Archive for December, 2016

One wonders how the course of an epic war takes shape in the remembering mind. It is so easy to move to Normandy and the push across Europe towards Berlin. Yet Normandy and the reconquest of Europe came late in the war and were impossible without the unsung precursors. Like the invasion of Sicily and the hard slog up the Italian boot at a time when it was still possible to underestimate the enemy and, later, convenient to forget places like Anzio and Montecassino.

51kz5col-nl-_sx313_bo1204203200_In The Day of Battle, as elsewhere, Atkinson’s writing is not only fueled by the very best research. It also goes down smoothly as such a tale can.

The struggle that had begun in September 1939 was more than half over; yet if both commanders and commanded intuited that they were nearer the end than the beginning, they also sensed that less than half the butcher’s bill had been paid in a bloodletting that ultimately would claim sixty million lives: one life every three seconds for six years. They also knew that if the Allied powers—led by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union—now possessed the strategic initiative, the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan still held the real estate, including six thousand miles of European coastline and the entire western littoral of Asia.

Atkinson exegetes the butcher’s bill as few other military historians can.

In the little Pennsylvania town where this reviewer grew up, twenty-two names adorn the WWII memorial in the main cemetery. Two of these fell in Italy. Curiously, both were women: Carrie Sheetz, a nurse whose station was bombed by a rogue German fighter trying to escape pursuing allied planes at Anzio; and a certain Josephine Strohecker, who perished in Naples.

Atkinson provides a context for understanding such unsought sacrifice on the part of so many citizen soldiers.

This second entry to the Liberation Trilogy is a gift to those who remember the unsung fallen.


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Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Fundraising is a book I need to read again every year in order to keep my bearings.

415qui41ql-_ac_us436_ql65_My own battle with fundraising has seen some success and some notable failure. I was raised to believe that a decent person never asked anyone for money. Nouwen’s little book turns that idea upside down.

Or, better said, rightside up.

For Nouwen, asking people to become generous and even sacrificial stewards is offering those people the gift of conversion. He means this in the deepest, process-oriented, open sense of the word. Seen this way, it is a service rendered. Ministry extended. I need this.

Nouwen starts strong:

Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission. Fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging. When we seek to raise funds we are not saying, “Please, could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.” Rather, we are declaring, “We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you—your energy, your prayers, and your money—in this work to which God has called us.” Our invitation is clear and confident because we trust that our vision and mission are like “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither” (Ps. 1:3).

A winsome, God-fueled lightness of spirit pervades Nouwen’s reflection on fundraising, a light-heartedness that is seldom evidenced when this subject is on the table. We are freed, in the best rather than the self-serving sense of the phrase, to be free as we seek funding.

Indeed, Nouwen writes about such in connection with our ultimate security:

If our security is totally in God, then we are free to ask for money. Only when we are free from money can we ask freely for others to give it. This is the conversion to which fundraising as ministry call us.

So it is not only the person receiving our request, but we ourselves who encounter the opportunity of conversion as we go about this work.

I have grown weary of fundraising technique. My soul longs for a gospel-grounded understanding of this otherwise distasteful task.

Nouwen provides it in A Spirituality of Fundraising, this reviewer’s annual reading on the topic.

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I had often heard of ‘Ernie Pyle’ from people who had been around to read his newspaper columns during ‘The War’ and—more often—from those whose parents had done so. But it was not until a solemn stroll through Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific brought me unexpectedly upon Pyle’s gravesite that he became a real human being to me. Ironically, for me he was humanized in his death. It is a sentiment that Pyle might have been expected to appreciate, for he humanized the American fighting man and woman precisely in their deepest extremis.51stormosil-_sx312_bo1204203200_

I immediately ordered this remarkable collection of Pyle’s columns, filed from a very mobile front as it made its way across Europe and towards Berlin.

It took a bit of time for Pyle’s writing to grow on me. His vocabulary, his pacing come—after all—from a different generation’s English. But grow on me it did.

By all accounts a complex man and by some accounts a troubled one, Pyle shines no light in these dispatches on himself. His singular focus is on the American GI and sailor. The title of this compilation might suggest a romantic touch. Yet romance is not what Pyle brought to war, and certainly not to his supremely empathetic picture of the American warrior in an epic conflict that not one of them had invited to interrupt his life.

I am tempted to say that every American school child should be required to read this book.

But that will never happen, and is hardly worth the words.

The good news is that some of us, more often than not those who have slowly grown to appreciate the citizen soldier with all his warts, will pick up and read this extraordinary collection of journalistic snapshots. Some of us will pause quietly at the end of one or more of the book’s 35 chapters. To wonder, perhaps, how we would have performed under similar duress. To honor those who endured. To grieve those who did not.

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Here in Indianapolis, the sun will set on the year 2016 in ten minutes. And counting.

It has been an extraordinary year, both personally and for our human race.

When it has not driven us to distraction or drawn despair too near for comfort, it has thrown up glimpses of new things and fresh possibilities. It’s an easy thing to say, bereft of historical discipline, but I’ll say it anyway: This has been a year like no other.

Meanwhile, the Bible’s last chapter reminds me that we are neither the first nor perhaps the last to groan for a day with no darkness, a year’s end with no threatening penumbra.

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5 ESV)

The seer John’s vision of a life-giving proximity to ‘the Lord God’ that removes mediation is part of a wider vision that is continuous with what we know here and now, but relieved of the Curse that afflicts us.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1–5 ESV)

All is provided. Nothing lacks.

All is pure and clear, all is life.

No more night.




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From this reviewer’s, anything with the late David Halberstam’s name on it is ipso facto a worthy read. This aching recounting of a war no one saw coming and nearly everybody forgot is no exception.

51zmq1uhxsl-_ac_us436_ql65_In his introduction to The Coldest Winter, the author alludes to the ‘colossal gaffe’ of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s omission of South Korea when drawing America’s Asian defense perimeter. Sadly, the Korean Conflict was to offer a strong roster of competitors for ‘greatest colossal gaffe’ status. Per Halberstam’s statistics, the chaotic war without the title would claim 33,000 American lives alongside of 415,000 South Koreans and perhaps a million and a half Chinese and North Koreans.

Of the titans who come off badly, flailingly, blindly, Douglas MacArthur holds pride of place in Halberstam’s telling. The Coldest Winter complements other histories of the conflict by shining a light on an enduring tragedy: the intelligence to understand what the Chinese were willing to sacrifice for control of the peninsula was there to see. Military leaders on what would become a frigid field of battle saw it, often, but could not convince their leadership—particularly egotistic, far-away MacArthur—that it was there, right in front of them.

Halberstam is also merciless with the China hands who in his telling held on far too long to vain hopes that Chiang Kai-Shek was something other than a spent force and that an enduring Communist rule over the mainland China was a fact on the ground that would not be bombed or wished out of existence.

This decidedly non-specialist reviewer found Halberstam’s narrative of ‘the early Kim’ fascinating in light of contemporary developments in North Korea’s ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

A cold winter unfailingly causes an ache in the bones. Perhaps none so deep and enduring as the ache David Halberstam recovers for our consideration and our memory in his masterful The Coldest Winter.

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I have always appreciated the Rough Guides for their deep research, stunning photography, and urbane matter-of-factness about the places and people that fall under their gaze. A certain British eye on the world and the exploration of it is usually detectable as well, which arguably shortens the distance between the tourist and his or her hosts.

51liskguw4l-_sx324_bo1204203200_The Rough Guide to Colombia is no exception. It may well be the best of its kind for Colombia. Why do I say this?

First, the photography in the Kindle format I own just pops on my iPad.

Second, Stephen Keeling has a knack for capturing a whole complex of reality in a single, well-crafted sentence or two. His very first lines of introduction prove the point.

One of the world’s most infamous but misunderstood countries, Colombia boasts a rich history and an incredibly diverse array of attractions, from soaring Andean peaks smothered in cloud forest to palm-fringed Caribbean beaches and gorgeous colonial cities such as Cartagena.

But this ability is sustained throughout the book. Allow me a few more examples:

Colombian food is hearty and filling rather than spicy or exotic (although they do spice it up a bit more on the coast) …

For all its instability and upheavals, Colombia has a strong and robust tradition of press freedom, and as befits a country with 94-percent literacy, a wide range of newspapers and magazines … Colombian newspapers tend to be regional rather than national … Although the press is in principle free, and papers express a wide range of views, press owners tend to be closely tied to political interests—indeed, some are active politicians …

Colombia is a tropical country, where germs breed fast, but it’s also a country where hygiene is generally good, and most travellers who come here catch nothing more serious than a dose of the runs, if that …

The same sense for brevity without reductionism is found in the book’s helpful ‘Fact Files’, which are eccentric without being cute.

Again, one-offs like ’21 Things Not to Miss’ touch upon a wide range of Colombia’s virtues without kowtowing to any narrow line of interest.

Third, Keeling invests a substantial number of pages to the basics of traveling to, through, and out of Colombia. He neither moans about Colombia’s violent past nor naively whistles past current risks that must be thoughtfully addressed.

Fourth, the research that has gone into this guidebook is both broad and deep. A reader could spend a lifetime in Colombia and not exhaust the practical counsel that Keeling offers here.

Most, however, will not spend that lifetime in Colombia. A week or two is more likely. In this light, one of the standards to which I hold a purported guidebook takes the form of a question: ‘Would a citizen of the nation that is being introduced say, “Yes, the author has understood us and our place?” I believe a Colombian reader would likely judge that Keeling has done so.

The Rough Guides in general are the guidebook line to beat. If I were to take only one guidebook to Colombia, Stephen Keeling’s Rough Guide would be the one.

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Roger Schank’s hilarious send-up of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Story has all manner of respect for Dickens and even for the original Scrooge. In fact, Schank dedicates the book to Dickens.

51g54pbkdql-_sx310_bo1204203200_It is the practitioners of education-as-preparation-for-test-taking who absorb the blows of the author’s satire. The Yale University Admissions Department and the Educational Testing Service stand in for the broader industry.

Schank’s Scrooge, the businessman behind the Scrooge Testing Service, is forced to reckon with four nocturnal spirits. First comes the Ghost of John Dewey to illuminate the aged educational tester about the ordeal he must bear, then the Spirit of Education Past, the Spirit of Education Present, and the Spirit of Education Future. In real life one of America’s educational icons, Dewey had been Scrooge’s teacher at Columbia and had once lived in Scrooge’s apartment. But that was a long time ago and so very much forgotten.

I found myself chuckling throughout my reading at the turns Schank executes on his Dickensian framework. Satire achieves its success when it makes the status quo seem ludicrous. In this sense, Scrooge Meets Dick and Jane achieves its goal.

Satire becomes fun when it smartly juxtaposes an old and familiar reality with the new thing that is being ridiculed.

Dickens’ Scrooge awakens from his troubled sleep to throw open a window and announce by word and deed to the world below that he gone from being a curse upon it to a blessing. Schank’s Scrooge follows in stride. Let the remaking of a familiar scene stand in for the whole enterprise:

‘What’s happening today?’, cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.

‘Eh?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.

‘What’s today, my fine fellow?’ said Scrooge.

‘Today?’ replied the boy. ‘Why today is the day when the SATs are administered.’

‘I haven’t missed it.’ said Scrooge to himself. ‘The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!’

‘Hallo!’ returned the boy.

‘Run to the school and tell them not to administer the exam,’ Scrooge replied.

‘What? Why would they listen to me? No one could stop the exam. Besides the exam is being given all over the country in every school,’ replied the lad.

‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! You are absolutely correct! I must call the newspapers. I must post something on our web site. I must get on television!’

‘What will you tell them?’ returned the boy.

‘That there will be no more exams. Scrooge’s Testing Service is going out of business,’ said Scrooge. ‘It will be a pleasure to talk to them. Yes, my buck.’

‘But they will demand a replacement,’ replied the boy. ‘How will they know how I am doing in school? How will they know who is getting it and who is not?’

‘They will have to do what they did before there were testing services,’ said Scrooge. ‘They will have to pay attention to each individual child. Yale will have to interview its applicants and listen to the opinions of teachers. They will have to seek out original minds instead of good test takers!’

‘Surely you jest!’ exclaimed the boy.

It is principally educators who will pick up Scrooge Meets Dick and Jane. No matter their educational philosophy, they will find something of themselves in Roger Schank’s satire. It may even enliven discussion which all to often is dry, arcane, and a country mile from anything as imaginative as Charles Dickens and that other Scrooge story.

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Back on October 29, dear friends Maureen and Timmy Laniak sent me a link to a talk that the New York Times columnist David Brooks did at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival. Today, December 31st, I’ve finally made the space to watch and listen.david-brooks

Titled The Inverse Logic of Life, Brooks’ relaxed reflection on humility and character leave me breathless.

In fact, this talk has me unexpectedly leaning into 2017 with hope, expectation, and resolve.

You know how sometimes the cry of your heart is echoed by someone’s articulation of reality in a way you could never have done? That’s what Brooks’ talk does for me.

If you only have have fifty-five minutes and fifty seconds for one thing in 2017, start here.



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Phyllis White Rodriguez-Peralta’s lovingly told survey of three legendary conductors of one of the great American orchestras is lovingly told. Her joy at having been ‘part of’ the story is palpable, even if her writing is a bit wooden and the volume occasionally flirts with hagiography.41hzvdj1v3l-_sx359_bo1204203200_

The author describes ‘the Philadelphia sound’ in this way:

Everyone has heard about the ‘Philadelphia sound’, a phrase that usually refers to the lushness of the strings and is associated particularly with Ormandy. This ‘sound’, however, really varies according to the conductor, the composer, and the venue. The seeds were sown by Stokowski, flowered with Ormandy, were strictly cultivated by Muti, and flowered again, but with more definition, under Sawallisch. Eschenbach’s influence (White Rodriguez-Peralta published this work in 2006) is just beginning.

This paragraph is pregnant of the author’s telling, particularly the hint that Muti represents something of a hiatus in the orchestra’s tradition.

It is astonishing that the Orchestra was led by only six principal conductors for the duration of the twentieth century. This idiosyncratic longevity on the podium creates a context for partisans of this or another version of ‘the sound’ who hold and express their views with a certain ferocity.

For this quite amateur appreciator of classical music, I find the principal value of Philadelphia Maestros to lie in the peek it affords us behind the curtain and into the complex constellation of musical gifts and personalities that constitute the source of a great orchestra’s music across the longue durée of its tradition.

Tradition, it seems to me, is the right word, and a venerable one at that. A conductor comes to a place like Philadelphia as a custodian or a steward of this tradition. His (or her) license to reshape what has been given by the preceding decades is finite. The author helps us to understand how a conductor’s individuality vis-à-vis ‘the Philadelphia’s’ tradition played out during the reigns of Ormandy, Muti, and Sawallisch.

Some glimpses are riveting:

Always very strict, Muti was particularly adamant about sticking to the composer’s text, and sometimes a singer reacted against his removal of an expected high note or expected trills and ornamentation because they were not in the original score. He once told Pavarotti, ‘Either sing what Bellini wrote or find yourself a new conductor’.

Or this:

The enmity between Abaddo and Muti was well known, although its origin has never been disclosed by either one. Perhaps it has something to do with the subtle prejudices between northern and southern Italy.

Or again:

In the following September, at the official welcoming ceremony for Sawallisch and his wife, Mechthild, he said to the festive crowd, ‘We are Philadelphians.’ Obviously recalling President Kennedy’s words in Berlin, he seemed, also, to be offering assurance that he would devote his primary efforts and attention to the Philadelphia Orchestra.

White Rodriguez-Peralta’s most effusive admiration is indeed directed towards Wolfgang Sawallisch, who died in 2013, seven years after this book’s publication. This book of light reading on the Orchestra’s directors shines a light on how iconic such a role becomes. Musical mastery is only a precursor to the effective work of the great conductor.

The author’s service lies in helping us to appreciate that fact as we listen to and, just occasionally, gasp at the beauty of that sound.

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David Lee’s much-used Medellín Living blog is now complemented by this serviceable guide to an up-and-coming city.

519ihwqp2rlThe Medellín Travel Guide‘s strength is that its author has followed the people of the city he surveys in putting Medellín’s regrettable notoriety firmly in his rear view mirror. Though Lee references the bad old days when the city writhed under the rule of its drug lords—and even places the Pablo Escobar Tour first on his list of ‘Top Nine Things to Do’—he clearly loves Medellín as it is today. His enthusiasm is catching.

This travel guide leans heavily in the direction of the single male traveler but is by no means a ‘lecher’s guide’ to one of Latin America’s most exciting cities.

When the author has told us all he knows about Colombia’s second city—or, more likely, all he thinks we can profitably absorb—he finishes with a chapter called ‘Beyond Antioquia: Three Must-See Places in Colombia’. Which is to say, Medellín is a great place to begin to explore Colombia. There’s much more out there.

Lee’s reliable little book has made it easier for us to find our way there.

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