March 2005
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March 2005 Archives

March 31, 2005

Curry - First Freedoms

Thomas J. Curry
The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment
New York: Oxford University Press, 1986

This is still one of the better books on the evolution of religious establishments in colonial and early national America. Curry's focus is on the politics of the establishment clause, especially as they were being argued in the academy in the 1980s, but his research is good and his analysis is solid.

Curry goes through the colonial experiences and comes to a tricky argument. He claims that, based on their experiences and rhetoric, the founders banned all governmental involvement with religious belief and all endorsement of faiths or sects. But, they did so in the language of the British Establishment, using the word "establishment" to refer to everything from the stereotype of popery, a "state establishment", to the Church of England, to a general assessment of religion. Finally, he argues that the debates about religion and the government in the states and in the First Amendment were about how to apply commonly held doctrines, not about first principles. For example, no one in Massachusetts approved of establishments of religion. However, the Standing Order did not think that they had created an establishment of religion, but instead argued that they had created a mild and generous structure for supporting civil order. Baptists who had their property taken to pay the salaries of the Standing order disagreed.

I found Curry useful more for his research than for his conclusions, in part because I approach the vague overlap of religion and civil government through the lense of civil religion, not of establishment or church-and-state.

It is a smart book and a well researched book. You need not agree with his conclusions - Lawrence Levy does not, for example - but you can not talk about church and state in the American colonies and revolutionary era without having read Curry.

Good stuff.

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Red Ted
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March 27, 2005

Hobb - The Tawny Man

Robin Hobb
The Tawny Man
Fool's Errand
New York: Bantam Books, 2002
Golden Fool
New York: Bantam Books, 2003
Fool's Fate
New York: Bantam Books, 2004

The Tawny Man is a trilogy of fantasy novels, the third trilogy Hobb has written in the same world, and it shares lead characters with her first trilogy (Farseer), fifth business with the second trilogy (Liveship Traders).

This sequence picks up the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard member of the ruling house, once executed for practicing illegal magic, now living in exile having completed a long and painful quest to save his kingdom after being dug up and reanimated through the use of that same magic. That sounds hokey and staged, but her first trilogy, Farseer (Assasin's Apprentice, Assasin's Quest, Royal Assasin is a work of great psychological power focusing on the nature of love and of belonging.

The Tawny Man picks up our story after Fitz has dumped all of his many pains and anguishes and memories into the body of a stone statue of a dragon. He now exists, without much will or drive, in company with his bond-animal, a wolf. The events of the plot pick him up, giving him the name Tom Badgerlock and sending him back to the Farseer castle to once again protect and serve.

The core question that Hobb tackles in her first and third trilogies is the relationship between memory, even painful memory, and self, with Fitz being less than human without his pain, unable to hurt but also unable to love, and lying to himself about his desire for either.

I don't want to go farther and spoil the events of the various plots, but it does a nice job of tying up the loose ends from the first trilogy and, I suspect, from the second trilogy as well.

I skidded out of the second trilogy: the first book opens with extended Mercedes Lackey Syndrome - a whiny adolescent trying to figure out why the world is not treating her fairly - and I just was not interested. Having read the third trilogy and encountered spoilers from the second, I now want to read the second trilogy and see the full details of those events that were summarized in the later books. J, on the other hand, read the first book of Tawny Man and then, hearing that there were spoilers up ahead, went back and started in on Lifeship Traders.

This is good capable fantasy, in a complex and well thought-out world, tackling serious human questions. It also kept me up late finishing books and chapters. Good stuff.

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Red Ted
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March 23, 2005

Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress met in Philadelphia, September 1774

Journal of the Proceedings of the Congress met in Philadelphia, September 1774
Facsimile copy
Library Company of Philadelphia, 1974

Most of the time I just grab my primary source documents, flip to the page I need, and close them up again. This one I read through, so it goes on the reading log.

This is the journal of the First Continental Congress, the one that met to complain about the Intolerable Acts and the Quebec Act after Parliament punished Boston for the Boston Tea Party.

I read it looking for John Adams and the compromises about religion. I found nothing about that.

What I did find was copies of all their public letters and resolutions, and this gave me a slightly different feel for the way in which they interpreted the Quebec Act and used it as part of their propaganda machine.

As 18th century journals of parliamentary proceedings go, this is a good one - if only because most of the pages are resolutions and printed documents and appeals.

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Red Ted
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March 18, 2005

Block - Small Town

Lawrence Block
Small Town
New York: Harper Torchbooks, 2003

This is a post 9/11 novel. Literally, the core events of the book are driven by the memory and legacy of the disaster. I won't give too many of those details, as it would spoil the "what in the WORLD is goin on here?" that starts the book, but Block opens with a character looking at the hole in the sky where the towers used to be.

It is also unlike every other Lawrence Block book that I have started: I finished it and read it voraciously. I have opened another half-dozen or so of his novels and never gotten more than a hundred pages into any of them.

The difference is that here is characters are, hmm, not less contrived because several of them are quite contrived, but less of the novel depends on the reader getting into the head of a particular contrived character. Let me try again. Most of Block's novels involve one of three characters: Matthew Scudder, Tanner, or whats-his-name the burglar. They all depend on the reader identifying with or at least careing about the main character. And I can't stand any of those three guys. On the other hand Small Town is more of an ensemble cast: the novelist, the retired police chief, the killer, the half-crazy art gallery owner. Each of these characters is a grotesque, exagerrated to make a point about the small town that is New York City, as are many of the supporting characters, but the grotesque is written from a sympathetic perspective. Block likes these people, and that love of the city and its quirks shows through the book.

The novel itself is a potboiler about how people respond to tragedy. Some work through it, like the housecleaner who opens the story. Others go either a little crazy - the art gallery owner - or a lot crazy. But they are all affected by the tragedy.

I read this in one great gulp. I do not know if it was good or if it was simply to my taste, but I read it.

Oh, and I kept wondering if the author character was Block's Mary Sue, no, not quite a Mary Sue because it is his own world that he has introduced an idealized self into. I was reminded of Hemingway's writer characters, and how Papa wrote about frustrated geniuses drinking heavily every afternoon. The writer in this novel starts out going slowly on a book, but soon gets an idea and goes great gangbusters on a reworking of an older short story into a morally ambiguous novel. He also has a line that stuck with me, and that I want to write about over on the main blog. Talking about spending time teaching writing he says something like: some of them knew how to write, and all they needed was a little structure and encouragement. The rest, well, at least they were writing. The implication is that writing is a binary skill, you either have it or you don't, and if you don't then you will never get it, and if you do then all you need is a little structure. I go back and forth on how I agree and disagree with that statement. More on that later.

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Red Ted
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March 05, 2005

Wolfe - The Wizard

Gene Wolfe
The Wizard
New York : Tor Books, 2004.

This is the sequel to The Knight.

What can I say - partway through this I realized that I had no idea what was going on, was having trouble keeping track of the characters and more importantly of the characters motivations, and that the only reason I was turning the pages was the power and beauty of the language.

So, I put it down after about 100 pages and picked up Joyce's Ulysses. I did not finish that either, but I got another couple of chapters in and it was actually an easier read with more sentences that were more compelling. I really like the famous "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the internal organs of beasts and fowl."

At least I figured out the justification for the stylized simplicity of Wolfe's narrative voice - our hero has spent time in the next plane of existence and only returned from ecstasy to the ordinary recently. As a result his memories are odd, his perceptions are odd, and his narrative voice combines the simplicity of a stylized child with the detailed recollection of a mature mind.

Did not finish, probably will never pick up again.

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Red Ted
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Stirling - Nantucket Trilogy

S.M. Stirling
Island in the Sea of Time (1997)
Against the Tide of Years (1998)
On the Oceans of Eternity (2000)

I read these in early January and just now got around to blogging them. I am running several books behind and need to start writing less and posting faster.

This is a trilogy, and each book has a mighty lot of words in it. It is also a romp, combining the fun of historical fiction (Hi famous_person_number_seventeen) with the fun of a rebuilding narrative.

Like Eric Flint's 1632, which was written later but which I read first, Stirling takes a small community, in this case Nantucket Island, and moves it back in time. A LONG WAY back in time - to the early iron age. He sends the Coast Guard's training ship, the U.S.S. Eagle, along with them, and the Eagle's captain and crew become crucial characters and crucial plot points.

One of the officers decides to strike out on his own, steals a shipload of useful goodies, and the rest of the trilogy is about how the townsmen chase down the renegade in the middle of an iron age turned into an industrial revolution.

Most of the book is a romp, and I only had one big thought while reading it, but it is a doozy even if I am having trouble formulating it.

One of the common threads in alternate history books or in rebuild-from-the-ground-up books or in the-technology-goes-away books is that historians matter because we know what happened before. We matter because we know the people and the background events, and can use that knowledge to change things once the past becomes the lived present due to time travel or other plot devices. We also matter because we know how things were done before the current generation of technological change. And, as a corollary to that, history books matter because they tell the details of all the old stuff.

I am not so sure. I am a 19th century cultural and intellectual historian, so it is not all that surprising that I could not describe for you the differences between ancient Babylonian and ancient Egyptian power structures, or deduce the vocabulary of an iron-age Aryan dialect, or build a steam engine from scratch. And I could, if teamed with a blacksmith or metalworker, probably help them work out the best way to turn a pile of car parts into a wheeled plow with cutting strake and moldboard. But that is not what most historians do, and it is not the level of detail contained in the books in most high school libraries. It is flattering, in a way, to be told by these literary genres that historians know everything and that everything we don't know is tidily contained in your average high school library, but I am not sure that the reality can live up to those expectations.

And so to go read about the civil religion of the founders.

Posted by
Red Ted
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Greeley - The Denominational Society

Andrew Greeley
The Denominational Society: A Sociological Approach to Religion in America
Glenview, Illinois, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1972

I read this a few years ago and wanted to go back over it for Greeley's definition of civil religion and of denominationalism itself.

Greeley is probably my favorite writer about modern American religion; I find his perceptions more useful than those of Noll, Marsden, and the Wheaton-Notre Dame alliance of critical evangelical historians. Greeley is a sociologist, a Catholic priest, and the author of a whole mess of popular murder mysteries. He thinks well, writes well, and writes from a perspective shaped more by a life within a religious bureaucracy than a life of religious ecstacy and Evangelical promise. That last is not quite right, but I do find that his quiet and questioning scepticism provokes me to more useful thoughts about religion and America than does the work of the other main group of religious writers.

The Denominational Society is a look at the face of religion in the United States at the beginning of the 1970s, an era when political religion meant the legacy of mainline Protestant reform in aiding the civil rights movement and the concurrent struggle against poverty and despair within America, an era when the Vietnam War was continuing to divide Americans, and the era when the debates about Civil Religion and the nature of the American Way of Life were raging in the academy. It is both dated in its surrounding assumptions and very smart in its attempt to explain the broader picture of American religion and American society.

I have read a lot of Greeley's other sociological work, and I recommend it all highly. I was never able to get into his mysteries and could not finish his autobiography, but no one writes for everyone.

Posted by
Red Ted
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