Alfalfa Bill: A Life of Politics and What is History Anyway?

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Twentieth century, political biography, southern history, and interesting, but often forgotten characters in history:  All these were draws for me wanting to read Alfalfa Bill.  The biography is about William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray who was a key political figure in the early days of Oklahoma statehood.  It is often not thought about, but Oklahoma became a state very late in the process.  In 1907, it became the 46th state in the Union.  Of course, it was in the thick of events in American history long before statehood.  There is no understanding of Oklahoma history without recognition of its previous existence as a land set apart for Native Americans.  That would have created enough adventure, but white Americans (Surprise! Surprise!) realized they wanted part of the Indian Territory.

Bill Murray was Texas-born.  After the kind of tough upbringing so characteristic of his times (1869-1956), he found his political and personal options in Texas diminished, so he lit out for Oklahoma Territory.  He is one of Oklahoma’s great success stories.  Only, he often suffered quite the opposite of success.  His political career was a series of disastrous defeats and surprising victories.  It was hardscrabble politics and brawling every step of the way.  On several occasions, Murray would reach a pinnacle of success only to see that turned into a bitter setback.

A big part of the Murray story is longevity in politics.  He served in a number of political roles.  He balanced the weight of varying political forces that contributed to the Oklahoma firestorms.  In his favor, he married a woman who was of Choctaw-Chickasaw heritage.  He was well schooled in politics due to a smattering of formal education and personal readings.  He was a man who understood–like all successful politicians–how image is so vital to political credibility.  Forever, he was touting himself as a farmer, and Murray did have a farm or two along the way; however, he was not really a farmer and was certainly not a success at it.

The high points of his career were the prominent positions he held in his long tenure as a political figure.  He was president of the Constitutional Convention in Oklahoma.  Unlike the legendary quiet, but powerful persona of George Washington at the 1789 convention, Murray was up to his neck in the rough and tumble of the political document-creation.  He served several terms in the United States House of Representatives.  That may have been his finest hour in terms of his political skills, networking with powerful political figures like President Woodrow Wilson, and showing real non-partisanship.

Later he served as governor of Oklahoma.  This was during the Great Depression, and his victory in politics (after a long moribund period) was a reminder that the voters were looking for a common man with more than just common sense to guide them.  Remember that Oklahoma was hit during that time by two great tsunamis.  Along with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl devastated the region.  This links up with the great migration of Okies, as they came to be called, who migrated to California.  (See John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for a fictionalized account of those times.)

As the 1932 Presidential election neared, one thing was clear:  This was going to be the time of a great Democrat Party win against the hapless Herbert Hoover.  Among those who toyed and attempted to win the nomination was Oklahoma’s “Alfalfa Bill” Murray.  His candidacy was pretty much a flop.  (Compare it to Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, and many others in 2016.)  Murray gave some attempts to run a campaign without money, political guidance, and a slim chance while going up against more powerful figures like John Nance Garner from neighboring Texas and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt from New York.

In one sense, it was the 1932 Presidential election that began drawing the closing curtain on Murray’s career.  Rather than flocking to Candidate Roosevelt, Murray had said some rather cruel and over-the-top things about the man who was to become the face of the Democrat Party.  By 1936, Murray was supporting Alf Landon in his hapless race.  In all following years, Murray’s ventures into political events seemed more and more Quixotic and hopeless.

All in all, a colorful career politician, Bill Murray was.  Legendary in Oklahoma simply due to the fact that he accomplished a lot even though he was as self-serving as so many are.  He was lovable and deplorable at times.  On some issues, he was far-sighted; on others, he was blind.  He was a product of the prejudices of his time, and that was a day where there were real racists.  Politicians would often either echo racist sentiments or truly believe them in order to win.  He was a faithful husband, unless one considers politics his mistress.  And, sad to say, in his latter years, he was a cranky and often ugly commentator on people and events.

I really enjoyed parts of this book, but must confess a few of my shortcomings.  Somehow, the details of Oklahoma state legislative battles eludes my interest. (And I am a rather dull person.)  The great German statesman Bismarck once said that it is better not to watch sausages or laws being made.  Even reading about the processes after the fact–long after–is not recommended either.

This question I kept asking myself was this:  Who will read my review and rush out and buy this book?  Maybe only the first part of that question is relevant.  But even people I know who share interests in politics, history, and biographies will not likely rush to order this work.  As a book reviewer, I read quite a few books–usually by university presses–that I know want get much notice even as non-fiction.

This led to this question:  What is history about anyway?

I am glad that Robert Dorman at Oklahoma City University devoted countless hours to research and writing this book.  No doubt, it was gratifying to him.  He is probably giving a few talks on Murray and is being consulted in person or in his printed works for his take on related events.  But who reads about the long forgotten political figures of other states?

I have been re-reading Michael Douma’s pathbreaking, world-changing, revolutionary book Creative Historical Thinking.  It was published by Routledge this past year.  (My over-the-top description of the book is due to my friendship with Michael, which is based on trading insults and compliments with little to distinguish the two.)

Here is the pertinent problem:  How do people, particularly students in my classroom see or understand history?  After reading 339 pages of Oklahoma political history, much of it is a total muddle in my mind.  The details of the Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention slid right over my thinking even as I was going through those pages (painfully at times).

Okay, it’s trivia from early 20th century Oklahoma.  What difference does it make?  But I am teaching the Russian Revolution right now to my students.  What difference does Alexis Romanov’s hemophilia make to them?  What difference does the quarrels between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks make?  Then when we get to World War II, what difference does it make?

Obviously, some people take a shine to history.  The Ardennes Offensive is as fascinating as last night’s football game leading up to Superbowl 2019.  But we don’t teach courses on everything that happens to be a personal interest of someone out there.  Let’s don’t even consider some of the college courses and majors now offered.  I am talking about education.

A history teacher needs to read books like Alfalfa Bill sometimes just to see how their students view history class.  “What is going on?  Who cares? and Why do we have to study this?”  This is not all just student rebelliousness, but is sometimes rooted in the way different folks process time and events from the past.

Was I helped personally by reading this book?  Yes.  How?  I was made better aware of the impact of Socialists in early 20th Century America and even in places like Oklahoma.  I was sadly made aware (again) of some extremes of racial prejudice that were then prevalent.  I saw the futility of a life devoted to politics with political success seen as an idol.

Nothing is new under the sun.  Ugly has always existed.  “Dear children, keep yourself from idols” (I John 5:21).

For those who like political biographies of past governors, I would recommend T. Harry Williams’ great book Huey Long or any books on a former California governor named Ronald Reagan.

For those interested in Oklahoma history, read the books by John Dwyer, such as The Oklahomans (volume one is out and volume two will be in time).  For a fun and uplifting account of Oklahoma life, read Dwyer’s book Shortgrass.

The Oklahomans

The Oklahomans

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Hitting the Heart and the Mind–Morning Reads

 

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Maybe I do believe in what is called “Second Blessing.”  And I certainly do believe it is the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work.  And it was not something that happened when I was a new Christian.  The Second Blessing that I refer to is learning to love mornings.  I wish that I could boast of being up by 4 or 5 a. m., but for that to happen, there will have to be a third blessing.  However, I do love mornings, and I love them for the fact that this is the time when I enjoy the BBC, not meaning the British Broadcasting Company, but rather Bible, books, and coffee.

Here are some of the recent reads that have been very strongly caffeinated remedies for both the heart and the mind.

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Mark Jones is a bright, young pastor, theologian, and writer who lives in Canada.  His mind, heart, and writing style almost appear to be cloned from the inimitable J. I. Packer.  In his book, he does several things.  First, he takes the reader through some deep systematic theology. In fact, the central focus of the Christian life is knowing who God is.  But this is not the deep end of the Olympic-size theological pool where Jones simply pushes you in and says, “Swim.”  He is clear, brief, direct, and very understandable.

Second, he has this book divided into 26 chapters with some introductory pages and an epilogue.  That makes this book a great resource for reading over the course of a month. Families could read it for the family devotion or Sunday school classes could use it as well.  (Preachers:  Don’t feel ashamed if you want to use the book for a sermon series.)  The chapters are short.  In fact, I had planned on finishing the book on January 27, but found myself reading more than one chapter on quite a few mornings.

Third, Jones brings you into his circle of mentors, teachers, and guides.  Like Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Jerry Bridges, Mark Jones is on a first-name friendship basis with many of the Puritans, Reformers, and Church Fathers.  One could simply go through this book and read the quotes–all warmly evangelical and nourishing–and delight in it.  The notes at the back of the book were announcements to me of books I should be reading and acquiring.

Fourth, in each chapter Pastor Jones first discusses and explains the doctrine–God’s Omnipresence, for example.  Then he turns the focus to Christ.  God’s attributes are found in the Lord Jesus Christ.  His Incarnation did not mean that He was not God the Son for a season. But we often don’t realize how Jesus has the same attributes we attribute in a fashion to the Triune God.  The final part of each chapter is application.  God’s attributes are not speculative, philosophical, or theoretical characteristics of a Supreme Being.  Our Covenant God reveals Himself and teaches us through that most vital aspect to all life and learning–Knowing God.

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Along with this book, Jones’ book Knowing Christ, which I read last summer, is also a fine work.  It should be read after reading Packer’s classic work Knowing God.  In fact, Dr. Packer wrote the foreword to Knowing Christ.  Once again, this book will take the reader deep into the Bible and theology with abundant quotes from the Puritans, their forebears, and heirs.

Some may be familiar with Jones from the massive book that he and Joel Beeke compiled titled A Puritan Theology:  Doctrine for Life.  This is a weighty book in every sense of the word, but one that can be digested in small sections.  Maybe this summer, I can return to digging from this gold mine.

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This past summer, Mark Jones gave some talks in Brazil where there is a growing love of Reformed theology and Puritan writings.  At least some of his books have been translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil.  He is also in demand as a speaker across North America.  With his youthful mind and love for God’s Word and God’s servants of old, I am hoping to see quite a few more books from him as the years go by.

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Mark Jones and son with Joel R. Beeke. Together, these two men compiled a great devotional and theological study of the Puritans titled A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

 

I mentioned Joel R. Beeke a few paragraphs ago.  Whereas I fight back being jealous of Mark Jones’ youth and brilliance, I have to combat a different type of jealousy regarding Joel R. Beeke, who is close to my age.  Pastor Beeke produces books faster than most people read them.  He writes, edits, compiles, or reprints and promotes more books than I can keep up with.  He may be the leading expert on the Puritans in our time.

I recently read and greatly enjoyed his latest book Reformed Preaching.

See the source imageTake this warning:  No man dare enter the pulpit without reading deeply, prayerfully, slowly, repeatedly, and thankfully from this book.  It is a wealth of practical instruction and guidance for the pastor and speaker.  Also, it is a history of preaching.  In fact, much of the book is a history of the preaching styles and focus of great preachers.  The history begins with the Reformers, and that does not mean just Calvin and Luther.  No surprise also that Beeke, as a proponent of the Puritans and their theology, includes lots of biographical and exhortative information about those hardy Englishmen.

There are also chapters devoted to Dutch preachers.  I can never really decide who were the greatest:  The Puritans, the Scots, or the Dutch.  I don’t have to pick a favorite, and they are all described here.  Some of the more recent preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones are included as well.  Even though the history section of this book is lengthy, I would have enjoyed yet another one or two hundred pages of such material.

Pastors need to be well versed in history and theology, they need to also be grounded in other areas that Beeke addresses.  These included being balanced (Woe are us Calvinists all too often!), being effective (not the same as being successful, but also not the same as being theologically sound), and being holy (and that is not just a scandal in the Roman Catholic Church).

The opening chapter of this book is titled “Reformed Experiential Preaching.”  When I first started this book (in either November or December last year), I read that chapter in one sitting.  The next reading time, I could not bring myself to move on in the book, but chose to read that section again.  I am still planning on reading the last chapter, “Preaching for Holiness,” again.

I have been blessed by being able to put this book in the hands of other preachers.  I wish I could give out a hundred copies of it.  My preaching career is over, so it seems, but still I found the book helpful and soul-nourishing.  The man or woman in the pews can read this as profitably as the preacher.

Reformed Preaching and God Is are both published by Crossway Books.  Knowing Christ is published by Banner of Truth.  A Puritan Theology is published by Reformation Heritage Books.

 

 

 

The Essential Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

As an incurable reader, I often find myself stumped over what kind of book I need to read next.  My tastes range from theology to literature to history to politics to poetry to philosophy to biography and more.  I could almost paraphrase Will Rogers and say, “I never met a book I didn’t like.”  I have met a few that were not to my liking, but I am prone to find something of use in even the worst of readings.

My morning reading time is when I focus on Biblical and theological books.  If a book is devotional, without being fluffy, and enlightening, it makes for a good start for the morning stack of books.  I have about an hour to read and usually read a chapter or about 10 pages from each of 3 or 4 books.  (This method works well for me.)  After the book aimed at the heart, I am more ready for the book aimed at the mind.  So, a book applying Bible teachings might be read from first and then followed by a bit more weighty theological reading.  The preferred third book is usually more focused on Christian worldview thinking.  It might be on history, education, current issues, philosophy, or some other area.  It might or might not be a specifically Christian book.

This brings us to the topic of The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney.  This book is published by Moody Publishers.

In light of the different types of books I like to read in the morning session, The Essential Jonathan Edwards can fit into any of the categories.  The breadth of the approach of the book itself is similar to the breadth of the subject.  Jonathan Edwards is acclaimed as one of the great preachers of all time.  He is also one of the great theologians.  He was also a prolific writer.  He is recognized for his contributions to the field of philosophy.  He is studied for his views on any number of topics, both those pertinent to his times and to ours.

As the subject of biography, Edwards’ life is also rich.  He lived in colonial America during a period that was just past the heyday of Puritan thought and just before the period leading up to the American Revolution and War for Independence.  I will assume for the moment that the term “American Revolution” refers to the change in thinking and outlook that developed prior to any shots being fired at Lexington and Concord, and I am borrowing this definition from John Adams.  Back to Edwards:  He was a major figure in the Great Awakening.  Along his labors were limited geographically to a small part of New England, his role through his preaching and writing explained, furthered, and cautioned against aspects of the revival.  He was the spokesman for this side of the Atlantic.

His marriage and family are models for both understanding American culture and for spiritual edification.  His tumultuous relationship with his Northhampton congregation is insightful into the workings of colonial communities and all too familiar territory for many pastors and their churches.  Edwards was briefly connected to the still new Princeton University and had been educated at Yale.  His life shows the richness of potential opportunities in the colonial period even accounting for the particular genius and gifts of the man.

The most scholarly and library-bound academic wanting to grapple with theological conundrums (like free will and Original Sin) can study Edwards alongside the more profound student of philosophy, especially the one interested in American contributions.  But the pastor can also find Edwards a helpful mentor giving encouragement to his soul as he prepares sermons and lessons for his congregation.  Again, the study of Edwards is a hall filled with treasures.

So where do you begin?  Or how can you access the wealth of Edwards’ life, faith, and thought?

The Essential Jonathan Edwards is an excellent place to begin.  The book contains an account of Edwards’ life, but it is only partially a biography.  Much of the focus is on the teachings of Edwards.  The book is heavy laden with quotes and lengthy ones at that.  It doesn’t take many lines of reading Edwards to realize that this guy cannot be skim read.  He is not impossible or overly technical, but his language is rich and detailed.  While the entire book reveals biographical details, the first section is more largely focused on his life.

The authors cover a number of larger and then more particular topics in subsequent chapters.  The second section of the book is on the topic of Beauty.  As has been noted, some of the higher, more liturgical churches focus on beauty in their church buildings and liturgies.  The Protestants who are more in the tradition of Edwards in terms of evangelical emphases have overlooked the topic of Beauty.  (As a former pastor, I am asking myself, “When did you preach on the Beauty of God, of Christ, of the Church?”)

The third section focuses on the Good Life.  This is yet another case of the authors bringing an unused phrase into Christian thinking.  Living the Christian life is the good life.  Man’s chief end is enjoying God forever, which does not mean that we start when we get to heaven.  Edwards wrote, “God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures: because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures.” (Found on page 199)

The fourth section deals with a troublesome issue in Edwards’ ministry and in our times.  Statistics show certain numbers of people who are Christian by profession.  Church rolls show smaller groups of the same.  Yet nominalism, that is, being Christian in name only, is a huge problem.  Protestants like to think it is merely a Roman Catholic problem.  Within Protestant groups, one group will wag their heads at another for this plague, but the truth is that it hits ever section of Christianity and every church.  If you don’t know of where to locate the dangers of nominal Christianity, begin by looking in a mirror.  I am not saying that you and I are believers in name only.  But I do know it is a real threat to me.  Those of us in Christian works (and I teach in a Christian school) can easily confuse occupation with salvation.  The problem beset Edwards both in the times of his grandfather’s Half-Way Covenant approach and in his own dealings with a congregation that fired him.

The final section deals with heaven and hell.  Edwards is once again a needed instructor to our times.  Because Christianity offers so much in this world, we can easily undervalue what it teaches about the world to come.  And the doctrine of Hell is just uncomfortable.

I recently posted a blog review highlighting a number of books on, by, or about Edwards.  For the reader wanting to meet the great theologian, this is the book to start with.  For the reader who has already read a lot by and about Edwards, this book is also a great read.

America in World War I–Two Great Reads

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I was recently attacked, beaten near senseless, and left bruised, bleeding, and humiliated.  I can identify the perpetrators.  One is Edward Lengel and the other is Geoffrey Wawro.  Both are historians.  Both have books on World War I that were published in the past year.  And I read both books and the results are described in my opening sentence.

When I think back on my stronger areas of history, I like to list such areas as American history, 20th Century history, and the World Wars.  There are a few other areas where I feel competent and many where I am better served by keeping my mouth shut.  But World War I?

Since the first of October I have been teaching on World War I in my Humanities classes.  I have taught from Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, which sunk my students, and I tried to bail them out, but was not overly successful.  We also read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  We finished with World War One British Poets, a fine and short anthology of some of the vivid and powerful poems from the time.

I walked the students through the rival alliances, the strengths of the major powers, and the tensions that were threatening Europe.  I showed them the Schlieffen Plan as thought out and then poorly executed by the Germans.  I walked them through the succession of events from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the invasion of Belgium.  I went over a short list of why the United States entered the War.  I coached them through my “What Every Man or Woman Needs to Know About World War I” review sheets.

I felt pretty good about old Ben House as a history teacher.  Then along came Edward Lengel.  Many of his earlier books are on George Washington, but he has also written several on World War I.  His most recent book, even more recently reviewed in this blog, is Never in Finer Company.

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Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Lost Battalion and the Transformation of America by Edward G. Lengel is published by De Capo Press.

This book deals with an event within the greater actions of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.  A battalion pushing against the German lines advanced beyond their flank supports and got cut off from the rest of the army.  The logical thing to do would have been to have retreated back to the security of the rest of the army.  But the orders and commands had been to advance and not retreat.

Another alternative would have been to surrendered.   The men under siege endured more than enough hardships.  Not only were they surrounded and under constant attack, but they were low on food and water and the wounded were not being attended.  They had fought the good fight and were in a hopeless situation.

Yet, they fought on.  How they held out is beyond me.  On one occasion, they even got shelled by American artillery.  The story is one of exceptional gallantry and worthy leaders on the battalion level.  Even the carrier pigeons in the unit served with distinction.

One side story on this story was the actions of Tennessee rifleman Alvin York.  York was not part of the Lost Battalion, but was part of the advancing columns that helped liberate the battalion and continued the advance against the Germans.

Great book.  Left me dazed with awe for the men of the unit, saddened at the effects of this on even the survivors, and the sacrifices men at war make.

Feeling the need to read even more on World War I and America’s role, I picked up the book Sons of Freedom by Geoffrey Wawro.

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Sons of Freedom by Geoffrey Wawro is published by Basic Books.  Dr. Wawro is a professor of history at the University of North Texas and the author of six books (four of which I now own).

As the subtitle explains, this book is about “The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I.”  I noticed a review that called this book “the definitive history” regarding America’s role in the war.  I agree.

This book is a lengthy and powerful account of how America’s entry on the actual battlefields enabled the Allies to win the war.  By 1918, both sides in the war were exhausted, bled white, and worn down by the grueling multiple fronts.  Russia was finished by then.  Revolution ended what the war itself had started on the Eastern Front.  Italy was basically caput as well. How Austria-Hungary was hanging on is still beyond me.  But there was Germany, now reinforcing the Western Front (the border areas in northern France and Belgium where the war had been raging since August of 1914).  Freed from the Eastern Front, Germany was racing more and more divisions to the west.

Under the command of the talented, but sometimes unbalanced, Erich von Ludendorff, the German army began a series of offenses against the British and French lines.  Any one of the offensive actions could easily have translated into the needed breakthrough that would have divided the Allied forces, pushed the British back into a Dunkirk situation (years before Dunkirk), or captured Paris.

The spent forces of the British and French armies sustained the front lines, but barely.  The German forces erred most greatly in shifting from one offense to the next instead of maintaining pressure in just one area.  But also, and most important, the American forces began hitting the fields of battle.

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.  But it took a year before the United States was able to start massing still under-trained and unequipped soldiers on French soil.  Still, they were fresh troops, and so they began the process of filling in the gaps on the battlefields.  The American commander was General John J. Pershing.  Pershing’s greatest legacy in the war was his continual insistence on American troops being able to operate independently as American armies and not as replacements and gap fillers for the Allies.

In some cases, Americans got some useful baptism of fire by being used alongside of the British and French troops.  But the goal was always an independent field of action by the U. S. Army.  Pershing fought hard against his fellow Allied commanders to achieve this.  On the negative side, he was greatly underequipped as a commander to lead an army in this type of war.  He was somehow stuck in a time warp, not always realizing how the war had been fought for the past several years.

Americans focused on the offensive.  (So had every other major army for the previous years.)  In 1918, America had one resource that no other country had–a huge supply of troops.  The American muscle was just beginning to be flexed as the troops began pouring into France.  Sad to say, much of the story and much of the book is about the tremendous bloodbath Americans were thrown into in taking this war to the Germans.

Germany was a spent force, but far from a finished force by 1918.  They still had plenty of crack troops, plenty of machine gun and artillery emplacements, and an abundance of fighting experience.  Americans were the deciding factor in Germany’s defeat, but this was no cake-walk.

Even though Sons of Freedom is a lengthy and heavily detailed book, I found it engrossing.  Granted, there were flank attacks, repulses, commander changes (many, in fact), and other details that slipped right my mind.  Yet, the larger picture of this book was of the Americans pushing and hitting the German lines and, even with mounting casualties and increasing numbers of deserters, and winning the war.

For anyone else interested in World War I, these are two great reads.  Having read Lengel’s book first, I better understood some of what was happening in Wawro’s book.  But either book could be read first.  You might end these readings being a pacifist (which is what I would be if everyone else would sign on as well), or you might end with a greater appreciation for our soldiers from the past.

Both books call attention to men who were forgotten.  World War II so overshadows the Great War that we tend to see it as amateurish and poorly done by contrast.  Arguments can be made that the two wars were simple one long conflict with a twenty year gap in the fighting.  However the First War is viewed, Americans need to remember that–whether it was the best thing to do or not–our country won that war.

I love both books and highly revere the authors, even after they so brutally beat me up.

Great Love for Pat Conroy

 

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I don’t want to oversell Pat Conroy as a man and as a writer, and this is my third blog of recent months calling attention to him. The interest is the result of the book Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy.  That book is wealth of stories based on many personal experiences both close friends and fellow writers had with Conroy, who died in 2016.  The book is published by the University of Georgia Press.

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Conroy, unlike all too many writers, was incredibly personable, generous, and outgoing.  He loved friends and fans with an unbounding zeal.  He ended his letters, phone calls, and conversations with the words “Great Love.”  I have decided to imitate him in that respect.  It did not appear to be just a phrase, but rather was a heart felt conviction.

The book about Conroy prompted me to buy and read the last book that he did.  Titled A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections of a Writing Life, this book contains blog articles that Conroy wrote along with several talks he gave.  This book is full of the wit and wisdom of the man.  Beware:  There are many aspects of his personality, viewpoints, and life that I don’t agree with or approve of.  I don’t endorse the man wholeheartedly, but I do appreciate him.

This book is a good follow-up to the tribute that his writer friends compiled.  It is a good follow-up for anyone who has read and enjoyed any of Conroy’s books.  Among other things, Conroy discusses the shadowy line between writing fiction and memoirs.  Interested especially because several of his books are memoirs and fiction was his main claim to fame, but his fiction is heavily influenced by his personal experiences.

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Pat Conroy and I had some very different experiences growing up.  I can blame my own dad for me not being a writer of Conroy’s stature.  Here is why:  My dad was a very kind, patient, and non-violent man.  Conroy wrote often of the man who became known as The Great Santini.  That happens to be the title of one of his best known books, which was made into a movie.  The elder Conroy was a Marine pilot who waged war on America’s enemies and was not just strict, but brutal to his wife and children.  He was, in short, a monster, but appears to have mellowed as the years went by.  Pat loved his father, even as he detailed the cruelties inflicted on him and his siblings and mother.  Those very experiences have endeared Conroy to many people (again, unlike myself) who had similar family experiences.

Another good read in the Conroy works is My Life in Books where he describes favorite books, authors, and other influences in his life. Both A Lowcountry Heart and My Life in Books are rather small compact works that are matching in appearance.  From there, one can go on to enjoy many other works he did. I have most of his books and would not mind completing my collection.  I wouldn’t mind even finding a copy of his favorite recipes that he put into a cook book. Quite an amazing man.

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The Dog Ate My Homework: More Unreviewed Books

See the source imageThankfully, my current dog, Callie (same color but totally different breed than the one pictured above) is not a book lover, chewer, eater, etc.  Books are safe around her, although she expects me to toss her rubber ball with one hand while I hold a book with the other.  In this post, I will return to my confession of unfinished book readings and reviews.  I am trying, but cannot seem to catch up.

These unread, unfinished, unreviewed, and in some cases, unstarted books are still awaiting me with the patience of the printed page.  Books hold treasures in silence just waiting until that time when they can speak the messages they contain.  As the saying goes, any book is new if you have not read it yet.  But I would like to comment a bit on these fine volumes.

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We begin with My Ranch Too: A Wyoming Memoir by Mary Budd Flitner is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  (At this time, this book is on sale from the publisher.)

The University of Oklahoma Press is well known for its outstanding books on military history (many of which I have reviewed), it classical studies (some of which I have reviewed), and, not surprising, its books on western history and culture, with lots of focus on Native Americans (and some of these I have reviewed as well).  My Ranch Too deals with the trials and struggles to maintain the ranching lifestyle in the western states.  The story here is of a Wyoming family and the ranch they have maintained.

As a Southerner with Agrarian affinities, I have a strong sympathy for the culture and life found in the American west.  I wish I could fit in with it, but I reckon I am too indoor-ish, sedentary, and cold natured to be spending time on a horse riding over vast, cold ranges in search of strays.  The loss of the American west, often heralded by many a country-western singer, is the loss of so much that is central to American culture.  For that reason, I look forward to this read.

For many years now, I have been relishing the writings of Flanner O’Connor.  My only complaint against her is that she is so popular that one can hardly come up with something profound to say about her that hasn’t already been said.  I was surprised when I discovered a few months back that the University Press of Kentucky had a book titled A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor, edited by Henry T. Edmonson III.

I know a remarkable man of literature at UPK named Mack McCormick.  He is the Publicity and Rights Manager for the press, and he also writes reviews and promotional pieces for different works from the press.  In other words, he has one of the neatest jobs in the world: He makes a living dealing with books.  Mack and I share a love for quite a few things in the book realm.  Particularly, he and I both like the works of Jesse Stuart, and he has further nurtured my appreciation for the writings of Kentucky author Janet Giles.

He graciously sent me a copy of the O’Connor book, although I grumbled about some shoddy work in the packaging department that caused a bent page or two.  (Forgive me for being so picky.)

I would have guessed that a book relating politics to Flannery O’Connor would be either impossible to write or too short to even be a chapter in a book.  But she is so easy to underestimate.  She had an incredible grasp of literature, a wide ranging understanding of philosophy, and quite a bit of depth in theology.  Life in the American South in the 1940s-1960s was political.  Life in the South both before and after the War Between the States was and is political.  Life is political.  You don’t have to be reading, writing about, or talking on politics to make political statements.

This book has chapters devoted to O’Connor and the Agrarians, O’Connor and segregation issues, and the issue of Civil Rights. On chapter even makes reference to my favorite term that is often used of O’Connor–“Hillbilly Thomist.” I am looking forward to delving into this book.  Of course, I have not met a book by or about O’Connor that was not of interest, but this one holds lots of unexpected revelations.

Some books don’t get started because they are so large.  Many don’t get completed because they are so daunting and intimidating.  Armstrong by H. W. Crocker III has not been started because it looks like it will be lots of fun.  I tend to save books for those occasions when only a fun read will get me through. I admit that I have been holding this book because it is supposed to be a fun read.

Of course, one doesn’t usually associate the name George Armstrong Custer with humor.  I year or so ago, I read a good biography of Custer, and I learned that the man’s career involved a lot more than the terrible ending associated with it.  Unlike many biographies, however, I did not finish the reading with a greater appreciation for the man.  Brave, flamboyant, and dashing, he was not a very admirable man.

I learned of this book from historian Bradley Birzer who spoke of how enjoyable it was, so I requested a copy.  Honestly, if Birzer likes it, it is probably endorsement enough.  My own review will come later; actually, I hope it comes sooner, rather than later.

Armstrong is published by Regnery Fiction.

The next two books are high on my list of priorities.  In part, I am interested in these books because I have gotten acquainted with the man who wrote one of them and helped edit the other–historian Michael Douma.  Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Douma’s book How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch.  This was an academic read (with an academic press price tag) that should have been just a dusty, dry scholarly examination of a thin slice of history.  But it was an enjoyable story.  Along with his writings, I have come to appreciate Dr. Douma for his incredibly unrestrained wit (usually displayed in the wrong setting), his rugged mountaineering lifestyle (with a rustic home and barn he is restoring), and his often brilliant insights into life, history, and academia (with forgiveness for some of his mental lapses).

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What is Classical Liberal History? is a collection of essays by historians dealing with a particular viewpoint regarding history.  I have often lamented the fact that I got a history degree without any professor cornering me and demanding that I study historical perspectives, historiography, and a philosophy of history.  Maybe that is because it was an undergraduate degree.  But think about this:  Young teachers step into the classroom to teach kids history all the while thinking that history is just a bunch of facts that they need to inflict upon the unwilling natives.  I did have a worldview–dominated by my Christian/Calvinistic/Conservative/Southern viewpoint–and I did have a sense of not only the who, what, where’s of history, but the why’s and therefore’s.  My own worldview was never truly honed by enough real scholastic gladiatorial combat.

Reader take note:  The Classic Liberal approach to history has little or nothing to do with what those of us in Classical Christian education cover.  This is not a book about Herodotus and the Venerable Bede.  And more important, Liberal has little or nothing to do with political figures on the left who are praised, blamed, love, or hated for being “liberals.”

I feel a certain kinship with the book Creative Historical Thinking.  This feeling comes from having been a witness–from a distance–to this book as it went through the process of being finished and published.  As I have often whined about, I was asked by Michael to write a blurb or endorsement for the book.  I read a PDF copy of the work a long while back and let the author know that I had nothing but praise for it.  Then I wrote the endorsement.  But the powers that be felt that an academic book such as this one needed endorsements by real scholars, with real degrees, and academic standing.

The description on the website says, “Author Michael J. Douma makes the case that history should be recognized as a subject intimately related to individual experience and positions its practice as an inherently creative endeavor.”  But please don’t let that somber, serious, weighty statement blind you to what this book is about.  This book is about the fact that history–taught, read, learned, lived–is fun, but dangerous.  History is a recreational drug that can add to quality of life, but often as taught by us teachers is quite dreary.

History teachers, read this book–before and during your days in the classroom. It really should have been pitched more to classroom teachers and good old Joes like me, rather than to the elite historians with Dr. before their names and Ph.D. after them.

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman is another fine work from the University of Oklahoma Press. (And it is on sale right now–40 percent off.)

This book fits a particular love I have:  Political history.  I read plenty of books about Presidents and about the larger movements across the pages of history, but I have always enjoyed the biographies of the lesser known or largely forgotten people in history.  William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray was a colorful figure in Oklahoma political history in the 20th century.  He was an old time Democrat, ladened with all the qualities and faults of Democrats of his time.  This too should be a fun read.

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The Red Wheel March 1917 is published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

The delay on getting The Red Wheel: March 1917 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn read is due to its daunting nature.  It is a large book by a bigger-than-life author, Nobel Prize winner, dissident, Christian humanist, and enemy of totalitarianism Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.  I am hoping to plow into this book deeply in January and February since I will be teaching and reading about Russian history and authors in my Humanities class at that time.

Solzhenitsyn has been a hero of mine since my senior year in high school.  That was the time when he was rousted out of his beloved Russia and sent into exile in the West for the next several decades.  I have read many of his works, but his most ambitious series is the Red Wheel which consists of multiple volumes of fiction (heavy laden with history) dealing with the Russian Revolution.  The earlier volumes included August 1914 and November 1916.  From what I have learned, it is not necessary to have read those before tackling March 1917.  I think it is time to take on this challenge.

Fiction Readings of Late

 

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First, I will begin with a defense for, a plea on behalf of, an apologetic regarding reading fiction.  On second thought, naw, I won’t.  The convinced are already singing in the choir and the unconvinced are trying hard enough to read all the non-fiction, biographies, histories, and theology they possibly can.  Still, I feel a bit of pity for the person who does not enjoy a good novel–often.

Second, I will describe in great detail the various shades, levels, degrees, and genres of fiction.  By that, I mean the literary classics, the newer works that are literary, the form-novels, escape reading, historical fiction, and so on.  On second thought, naw, I won’t do that either.

So, I will describe a few novels I have read of late and sing a bit of praise on their behalf.

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I first took notice of this book after seeing that an old friend from Monroe, Louisiana, Robert McBroom, was reading the book.  Like me, Robert is a southerner through and through, an Agrarian, and a Calvinist.  So, when I found a like-new copy of this book at a thrift store, I snatched it up and then piled it up with dozens of other books.  Then it occurred to me one day that I should read it.

Kristen Hannah is not a new author by any means, but she is new to me.  This is a great, though very sad–at points, story.  Set in Alaska in the early 1970’s and 80’s, it deals with a family undergoing a series of hardships.  Some of the hardships are environmental (surviving in Alaska), some are historical (PTSD from Vietnam experiences), some are social, some economic, and, even though Hannah may have not intended this, some or all are theological.

The key messages from this book:  The importance of community and of forgiveness. The harsh world of Alaska demanded community, and that can be seen as a metaphor for our lives here.  The people who bond together are an unlikely group, but each has his or her own gifts and strengths that contribute to survival.  Forgiveness is the overwhelming theme of the book.  In our world, forgiveness doesn’t always happen when and to the degree it needs to, and some of those who need forgiveness the most are never brought to the point where they see that need.

I don’t want to imply that fiction is read so that lessons or theological truths can be derived from stories.  But glimpses into life reveals lessons and theological truths.  And stories often convey those messages powerfully.

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Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall proved to be a very fine novel.  Set in the Civil War, two sisters go into the Confederate Army posing as men.  It actually did happen quite often in that and other wars.  This story is filled with pain, suffering, love, and attempts to make sense of life in a fallen world and in the midst of a brutal war.

Concerning the authors, Kathy Hepinstall is a novelist with several successful works to her credit.  Becky Hepinstall is a college history major whose contribution to this book was the historical details.  Amazing teamwork from these two Texas women.

I don’t purposely seek to read either historical fiction or Civil War novels, but I have ended up reading quite a few through the years.   My favorites are The Unvanquished by William Faulkner and None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon.  Of course, such books as Gone With the Wind cannot be ignored, and over the years, I have enjoyed teaching Killer Angels to many classes.

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Somewhere this past year, I was reading an article that recommended two Christian authors–Marilynne Robinson and Amor Towles.  I read and loved Gilead, Home, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson a few years back, and I have bought her essay collections.  I hope she wins a Nobel Prize for Literature soon.  Amor Towles was a totally new name for me.  I am still not certain why he was recommended as a “Christian” author.

This summer while making an mostly unsuccessful hunt in a used bookstore in Denison, Texas, I came across one of Amor Towles’ two novels–Rules of Civility. Diving in, I found the time, the setting, the characters, and the topic of the book uninviting. In other words, Towles is not a southern author.  His book is told from the viewpoint of a woman named Katey Kontent who is living in New York City in the 1930s.  The uninteresting book kept drawing me deeper and deeper into the story.  At some point, I realized that I was in the grip of a very skilled writer and a novelist with lots of promise.

I don’t have Towles’ second novel, A Gentleman from Moscow, but I am sold on his writings.

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C. J. Box is top shelf.  I have now read nearly all of his Joe Pickett novels–out of order.  I have nearly all of his novels in nice hardback editions, and one autographed copy of Winterkill (replacing my trade paper copy). Box writes murder mysteries and good ones.  His central character is Joe Pickett, who is a game warden, husband and father to three girls, and a often stumbling man who persists in finding the ugly truths others cannot see.  He also has an amazing friend named Nate Romanowski, who I want for a personal friend. The stories are set in Wyoming and in modern times, but the books have a powerful western feel.  In fact, Box and Pickett may actually overuse the term “Get western” when speaking about events that are about to involve a shootout or the like.

Is Box writing “literature”?  Probably not, but he writes good stories with a powerful human dimension.  As a character, Joe Pickett is a lot like Sheriff Walt Longmire over in neighboring Montana.  I wish those two guys–Pickett and Longmire–could team up at least once.  (How about that Mr. Box and Mr. Craig Johnston–if you are reading this blog?)

I started the Pickett novels somewhere in the middle and based reading on whichever books I had.  As is often the case with series, the earlier books are harder to find in hardback editions (unless one is willing to shell out some big bucks). Having now read all of the earlier books, I can soon get to his latest in the series–The Disappeared.

Again, love this author’s books, love Joe Pickett and his family.  And Box is a Presbyterian and the Pickett family are believers (although Joe sometimes cusses right smart.)

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Another writer that I have been working on getting to know is Alan Furst.  He is often proclaimed to be one of the best espionage writers.  Part of the attraction is that his books mostly set in the 1930s and then in the World War II era.  This sometimes means an unhappy ending as in the case of The Spies of Warsaw.  Despite the best efforts of French military intelligence officer Jean Francois Mercier, neither Poland nor France will be able to circumvent the history that actually happened during the years leading up to the attacks that began World War II.

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Perhaps this is enough for now.  I am looking forward to some future reads including The Resistance by Douglas Bond. I previously read Bond’s book War in the Wasteland, which is about World War I, and reviewed it on this blog.  I am watching the mailbox for The Resistance to arrive.  I also will be starting The Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer.  Both Bond and Dwyer are Facebook friends and brothers in Christ.  The Resistance and The Short Grass are set in World War II.  I am hoping that Lief Enger’s latest novel Virgil Wander is under the Christmas tree.

Also, I expect to be reading some Russian guys named Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn for school.

2-Book bundle-THE RESISTANCE & companion volume WAR IN THE WASTELAND

These two volumes are available from Douglas Bond’s website (www.Bondbooks.net) for $25.

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I have got to get this one read before the sequel comes out.