Thursday, May 29, 2008

BALTIMORE by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden

Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire
is an illustrated gothic horror novel by Christopher Golden and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. This is the tale of Captain Baltimore, who encounters a vampire in World War I, and of his three friends, who meet and share their own experiences of gothic horror while they wait for him.

Thusly this volume is, more or less, a bunch of smaller tales that are connected. Many of them draw heavily on folklore, which is vintage Mignola. And most of them are entertaining, although some are fairly predictable. None, however, is more predictable as the novel’s climax and ending, which also manages to be rather anticlimactic. On top of this, the characters are not particularly well developed.

While the story is lackluster at times, the authors have done an excellent job with the tone. The writing, while overwrought at times, captures the gothic horror atmosphere for nearly the entire novel.

Mignola does the illustrations here. They are stark, black and white pieces, often extreme close-ups of objects, that do much more to help set the mood of the novel in a general way than specifically depict any particular scene. So even if the art is somewhat underwhelming, it still works.

A work of gothic horror like this cannot help but address religion. In Baltimore, faith is weak, and Christianity seems particularly neutered. The authors have thrown religion by the wayside in favor of hack-and-slash encounters with the supernatural.

Baltimore, then, is a decent but unspectacular gothic horror novel. It should appeal to fans of that genre, as well as fans of the authors, but probably not beyond that.


Friday, May 23, 2008

THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s novel about the decline of a Southern family, has been enthroned in the pantheon of English literature, primarily because of Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness.

By beginning with the mentally retarded Benjy as narrator, Faulkner assures that the reader has virtually no idea what’s going on (other than that Caddy smells like trees) for the first quarter of the book. Quentin’s section isn’t much better. In both cases, Faulkner jumps around chronologically with no regard for the reader. Faulkner makes it worse by giving each section a date, which in Benjy’s and Quentin’s cases only makes it more confusing, since he doesn’t adhere to it at all.

Is this stream of consciousness realistic? That’s hard to say. Certainly not for everyone. Even if it is, so what? It’s frustrating, and it isn’t particularly interesting. Even if one grants that Faulkner has masterfully displayed the way the human mind works, so what?

What Faulkner does well is emotions. This novel is filled with powerful displays of emotion, which Faulkner does an excellent job of showing rather than telling. As such the second half of the novel, which is for the most part straightforward and linear, is quite compelling.

So why is this novel considered so great? Because it’s so challenging and difficult? It’s much easier to defend The Sound and the Fury as a literary exercise than as a novel, as half of it is all but incoherent. Certainly it isn’t a novel for casual reading. There is some very worthwhile writing here, but for many readers, it just isn’t worth it.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The Story of the Second World War, originally published in 1957, is a history of World War II written for young adults. This book more or less covers the entire war – a dubious task for a 300-page work. Thusly we get what happened but not why or how it happened, which is fine for a book of this sort. Savage covers the material fairly well, even including the roles of other nations, like India and South Africa, whose involvement in World War II is not often discussed.

Savage editorializes well beyond her purview. She uses inflammatory, sensational adjectives irresponsibly. For Savage, the Allies are always brave, courageous and heroic, while members of the Axis are greedy, treacherous, and often lucky in their conquests. When the Allies win a battle, they win it “on sheer courage.” Savage oversimplifies everything, which not only leads to inaccuracies, but makes the world leaders caricatures of themselves. Savage makes Hitler and Mussolini look like such buffoons it’s hard to believe they could conquer their way out of a paper bag.

All this leads to some egregiously inconsistent moralizing from Savage. When an Allied soldier kills a Nazi or a Japanese soldier, that’s “heroism.” When an Axis soldier kills somebody, that’s “an atrocity.” Savage goes out of her way to demonize the Nazis for their treatment and killing of civilians, yet turns around and categorically excuses the willful bombing of civilian targets by the Allies. Not surprisingly, she is also pro-atomic bomb. The overall effect is that the book reads like propaganda.

No doubt The Story of the Second World War is, to some extent, a product of the time in which it was written. But it does not hold up at all to objective scrutiny. There are innumerable better books on World War II out there, for any audience. Savage isn’t doing history any favors.


Monday, May 19, 2008


The exact version of Stories by O. Henry I am reviewing, with its particular selection of stories, is now out of print and cannot be found even on Nevertheless, what remarks can be made about a selection of Henry’s stories can be applied to his entire body of work. This volume featured twenty-three of his stories, including such notables as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Cop and the Anthem.”

O. Henry (the pen name of William Sydney Porter) is known for his short stories primarily because of their surprise endings. However, in a collection like this one, where the reader knows to look for the twist, some endings can be predicted. Henry is also notable for his spectacular use of vocabulary (keep a dictionary handy). It’s often unrealistic that Henry’s characters know such grandiose words, but that doesn’t matter – Henry often uses this device for wordplay and humor, and it’s all in good fun. Henry’s writing is typically excellent. He covers the spectrum of society, often with some telling insights into the human condition.

Not all of O. Henry’s stories have held up over time, but he is certainly worth reading.


Monday, May 12, 2008


Introducing Christian Doctrine (second edition, 2001), written by Millard J. Erickson and edited by L. Arnold Hustad, is a briefer version of Erickson's previous work, Christian Theology. Introducing Christian Doctrine is an introductory-level textbook in systematic theology. 

This book covers the full gamut of Christian theology, with sections on what theology is, God's revelation, the nature and work of god, humanity and sin, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, and eschatology. On issues of doctrine, Erickson explains the various positions, identifies their strengths and weaknesses, and then pronounces which he believes is the best position. The reader may not always agree, but Erickson's arguments are well-reasoned and logical.

Introducing Christian Doctrine is easy to read, perhaps surprisingly so, both for theology students and laity. And in addition to being a worthwhile textbook, it also serves as a very handy quick reference guide to doctrinal questions. No self-respecting theologian should be without it.


Monday, May 5, 2008

FRANNY AND ZOOEY by J. D. Salinger

Franny and Zooey (1961) is J. D. Salinger’s two-part novel about an intellectual and spiritually unfulfilled girl and her intellectual, snobbish brother. This novel features the Glass family, which Salinger has written about on other occasions. The majority of the book consists of three lengthy conversations: between Franny and her boyfriend, between Zooey and their mother, and between Franny and Zooey. The novel is so dialogue-heavy it reads very much like a play. The book’s primary theme is spirituality, particularly of an Eastern bent (which is what Salinger himself was so fascinated by).

What Salinger does very well is communicate his characters’ feelings subtly, through their speech and behavior, rather than by narration, which takes all the style out of things. The reader really feels like he or she gets to know Franny and Zooey (neither of them is particularly likeable, but that’s beside the point).

While the dialogue between Salinger’s characters is generally quite good, they all have the unbearable tendency to launch into unrealistic and lengthy monologues at any given moment. Here, at times, Salinger is in effect preaching to the reader.

Inexplicably, Salinger is eternally focused on smoking. The reader always knows what each character is smoking, whether it’s lit, and what hand he or she is holding it in. It’s to the point of distraction, and serves no reasonable purpose other than to briefly interrupt interminable monologues. Salinger also displays other tendencies to micromanage his characters and their world (he gives ridiculously long descriptions of certain things, most egregiously the contents of the medicine cabinet).

Ultimately, Franny and Zooey’s downfall is that it doesn’t particularly go anywhere. There’s no real payoff. Two hundred pages of pampered, superior huffing and puffing, while entertaining at times and tedious by the end, climaxes with an unsatisfactory piece of basic, Eastern-worldview advice that gets treated as the greatest of revelations.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

THE BLIND SIDE by Michael Lewis

The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, is primarily a biography of projected future NFL first-round draft pick Michael Oher and secondarily a history of the evolution of the left tackle position in the NFL.

Lewis chronicles how Oher, who bounced around as a child and never learned to learn, was taken in by the wealthy Tuohy family, how they helped him to learn and to play football, and how he went on to start at Ole Miss. Lewis does an excellent job communicating the characters’ personalities to the reader, particularly Oher’s.

Interspersed throughout the book are historical anecdotes about the evolution of the left tackle position. Lewis gives particular attention to Lawrence Taylor and the shift to fast, destructive pass rushers, and to Bill Walsh, who was one of the first coaches to emphasize protection of the quarterback’s blind side.

While Lewis tells a very interesting story, his writing style has its flaws. He jumps around quite a bit, which is almost as distracting (he just does it one too many times) as the sentence fragments he loves to sprinkle in. Lewis also uses the wrong word a few times. He mixes up “insure” and “ensure.” He calls linemen “ectomorphs” (ectomorphs have slender builds). The copy editor for this book was asleep at the switch.

On the whole, this is an interesting and entertaining book about a likeable young man, and a good recap of a major strategic shift in the NFL.