The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty

New from The Movie Snob.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty, by Steven D. Smith (2014).  In this slim volume (171 pages, excluding endnotes), Smith sets out to correct what he views as the misleading conventional wisdom about the meaning of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment.  (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”)  He argues that the Framers did not intend the Clause to usher in a strictly secular state but rather to establish that the national government had no jurisdiction to mess with state establishments of religion or to infringe on people’s rights to worship as they chose.  And he argues that the Supreme Court’s current incoherent religion jurisprudence is a result of straying from those original (limited) purposes.  I thought it was an interesting, if dense, book, but it seems to underplay the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment and especially the Equal Protection Clause.  Before the Civil War, yes, the states could have an established church or show favoritism to a religion (or religion in general).  But once states had to give everyone the “equal protection of laws,” what did that mean for religious favoritism?

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The Tiger’s Wife (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (2011).  This novel made a decent splash when it came out.  Unfortunately, I read it during a rather turbulent time in my life, so I couldn’t pay it as much attention as I usually do the books I read.  Still, I liked it well enough.  The first-person narrator is a young female doctor in an unnamed Balkan country in the aftermath of the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia.  Although some of the novel is set in the present day, a lot of it consists of stories about the narrator’s grandfather, also a doctor.  Some are stories about his childhood and others are about his adult life, particularly his several encounters with a mysterious figure called The Deathless Man.  The superstitions of the Balkan villagers are well and interestingly portrayed.  Definitely worth a read.

Down the Great Unknown (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon, by Edward Dolnick (2001).  I think my sister gave me this book as a reminder of a vacation we took in Utah some years ago.  If memory serves, she and her friend Jane and I were blowing through the tiny town of Green River when we decided to stop at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum.  I, at least, knew nothing about Powell or his crazy expeditions to float down the Green and Colorado Rivers back in 1869 and 1871.  And I think we were a little punch-drunk from long days of driving, because we pretty much laughed our way through the museum without learning much.  Anyway, this book tells you everything you’d want to know about the 1869 expedition (the 1871 expedition gets only a brief mention).  Powell was an interesting character—a one-armed veteran of the Civil War and an amateur geologist.  Dolnick’s prose is generally fine, but he loves metaphors and sprinkles them liberally on almost every page.  A favorite:  “The river holds the boat in place [against a rock] with overwhelming force, like a sumo wrestler smothering a kitten. . . .  A kitten might claw or bite a wrestler and sneak away in the ensuing confusion, but a river never ‘shifts its weight.’”  And at only 292 pages, it’s just the right length.

Lila (book review)

A new book review by The Movie Snob.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014).  This beautiful novel is the story of a character who appeared around the edges of Robinson’s last two novels, Gilead and Home.  Lila was born into impoverished and probably dire circumstances back in the early twentieth century.  We don’t know much about those circumstances because when she was very young (but just old enough to remember) she was stolen (rescued?) by a vagabond woman called Doll.  She grows up on the road with Doll, wandering around with other migrants and suffering through the lean years of the Depression.  We follow Lila’s story until she’s a grown woman, and we leave off shortly before the events of Gilead pick up.  Hers is a lonely and precarious existence, and Robinson convincingly portrays how someone raised in such conditions would think about the world.  It is a really sad book, but I loved it.

Caesar’s Druids (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Caesar’s Druids, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2010).  This densely written and highly academic book surprised me right off the bat in a couple of ways.  First, I had no idea that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were “our richest textual source for ancient Druids.”  I read the Gallic Wars not too long ago, and I barely remember a reference to the Druids.  Second, I didn’t know that “there exists not one vestige of archaeological evidence that can be linked unequivocally to the Druids.”  Thus, aside from Caesar and few scattered references in other ancient writers, we apparently know almost nothing about the Druids.  As a result, this book is full of discussions of ancient tombs and treasures and places and human sacrifices that we do know some things about, plus a bunch of speculation that maybe these things had something to do with Druids.  Or if not, maybe Druids did similar things anyway.  So, it was kind of interesting to learn about some of these ancient stories and archaeological finds, but I don’t guess I learned a lot about the Druids.  And no, contrary to Spinal Tap’s memorable song, the Druids didn’t have anything to do with Stonehenge.

Crossing to Safety (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner (1987).  This one sat on my shelf for a while.  Although the blurb on the back cover told me it is “one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth centuries,” somehow I just wasn’t sold.  Now that I’ve finished it, I’m like . . . meh.  It’s about two married couples who become best friends in their young adulthood and stay friends, more or less, for the rest of their lives.  As a study of marriage and friendship, I suppose it is pretty good, although these folks are much better educated than most and consequently chew on their problems with a lot more eloquence than is the norm.  Personally, I didn’t find their story all that engrossing, but the writing is good.  For the great American novels of the twentieth century, stick with The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men.  And Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Life in a Medieval Castle (book review)

New from The Movie Snob.

Life in a Medieval Castle, by Joseph and Frances Gies (1974).  I was an avid Dungeons & Dragons player back in the day, and at some point since then I heard this book described as a great description of, well, what life was like in medieval castles.  So I when I saw a yellowed old copy at an estate sale recently, I snatched it up.  It was decently interesting, but I wasn’t blown away.  The early going was not so great, as the book seemed to bog down in little stories about all these different English castle owners, and who married whose daughter and who rebelled against whom.  And although there are some photographs, they are generally very dark and of poor quality.  Still, as the book shifted its focus to how people actually lived in and around medieval castles, their customs and traditions, it got pretty good.  And at only 224 pages, it’s not a huge time investment.