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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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.

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.

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.

The Landmark Julius Caesar (book review)

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, translated and edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub (2017).  The complete works and then some – this volume contains not only the ten “books” Caesar wrote about the Gallic Wars and the civil war he fought with Pompey, but also four other books about Caesar’s campaigns that were written by other authors.  The translation is very readable (I’m in no position to judge its accuracy), and the stories are generally quite interesting.  Sure, I occasionally got lost among the many proper names for places, tribes, and people I’d never heard of before, but I didn’t sweat that.  One thing was a hoot – Caesar mentions the two soldiers at the center of the HBO miniseries Rome, by name, for their courage during a particular battle in the Gallic Wars!  They were real people!  Anyway, this edition is a massive chunk of a book because it contains lots of introductions, footnotes, maps, pictures, and appendices.  I read the introductions and lots of the footnotes, and they added a lot to the stories.  If you’re into the swords-and-sandals genre of history, this is a must-have.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts (2011).  Is it possible to do more than skim the surface of World War II in a single reasonably sized volume?  Probably not.  But this one has a very readable style and seems to hit the highlights.  My enjoyment was diminished, however, when I looked at some reviews on Goodreads and saw some people calling Roberts out on some factual errors.  And then I saw some reviews criticizing the book for focusing much more heavily on the European theater than on the Asian/Pacific theater.  And I got kind of frustrated that the maps were all gathered at the front of the book and then weren’t even referenced in the text wherever they would have been useful.  So I can’t go more than three out of five stars for this one.

Trieste (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Trieste, by Daša Drndić (2012).  Drndić is a Croatian novelist and playwright, and this is a powerful and unusual novel about the Holocaust.  The central character is Haya Tedeschi, an assimilated Jew who lives most of her life in a town on the fluid border between Italy and what eventually becomes Yugoslavia.  She turns 20 during World War II, and she has an affair with a handsome German officer who is stationed nearby for part of the war.  But the novel’s focus doesn’t really stay on her all that much; Drndić stuffs the novel with facts and digressions about World War II and the Holocaust, biographical sketches of various Nazis, and testimony from Holocaust survivors.  She indicts the many bystanders who knew what was happening to the Jews passing through their cities and towns in railroad cars and did nothing.  She indicts the Catholic Church for baptizing Jewish babies to save them from the Nazis but then refusing to return them to their parents after the war.  There’s a lot of information about a secret Nazi project to increase the “Aryan race” by kidnaping promising-looking babies and then adopting them out to good German families.  And near the end, Drndić instructs us about how 5,000 Norwegian women who had liaisons with Nazis during the war were sent to work camps after the war, and many of their babies were adopted out and subjected to all sorts of abuse.  Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA was the daughter of such a liaison (although her mother moved to Sweden in 1946 and they avoided the abuse)!  It is a powerful and disturbing book.