life records and memories of those involved.

As a top pilot for the Japanese Navy, and later a leading officer, Fuchida participated in many important events of the Pacific Theater of World War Two.   But the reason this book is about him is that after the war, he learned of a Christian’s forgiveness and service even though she had every reason to seek vengeance instead.  Fuchida was shocked and intrigued by this news, and eventually converted to Christianity.

Jake DeShazer spent most of the war in Japanese prisoner of war camps after the raid on Tokyo.  He was severely mistreated and some of his fellow prisoners were killed.  But in the darkness of his cell, the Bible came to Jake and he fully embraced religion, Christ’s words of forgiveness and mercy.

The Covells were missionaries in Japan until the government made that unhealthy, then moved to the Philippines to teach, while their daughter Peggy went to college in America.  When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they eventually hunted down and killed the older Covells as supposed spies.  But Peggy did not let this crush her or her faith, and worked to help Japanese POWs, the news of which eventually reached Fuchida.

The author originally wrote this material as a screenplay, and this shows in the very short chapters, and scene-setting date and place “intertitles.”   There are scattered footnotes explaining some foreign words (or in some cases revealing the Japanese phrase translated in the text.)  They’re inconsistently used, and i spotted a couple of typos.

There’s no bibliography as such, but the acknowledgements do mention published works of people the author consulted.

As the majority of this story takes place during a war, there is some disturbing subject matter, particularly in Jake’s prison experiences and the chapters on Hiroshima.  As a result, I recommend parents review the book before giving it to junior high or younger teens to read.  The book also touches on racism between the Japanese and Americans, which was exacerbated by the run-up to the war.

Real life is messier than we like, and some sins are more difficult to make a good story out of than others.  Fuchida’s long-term marital infidelity is only mentioned in the chapter in which he ends it, which means that his mistress and their child are shuffled off the stage immediately after we learn they exist, with no explanation of how this happened or what became of them.  One suspects that if the movie ever gets made, this is one of the scenes that will be cut.

The writing is okay, but some of the dialogue looks a bit “cleaned up” from how soldiers and sailors normally talk.

I’d recommend this book to World War Two buffs interested in the Japanese side of the conflict, and those interested in reading the life stories of Christian converts.

Book Review: A Story of Easter and All of Us

Book Review: A Story of Easter and All of Us by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

A Story of Easter and All of US

It is unlikely that a reader of this blog will be completely unfamiliar with the plot of this book.  The Easter narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, his death and resurrection, has been told again and again in many forms.  Especially during the Lenten season and the week of Easter itself, it’s almost inescapable.

What makes this book unique is that all of the illustrations are taken from the recent television miniseries The Bible.  As such, it’s very attractive to look at, both the pictures and the design of the book.   I hadn’t paid too much attention to the names of the authors, or watched the series, so when I noticed that Mother Mary looked very familiar, it was a surprise.

The text is in simple language, and could be read by middle schoolers on up; however, since this is a story that involves torture and painful execution,  parents may want to read this book with their younger children, rather than have them read alone.

If you’re looking for strict scriptural accuracy, this is not the book for you.  Some events have been moved about in the timeline, and dialogue has been invented for scenes that are not found in the Gospels, but logically would have occurred.  It does stay true to the spirit of the Bible, and the hope of salvation.

This book would make a good gift for someone who enjoyed The Bible miniseries, or the edited Son of God movie.

May your Eastertide be blessed, whether you believe or no.

Book Review: Letter & Spirit, Volume 8: Promise and Fulfillment

Book Review: Letter & Spirit, Volume 8: Promise and Fulfillment edited by Scott W. Hahn

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would write a review of it.  I am a Christian, but not a Catholic, so this may affect my reactions to this volume.

Letter & Spirit, Volume 8

This is not actually a book, but a scholarly journal put out by the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.  While I do not agree with the Catholic church on some of their dogma, they do have an impressive history of Biblical scholarship.  This volume’s focus is on the connection between the Old Testament and New Testament, and how the latter fulfills the former.

I am sadly lacking a knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, which means that I am at a loss to fully appreciate some of the more esoteric papers, which focus on the precise meaning of individual words in the scriptural texts.  All of these are extensively cited and footnoted, however, so the scholar can follow up with the sources.

The paper I found of most value was “The Tradition of Christian Allegory Yesterday and Today” by Leroy A. Huizenga.  It’s a good introduction to the subject of using allegory to interpret Scripture, and just what is meant by the terms used in the field, including “allegory” itself.   I would recommend this paper to any interested layman.

Also of interest was “Historical Criticism as Secular Allegorism: The Case of Spinoza” by Jeffrey L. Morrow.  It argues that Spinoza’s approach to Biblical interpretation, which among other things seeks to know what was added to the manuscript when and by whom, reflects the political and religious struggles in his time.    Thus it has its own subjective lens, and is not as objective as some of its adherents would claim.

The primary audience for this journal would be Biblical scholars; aside from the one paper mentioned above, I really cannot recommend it to anyone else.  This is not to say that it is poorly written, merely that it’s esoteric.

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