book reviews


I just finished reading Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman, a lawyer-historian turned novelist. The book is set during the reign of King Henry III of England, son of the infamous John Lackland. The two most important protagonists are Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, a most unfairly unknown champion of liberty, and Llewellyn Prince of Wales, who is also fighting for his country’s liberty from English domination.

If you have the slightest interest in medieval history, it’s a fantastic book (although definitely not recommended for children). Plus, I love any book that’s more than 600 pages long. Penman has obviously researched the period in depth, and gives a detailed account of the real historical events – battles, councils, courts – as well as developing several well-rounded characters. She uses a little bit of medieval language – a few oaths, “mayhaps,” and so on – but for the most part safely avoids the temptation to add “-eth” to the end of every verb. (Howard Pyle is the only author I’ve ever known who can assume and maintain a medieval style throughout the book. Everyone else seems to think that adding “thee” and “eth” everywhere covers it, not realizing that that ending is just part of the conjugation, and should only be used in the third person.) She does fall a little more into the trap of using modern cliches – eg  “is that a choice you can live with?” – but it’s not unbearable.

The story is a captivating one, especially for Americans, whose system of government is rooted in the concessions that men like Simon de Montfort won from the kings of England. The book begins while Henry III is still a young man, and the memory of the Magna Carta is still fresh, a tremendous struggle won by the barons against his father John. As the years pass, Henry develops from an impulsive young man into a completely disastrous ruler, who is swayed by the latest advice, and who cannot be trusted to keep his promises or pay his debts. Simon, married to the leading female figure, the King’s sister Nell, suffers a great deal from this, as he digs himself deeper into debt to fight the King’s wars, never receiving any of the promised reimbursements, and having all his official decisions overturned by the King who empowered him to fight rebels in Gascony.

A parallel story-line is the struggle of Llewellyn, grandson of Llewellyn Fawr [the Great], the first Prince of Wales, as he fights family jealousy and English greed, trying to keep Wales an independent principality. Again and again he is defeated, forced to pay humiliating homage to Henry, and yield more and more land, but he never gives up hope, until the time that an alliance with Simon finally turns his fortunes.

Simon de Montfort was the leader in forcing Henry to agree to the Oxford Provisions, corollaries to the Magna Carta, essentially requiring the King not to turn over lands and positions of influence to foreigners, and to honor his commitment to the Magna Carta. Of course, Henry doesn’t keep these promises, and civil war results. Penman does a good job of showing the other barons

Today I went and bought about $70 of used books. This has been my scheme for celebrating summer vacation for a couple of months now. I took my brother and sister to restrain my spending impulses. We drove around town for a couple of hours, because my list of used bookstores off the internet and an old yellow pages was rather outdated, so my siblings got to put up with me swerving around the downtown. Every time we found an address, we passed it, so there were a lot of u-turns.

Eventually, we arrived at a large bookstore, and discovered all sorts of things: Ngaio Marsh paperbacks, Happy Hollisters mystery books (Nancy Drew type, but with a cast of five siblings, now rare and difficult to find in libraries), and several Robert Heinlein paperbacks (I managed to buy only three). Then we drove to a small bookstore, which turned out to be Christian, with a collection of every book ever published on the topic of creation vs. evolution, and most books ever written about America’s Christian heritage. Excellent and edifying, but not exactly what I was looking for. We did buy a book by Ray Comfort: “God doesn’t believe in atheists: proof that they don’t exist” as a birthday gift for a homeschool graduate.

Next, we drove to a small town inhabited by left-over hippies, who stroll the streets in 60s garb, wearing long hair and flowers. The shops are of a kind: new age music, pottery, health foods, coffee beans, and a book store with lots of comics and anime. The bookshelves here were stacked almost to the ceilings, and there were rows of books laid along the floor, as well as stacks spilling over here and there. Nowhere near as neat as the big chain store, but lots more fun. Here, I found several paperbacks of Margery Allingham (inventer of Mr. Campion), and obliged myself to take only six, the earlier or rarer books. (Traitor’s Purse is the best spy/mystery story ever, set in England during WWII, but don’t read it first, because you have to know Mr. Campion before it makes sense. Mystery Mile is the first.) Also several collector’s editions of Heinlein, Tom Swift, and Dune, but I didn’t buy those. When I asked for Whittaker Chambers’ Witness (it’s so long, I’ve run out of library renewals), the guy directed me to the fiction section. What you’d expect in that town, of course. I was disappointed not to find any of Leslie Charteris’ Saint books. I’ll have to wait till I accumulate more money from tutoring, and then buy some over the internet. I also bought a couple of Trollope books (only $4 each – can’t miss those), some more Happy Hollisters and Five Little Peppers sequels (that ought to take care of birthdays and Christmases for a while). At least I resisted the temptation to buy a complete set of hardbacked Agatha Christies (twice – both bookstores had one!), several Horatio Algers, lots and lots of Hardy Boys, and miscellaneous retellings of King Arthur. I also didn’t buy any books by Tom Clancy. (This is how I explained the large influx of paperbacks to my parents.)

So by the time you count it all up, 23 books for $70. That’s not bad. I just realized. They’re almost all pocket editions. Is it ethical to put mysteries in your coat pockets when you’re on rounds? No. Absolutely must not. I hope I won’t want to. First and second year students, when they spend time with doctors, get incredibly bored, because there’s nothing they can do (if there’s anything simple and scutty enough, the third years and interns get it). So I spent a fair amount of time on my electives leaning against the desk while the doctor charted. But now that I will (hopefully) be charting and doing scut work of my own, I won’t need books in my pocket. I guess that means I’d better go read them all right now.

(I’m trying to limit my consumption of Anthony Trollope, so I’ll still have a few of his books to read this fall. They come in a very convenient pocket size, as thick as they are wide, which will fit in my white-coat pockets, unless I have too many notes and formulas in there instead.)

Men in Black, by Mark Levin, is a concise, fact-filled documentation of the development of judicial tyranny in America. It was eye-opening to me, since, read as much history as I can, I am still relatively young, and thus deeply influenced by modern assumptions. I actually thought the job of the Supreme Court was to review and strike down laws. According to Levin’s quotations from the Federalist Papers and other writings of the Founding Fathers, the courts are meant only to deal with interpretation of the law: has it been broken, or has it been applied correctly; not with whether the law ought to be the way it is, or not. This philosophy is so radically different from what has been practiced by the Supreme Court and other high courts for at least the past 60 years, if not more, that I had to keep stopping and reminding myself of it as I was reading.

Imagine that: if a legislature votes something, it stays that way. What a weird idea. You mean nine men (or sixteen, or whatever) in black don’t get to overrule the elected legislators? Think about it. That means if the legislature says this is how the election works, the court doesn’t get to fix it. If the legislature says gays can’t get married, the court can’t fix it. If the legislature says babies can’t be aborted this way, the court can’t fix it. Wow. If the people pass a referendum saying no affirmative action in state college admissions, the court can’t fix it.

Wouldn’t it feel strange if our representatives actually got to make the laws themselves? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the people decided the law, not an oligarchy of men in black?

This book introduced me to a powerful new concept of what freedom really meant to the Founders, and at the same time revealed how far we’ve fallen, how much liberty we’ve already lost, and what an uphill fight it will be to get any back. I was both excited at the idea of individuals exerting such control over their own lives and businesses, and depressed at the realization that, just when I’m beginning to understand, this freedom is slipping away, almost beyond redemption.

Levin documents a number of areas (church and state, abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action, immigration, terrorist prisoners, political speech, election process) where the Supreme Court has over the last several decades arrogated to itself greater and greater powers of review and dictation, which override the clearly stated desires and intentions of the people and their elected representatives. This book is a valuable resource because it collects all these noted cases, plus many less well-known precedents, giving clear quotations and summaries from the actual decisions and dissents.

However, the more evidence I see of judicial tyranny, the less I hope I see of escaping. Basically, the judiciary branch of government has assumed the right to second-guess and override the decisions of the legislative and executive branches. And our elected legislators, governors, and president(s) have allowed the judges to do this. Even so-called conservative politicians assume that judges are always right. Somewhere along the line, we have conceded that judges, unelected, unaccountable as they are, are infallible, whereas representatives and executives, subject to frequent elections and investigations, are more fallible and prone to misinterpret or abuse the law. Regarding two Supreme Court decisions allowing the courts to review the executive’s decision to hold enemy prisoners, Levin writes:

The Supreme Court somehow believes that courts are more qualified or trustworthy to rule on detentions. Butt why is that? Why is it assumed that judges are more competent in weighing the rights of individuals against national-security needs? The ingrained bias against the elected branches and their ability to make well-reasoned and just judgments is destructive to the entire notion of representative government. If elected officials cannot be trusted to make wise decisions about national security, then they cannot be trusted to make decisions at all.

Another example of this can be seen the tragic case of Terri Schiavo. As I believe, the judges were allowing a woman to be tortured and murdered. Now, admittedly, it doesn’t matter so much what I think. But the Florida legislature and Governor Bush also believed that she was being murdered, or at least that she was not being adequately protected. However, they were so overcome by deference to the judicial branch that they did nothing to save her, even when they were firmly persuaded that justice was not being served. The courts were wrong to rule as they did regarding Terri Schiavo, and the Governor was even more wrong, in that he submitted to them. All branches of government are responsible to uphold the laws and constitution. But when two branches agree to submit themselves to the third, what can we do? To whom shall we look for redress?

Two suggestions: 1) Stop looking either to courts or to elections for salvation. Trust in God’s providence, raise up Godly children, build Godly communities, and wait for the false worldviews of humanism and socialism to bring about their own destruction. Then, in 300 years or so, Christian freedom and republican government can arise from the ashes. Too bad we probably won’t live to see this.

2) More immediately, move to New Hampshire. The Free State Project is a group of libertarians who have studied the separatist movement in Quebec, made calculations on the ratio of dedicated to separatists to total population, and concluded that in a state the size of New Hampshire, a group of 20,000 libertarians can sway the state government enough to reestablish liberty there, and eventually defy the federal government if necessary. I will be looking out for residency programs in New Hampshire.

While I was studying for boards, I was reading this book, the third in the Palliser (or Political) series by Anthony Trollope. This series does a splendid job of recreating the world of Victorian high society, introducing characters in one book, then bringing them in as a natural part of the background in later books. (That means that you really need to read these books in order.)

The Eustace Diamonds opens in a style comparable to Pride and Prejudice: “It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies – who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two – that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself. . .” Lizzie in fact married a wealthy rake who died a year later, leaving her with a young son and a large fortune – and also the stunning diamond necklace of the title. The story follows Lizzie’s attempts to maintain possession of the diamonds and at the same time to capture another husband. Probably the second most important character is Lizzie’s cousin Frank Greystock, a poor lawyer, a member of Parliament, who is torn between Lizzie’s beauty and wealth (saddled with a poor character), and a devoted governess, with neither money nor looks to recommend her.

Trollope does a wonderful job of accurately portraying an inadmirable character, making Lizzie the protagonist of the book without making her a heroine. He describes her reasoning and motivation in a way that makes her underhanded actions understandable, though not excusable. Trollope, like Dickens, was accused of not being good at plotting. I cannot understand the accusation in either case. Trollope’s characters are complicated individuals, and their actions seem to spring naturally from what has been described of them, and naturally moves the story forward through various complications.

Of course, being of his time period, Trollope is what we would call a male chauvinist. Upon a certain woman making false excuses to avoid testifying to embarassing facts in court, he writes:

And is it not the case that false pretexts against public demands are always held to be justifiable by the female mind? What lady will ever scruple to avoid her taxes? What woman ever understood her duty to the State?

And yet, through other female characters, he spends a great deal of time examining the influence that a wife or sister can have on the course of state affairs, without being able either to vote or to hold office. In fact, he makes Lady Laura, in Phineas Finn, declare that if she could vote, she would not, as she exercises more influence through her fashionable salon than she could as an avowed comabatant in politics.

Phineas Redux

I can’t really write a review of this book without giving away too much of its plot, as well as of the plot of Phineas Finn, so I will just note that Phineas’ re-entry into English politics occurs in the middle of a great controversy about disestablishment of the Anglican church. The Conservative party finds themselves driven to start a bill for disestablishment, in order to win a pyrrhic victory over the Liberals, who find themselves obliged to oppose their favorite project simply because it comes from the opposing party. Other pieces of the plot include a jealous husband, two or three devoted ladies, a murder trial, and a good deal of hunting. This book is even more exciting than Phineas Finn. Both are highly recommended.

The Reproductive final was this morning, so I was studying furiously on Saturday; for once the law of cause and effect worked simply, and the test was easier.Yesterday I picked up my collection of G.K. Chesterton’s poems by way of passing the time. This is my souvenir from when my family visited Paris, and we walked all around the city (it was usually simpler to walk than to take the metro, because by the time my parents had finished figuring out the rainbow-colored tracks, and we had walked down several wrong stairs, and carried the stroller over the barriers backwards – well, walking was simpler), and discovered on the bank of the Seine a bookstore called Shakespeare and Company. And of course we – I! – couldn’t walk by. So we went in; somehow my parents got us out of there with only two books, Chesterton and John Donne; but they have an authentic Shakespeare and Company stamp in the front!

I love Chesterton because he’s so politically incorrect about Muslims. He’s gleeful about the Crusades, and I’m sure it never even occurred to him to feel guilty about it. Here’s a quotation from the poem “Lepanto,” about how Don John of Austria sailed to rescue Christendom from Turkish pirates. (“The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;/ The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the mass/. . . Don John of Austria is going to the war.”) This is Mahound’s reaction in paradise to the news of Don John’s expedition:

‘. . . It is he that saith not ‘Kismet'; it is he that knows not fate; It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate! It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth, Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.’

The Crusader Returns from Captivity

I have come forth alive from the land of purple and poison and glamour, Where the charm is strong as the torture, being chosen to change the mind; Torture of wordless dance and wineless feast without clamour, Palace hidden in palace, garden with garden behind.

Women veiled in the sun, or bare as brass in the shadows, And the endless eyeless patterns where each thing seems an eye. . . And my stride is on Caesar’s sand where it slides to the English meadows, To the last low woods of Sussex and the road that goes to Rye.

In the cool and careless woods the eyes of the eunuchs burned not, But the wild hawk went before me, being free to return or roam, The hills had broad unconscious backs; and the tree-tops turned not, And the huts were heedless of me; and I knew I was at home.

And I saw my lady afar and her holy freedom upon her, A head, without veil, averted, and not to be turned with charms, And I heard above bannerets blown the intolerant trumpets of honour, That usher with iron laughter the coming of Christian arms.

My shield hangs stainless still; but I shall not go where they praise it, A sword is still at my side, but I shall not ride with the King. Only to walk and to walk and to stun my soul and amaze it, A day with the stone and the sparrow and every marvellous thing.

I have trod the curves of the Crescent, in the maze of them that adore it, Curved around doorless chambers and unbeholden abodes, But I walk in the maze no more; on the sign of the cross I swore it, The wild white cross of freedom, the sign of the white cross-road.

And the land shall leave me or take, and the Woman take me or leave me, There shall be no more Night, or nightmares seen in a glass; But life shall hold me alive, and Death shall never deceive me As long as I walk in England in the lanes that let me pass.

Isn’t that fun? “The intolerant trumpets of honour”!

I guess that’s enough for one post. You should also read the poem of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of gunners, because she insisted on having three windows in her tower (for the Trinity), and was martyred as a result; and the epic poem of King Alfred and white chalk horse; and the song of the unborn baby, who promises to be good, if let out into Fairyland, where the hills are covered with green hair and the trees somehow grow taller than the flowers.

Yesterday, besides reading poetry out loud to my longsuffering family, I finished Phineas Finn, the second book in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series. I am so delighted to have rediscovered Victorian novels: where three or four people constitute the cast, and the plot consists of them getting in and out of love with various suitable or unsuitable persons – especially in triangles or squares. And yet it takes 800 pages to sort them out, because they’re so scrupulous about honor, and propriety, and duty. And also lots of character actors: the aunt who must guard her niece, thus making everyone’s life miserable, because the niece doesn’t actually need to be guarded; the fathers who quarrel with their sons every other month, and nobody can make it up, even though there’s nothing there to quarrel about, because both sides are so proud and stiff.Trollope’s style of writing, and his complex characters, are fun enough. But then there’s the political part. Trollope apparently wished to enter Parliament, but never quite succeeded; so he always includes at least one characters whose whole goal in life is to get into Parliament, and make a good speech there. In this book, Phineas Finn is from Ireland, so there’s a slight discussion of the abuse of Irish tenants too.

Did you know that in England in the 1860s, you had to be worth 50 pounds a year to be able to vote? That some districts had only 2 or 3 hundred electors? That voting was open – no secret ballot? That if the Government proposed a measure in Parliament, and won by only a slight majority, they regarded themselves as shamefully defeated, and dissolved themselves? That the prime minister was still very ostensibly chosen by the queen, so whenever he was in difficulties (close to what we would call a vote of no-confidence today) he had to go down to the Palace and confer with her, and recommend her to choose his great rival in the other party as the prime minister? That there was no salary for members of parliament, so it was thought imprudent to run for office if you were not independently wealthy? That if you took a paying job in the government (eg, undersecretary for colonial affairs, in charge of deciding whether to run a railway line through Canada to the Rockies), you were obliged to vote the government position, even if it differed with your conscience?

Two of the political leaders in Phineas Finn are thus characterized: the Radical one wanted to do everything exactly in the style of the United States, and he was a staunch enemy of the Liberal man, who wanted to follow every revolutionary style of the Continent.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, because I’m in hopes that you all will also fall in love with Trollope, and want to read all of his books yourself. And they really are very suspenseful, although there are no spies, no bombs, and no murders to solve. So I wouldn’t want to ruin it by letting out who actually ends up marrying whom. (And don’t read any introductions, either – they always ruin the plot.)

“Fear No Evil: The classic memoir of one man’s triumph over a police state” by Natan Sharansky

If the president keeps quoting an author, you know you’ve got to read him. This is the autobiographical story of Natan Sharansky’s time in the Soviet Gulag because of his activities on behalf of refuseniks – those who had been denied a visa to emigrate to Israel.

Sharansky’s memory is amazing. He gives a detailed account of his arrest on fake charges, the sixteen months he spent in Lefortovo, his show trial, and his time in Siberian prison camps. Throughout, he was sustained by the memory of his wife Avital, who had already left Russia, and was working actively to procure his release.

I am so much in awe of his dedication and courage that I can’t say any more about him myself. Get the book and read it for yourself. Remember why totalitarian states are evil, and how people who are dedicated to freedom can triumph even in prison.

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