Short Takes: 17 One-Sentence Book Reviews
Comic Novels, Certain Knowledge, Various Christianities, Ways of Being, More
When I originally started Miller’s Book Review in 2022, I thought I’d review every book I read through the year. But it didn’t really work out that way. My reading outpaced my reviewing; I read 89 books but reviewed only 52. To record the other 37, I merely—meh!—listed them.
My performance this year tracked with last. I read 83 and reviewed 59. As with last year, I was tempted to simply list the unreviewed titles and leave it at that. Butsuggested I instead write a once-sentence review of each—a better idea by far. So here you go! I’ll be sharing my Top-9 books from the year in a few days, along with several honorable mentions, but for now here are 17 short takes on almost all my unreviewed reading from the year.
I wrote a bit about Charles Portis and his comic novels earlier this summer. The occasion? Library of America recently issued a one-volume collection of Portis’s novels, stories, and early newspaper reportage. I’d read Norwood and The Dog of the South before and eagerly re-read those while jumping into the rest for the first time.
Charles Portis, Norwood. An old military buddy last known to live in New York owes Norwood Pratt $70, so when Grady Fring the Kredit King offers Norwood a job unwittingly driving stolen cars from Texas to the Big Apple, Norwood—otherwise stuck at home with his sister and loser brother-in-law—grabs the opportunity before taking an eventful route home with a budding romance and a college-educated chicken named Joann.
Charles Portis, True Grit. When Frank Ross is murdered in cold blood by his ne’er-do-well ranch hand Tom Chaney, his Bible-quoting teenage daughter Mattie Ross determines to bring the killer to justice and hires the hard-drinking, “pitiless . . . double-tough” U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to lead the hunt, aided by an uninvited Texas Ranger named LeBeouf, which is lucky because Chaney has joined Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang and won’t surrender easily.
Charles Portis, The Dog of the South. Ray Midge leaves Arkansas on a journey to British Honduras to recover his stollen Ford Torino—and hopefully his wife Norma, who has run off with a coworker—and along the way picks up a crackpot named Reo Symes who can’t stop quoting his favorite self-help guru and dreams of acquiring control of an island his mother owns for any of a dozen ludicrous schemes.
Charles Portis, Masters of Atlantis. Overseas during WWI, Yankee Lamar Jimmerson comes into possession of the Codex Pappus, which supposedly contains long lost Atlantean lore and Pythagorean esoterica, and becomes the leader of the Society of Gnomons for whom he builds a temple outside Gary, Indiana, attracting cluster of adherents including the ambitious conman Austin Popper who ends up pursued by the FBI and forced to explain Gnomonism to the Texas state legislature before the whole enterprise fizzles in a Lone Star trailer park.
Charles Portis, Gringos. Jimmy Burns is a former tomb-raider, living in the Yucatan amid assorted oddball expats, who makes a meager living running errands for archeological teams working the region but gets mixed up with a murderous hippie cult leader while looking for a missing person—somehow eliciting laughter all along the way.
Of all Portis’s novels, I think Gringos is my favorite, though it’s awfully hard to choose between it, True Grit, and The Dog of the South. That said, the entire handful is riotously funny at times and all are worth attention.
In the Know
Originally, I imagined I might review the next three together. I enjoy pulling themes from multiple books into one piece, and this trio would not only make that easy but also rewarding. Unfortunately, I never sat down long enough to do it! Here, instead, are a few one-sentence summations of several books worthy of far more.
Simon Winchester, Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic. Knowledge isn’t power if you can’t remember and use it, something humans have known since the start, prompting us to invent countless ways to capture information, store it as knowledge, and distill it into wisdom—despite the challenges of misinformation, manipulation, and the perils of outsourcing our thinking to others.
Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. It’s never been harder dealing with quacks, conspiracy-mongers, trolls, naïfs, and the misinformed, but as a society we’ve developed a proven epistemological tool kit for sifting the facts from the fictions and the feelies if we’re willing to learn and deploy it.
Nicholas Spencer, Magisteria: The Entangled History of Science and Religion. It’s easy to assume science and religion represent incompatible systems at permanent loggerheads, but the history of both reveals a different, more interesting narrative; not only do the two systems spring from common sources, but they have maintained a complicated and sometimes fruitful relationship even after modern science made its formal epistemic break from faith.
When I first thought of reviewing these three, I’d just read Portis’s Masters of Atlantis and Gringos, both of which offer an amusing take on crackpot beliefs and which feel all too relevant in our day of QAnon and Facebook flat-earthers. I thought I might use those novels to set up a review of this nonfiction trio. Alas, what might have been.
Of the three, Rauch’s view could most easily slide into scientism. But he rejects that conclusion in an intriguing comment on Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health and the National Human Genome Research Institute.
“To an atheist like me,” writes Rauch, “Collins is a puzzle. . . . He believes that science and Christianity are reconcilable, and wrote an entire book making that case. . . . When I compare Francis Collins’s worldview with my own, I think mine is the more impoverished. He has access to two epistemic realms; I, only one.”
Stephen De Young, Apocrypha: An Introduction to Extra-Biblical Literature. Biblical scholar and Orthodox priest Stephen De Young offers a fascinating examination of almost 50 apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books, following the list of the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople, Nikephoros the Confessor, with a view towards understanding how this literature was used—and thus painstakingly preserved—by Christian communities over the centuries.
Mark Gregory Pegg, Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages. While encompassing more than medieval Christianity, it would be impossible to understand the period without reference to faith—not only Roman religions that came before the rise of Christianity but the many permutations of Christianity itself and the roles they played in the intellectual, artistic, social, and military movements between the third and fifteenth centuries.
John Anthony McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History. Historian and Orthodox priest John Anthony McGuckin offers the best brief history I’ve ever read on the Orthodox Church, from its founding in Palestine through two millennia of expansion and contraction, as it not only codified its theology but attempted (and attempts) to live it out in an impossibly complicated world.
Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis. We tend to think our ideas can be described as theories or doctrines, but, asdemonstrates, much of what we think and believe arises from a constellation of impressions, images, and symbols—none of which are necessarily logically connected to the others, but which shape the way we act in the world.
Ways of Being
Daniel Nayeri, Everything Sad Is Untrue: A True Story. For a moment there it seemed like everyone I knew was reading this book, so I gave it a whirl and was delighted to discover an Iranian immigrant with poignant and hilarious stories of his life in both America and Iran as he attempts to explain himself to the world and the world to himself—with more poop jokes than anticipated.
Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. One of modern Stoicism’s high-profile popularizers offers a quick and mostly helpful meditation on how to engage with daily difficulties through emotional regulation (easier said than done), purposeful action (all of which could fail), and more emotional regulation (still working on it).
Wolfram Eilenberger, The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil, and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times. Four women philosophers with curiously overlapping lives try to understand how to be a person when the world is exploding around us—and in the process offer compelling but radically divergent ways of being in the world.
Nick de Semlyen, The Last Action Heroes: The Triumphs, Flops, and Feuds of Hollywood's Kings of Carnage. If someone took my 1980s childhood and distilled it into a fast-paced account of Hollywood’s cinematic fixation on bulging muscles, smart-ass catchphrases, and explosions, then this wild romp through the charged world of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Norris, Van Damme, Seagal, Chan, and others would be it—and it was.
Matt Lewis, Filthy Rich Politicians: The Swamp Creatures, Latte Liberals, and Ruling-Class Elites Cashing in on America. Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, and now Daily Beast opinion journalist Matt Lewis has all the modern-day examples from the U.S. political machine, especially how American politicians of all stripes and persuasions use their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of the electorate.
Along the lines of Semlyen’s The Last Action Heroes, there’s a part of me that suspects a Charles Portis novel lurking in the figure of a fledgling actor leaving Little Rock for Hollywood in 1987 driving his mother’s unregistered Buick with hopes of breaking into action pictures. What an adventure he would have.
As I mentioned up top, these 17 one-sentence reviews do not quite capture all of my unreviewed titles from the year. Where are the seven missing from the total? I just finished reading the novels by C.S. Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams. I’ll be posting a combined review of all seven soon, possibly before the new year.
Coming later this week: My Top 9 books for the year and my final determinations on my classic novel and memoir goal for 2024.
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