From My Bookshelf
George F. Kennan: An American Life
by John Lewis Gaddis
For those of us who are interested in global affairs, John Lewis Gaddis has written a marvelous biography of the diplomat George F. Kennan. A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Kennan, an expert on that country, died in 2005 at the age of 101, having served his country in various diplomatic posts, including Moscow and Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia.
We have almost forgotten how terrifying were the 1960′s and other years in the long Cold War with the Soviet Union. The world came perilously close to nuclear catastrophe several times, as the two superpowers jockeyed for power. Yet the catastrophe was avoided. Diplomats like Kennan are part of the reason. Kennan was not always right, but he often was. His wisdom about not being drawn into war when American interests are not directly affected rings true today, in our struggle with terrorists. He recognized the limits of our resources and that we should husband them with care.
Kennan reckoned that our best defense was to be a nation that lived the truths we have preached in our better moments: freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the avoidance of seeking more power than necessary. He worried that the public often undermined its best interests by yielding to rampant consumerism. He feared we pandered to excessive emotionalism and neglected to spend the time to understand complex issues.
We cannot, he believed, right all wrongs, but rather “distinguish lesser from greater evils.” We should strive to be true to our ideals and in that way be an example that others might aspire to.
The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World
by Derek Chollet, Samantha Power
Richard Holbrooke was a public servant almost continuously since he joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1962. He died “in harness,” suffering the fatal collapse that led to his death, in the State Department. This book is a wonderful collection of essays by people who knew him, many who worked with him, and one by his wife, Kati Marton.
They present a picture of a brash, unorthodox fighter, ambitious and egotistical to be sure, but one wedded to fighting for the America he believed in.
The essays follow him from his early days as a young Foreign Service officer in the quagmire of Vietnam to his last days as U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In between, he served in various jobs, including Managing Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, twice as an assistant secretary at the State Department, and most famously as chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the 1990′s war in Bosnia.
The quote that I remember best is one from an article he wrote for The New Republic on May 3, 1975, “Pushing Sand” and reprinted here about Vietnam: “But then finally it all seemed to come down to one simple, horrible truth: we didn’t belong there, we had no business doing what we were doing, even the good parts of it.”
Lion of Babylon by Davis Bunn
This novel will satisfy those who like a suspenseful read with attention to the present-day Iraqi setting in which it occurs. Mark Royce, a former intelligence service operative, was fired because he took a leave of absence to care for his dying wife. Now he’s called back to travel to Baghdad and find a friend, a former colleague, who’s disappeared from there. The friend is rumored to have eloped with a Christian woman who’s also missing, but Mark knows his friend would never leave a duty station in this fashion. He’s either dead or been kidnaped. Mark’s not sure which is worse.
So Mark, out of loyalty to his friend and perhaps to escape the boring civilian job where he’s worked since he lost his operative credentials, takes the assignment. In Baghdad, he meets a diverse cast of characters. Sameh el-Jacobi, a member of the ancient Syrian Christian Church of Iraq, is a lawyer seeking to find lost children who’ve recently been kidnaped. Why? Who’s doing it? Perhaps an Iraqi group who seeks closer ties with Iran? Do they hope to frighten those Iraqis with a more moderate stance by kidnaping their children? Other characters include Sameh’s niece and the niece’s daughter. The niece and daughter have lived with Sameh and his wife since the niece’s husband was murdered by Saddam.
Mark becomes friends with a diverse bunch of former Iraqi soldiers seeking to serve a more united Iraq, one not riven by Iranian-inspired factions. Other allies include American operatives and an unlikely bunch of Iranian “pilgrims” escaping into Iraq.
My liking for the story comes from the amount of detail Bunn devotes to the Baghdad setting. I can feel the heat and grit, hear the old cars barely kept going, and see the diverse peoples that make up the country. Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, and Kurds interact, as an ancient people struggle against corruption and old hatreds toward what they hope will be a better country, although the outcome is never certain. A hopeful thread dangles through the narrative, sewn by the Person acknowledged in one form or another by all of them.
Shadow of the Almighty, by Elisabeth Elliot
Over the course of years, I have read books by Elisabeth Elliot, wife of slain missionary Jim Elliot. One day I decided to read Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth’s publication of her husband’s diary. The subtitle is The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot.
A line from the diary, often quoted, bears out Jim’s life: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Yet his humanness is evident, too, which makes all the more compelling the realization of how God uses ordinary people, even flawed ones.
Though I have never felt God’s call to be a missionary in the traditional sense, I am increasingly convinced of God’s call to each Christian toward particular tasks he has for them. Jim Elliot gave his life in 1956. At that time, Christians and Christian ideals still commanded respect from most Americans, yet the average perception was a more cultural or civic understanding of religion than personal. Today those of us who remain in the faith would do well to discover Elliot’s kind of personal dedication. Christian influence in this country recedes from the culture but paradoxically can lead to a growth in commitment by American Christians.
The novel, Book Thief (find below), just sold two million copies, according to Publishers Weekly (December 15, 2011). The story, narrated by Death, tells of a young girl’s growing up in World War II Germany.
Escape Stories, Including Brother Cadfael and a Few Georgette Heyer Heroes and Heroines
I’m a character junkie, not a plot junkie, so when a desire for pure escape seizes me, I settle down with stories like the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. Cadfael, a medieval monk, chose the cloister after years as a Crusader, with a few incidents in his past that show up, over time, in the stories. The monk’s insightful and practical religion leads him to solve the mysteries that come his way as well as lead the innocent to reach goals, escape false accusations, or simply learn the lessons of life.
Once in a while, I read a Georgette Heyer regency romance. From the first few pages, we know exactly who are the hero and heroine. We know they will experience trials but their love will win out. It’s the delicious way Heyer has of making us delight in the characters. We know the conflict that puts them at odds will eventually draw them together. We read with confidence, knowing Heyer will not let us down and leave us with a bitter taste. Just innocent escape.
Yes, once in a while a bit of chocolate gives needed pizzaz to our lives.
Soul Survivor, How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church; by Philip Yancey
On page five of this book, Yancey states “Sometimes I feel like the most liberal person among conservatives, and sometimes the most conservative among liberals.” These words hooked me. I have experienced this divided view most of my adult life but don’t remember meeting anyone who expressed my feelings so perfectly.
Raised in a racist, legalistic church, Yancey speaks movingly of his journey from the mindset of this upbringing to a stronger Christian faith.
The thirteen mentors who brought him insights include Christians like G.K. Chesterton, John Donne, and C. Everett Koop. Others, like Mahatma Gandhi, may surprise some Christians. Yet ideas from each increased Yancey’s Christian growth and faith.
When Sparrows Fall, by Meg Moseley
Characters more than plot cause me to remember a novel after I’ve read it. The characters in this book by Meg Moseley touched me. Miranda Hanford; her brother-in-law, Jack Hanford; and Miranda’s six children, are people I’d like to meet in real life. They’re people I care for. I want to know what happens to them.
The plot is intriguing enough. Miranda’s husband died a couple of years before the book opens. She’s left with six children. Her church’s pastor suddenly wants to uproot his congregation from the Georgia mountains to North Carolina. The church teaches that all decisions must be made by the men. Miranda doesn’t want to leave her roots and the land she owns, but the pastor appears to have a hold over her, and the reader senses she’s playing some kind of game with him to put him off.
When she’s injured by a fall from a cliff, she calls on her husband’s brother, Jack, for help. Jack, a college professor, comes, reluctantly at first, but soon develops a tenderness for Miranda’s children and concern that Miranda will make a terrible mistake if she follows her pastor’s dictates. Seemingly, Miranda and Jack are different people with different backgrounds and ways of expressing their Christian faith. Miranda resents Jack’s views and his tendency to run her life. Jack is put off by Miranda’s ideas on everything from food to the place of modern medicine.
It’s the interplay between the two that gives the book its spice. The relationship between the adults and the children complements the growing appreciation of the two adults for each other.
Jack is a no-nonsense guy but he has his own vulnerabilities and hurts from his childhood and broken marriage. We appreciate the decisions both have made as the story progresses.
The Clash of Civilizations, by Samuel P. Huntington
An article published in Foreign Affairs in 1993, “The Clash of Civilizations” caused more discussion than the magazine had seen in many years for one of its articles. The author, Samuel P. Huntington, a professor at Harvard University, eventually expanded his ideas into a book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called it “one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War.” Huntington stated on its opening pages: “The rivalry of the superpowers has been replaced by the clash of civilizations.” And, he believed, we live in, not just a multipolar world, but a multi civilization one as well. He discusses the various civilizations. Major ones include western, Hindu, Islamic and Chinese.
All of his ideas cannot be distilled into a few words. One stands out: A world that is supposedly on its way to becoming more secular and liberal has, instead, seen a resurgence of religion. As masses of people found themselves confronted with unprecedented change, they became more religious precisely because the modernizing process induced a need for meaning and purpose. Modernization could not provide this; religion did.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is written from the omniscient point of view, meaning that the narrator always knows what is in each character’s head, a rarely used narration today. The omniscient character is Death.
Death, however, is presented as a sympathetic observer. He doesn’t grieve for those who die—they pass on. His sympathy is for those left behind. He hates their suffering and tries to avoid looking at them, but in this story, he is drawn to Liesel Meminger, a German child during the Second World War. Liesel’s young brother dies at the opening of the book, and she ends up in the house of foster parents, whom we grow to love, despite the gruffness of the mother at first.
We grow to love others, too: First, Liesel’s good friend, Rudy Steiner. Second, a Jew whom she and her foster parents hide. Liesel also becomes friends with the mayor’s wife, from whom Liesel at first steals books, then begins to know the woman and her sorrow. The woman allows her access to the wonderful library, where Liesel can hide from the killings and atrocities all around her.
We see the tragic events of the war through the inhabitants of Liesel’s town. We witness small acts of courage and caring. The courage and caring endure beyond the tragedies.
A subtle book that moves the reader with its understated style.
Two books by Dorothy L. Sayers, of Lord Peter Wimsey fame:
The Mind of the Maker
An examination of God the Creator reflected in the artistic imagination
I especially enjoyed the chapter, “Problem Picture,” in which Sayers discusses the types of problems that fiction presents us: those that can be solved, those that can be partially solved, and those that cannot be solved. She illustrates with her Peter Wimsey novel Gaudy Night. The detective type problem is solved when the perpetrator of the book’s crime is found. A relationship problem is partially solved when the main protagonists enter into a new relationship. Since this new relationship involves fresh situations, the solution is not final. The third problem is not solved. It is a problem of values colliding: “Is professional integrity so important that its preservation must override every consideration of the emotional and material consequences?” Sayers suggests that a new value might be forged by the tension between the two values.
The Whimsical Christian
This book is a collection of Sayers’ essays. They range from “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” (the plot pivots on the problem: What think ye of Christ?) to “Dante and Charles Williams” to “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil.” I especially like “The Other Six Deadly Sins” with her discussion of acedia or despair. This sin “believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive only because there is nothing it would die for.” More than any other, perhaps, this is the sin of our current age.