Book Review: Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien by Anne E. Neimark (five stars)

Book Review: Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien, Creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by Anne E. Neimark (five stars)

Ronald would set out on a quest: this time to discover “what hobbits were like.” The answers he found would bring him a fame he had never sought.

Refreshing biography of Tolkien. Focuses on the essentials of his life—both experiential and literary, without reference to the theories or criticism of others. Don’t waste your time on turgid academic tomes; Neimark delivers the goods.

He knew other scholars might laugh at his “fairy-tale fantasies,” but he saw them as something more—as a reason for his invented languages and a means of modernizing myths so they could give strength, comfort, and even hope in a frequently harsh and dangerous world.

Suitable for young adult readers, but enjoyable by all readers. Readable yet comprehensive. Emphasizes the roots of Tolkien’s created world deep in his real world.

Yet Ronald Tolkien wanted us to know that even while the fires of Mordor burn darkly, even when tomorrow may seem unsure, we can use our imaginations, courage, and strength to seek the splendor in life.

Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King (four stars)

Book Review: The Good Neighbor; The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (four stars)

“You don’t set out to be rich and famous; you set out to be helpful.” Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers may have been one of the most significant Americans of the Twentieth century. A good biography is necessary to separate the fact from the fiction. This isn’t that biography.

“The real issue in life is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many blessings and hoard them. Some have few and give everything away.” FR

Non sequiturs and irrelevancies abound. Much redundancy. Compresses 200 pages into 300.

“There are many people in the world who want to make children into performing seals. And as long as children can perform well, those adults will applaud. But I would much rather help a child to be able to say who he or she is.” FR

Despite all that, this book is worth reading as it contains many details of Roger’s family, upbringing, and life which have gotten overshadowed by myth and rumor. Still, it should be better.

“The child is in me still and sometimes not so still.” FR

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Book Review: You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe (four stars)

Washington was rich enough to pay his own way … but devoted enough to the cause to risk it all.

Better essential biography than larger, duller, more famous tomes. Coe eschews details for the larger picture. Her broad brush portrait is adequate for all purposes but the most academic.

Great love stories don’t often begin with dysentery, but had George Washington not contracted the disease during his final year of British service, he would never have met Martha Dandridge Custis.

That said, skip the Preface and Introduction: Coe patting her own back and indulging in the same banal gossip of which she accuses other biographers.

After defending Washington, the Thigh Men usually turn their sight on Martha, blaming her for the couple’s childlessness.

Most biographers agree George was probably the reason he had no children. For which generations of Americans should probably be grateful.

He was most likely a deist.

Not true. Even Cox infuses her volume with many GW quotes which refer to a caring, intervening God. (“I shall rely therefore, confidently, on that Providence which has heretofore preserved, & been bountiful to me.”) Thomas Jefferson was a deist; George Washington was a quiet, conventional Christian of the mainstream denomination.

“Washington did not really outfight the British,” the British spymaster Major George Beckwith said, “He simply outspied us.”

Cox holds the magnifying glass to both Washington’s successes and his failures, among the later his not emancipating his many slaves while he lived.

The figurehead of American liberty was never far from a representation of its (and his own) deep-seated hypocrisy.

Love the cover art. Frequent use of tables summarizes and oversimplify key details. Side bars break up the text in a modern, casual style.

Unbridled partisanship was his greatest fear, and his greatest failure was that he became increasingly partisan.

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

Book Review: Ike the Soldier by Merle Miller (three stars)

‘He went to a lot of trouble to appear average, to seem ordinary, to appear guileless. And he fooled most people most of the time, including most of his biographers.’

Published posthumously in 1987, Miller squeezed 600 pages squeezed into 1200. Pages of trivia, gossip, and speculation. Lots of quotable epigrams and original source material. Enough intimate insights to give the reader a deep understanding of Ike. However, given Miller’s Plain Speaking controversy and all the questionable quotes from impossible-to-trace sources, how are readers to separate be fact and fiction?

‘Omar Bradley later said, “Ike liked people and it is awfully hard for them not to like him in return.”’

Starts smartly with Ike’s years at West Point, then backtracks to a detailed biography of his entire family almost back to the Flood. No bit of trivia or controversy is too minute to earn a place, including advertising taglines from businesses cited.

‘He did not do much to interfere with the freewheeling reign of Joseph R. McCarthy.’

Miller gets verifiable facts wrong. For example, David A NicholsIke and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign against Joseph McCarthy, reveals that Ike covertly torpedoed McCarthy while never mentioning his name. (Miller had his own very public issues with McCarthy.)

“I want every American unit not actually in the front line to see this [Nazi concentration camp, Ohrdruf]. We are told that the American soldier does not know what at he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” (D. D. Eisenhower)

Presumably, most of Miller’s material in meticulously researched and documented. His style was “warts and all” minutia, but even a one percent fabrication rate becomes tens of pages of error. How is the reader to known what to believe?

Eisenhower was “the wistful exponent of a simpler and lost America.”

Book Review: Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo (three stars)

Book Review: Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo (three stars)

A photographer spotted him and called out, “Look this way, Mr. President.” “I’m not ‘Mr. President’ anymore,” Truman answered with a smile. “I’m just plain Harry Truman.”

A story that reaches across seventy years from the last president of the old style. Less than a year after leaving the highest office in the land, Harry and Bess Truman got in their Chrysler and drove 2500 miles. Alone. No escort, no security detail, occasionally unrecognized.

“I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I’d go back to.” HT

Expect a hagiography and you won’t be disappointed. Algeo has an agenda, but so do most biographers. He’s not trying to make a saint of Truman, but 33rd president comes across as his own person.

“Ain’t no use wastin’ good farmland on any old dang library,” said his brother Vivian.

No trivia too small is be included. Inserted himself way too much. Readers can be forgiven thinking the book is about Algeo, and using Truman’s name to garner sales.

“The whole trip has been heart-warming. I am amazed at the friendliness, and it makes me think that I haven’t spent my life in vain.”  HT

Book Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn (Four Stars)

Book Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn (Four Stars)

Her most noble accomplishment was not weathering that excoriating loss. It was practicing—through both the high dramas and the low, dull days that constitute any human life—the daily self-death required for one’s soul to flourish.

An extraordinary exploration of the inner lives of Elisabeth (Howard) Elliot and her husband Jim. Jim is famous as one of five Christian missionaries killed by the Waodoni tribe in remote Ecuador in the 1956. Elisabeth, known to friends and family as Betty, had an even more amazing, albeit longer life.

“It was a long time before I came to the realization that it is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself.” EE

Drawing heavily on the journals and correspondence of both Elisabeth and Jim Elliot, Vaughn brings the reader into the intimate hopes, fears, and aspirations of both. Modern readers may struggle to connect to the America Betty and Jim grew up in mid-twentieth century.

“When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Chapters open with appropriate and thought-provoking aphorisms from the Elliots or people who inspired them. The book also chronicles the struggles, like today, among Christians over almost every aspect of the ministry.

“Many times I despaired ever really knowing them [the Waodoni], the secrets of their hearts. Then I realized that I did not know my own heart. In this we were one.” EE

A five-star story, but Vaughn intrudes. Her opinions or catty asides knock the reader out of the story. Comments like, “I’m not sure that’s true for the rest of us,” and “Thank God for a spinal anesthetic” (which EE didn’t have) distract.  Vaughn has done a great service by culling thousands of documents to create this biography, but it needs editing and tightening.

“I suppose the general opinion of missionary work says that it is intended to bring [people] to Christ. Only God knows if anything in my ‘missionary career’ has ever contributed anything at all to this end. But much in that ‘career’ has brought me to Christ.” EE

Book Review: Daniel Boone: Hunter, Trapper and Indian Fighter by Lilian Moore (Four Stars)

Book Review: Daniel Boone: Hunter, Trapper and Indian Fighter by Lilian Moore (Four Stars)

“Let the girls do the spelling,” [Daniel’s father] told Uncle John, “and Dan will do the shooting.” (Boone’s spelling was notoriously bad his entire life.)

Excellent young readers introduction to colonial America. Late elementary readers should cope with the text. Technical and historical quibbles too minor to concern the target audience.

The Boones were Quakers. They were fair and friendly in their dealings with the Indians. The Indians, in turn, had feelings of friendship for the Quakers.

Sanitized 1955 version details the ambiguity of the European immigrants’ relations with the Native Americans.

Here was a land where everything and everybody could “grow to full size.”

Excellent, age-appropriate illustrations by William Moyers.

“Too many people! Too crowded! Too crowded! I want more elbow room!”

Book Review: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi. (Five Stars)

Book Review: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. (Five Stars)

“I don’t know who you are anymore, but I know that You are all that matters.”

Unusually well-presented conversion testimonial. No glib made-for-television syrup; Nabeel shares his core-of-his-being struggle to determine who God is and how to relate. Unique in that Qureshi is an American Muslim. He believes in God, but he also believes in analytical thinking. That makes his story more understandable to Americans, though may diminishes its impact to other Muslims. That the Qureshi family, while devout, are members of a splinter Islamic sect may also reduce its broader effect.

“Then what hope is there for us, David?” “Only the grace of God.” “But why would He give me His grace?” “Because He loves you.” “Why would he love me, a sinner?” Because He’s your Father.”

Not light reading. Slow start as Nabeel introduces us to Islamic culture as well as himself and his family. While the tone is intimate and conversational, the text is heavily interspersed with Arabic quotations (well translated and explained), theology, history, differential religions (another of Qureshi’s friends is Buddhist), and inner turmoil. Qureshi didn’t want to convert. Unlike many stories of abused Muslims finding Jesus, Nabeel is a comfortable, happy Muslim. In fact, he enjoys proselytizing Christians.

“Effective evangelism requires relationships.”

Qureshi never doubts that God exists and knows him personally. He has encountered God in a prophetic dream prior to his crisis of faith. Qureshi also has a Christian friend who is well-versed on his faith, the Bible, and the points of contention between Islam and Christianity.

“How can God hold me eternally accountable for not grasping a finite fact, one which I have no access to in the first place?” “You know full well that if you ask Him to reveal the truth to you, He will.”

Nabeel also believes in the current efficacy of dreams and visions, unlike many modern Christians. He prays for a dream or vision expecting to get one. He has a firm enough belief in God that his crisis is know who God was, not whether he is. Many of the philosophic and religious arguments for and against religion in general and these religions in particular were inadequate to him; he knows God is.

“The natural Eastern tendency to hide shameful truths exacerbates the Western tendency to feel guilty.”

An excellent inside comparison of the Muslim honor and shame approach to life as opposed to the Christian innocence and guilt perspective. “It’s okay so long as you don’t get caught.” Knowing the difference is one key to understanding their differing worldview and behavior.

“On a particular day, when a Muslim, a Christian, and a Buddhist were sitting in a smoothie bar ….”

(I lived in Saudi Arabia twice in the 1980s, working closely enough with several members of the Royal Saudi Air Force that we often discussed our respective beliefs. I have also read upwards of a dozen books about Muslim beliefs and conversions as well as dozens on Christian apologetics. My one published book is a study of Romans.)

Book Review: Dutch Girl by Robert Matzen (Four Stars)

Book Review: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen (Four Stars)

“It always boils down to the same thing of receiving love but desperately wanting to give it.” Audrey Hepburn

Terrible opening to a worthwhile book. Opening scene focuses on Nazi sympathies of Ella van Heemstra, Audrey’s mother. Then follows a chapter on family genealogy. Readers may be excused for wondering who the book is about. Persistence is rewarded.

“After living the long months and years under the Germans, you dreamed what would happen if you ever got out. You swore you would never complain about anything again.” AH

Not a biography. Rather a detailed history of Audrey’s childhood and war years, which coincided with her early teens. Matzen weaves the many threads of the girl who became an international celebrity and ambassador for children.

“I was so destroyed by [reading Anne Frank‘s diary] again that I said I couldn’t deal with it. It’s a little bit as if this has happened to my sister. I couldn’t play my sister’s life It’s too close, in a way she was a soul sister….”

Forward flashes jolt the reader out of the moment of the story. As it is, many chapters open with a Hepburn quote from interviews thirty and forty years later. Overall, an excellent, if flawed work.

“The fact that she was speaking German to an all-German kitchen staff in a German war hospital would haunt her in the years to come.”

Not to mention two gushing articles Ella van Heemstra authored about Hitler. About her mother: officially labeled “politically unreliable” and “silly,” she was in fact a collaborator until the middle of the war. Don’t judge her too harshly, many contemporary British and Americans swooned over Hitler … and Stalin. She strove mightily to protect Audrey from the taint of her foolishness.

“I experienced a lot then, but it was not all misery. The circumstance brought family and friends closer together. You ate the last potatoes together.” AH

Book Review: John Jay: Founding Father by Walter Stahl (Four Stars)


Book Review: John Jay: Founding Father by Walter  Stahl

(Four Stars)

“A few years more will put us all in the dust; and it will then be of more importance to me to have governed myself than to have governed the state.” JJ

A necessary corrective for the neglect which this founder of the United States has suffered. Not without flaws, the greatest of which is the constant imposition of Stahl’s opinions disguised as Continue reading