Book Review: Red Letter Revolution

Red Letter Revolution:  What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?, by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo

There are times where reading the dialogue between friends creates an enjoyable reading experience, where the familiarity of the conversation partners creates an intimate mood.  Then there are occasions like reading this book, where a chummy atmosphere between readers is the last thing one wants where one disagrees strenuously with the point of view of the authors in question.  This is the sort of book where the problematic ideas on hand would have done better to be dealt with from a fair-minded but fierce interrogator rather than a fellow social gospel adherent [1].  Given the adversarial treatment the author gives towards being called fundamentalist or evangelical, and the adversarial feelings of many people (myself included) for such obviously left-wing poseurs in sheep’s or shepherd’s clothing, this is a book that should have used that adversarial feeling to its advantage.  Instead, what we get is two fake Christians having a chummy conversation with each other as if they are genuinely following Christ and everyone else is a fake or a hypocrite.  It is extremely off-putting.

The contents of this book consist of slightly more than 250 pages of dialogue between the two authors about various subjects.  Mercifully, most of the dialogues are short and there are at least a few worthwhile insights that can be found here.  The authors manage to hit at least one appropriate target when they point out the dangers and problems in viewing political figures as saviors and when they criticize American civic religion for viewing America, and not God and Jesus Christ, as the last best hope of mankind.  Not all of the authors’ targets are as well chosen, as the authors show a marked anti-Israel bias and fail badly in their attempts to wrestle with aspects of personal morality in light of our corrupt contemporary culture in that regard.  The book as a whole is divided into three parts:  Red Letter Theology, Red Letter Living, and Red Letter World, and within these parts there is a total of twenty-six dialogues where the authors pontificate on various subjects and show themselves to be, in the main, not as close to following the example of Jesus Christ as they would like to fancy themselves.

As a whole, this book suffers mightily from the attempt of the authors to be well-liked by the world.  Rather than bearing the shame and reproach that comes from being falsely accused as evildoers by the corrupt in the world, as we are commanded to do in the Bible, the authors want to be well-liked by those corrupt people and so engage in all kinds of compromise where they water down what the Bible says in order to appeal to others.  If the authors are revolutionaries at all, they are the sort of pro-Palestinian, antinonimian, pro-Occupy sort of leftist revolutionaries that are all too common in our contemporary world.  Their attempts to be hip with degenerate social activists and sharia-friendly Islamists leads them to be poor examples of defending the content of Christian thought, and the fact that the authors have a poor backing in the corpus of biblical law means that their attempts to appropriate Christ for their own political worldview go particularly strongly off course.  Ultimately, this book is not an entire waste of time but it is far from the triumph the authors intend.  This book can be read profitably, but for most potential readers it will be read in an adversarial fashion, as it deserves.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage

Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage:  A Christian Theology Of Roots And Renewal, by Marvin R. Wilson

This is the sort of book that could have gone very well or very badly, and so I read it with some concern and even mild trepidation.  Much to my relief and enjoyment I found this to be an excellent book about a difficult subject, handled with a great deal of aplomb.  In fact, this is an author who appears, at least based on my own reading of the book, to have similar views about such matters as the meaning of Holy Days [1], the importance of the Sabbath and biblical food laws [2], the contrast between tidy Greek thinking and multilayered Hebraic thinking [3], and the complicated relationship between biblical Christianity and Judaism [4].  All of these are subjects I think about and write about fairly often.  While at first I had some misgivings about the high praise the author gave to rabbinic writings and the oral Torah, the author appears to be using this research largely in order to gain a context of Jesus Christ and the early church within late Second Temple Judaism, rather than as a way to bring legalism into Christian circles.  Needless to say, I found this to be a relief.

In terms of its contents, this book is a demanding read.  I found it to be immensely enjoyable, one of the best books I have read in quite a while, but this is a book that would likely be a stiff challenge for most readers who are not familiar with Hebrew theological terms or the history of Christian polemical writing against Judaism and against the laws of God.  The first part of the book looks at theological sources and methods, examining some pitfalls and stepping-stones in theology, the theological quest for our Hebraic heritage, and the foundational sources for Hebraic thought.  The second part of the book looks at the people of God by looking at who joins whom in conversion, the importance of Abraham as the first “Jew,” and how we think theologically about Abraham.  The third part of the book looks at God and His ways, starting from a look at the God of Israel, the reputation of Yahweh in His world, and the image of God and the idols of humanity.  The fourth part of the book examines our obedience as part of a life of worship, the importance of repentance and prayer, and Israel’s struggle with God.  The fifth part of the book looks into the future in debunking supersessionist thinking and encouraging a lifelong study of scripture.  Each chapter ends with a lengthy series of questions, each of which would be good for an entire blog or series of blog posts, making this a book that offers a lot to think about and reflect on.

I happened to read a library copy of this book, and so I will have to turn it back in fairly soon.  I think highly enough of this book, though, to recommend it as a resource, and to add it to my list of books to look to acquire for a reasonable price to add as a reference material and source of blog posts in my own library.  Any book that is worth looking for space for given my rather severe limitations on book store space is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend.  To be sure, not everyone will be able to get a lot out of this book, and some people may find the author’s warm praise of Hebrew thinkers and Hebrew thought to be a bit off-putting, but for those who thoughtfully struggle with the issues of how those believers in Christ can seek to live in obedience to God’s laws and God’s ways and give proper respect and honor and consideration to what is written in the Hebrew scriptures, this book is a Godsend.  I cannot praise it enough.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

[4] See, for example:

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Pocatardis, Or, The Value Of Thought Experiments

As I had a more than usually busy Sabbath yesterday, I did not have the chance to have a great deal of interpersonal interactions with other people because I did a fair amount of rushing about hither and yon.  During one of my brief pauses between running around I had a humorous interaction with someone who had a recent birthday, and who made a comment about a movie she thought was called Pocatardis.  I gently suggested that the movie was likely Pocahontas, but she was having none of it.  Of course, the silliness gave me an idea, as I thought what a movie like Pocatardis would be like?  Would Captain John Smith be a time lord, with Pocahontas as his companion, and the two of them traveling throughout the universe in the TARDIS in the guise of colonial people in the Doctor Who universe [1]?  Although it was a very silly interaction, it was also a good way to come up with an interesting idea.  As someone who has way too many ideas for things to write, it is worthwhile for me to notice the sort of interactions that tend to inspire such writing and pondering on my point.

As it happens, that particular interaction happened shortly after we finished our sermonette workshop.  In our previous sermonette workshop, we had been given some homework in thinking about a verse to brainstorm a sermonette with.  I was one of the three people who submitted a verse, and I used it as a thought experiment.  In working on the verse myself and mulling it over, I found the scope to the somewhat large, requiring a series of messages.  In the course of the discussion, I found that the passages I had in mind were on the mind of a few other people as well who were drawing the same conclusions, but I also found that other people struggled to keep the scope of the message small as well.  In chatting with the person who ran the sermonette workshop afterward, he thought that a few people in particular could have used the approach of doing a thought experiment of just walking around a message before giving it, and making sure that the scope was reasonable for a sermonette, including a couple of people who were not there.  And despite the fact that it wasn’t as enjoyable an experience as it could have been, it was useful to see that I was not the only person who struggled to find focus when looking at some of the verses I am fond of.  Sometimes what one has in mind is simply too big to put in a small package, and that is certainly true with many of the subjects on my mind.

Truthfully, as a philosophically inclined person, thought experiments come somewhat easily to me, sometimes even a bit too easily [2].  What is the point of a thought experiment?  Sometimes one is trying to find out if a given thought is worth exploring in length, and doing a thought experiment is like taking a hike around the boundaries of the topic, trying to get a grasp on what sort of scope the particular idea deals with.  At times, doing a thought experiment can provoke certain research or actions in order to gain a better understanding of the material in question, or can convince us that the scope is just too massive for us to deal with at the time, as was the case with my sermonette idea.  By walking around the boundaries of a given thought and getting a grasp of it, we see how large of a tree we are trying to hug, and sometimes it ends up like Jonah walking around the boundaries of the Ninevah district, marking out the area that is within those boundaries.

There are other reasons why one can and should engage in thought experiments.  There are simply some thoughts that would be horrifying to actually practice, like my idea of using a logistical strategy to starve out leftists in the United States in the face of our contemporary political crisis.  In performing a thought experiment we examine how a given course of action could be taken and conceived of, even if we would shrink in terror from actually behaving in such a fashion ourselves.  There are a great many actions that are within the realm of the conceivable and possible for human beings to engage in that are far beyond the boundaries of what human beings should do.  Sometimes engaging in a thought experiment can have a moral function.  If we, for example, engage in a thought experiment to see how a given course of action, say in a romantic relationship, might work out, as I do on a fairly regular but also generally private basis, we encourage our own restraint by seeing where things could go if we let them.  Often we simply do not want to let things get out of hand, and in order to prevent that we must think things out ahead of time.  Sometimes to think means to avoid doing, and in such a case it is all the better that we should think about what we are about, so that we might go about it in a more godly fashion.  There are so many ways we can go wrong, so we should at least identify as many of the false trails to disaster as possible while we walk the straight and narrow.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: Beating Gout

Beating Gout:  A Sufferer’s Guide To Living Pain Free, by Victor Konshin

As someone who suffers from intermittent but severe gout attacks [1], it is perhaps unsurprising that I read a book I happened to find in the library while browsing there not too long ago.  It is frequently my habit to read books about my various struggles in physical and mental health, and although I have not had any acute attacks of gout recently, my general troubles with my feet and the concern to keeping my gout from getting worse led me to read this book somewhat preemptively.  It is likely that anyone else reading this book will do so for similar reasons, since this book offers little in the way of literary flair or narrative interest apart from seeking to provide guidance on how to manage gout and its related conditions.  The fact that the book is written by a gout sufferer gives a certain edge to the author’s rather sharp criticism of many in the medical community who are simply unequipped to deal well with this disease and makes his advice to readers to consult regularly with their doctors all the more poignant.

The contents of this short book are very straightforward.  After a brief introduction, the author talks about the four stages of gout:  asymptomatic hyperuricemia, acute attacks, intercritical periods, and advanced gout.  I’m in the third stage of gout myself.  The second chapter looks at how gout is treated–acute attacks, the underlying high amount of uric acid throughout the body, as well as prophylaxis.  The third chapter looks at how one can get the right diagnosis for gout, through synovial fluid diagnosis, tophi sampling, clinical diagnosis, blood or urine tests, or diagnostic imaging, and what other conditions are often confused for gout.  The fourth chapter takes a look at hyperuricemia and its related health conditions, including kidney failure, stroke, heart attacks, and so on.  I was not pleased at reading that my high levels of uric acid add to the immense risk factors I already have from family history to these conditions.  The fifth chapter gives the altar call for people who suffer gout to get their weight under control through limiting alcohol consumption (with the exception of red wines in moderation) and managing their health through diet and exercise.  The sixth chapter looks at alternative medicines, where the author gets to vent his spleen at a great many bogus cures that are offered as well as some which appear to work for one reason or another or that are at least worthy of investigation.  The book then closes with three appendices that look at the purine content of various foods, some additional information on anti-gout medications (namely NSAIDS, Colchicine, and other Uric acid lowering medications), as well as a note for doctors.

The author notes with some puzzlement how difficult gout is to get a handle on, and there is little note in this book on the positive side of gout.  This is a book, on the contrary, written at least in large part to scare those who suffer from gout to exercising more and getting their diet control, as well as to take various drug regimens to seek to treat the underlying conditions that lead to gout.  As the author notes, there is a great deal that is not known about the condition and a great deal of tension in how one treats it, especially since treating gout and hyperuricemia can paradoxically lead to more attacks in the short term as the body’s uric acid levels become temporarily unstable.  The author notes that many people are simply not able, for one reason or another, to secrete uric acid very well through kidneys, while others overproduce uric acid, and others both over-produce and under-secrete it, perhaps the worst of both worlds.  If you suffer from gout, this is a worthwhile book to read, but if not, there is little reason to check it out unless you want to encourage someone you know who happens to suffer from it.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Raw Food Diet For Beginners

Raw Food Diet For Beginners:  Simple, Easy To Follow Diet Plans And Tips That Promises [sic] A Slimmer And Leaner Body Naturally!, by Ross Contreras

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by BooksGoSocial.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

I must admit that I am not familiar with reading a great many books about the raw food diet, although it is something I have heard about, and I am certainly familiar with a great deal of faddish writing about health [1].  In looking up this particular title, I found at least half a dozen books written with nearly identical titles, which suggests that there is at least an apparent demand for books such as this one and many other titles which are aiming at the same market, namely those people who are overweight (no shortage of people there) and who are susceptible to claims about the evil of cooking food and the goods of eating an all or at least mostly natural diet of raw, uncooked foods that are supposed to aid the body in slimming and digestion and encourage the growth of internal bacterial cultures to siphon off calories and aid in slimming.

This book reads more like a pamphlet than a book.  There is, at least from what I can see, no sources that are cited for the book’s claims.  There is a disclaimer concerning the fact that the book does not profess to give medical advice in order to avoid lawsuits, but to a reader who is used to and appreciates the scholarly conventions of citing sources that would count as evidence for the author’s claims, this book’s lack of documentation is rather startling considering the claims it makes for the denaturation of proteins when they are cooked to a certain level as well as the rankings of food by their pesticide content and statements about certain foods containing poisons that prevent them to be eaten profitably raw.  This is the sort of information one would need to have to give this book a fair hearing and to properly examine its claims.  What one gets in this book is about 40 pages of dogmatic and unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of eating raw food and a great many recipes that include chard and mango and avocado, and only a few of which look to be worth trying, and a more than a few which are potentially fatal for this reader.

Despite my best efforts at giving this book(let) a fair effort, there are simply too many problems for me to recommend this book.  It appears pretty evident that the author wishes to encourage healthy eating on the part of his readers and that this book has a great deal to say about simplicity in eating as well as substituting a desire for unhealthy foods with healthier ones, but all of this goodwill does not deal with the essential problems of this book, at least for me.  The author makes claims that he simply does not even attempt to back up with evidence, and that is a pretty serious mark against it.  Additionally, the author makes a great deal of recommendations in terms of recipes that are an active threat to my health and survival, and I have a hard time appreciating a book that gives me too many recipes that I am allergic too.  This author apparently has a great love of mangoes, and that is a bridge too far for this reader.  A combination of a lack of evidence and the bad will of making terrible food recommendations means that this book is beyond the pale as far as books I can recommend that others read.  Perhaps others whose food limitations are less strict than my own and who have a greater love of avocados and hemp seeds will find more to appreciate here than I did, but this book was not what I was looking for.

[1] See, for example:

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So Awkward Together

This morning I saw a coworker of mine who had been working from home the past few days.  Not being exactly sure what was wrong, I had nonetheless figured something must be going on.  In conversation with my neighbor, I found that she had avoided coming to work because she had acquired a stalker who had stated he had been watching her for weeks as she walked along the path between our office and the nearby MAX station, where there is little cover nor any alternate choice in route.  She had been sufficiently freaked out by this to avoid coming in until she could obtain transportation of her own, and having done so last night, she was able to come into work this morning.  I wonder how common of a problem this is.  Making the story even more hilarious was the fact that during the day she kept on getting awkward communications, one from the salesperson she had dealt with last night, and the other from a bank that belatedly sent her communication that her request for financing after she had already purchased the vehicle with said financing.

We shared this humorous conversation about awkwardness, and I could definitely relate as I am a pretty socially awkward person myself.  Being fairly close to ambivert status myself, I find it hard to tell if I am an unusually social extrovert or an unusually antisocial extrovert, but either way I can definitely relate to awkward social interactions [1].  Unsurprisingly as well, I had some of my own awkward interactions during the course of the day as well.  For example, I received a lengthy message from my mum that, among other things, was looking for refrigerator space that I don’t happen to have, and which will require some additional awkward conversation, and that is not even getting to the even more awkward requests for some private and deep conversations that I am personally not inclined to have since my mother is particularly clueless and ignorant about the depths of my emotional life.  Not too long after that I got a message about someone who had been in charge of a Church of God organization who had died who I had already heard that he was dead some days ago, prematurely apparently, and I replied in a rather blasè manner.  Sometimes a lack of response is as awkward as a response.

Being a person who likes to think beyond the surface level of interactions, I pondered what makes people particularly awkward.  Why are some people more awkward than others?  Why am I more awkward than most people, for example?  A large part of the issue concerns the rhythm of conversation and interaction.  There are some people for whom communication is not a matter of habit but a matter of conscious thought.  Some of us puzzle and muse over what we are going to say to someone for days, weeks, months, or even years, and stew over issues and try to find the perfect way to say them and the perfect time.  Such perfect ways and times often do not exist at all, and sometimes we may find ourselves unable to have certain conversations because the circumstances of having them do not exist at all.  Such communication as exists on a habitual level is comfortable and easy, but where communication is conscious and a bit more labored, it happens to be more awkward.  Since some of us are always thinking and pondering and musing, awkwardness comes as naturally to us as breathing.

This awkwardness is not always a bad thing.  My default response to dealing with socially awkward people, being a spectacularly awkward person myself, is to be compassionate and understanding to them.  Eventually, if someone is a good enough listener and is genuinely interested in what you have to say, is going to be able to establish a rhythm, especially when you are interested in what they have to say.  There are other times, such as when one is engaged in flirtatious banter, where there is a good kind of awkwardness as well.  As long as neither of the people involved in such an interaction mind it, I generally am not troubled, but I certainly have no interest in making anyone feel uncomfortable, although if they felt a certain sense of butterflies in interacting with me, I would not mind in the least.  One must let there be at least some positive side of awkward social interactions, including the awkwardness of feeling a certain degree of chemistry with someone, and wondering what you are supposed to do about it, if anything.

[1] See, for example:

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Audiobook Review: The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets:  The Warrior Kings And Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones, read by Clive Chafer

It should come as little surprise that as a confirmed Anglophile that I would enjoy reading and writing a fair bit about the Plantagenet rulers of England and associated imperial territories and the great men and women they interacted with [1].  This audiobook was a sprawling one at 17 discs, one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to, but the story was a worthwhile one in that it covered the history of the family from their beginnings in Angou to the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry IV of Lancaster.  The story is surprisingly melancholy, and is divided into several sections based on the wildly fluctuating fortunes of the realm under the rule of Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II and their various rivals and relatives.  Beginning in the anarchy of the mid 12th century and ending with a look towards the Wars of the Roses and the destruction of nearly all with even a drop of Plantagenet blood by the Tudors in order to bolster their own shaky claim to the English throne, there is a lot of sorrow and suffering to be found here.  I was a bit surprised that I would feel compassion for this particular family and their struggle for mastery in England and abroad.

In terms of its contents, this book is a solid example of biographical history at its finest.  It is not particularly surprising that the book would do such a good job at discussing the kings, but what was surprising is that the author spent such time talking about the more obscure members of the family as well as their favorites and retainers and great barons and their rivals among the French in particular, but also among the Scots and Welsh, among others.  There are many threads that run through this volume and appear over and over again.  Among them are the problems of royal favorites and the resentment they caused among the British nobility, the longstanding struggles of rulers to protect the larger Plantagenet empire in the face of plague and unrest over taxation, the need for rulers to build a consensus within the political community, the concept of fortune’s wheel, the importance of coronation oaths and the divide between seeing kingship in its sacramental aspects and its martial aspects, to name but a few elements that are repeated over and over again.  This book must have taken a long time to write and edit and research because its scope is immense and the author shows a mastery of a wide variety of source material and is able to explain it in a compelling fashion.

This is not a book to be taken lightly.  The book looks at the Plantagenet dynasty from a variety of perspectives and with considerable nuance.  Throughout the book, the author approaches kingship from a highly practical perspective, showing how kings needed to care care of their succession, how even the most able of monarchs depended a great deal on luck, and how kings gained legitimacy through military victories, piety, the ability to deal with with the political classes, and a shown concern for the well-being of the common people.  These lessons are certainly valuable for contemporary leaders, and the author’s attention to detail makes this book a pleasure to read or listen to by those readers who are fond of English medieval history.  Of particular and striking interest is the way that the author draws the empathy and compassion of the reader for the many suffering people of this account, even while pointing out that in many cases these people lacked empathy for others.  Over and over again English kings are shown as being high-handed towards rulers in the Celtic fringes of Britain even as they strive to defend their own dignity in the eyes of French monarchs.  A little bit of empathy would have gone a long way in encouraging them to be more understanding of their neighbors.  It still would for us today.

[1] See, for example:

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Audiobook Review: The Anglo Files

The Anglo Files:  A Field Guide To The British, by Sarah Lyall, read by Cassandra Campbell

If you are looking for a humorous guide to the British, it is hard to do better than this.  I cannot exactly praise this book without qualifications, for although the book was immensely eccentric, and also very entertaining, there were a lot of aspects about the book that I found to be somewhat irreverent in ways that I felt uncomfortable with.  The author’s view of sexuality was particularly troubling, if not particularly uncommon, and there was a general lack of respect for other people and a certain joy in making fun of others.  As much as I love wit, I found the approach of this author to be a bit too disrespectful for my own tastes.  As someone who likes studying British history and culture a great deal [1], I did find a lot of value in this book, and so I give it a guarded recommendation to fellow Anglophile readers.  A reader or listener of this book needs to be warned, though, that this book is going to have a lot to say that is not particularly kind towards various people, and the author sometimes goes out of her way to name names.

The organization of the book is somewhat haphazard and scattered.  Topics are introduced, but not in an order that seems logical.  Each of the chapters can be taken as a standalone set piece that has only a slight connection to other topics, often in the form of a recurring joke–like the subjects brought up before the House of Lords, or the awkwardness of the English in general.  In listening to the author’s discussion, I found a great deal to relate to personally.  The great ambivalence of the British, their enjoyment of standoffish animals like the hedgehog, and their tension between the stiff upper lip and a more contemporary confessional style are all matters I can relate to.  The author herself seems strangely unsympathetic, with her interest in interviewing louts, her lack of regard for history and her fondness for tabloid sleaze is a bit off-putting.  There is clearly a market for this sort of pro-Labor government, anti-tradition, lightweight approach, but one can only hope that the author’s writing didn’t lead her into any libel proceedings because of what she said about various people.

Ultimately, how you feel about this book will depend on various factors.  Are you more amused or irritated/offended by the author’s approach?  Do you really like finding out about the oddness and eccentricities of British culture, ranging from what it means to be British to questions of political reform, the slow and gradual growing of a customer service culture, and the conflict between a sense of distance from people and a fondness for protecting animals?  The more you have a fondness for odd and quirky things, and the less you mind people humblebragging about their own struggles to get along in an alien culture, the more you will enjoy this book.  For me, as a reader, I found much to enjoy when the author was behaving like an anthropologist and much to be irritated about when the author goes into partisan mode or considers herself to be above the British press and their attitudes.  Ironically enough, the author is at her most British when she is trying to prove her bona fides as an American capable of understanding the British and looking down a bit on the British.  When she is at her most arrogant, she is also at her most irritating, something that is pretty common, unfortunately.

[1] See, for example:

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You Know My Name

“You Know My Name” happens to be one of my favorite Bond themes of all time, and it is easy to understand why.  The music has a cinematic quality well captured in the music video, which shows singer Chris Cornell pursuing a fictional amorous relationship as though one would engage in espionage.  The lyrics and singing are suitably dark and intense, and the song has a gloomy and melancholy air about it, which is exactly how I like my music best.  The chorus menaces with betrayal and the threat of death, which is suitable both for the James Bond franchise as a whole as well as, specifically, the music of Chris Cornell.  The song was a minor hit on the Hot 100, making it Chris Cornell’s biggest hit as a solo musician, and ended up being nominated for a Grammy Award and winning a few other awards as a soundtrack piece.

When I woke up this morning and looked at the news, I read that Chris Cornell had been found dead at the age of 52.  Later reports throughout the day indicated tat the death was being investigated as a possible suicide and eventually that it was judged to be a suicide by hanging.  As is common in this particular case, when a talented and creative and troubled celebrity dies, there is an outpouring of grief and a sharing of how much the artist meant as an inspiration.  Although I was certainly fond of the music of Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog, all of which have songs I have sung along with while watching music videos or listening to the radio, I had never seen any of the acts live and the only music from Chris Cornell that was in my own personal music collection was his sophomore solo album “Carry On,” which is best known for Cornell’s excellent Bond theme and a particularly unimpressive cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” along with a collection of more or less uninspired album filler.

As someone who reflects quite frequently and perhaps morbidly on death [1], there are many aspects of death that puzzle me.  Just a few days ago, for example, a pastor died who was remembered fondly by many of my own friends and acquaintances, but who I did not know personally myself.  For others, he had officiated their weddings or been an inspiration in the congregation or in church summer camps, while for me, he had chosen his associates poorly in a particularly nasty period of institutional history.  When one looks at the life of Chris Cornell, one can see a great deal of creativity in creating music, a fondness for wide musical ranges befitting someone with a more than three octave range, a love of unusual time signatures, and an ability to work with others and to bury the hatchet with members of various bands.  One can also see in looking at his personal history a struggle with alcohol abuse and a long history of wrestling with depression and isolation going back to his youth.  He is a man who stared into the face of despair one too many times.  As someone well acquainted with the feeling myself, I find it difficult to judge someone who is not unlike myself in having a life full of personal drama, a therapeutic interest in writing and music, and someone who struggles with interminable dark nights of the soul.

What meaning are we to draw from such a life and death as this?  Chris Cornell is one more case study, if any more were needed, as to the fact that immense creativity as an artist is often combined with a significant level of struggle with regards to mental health.  Artistic genius and peace of mind do not always work together harmoniously.  Neither do people who may value peace and enjoy collaborating with others always find peace in their own relationships.  Stars live, and frequently far too early die, leaving behind them bodies of work that can be returned to over and over again.  Perhaps there will be a posthumous release of work from Cornell in order to strike while the iron is hot and while people remember his name and regret his passing, or perhaps there will be a brief resurgence in popularity of some of his more notable songs, like “Black Hole Sun,” from Soundgarden, or “Be Yourself” or “Like A Stone” from Audioslave, or even “Hunger Strike” from Temple Of The Dog, or even “You Know My Name” and “Can’t Change Me” from the singer’s own solo career.  Who knows?  At any rate, our celebrity culture has claimed another victim, one of far too many.  At some point, people may stop wanting to become famous when the price is seen as too high to pay for those who want long and happy lives.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Abraham Lincoln’s Extraordinary Era

Abraham Lincoln’s Extraordinary Era:  The Man And His Times, by K.M. Kostyal

To be sure, among the many thousands of books about Abraham Lincoln [1], this is one of the more inessential ones.  That is not to say that the book is bad, but rather that it covers very familiar ground.  The book is about 200 pages long, filled with pictures and sidebars, and seeks to give the context of Abraham Lincoln’s life and not only a biographical work.  As might be expected, the book is heavily biased towards the Civil War era itself.  Perhaps more surprising, the relatively few books this book contains are historical maps presented without legend or very much in explanation.  It is somewhat puzzling that a book published by National Geographic should have as its weakest element the geography of the Civil War or of Abraham Lincoln’s life, but there it is.  As someone who reads a great many books, I find often that the books I read and review are contrary to my own expectations.  Meeting my expectations does not appear to be high on the list of authors and publishers I deal with.

In terms of its contents, this book offers fairly straightforward contents in a conventional format.  The book is chronologically organized from Lincoln’s birth to his funeral, more or less, although there are times where the chronological thread of the book is broken slightly, especially with regards to Mary Todd Lincoln.  For example, the author engages in a bit of foreshadowing when talking about Mary’s spendthrift ways and the way she engaged in what a later generation would call “retail therapy,” or when a discussion of a serious injury in a carriage accident is related to the possibility of later mental illness as a result of serious head trauma, or when her irregular behavior after Abraham Lincoln’s death is discussed before the final journey of Lincoln’s body back to Springfield.  These breaks in the flow of continuity appear to be the result, though, of the author’s focus on the narrative flow, and the preference of making the last word about Abraham Lincoln rather than a strictly chronological one.  The fact that the author managed to snag noted Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for a short foreword means that the author was doing something right in crafting this work.  Name recognition counts for something, at least.

To be sure, there was a lot about this book I found to be missing.  For one, I expected a lot more maps from a book published by the National Geographic.  Among the maps that would have supported the text quite admirably would have been:  a map of the travels of Lincoln’s family during childhood, a map showing the “spot” of the beginning of the Mexican-American War, a map showing the travels of Lincoln during his 1858 Senate campaign as well as on the way to Washington DC after being elected president, and even a map of his travels while president.  All of these would have helped to have given some geographical context to the author’s discussions.  Likewise, I would have liked to have read much more about the war on the seas, or of the Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, but this book contained precious little of that.  We review, however, the books that exist and not the books we would have preferred, and in that light, this book is certainly competently written and the sort of book that can be enjoyed.  This book won’t change your life, but it is not a waste of time either.  It treads familiar ground but does so without being tiresome or off-putting, and there is something to be said for that.

[1] See, for example:

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