Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: A Landscape with Dragons

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A Landscape with Dragons is about battlegrounds and books and battlegrounds that are books. In it Michael O’Brien offers a critique of contemporary children’s literature, with a goal of pushing parents to think seriously about the impact such reading can have on their children – for good or ill.

O’Brien is a smart and impeccably readable writer, and that makes it difficult not to respect his line of thought even when one disagrees with it. He’s also the author of Island of the World, one of the most marvelous storytelling triumphs I’ve ever seen. So while I’m busy reviewing Dragons, allow me to pause and strenuously recommend that you find a copy of Island somewhere. Experiencing that story will lend greater credibility to what the author has to say about stories here.

That said, I came away from Dragons with mixed feelings. Sometimes it was the pettiness of certain complaints; sometimes the line of argument just wasn’t very convincing. I’m not ready to concede, for example, that Jurassic Park is a manifesto for reptilian omniscience.

More troubling is O’Brien’s Roman Catholicism. He toots the popish horn rather loudly for my taste. (Being the iconographer that he is, I suppose such things are to be expected.) Case in point, there’s that awkward moment when he admonishes his readers about the perils of idolatry – and then urges them to invoke the intercession of the saints, the angels, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. For this Presbyterian, the irony was a bit much.

There is also his over-polite handling of the Universalism of George MacDonald. MacDonald was an exemplary writer and storyteller (see The Princess and the Goblin), but O’Brien’s appreciation for these qualities leads him to treat MacDonald’s stray theology with gloves that can only be described as alarmingly soft.

In sum? O’Brien urges us to be cautious in our reading habits, and to take our helpings of literary porridge with a grain of salt. We ought to do the same with him.

Having given that caveat, it must be said that I loved a great deal of what he has to say – above all, perhaps, his passionate reinforcement of a truth often acknowledged but infrequently acted upon: the minds of the young will not be left alone. Either we will see to them, or someone else will. This means war. This means tending the imagination, fortifying it to withstand the shock troops of paganism. As Douglas Wilson writes in Father Hunger,

If a Christian father does not teach his children that the dead are raised, someone else is going to teach them that the dead will do no such thing… Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, and when Christian fathers leave a vacuum, someone or something else will in fact fill it.

And so it goes with the literature our children feed on. Lay off the super-sized pop cliches and faddish nothings. Real culture, the kind that reaches down and seizes beauty, goodness, and truth by its roots – this is essential. This is the choicest meat; this, the choicest wine. Why are we be satisfied with less?

“The imagination must be fed good food,” notes O’Brien, “or it will become the haunt of monsters.”

Book Review: Brave New World

410JtTsdiULFunny thing about science fiction: it seldom stays fiction for long. This is similarly true of the dystopian genre. It is difficult to study writers like Orwell and Huxley without seeing ourselves reflected in the literary mirrors they hold up to us. Did I say difficult? I meant impossible. As Dalrymple writes in his essay “The Dystopian Imagination”, both 1984 and Brave New World “retain their power to alarm because they are prophetic, almost in a biblical sense: they issue permanent calls to resist trends that, irrespective of the political regime we happen to find ourselves under, will impoverish human life.”

Cold as Orwell’s vision undoubtedly is, for me, Huxley’s remains the more chilling of the two: perhaps because I believe there’s truth in the old adage that politics is downstream from culture. Neil Postman (that ever-piquant observer of pop culture) says it best in the forward to his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

The idea of pleasure being inflicted is a graphic one. It evokes something damaging, something potentially ruinous, and pleasure isn’t often considered in these terms. It’s worth remembering, in our efforts to avoid being undone by external oppression, how much easier it is to be undone from the inside out. The Entertainer can be far more tyrannous than the Tyrant. Feelies will castrate a society as effectively as any state-run torture chamber.

One facet of Huxley’s ultra-sexualized, trivia-oriented culture – one hitting painfully close to home – is the complete evaporation of the family as an institution. Great pains are taken to ensure that nobody loves anybody too much. The ties between siblings, parents, lovers: all are broken. Promiscuity is not only encouraged, but required. Mother is a smutty word, while father is not obscene but “merely gross, a scatological rather than a pornographic impropriety.”

Further, when it becomes known that one of the characters has had a son, he is greeted with outrage and scorn from his colleagues – not because the sex was extramarital, but because it resulted in a child. We already have a “mild” case of this insanity. Sleeping around is considered the norm; being devoted to one bed and raising a family is not.

On a final, if rather cynical note: it is unsettling to think that we have men and women in places of power and influence who seem determined to think of books like 1984Brave New World, and even The Hunger Games as blueprints rather than warnings.

Book Review: The Once and Future King

“If I were to be made a knight, I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it.”

the-once-and-future-king“Many of the greatest books are like a forest,” writes Anthony Esolen. “The best way to get to know them is to wander right into the middle and get lost.”

Getting lost is precisely what I had in mind when I picked up T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. My reading of late has consisted primarily of non-fiction – “damn good stuff,” as Lt. Archie Hicox would say, but hardly a Forest-for-Losing-Oneself-In. I needed a story, and I needed one because for me, stories are like WD-40 for the brain: they keep all the wheels and gears and clicky-things running smoothly. Without them, cognitive function becomes a bore. I mean, really. Why even bother?

As far as stories themselves go, are there any grander than that of King Arthur and his famed spheroidal dining furniture (more colloquially known as the Round Table)? The tale hath been told a thousand times in a thousand ways. In fact, it was Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that I was going to read; but since Mallory was absent from my bookshelf, and White was very cheerfully present, I had a change of plans.

White’s storytelling is something of a marvel to me, because I can think of no other book in recent memory that so beautifully melds humor and pathos. In Book One, young Arthur (affectionately dubbed “the Wart”) is given a thorough education by his tutor Merlyn – an education which consists, among of other things, of being turned into a fish, and helping Robin Wood (Hood is merely a misnomer) kill a Griffin. You know, the usual K-12 stuff.

It’s all delightfully fun reading. Gentle, too. But as Arthur matures, so does the story (just as Harry Potter grew with its readership). The plot thickens, exactly the way broth would if you poured a bit of cement into it. Unpleasant characters like Queen Morgause are introduced. Battles are fought. Blood is spilt. Feuds are nursed. Arthur’s ablest knight and closest friend, Sir Lancelot, carries on an affair with Guinevere. The downward spiral begins, as it generally does in such stories, with the final third of the book being especially tragic. What started as a frolic ends as a sobering meditation on the glory, savagery, and frailty of man himself.

Book Review: Spoilt Rotten

Spoilt_Rotten_Dalrymple_coverTo begin with, Heaven help the man, woman, or Yeti responsible for the – yes, I’ll say it – rotten cover design on display here. What kitsch.

Thankfully, that is the last negative thing I have to say about this book, because the rest of it is pure gold – gold with a British accent, which makes it even shinier. I encourage you to buy a copy for yourself, several for your friends, and a few dozen extra to pass out at the local college campus. Trust me: our colleges need it even more than you do.

As anyone with half a brain can tell, Dalrymple is not into pulling his punches. If you pick up Our Culture, What’s Left of It, it’s rather like scrambling into the ring with Joe Louis, only much better for your health. If you enjoyed that book, as I did, then you will absolutely love Spoilt Rotten. With his typical eloquence and Johnsonian wit, Dalrymple examines the way sentimentality has usurped the public sphere, with disastrous (though frequently unacknowledged) results.

When sentimentality becomes a mass public phenomenon, it becomes manipulative in an aggressive way: it demands of everyone that he join in. A man who refuses to do so, on the grounds that he does not believe that the purported object of sentiment is worthy of demonstrative display, puts himself outside the pale of the virtuous and becomes almost an enemy of the people. His fault is a political one, a refusal to recognize the truth of the old saw, vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God…

Sentimentality is the expression of emotion without judgment. Perhaps it is worse than that: it is the expression of emotion without an acknowledgment that judgment should enter into how we should react to what we see and hear.

Like I said, buy one or twenty copies. Consider it an investment. In high explosives. With stentorian returns. I bid you all, in the immortal words of that great philosopher Samuel Jackson, to “hold onto your butts.”

Book Review: I Love You, Ronnie

iloveyouronniePrior to reading this book, “romantic” is not one of the words I’d have chosen to describe Ronald Reagan. After reading this book, it most certainly is. Which is to say: after reading this book, I like the guy even more.

Shortly after they met in 1950, Ronald Reagan began writing letters to his wife, Nancy. I Love You, Ronnie is a collection of many of those letters (together with Nancy’s reflections on them), revealing a side of our 40th President most people never knew existed.

So how exactly does one review a book like this? I’m not sure. But I think the best way is probably to share one of the letters. That, of course, means I have to choose, and choosing is hard when I’d like to share all of them. But… how about this one, from March 4th, 1972?

My Darling Wife,

This note is to warn you of a diabolical plot entered into by some of our so-called friends – (ha) calendar makers and even our own children. These and others would have you believe we’ve been married 20 years.

20 minutes maybe – but never 20 years. In the first place it is a known fact that a human cannot sustain the high level of happiness I feel for more than a few minutes – and my happiness keeps on increasing.

I will confess to one puzzlement but I’m sure it is just some trick perpetrated by our friends – (Ha again!) I can’t remember ever being without you and I know I was born more than 20 min’s ago.

Oh well – that isn’t important. The important thing is I don’t want to be without you for the next 20 years, or 40, or however many there are. I’ve gotten very used to being happy and I love you very much indeed.

Your Husband of 20 something or other

Yeah. That’s Ronnie.

Maybe it’s because I appreciate the art of letter-writing, romantic or otherwise. Maybe it’s because I enjoyed seeing another side of Reagan. Certainly – I say this with a smile – it’s because I’ve recently fallen in love myself (she’s something amazing, I’ll have you know). However you slice it, I thought this book was smashing, and I really think you ought to read it sometime.

And by sometime, I mean now.