- Book Reviews
- About me
Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.
Monitoring Mohler (II)
July 03, 2009
A couple of weeks ago I said that I was Monitoring Mohler (so to speak), reading through his entire suggested summer reading list. At that point I had read The Unforgiving Minute, With Wings Like Eagles, Hunting Eichmann and World War One. Since then I’ve read several of the other titles on this list and thought I’d check in.
Number five on the list was Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton. Mohler says, “Horse Soldiers is a story that demands to be told and Stanton tells it well. No one reading this account will believe that the establishment of a lasting peace in Afghanistan will be anything but unspeakably difficult—and unquestionably important.” This book tells the story of a tiny handful of US soldiers who were among the first American servicemen to deploy to Afghanistan after 9/11. What they did there was pretty incredible and Doug Stanton tells the story very well. Anyone with an interest in military history or modern warfare will want to read this one to see how twenty-first century warfare came face-to-face with the nineteenth century in the mountains of Afghanistan. And, as Mohler says, this book shows the great and perhaps impossible challenge Afghanistan faces as it tries to build a lasting peace. Having said that, it’s hard to believe that what the Americans did there has had any lasting value as it seems that the violence continues to escalate and that the nation is a long, long way away from any kind of peace. Time will tell, I suppose. Do note that there is some swearing in this book since these are, after all, soldiers we are talking about here.
Up sixth was Sultana by Alan Huffman, a book about the worst maritime disaster in American history. Through gross greed and negligence, the Sultana, hugely overloaded with Union soldiers recently liberated from Confederate prison camps, exploded and sank in the Mississippi. Around 1700 of the 2400 passengers aboard the ship died. Mohler says, “Sultana is a book that makes for compelling reading that reaches the heart.” The book does more than recount the disaster. It follows several of the men involved through their service in the Union army, through their imprisonment and it is only in the final few chapters that we come to the Sultana. Ironically, I found the earlier chapters more interesting and more compelling than the tale of the disaster itself. I appreciated that the author saw fit to widen the scope of the book by making it about the whole war and not just about a single tragedy. Any Civil War enthusiast will appreciate this book, I’m sure.
Next in line was For the Thrill of It, the New York Times bestseller that describes the brutal murder in Chicago in 1924 of a child by two wealthy college students who killed solely for the thrill of the experience. The crime scandalized and riveted the nation. Mohler says, “Simon Baatz tells his tale with the skill a reporter and the skill of a historian. For the Thrill of It is one of most compelling criminal legal thrillers of our times. Readers of this book will gain an understanding of America in the 1920s even as they follow one of the most interesting criminal investigations and trials and the nation’s history. Beyond this, the reader will have to think through some of the most difficult moral and theological issues that arise when we are confronted with the darkness of human depravity.” This was a very odd story of homosexual lovers who were also arrogant intellectuals and who were out looking for depraved thrills. Honestly, I found the story hard to read and recoiled a bit at the depravity portrayed. I found little of redeeming value (as is usually the case, in my experience, with “true crime” books)—I did not sense that this murder and the subsequent trial have had a lot of long-term impact in America and, though it was a scandal in its day, I think it has largely been forgotten. Therefore, I wondered at what value there was in reading about it. I’d recommend any of the other titles on this list ahead of this one.
The eighth book on my list was The Third Reich at War by Richard J. Evans. This is probably the most “niche” book Mohler recommended and it is going to appeal to only a narrow spectrum of readers. Thankfully I am among that group and I enjoyed it a lot. It is a huge book with over 750 pages of text (and over a hundred pages of end notes and indexes). Mohler says, “Richard J. Evans’ achievement is to tell this massive story in a way that maintains the reader’s attention and provides detail missing from other accounts. The Third Reich ‘continues to command the attention of thinking people around the world,’ Evans states. For this reason, thinking people will be especially appreciative of The Third Reich at War.” And he is right on. This book not only completes Evans’ trilogy on the Third Reich but it does so in a way that is interesting and wide-reaching. He looks to far more than the battles but looks as well to the home front and the foreign frontiers. He looks to economies, media and even art during the Second World War. This is a must-read for any serious student of World War II. But beyond that crowd I suspect it will have only very limited appeal. If there is a knock on this book it is the sheer space it gives to atrocities. There must be at least two hundred pages that describe the various ways and means by which the Germans put people to death. We cannot downplay such acts and yet, at the same time, it may be that Evans gives them just a little bit too much ink. It is hard to know. Regardless, the book is fascinating and well worth the read.
I mentioned in my first post that in his “Reading List” feature Mohler had recommended a novel that looked rather interesting: City of Thieves by David Benioff. I decided to give it a read. Mohler said of it, “City of Thieves is brutal, and is not for the faint of heart. It glides very close to nihilism, but pulls back. It is one of the most thought-provoking coming-of-age novels I have read in years.” It is, indeed, a great story—so simple and yet so interesting. Quite simply, it tells of two young men, one a deserter and the other a thief, who, during the German’s brutal siege of Leningrad, are given a chance to save their lives by complying with a commander’s strange request: find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. Again, the story is brilliant and the writing is nothing short of excellent. But the language and much of the narrative is absolutely filthy. There is constant profanity and more vulgarity than in any other novel I’ve ever read. There is lots of (mostly non-graphic) sex and ongoing coarse jesting from cover to cover. So I’m not quite sure what to say. I usually hand any novels I read to Aileen so she can enjoy them after me; but this one I just got rid of. As good as the story is, I just don’t think I could recommend it to her or to anyone else. It is brutal, indeed. And I have to think it could have been just as good, or maybe better, without all the filth.
And that’s it for now. I have just two left to complete Mohler’s list: Maverick Military Leaders and Masters and Commanders. Both books showed up at the door while I was writing this post, so give me a week or two and I’ll let you know what they are all about. And then I’ll have to go looking for another reading list to make my way through. Any suggestions?