Saturday, August 28, 2010


Invitation to Archaeology is a 1967 book by James Deetz, who was an anthropologist and university professor. Here, Deetz briefly discusses the principles and methods of archaeology, and covers excavation, dating, and analysis.

Deetz’s information is solid, but Invitation to Archaeology is incredibly dry. It reads like a textbook, and Deetz inundates the reader with terminology and jargon. The book feels more like a survey than an introduction, and any reader without at least a basic working knowledge of archaeology may be quickly lost or bored or both. It doesn’t help that there aren’t usually enough illustrations to enable the reader to envision the elaborate scenes and diagrams Deetz describes.

If you’re already into archaeology, you’ll probably want to go with something more in-depth than this 150-page book. If you’re looking for something to spark your interest in the subject, Invitation to Archaeology probably isn’t going to do it.


Thursday, August 26, 2010



The Richest Man in Babylon is a 1926 financial self-help book by George S. Clason. Here, Clason presents a number of short stories, set in ancient Babylon, that communicate basic wealth-building principles.

Clason’s principles are sound and timeless: work hard, live within your means, save, and invest wisely. Clason also presents a get-out-of-debt plan whereby the debtor lives on seventy percent of his income, saves ten, and pays his debts with twenty. All these concepts are offered so simply that just about any reader should be able to grasp them.

The stories themselves hold the reader’s attention most of the time, although the Babylon shtick gets a little wearisome toward the end (and this isn’t a long book). The characters all speak in King James-style English, but it doesn’t always sound right (recent revised editions of the book, I understand, have updated the English). But it’s never too big a problem, and even so, a lot of people are going to find The Richest Man in Babylon a lot more appealing than a dry, straightforward book on finance.

In short, The Richest Man in Babylon is a readable, accessible introduction to wealth-building principles and financial responsibility.


Monday, August 23, 2010

AND GOD CHOSE DREAMS by Michael L. Mathews

And God Chose Dreams is a 2008 Christian living book on dreams and dream interpretation by Michael L. Mathews. “More and more people are dreaming more frequently,” Mathews says (p. 14), and at “an alarming rate” (why the rate is “alarming” is never addressed). Mathews stated goal here is to inform the reader why dreams are significant, and why God communicates through dreams.

Mathews’ premise is highly suspect. He says more and more people are dreaming more frequently – who are these people? They’re people he knows, and they’re dreaming more frequently “lately,” and yet Mathews has extrapolated a pan-global phenomenon based on this infinitesimal sample size. Mathews talks as though things are so different in this generation, as though a special dispensationalist period began in, say, 2005. And the biblically-savvy reader must ask how the author can write an entire book on the topic without even addressing Peter’s announcement of the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 and the beginning of the “last days” at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) with regard either to dispensation or the concept of the “last days.”

Mathews goes on to give four reasons why people are dreaming more: “our minds and thoughts are completely saturated,” “dreams and visions allow us to better align our thoughts with God’s thoughts,” “God stated that dreams would increase in the last days,” and “dreams are God’s personification of the gospel” (p. 15). The astute reader will note that regardless of one’s position on the “last days,” three of these four “reasons” have nothing to do with an increase in dreaming or dreaming in one time period versus dreaming in another.

God, at certain times, communicates with people through special dreams and visions – that I accept; the Bible is full of examples. But Mathews wants the reader to believe that God is speaking to each person in every dream – in essence, that dreams are inherently a form of supernatural communication. So, then, one of Abraham’s dreams where God shows up and has a back-and-forth conversation with him is equal to the one you had where you were running away from a vampire but couldn’t scream, and then all of a sudden you were jumping out of an airplane somehow, and then the guy from the Old Spice commercials was there (on a horse).  Insert Inception joke here.  It’s ludicrous. And the examples Mathews gives of interpretations of such nonsensical dreams are hardly compelling.

Mathews also inserts a lot of quotes about dreams from various famous people. Which is fine, except that he can’t seem to differentiate between a dream (a series of thoughts, images or emotions occurring during sleep) and a dream (a strongly desired goal or purpose).

And God Chose Dreams is self-published (AuthorHouse), and it shows. The book looks and reads like a first draft: the formatting is a disaster, and there are all the grammatical and typographical errors you’d expect to find in a book that’s never seen an editor. I will say that the cover design is well done, though, so it has that going for it, which is nice.

Mathews’ writing is often rambling and his sentences are sometimes peculiar, in part due to his style and in part due to the obvious lack of revision. Nobody should ever have to read a sentence like, “The New Testament is combined with numerous dreams and visions” (p. 92). Mathews uses “and/or” like it’s one legitimate word – you can play an and/or drinking game with this book. Most bizarre, And God Chose Dreams is full of block quotes, with citations, from Mathews himself. There’s no indication that these quotes are from other works; this is seemingly used just as a new and/or stupid way to highlight certain points.

Mathews holds to a Left Behind-style premillennialist eschatology – he’s one of those people who uses “rapture” as a verb and talks like the “end times” began during his lifetime – and since he spends so much time on the topic, if you don’t share his viewpoint, you’re going to be doing a lot of skimming and/or eye-rolling (even if you do share it, you may still wonder at some of Mathews’ bafflingly incoherent points – his assertion that Daniel 12:4 says that “time would speed up,” for example (p. 130)).

In the end and/or on the whole, And God Chose Dreams is poorly written, poorly reasoned, and poorly presented. I would recommend anyone and/or everyone to skip it.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly is an 1852 anti-slavery sentimental novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which she wrote as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This novel is sometimes considered a contributing factor to the start of the American Civil War, as it brought many unpleasant aspects of slave life and the slave trade into the public awareness.  

The novel’s events center around two slaves: Eliza, who attempts to flee to Canada with her son, who has just been sold, and Tom, who has also been sold, but who goes along subserviently. And while Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly is about Tom, it is much less about Eliza than it is about the responses of the other characters she comes in contact with.

One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s main themes is the triumph of Christian love over evil, and for overtness, power and sincerity, the novel’s Christian message can scarcely be topped. Eva is an obvious Christ figure, and Tom becomes one as well, but Tom is particularly noteworthy because he’s one of the most eternity-minded characters in all of literature. He endures everything, as Saint Paul said, for the sake of the gospel (which he is always quick to share) – his stated reason for remaining in cruel bondage when presented with a chance of escape is to minister to the other slaves. Because of his selfless love and inner strength, he is the book’s most admirable character.

(It’s interesting (and too bad) how the term “Uncle Tom” – now used to negatively describe a black who is subservient to whites – has become so pejorative. Stowe’s Tom is a loving, strong-willed, eternity-minded character. But lax copyright laws in the nineteenth century allowed for unauthorized diluted and altered stage versions of the story (called “Tom shows,” some of which were even pro­-slavery), and many people came to know Tom as a stereotypical minstrel buffoon – certainly a great number more people saw the stage dramas than read the books.)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sentimental novel (in the literary sense), and Stowe goes for the heartstrings at every opportunity. Though the reader may not at any time, many of Stowe’s characters burst into tears at the slightest provocation. Stowe herself is a preachily-involved narrator, and nothing the author has to say is handled subtlely. While Stowe’s many characters debate various “biblical” perspectives on slavery, the narrator’s (and the author’s) views are never in doubt, and she laments to an even greater extent America’s burgeoning disregard for the Bible.

From a literary standpoint, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is largely unimpressive, and sometimes it’s a downright mess. If the novel wasn’t so socially and politically relevant, it would have been lost in the mists of time with countless other sappy, mediocre novels.

In the first place, there are about twice as many characters as there need to be, far too many of whom are named Tom, Henry, or George. And it isn’t always easy to pin down just who the main characters are, because conscientiously-developed characters leave after a few chapters, others arrive, and some characters who are obviously key to Stowe’s tale (Eliza, in particular), vanish for a hundred pages at a time, while others don’t debut until halfway through the book. Many characters are flat, one-dimensional caricatures, present only to offer a particular point of view on a topic. In doing so, Stowe brings the reader into contact with every conceivable position on slavery and human rights, but it doesn’t make for a particularly believable story.

Secondly, the book’s goings-on are equally contrived. The reader can see the hand of Stowe on every major plot point, particularly at the end, where she attempts to tie up matters with a series of heartwarming but preposterous coincidences.     

But this doesn’t mean that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is horribly written; that’s simply not the case. Sometimes Stowe produces a very fine turn of phrase, and certain scenes are well done and do produce the intended emotional response. And many of the book’s moral and philosophical debates hold the reader’s interest because Stowe has clearly thought through the issues and educated herself on the various arguments and viewpoints.

So while Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not very impressive as literature, it remains important (and worth reading) because of its message and the role it played in a key era of American history.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe is an 1820 historical novel by Sir Walter Scott. In 1194, in the time of King Richard the Lionheart, Prince John and Robin Hood, disinherited Saxon knight Wilfred of Ivanhoe returns from the Crusades and seeks revenge against his Norman nemesis Brian de Bois-Guilbert.

But the story is so much more than that. Ivanhoe features an ensemble cast with perhaps a dozen noteworthy characters, and of these, Ivanhoe himself plays a supporting role at best, as he’s absent from massive portions of the novel. Yet it is he who ties all the characters together.

The modern reader may be put off by a number of things, particularly Scott’s tendency to devote entire pages to the descriptions of his characters’ garb, and the unnaturally expository dialogue he puts in their mouths. But Ivanhoe is nearly two hundred years old, and some of these things we just have to get over. More just criticisms might target the book’s sometimes too leisurely pace, the somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, and the unquestionably contrived and hackneyed, silly and pointless return of Athelstane, which is so literarily amateurish that Scott felt compelled to insert a footnote to acknowledge this fact, but that he was doing it anyway.

Ivanhoe is a three-act quest/reward adventure, and in spite of the book’s more plodding characteristics, Scott usually keeps the pages turning in an impressive manner. His writing is clever as well as verbose, and quite frankly, there are a lot of exciting things going on here.  

As far as the narrative, Scott sometimes has difficulty juggling all his characters, as he has to jump around chronologically, impeding the novel’s flow. Neither does Scott feel compelled to wrap up all his many plot threads; some prominent characters, notably Prince John, are dropped by the wayside as the novel progresses and then only mentioned in passing later on.

Ivanhoe features an astounding degree of anti-Semitism from virtually every character, whether hero or villain (in addition to a historically accurate depiction of medieval persecution, this is also a political commentary contemporary to Scott’s day, as England was moving toward the emancipation of its Jews). Yet for the point Scott is trying to make, Isaac of York fits very well the stereotype of the miserly Jew. But his daughter Rebecca is the noblest character in the novel.

Of similar historicity is the frustrating level of ignorance and superstition displayed by so many characters – it makes something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s witch/duck scene seem hardly a bit farcical. And saddest of all is the time’s horrendous misunderstanding of Christianity – the finding of virtue in unvirtuous acts, particularly the slaughter of any and all unbelievers.

While Scott took a number of liberties with other historical matters in Ivanhoe, no offense is egregious, and because of the degree of detail Scott provides, most everything is believable enough to the uninitiated. Ivanhoe is also noteworthy for its lasting influence. It sparked a renewed interest in the Middle Ages. And every single Robin Hood tale or film I’ve ever seen has used it in some way as source material, as have a large number of other medieval and fantasy stories.  

In spite of its flaws, Ivanhoe remains a pillar of medieval historical fiction, and is a must for fans of that period.