Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Book Review: A Landscape with Dragons


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: 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.

Book Review: Our Culture, What’s Left of It

The prospect of reviewing anything by a man of Theodore Dalrymple’s Brobdingnagian intellect is about as appealing to me as skinny-dipping in Lake Vostok. But I’m going to take a stab at it anyway – reviewing, not skinny-dipping – in the hopes that I can inspire one of you to buy this most gloriously electrifying book: Our Culture, What’s Left of It.

41Wq6gH5iVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Dalrymple, by the way, is the nom de plume of Englishman Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. His years of medical practice, in locales as varied as Zimbabwe and London’s East End, are the substratum of many (if not all) of his essays. This means, in the first place, that his writing is married to a wealth of gritty, hands-on experience. Consequently, and in the second place, he has little use for “good intentions unadulterated by any grasp of reality.”

Which brings me to my little caveat emptor: readers will find Dalrymple to be consistently and infuriatingly logical. Which, of course, sucks, if you happen to be of the liberal progressive mindset.

In these twenty six essays – touching on everything from Macbeth to Marilynn Manson to sexual enlightenment and modern art – Dalrymple’s target is the increasing debasement of Western culture, and more specifically, the ideas that precipitate this debasement. It is, by turns, a poignant and blistering read. Dalrymple is hardly what you might call a happy camper, which will lead some to dismiss him as a misanthropic curmudgeon. He isn’t. Love and honest-to-God concern for mankind is what drives him to write as he does. He merely takes a dim view of the moral and aesthetic garbage chute we seem to be sliding down.

A taste of Dalrymple at his Dalrympliest:

The problem of upholding virtue and denouncing vice without appearing priggish, killjoy, bigoted, and narrow-minded has become so acute that intellectuals are now inclined either to deny that there is a distinction between the two or to invert their value. There is no higher word of praise in the art critic’s vocabulary, for example, than ‘transgressive,’ as if transgression were in itself good, regardless of what is being transgressed. Likewise, to break a taboo is to be a hero, irrespective of the content of the taboo. Who is more contemned than he who clings stubbornly to old moral insights?

I had to laugh at one description of the book as “incisive yet undogmatic” – an intended compliment, but one I doubt Dalrymple would appreciate. Dogma (contrary to all the wisdom of our postmodern seers) is no four-letter word, and to be dogmatic about something (the truth, for example) is not necessarily a sin. No teacher worth his salt is undogmatic. Dalrymple knows this. Pussy-footing around isn’t the name of his game. Assertion, with authority and conviction, is.

Every piece in this book is worth your time and consideration, but you’ll want to pay special attention to –

  • “The Frivolity of Evil”
  • “The Goddess of Domestic Tribulations”
  • “Why Shakespeare Is For All Time”
  • “What’s Wrong With Twinkling Buttocks?” (worth the price of the book all by itself)
  • “How – And How Not – To Love Mankind”
  • “Trash, Violence, and Versace – But Is It Art?”
  • “Don’t Legalize Drugs”
  • “All Sex, All the Time”

For what it may be worth, I loved this book so much that my kids will have to read it before I let them leave the house.

And no, I don’t have any kids at the moment. It’s called planning ahead.

Book Review: Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray-Bradbury-Zen-in-the-Art-of-Writing“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, you are only half a writer.”

Were I inclined to get a tattoo, I would probably have the above sentence etched into my forehead, that way every glance in the mirror might double as a piquant reminder: don’t forget to love what you do.

For the first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be picking out peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health.

And there, in one paragraph, is The Reason Why you should read this book, Zen in the Art of Writing. It is a collection of eleven superlative essays, written by a writer who revels in his craft. Bradbury. Ray Bradbury. He of mechanical hounds and dark carnivals and wine made from dandelions. When I say he revels in what he does, you’d better believe it. Just picture, if you will, a man who throws himself into writing like a child into a freshly-raked pile of leaves. That’s Bradbury.

From “Drunk, and In Charge of a Bicycle”:

… you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.

But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.

That is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next. But you’re on your way before dawn. And the trip? Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration.

From “The Secret Mind”:

Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.

From “Zen in the Art of Writing”:

The artist learns what to leave out.

His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go.

The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.

Writing is hard, yes. Mr. Bradbury would be the first to tell you so. But it need not be – indeed, should not be – a bland or joyless exercise. It should not merely be a matter of dropping in one word after the other without screwing up the grammar. If that’s how it feels, it’s time to step back and take a look at what you’re missing.

Stoop down. Look low. See that?

Buried beneath the pyramid of elements and style, beneath the smelly carcass of “writer’s block” and the panicky butterflies that circle it – beneath all of that you may find the body of a child. Set him loose. He knows where the leaf pile is.