Barbara Holland’s “Gentlemen’s Blood” is a series of jaunty anecdotes about dueling through time and around the world. Most of it focuses on America and Britain, with side tours into Germany, France and Russia, touching on famous duelists like Pushkin (who ended up the worse for wear as a result). The book is interesting for those anecdotes, and reading it is a reasonable way to kill some time and get a glimpse, if a circumscribed and brief one, into the ways of the past. But it is most interesting as an exploration of honor, a concept today generally viewed far too simplistically.
Charles Chaput, now archbishop of Philadelphia, is probably the most prominent traditionally orthodox Catholic prelate in America. There exists, of course, more than one traditionally orthodox prelate (though fewer now, given that Pope Francis is deliberately reducing their numbers). But Chaput has the talent and drive to operate in the public square, to write and talk on the intersection of Catholic doctrine and public life. In fact, as of this week he has been in the news for a speech on this topic at Notre Dame. And next year, in 2017, he has a new book coming out on “Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.” This book, “Render Unto Caesar,” nearly ten years old, was his first book-length foray into the struggles faced by Christians against attempts to exclude them from the public square. This is a topic that has only become more pressing, and timely, because the day is already late.
Most of us have only the dimmest idea of Russian history prior to the Soviet era. We’re vaguely aware that there were some Mongols, then Ivan the Terrible (not a Romanov), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and then a mass slaughter by the Bolsheviks. Along the way there was lots of unpleasantness; Napoleon was somehow involved too. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs” fills in all the gaps, at least from 1613 onward. And then it fills the gaps some more, until the flood of information becomes nearly overwhelming—although, at the same time, the reader is aware that the book is only scratching the surface with regard to any particular decade in Russian history. But at the end, the reader’s knowledge is vastly improved, and really, can you ask for any more?
“The Dragons of Expectation,” subtitled “Reality and Delusion in the Course of History,” is a strange book. Basically, it’s a series of musings by the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, made toward the end of his life. It ranges from the use of words, to the Cold War, to art and the humanities, all united by the general theme of human susceptibility to irrationality. The resonant title, taken from Norse myth, refers to how ideas (or ideologies, to use a more precise term) lead to radical visions which generate expectations that can never be fulfilled, but which create chaos and destruction as their adherents attempt to force reality into conforming to their vision. It’s an interesting, if meandering, ride, though one that largely covers topics about which Conquest had written before. But the book peaks with its title. After reading the book, I still can’t say what it was really about, and I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything at all.
I have gradually come to realize the limitations of the Internet for providing information on technical subjects. Yes, a vast volume of information is available for free. But there is so much chaff that often it is hard to find accurate answers. When and if you do find accurate answers, they are surrounded by a cloud of invasive ads and other devices meant to distract you, which have the effect of making it difficult to view and comprehend the information as a whole (not to mention the constant temptation to lose focus and check out something else on the Internet). And searching online for something even moderately complex frequently creates a bias towards focusing on the easy answer, since that’s the answer that’s going to be simple to find, and find repeatedly. Maybe on page 20 of the results you’ll find a passing reference to a less easy answer—and then find that more details are behind a paywall.
In more educated times, “Considerations” was a famous book, regarded as the progenitor of modern “decline and fall” analyses. Broad in sweep but short in length, Montesquieu sketches characteristics of Roman society from its beginnings through its (Byzantine) end. His goal is to find the main elements of Rome’s growth and decline and the lessons for modern man.
Of late, I have noticed much creeping, or rather galloping, nostalgia among National Review-type conservatives. Such nostalgia is doubtless a reaction to the current Trumpian trials of High Conservatism, whose leading lights must feel much like the characters in Toy Story 3, holding hands as they are fed into a fiery furnace. (The Toy Story characters survive, which probably distinguishes them from today’s leaders of High Conservatism.) “A Torch Kept Lit” offers a triple dose of nostalgia: William F. Buckley; eulogies of dead conservatives (and others); and a deep view of a dead time. And, like a papyrus scroll listing grain shipments on the Nile, it is redolent of ancient history, when High Conservatism mattered.
Reviewing anything by C.S. Lewis seems presumptuous. Between the fame and erudition of the author, and the endless stream of reviews and analysis by others vastly more qualified, reviewing “The Screwtape Letters” seems like reviewing “Hamlet”—an activity that is likely to offer nothing new, and also to reflect poorly on the reviewer. Every page of “The Screwtape Letters” shows a deep understanding of human nature, as well as an orthodox Christian faith and sensibility. It is impossible to even summarize such a book, and it’s certainly short enough that at least an initial read requires no significant time commitment by the reader, thus further reducing any benefit a reviewer may offer. So I’ll keep this brief, and focus not on the spiritual aspects of the book, which are its main offering, but on Lewis’s prescience about the present day, given that it has been nearly seventy-five years since this book was first published.