Reading in the New Year.

2 Jan

The best way to get back on track with writing reviews is to actually finish reading the books to review. I have decided to keep a running weekly commentary on what I am currently reading in an effort to jumpstart this process.

I closed out 2018 with Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, preceded by Hunters of Dune and Sandworms of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson

I am beginning 2019 reading The Lord by Romano Guardini, followed by a pair of books by Jack Miles (former Jesuit seminarian and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages) : Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, and God: a Biography which treats God and Jesus from the standpoint of literary characters.

As well, I have another 46 volumes (and two audio-books Gatekeepers : How the Chief of Staff Defines Each Presidency and The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789) out from the library, including 5 more books that fill in pieces of the Dune universe- Sisterhood of Dune, Mentats of Dune, Navigators of Dune, Paul of Dune, and Winds of Dune, also by Herbert and Anderson. I don’t know of I’ll finish all of these before I run out of renewals, but I will try my best.


Pile #16 on “Sheba” by Nicholas Clapp

1 Aug

Sheba : through the desert in search of the legendary queen / Nicholas Clapp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2001. viii, 372 p. ill. : maps, figures. Includes Bibliographic References and Index

It is always exciting to read tales that explore history and archaeology of biblical events. One thing to keep in mind however, is that rarely are such tales a cut-and-dried affirmation or rejection of the existence of a person, place, or event. Scholarship at its best presents and leaves conclusions and applications of its research to others.

Take for example the 10 verses of 1 Kings that tells of a visit to King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, perhaps one of the most alluring and mysterious of Old Testament characters. Scholarship goes back and forth as to who she was, where she was from, or even what she was, or even if she even existed (yet another touchy point in biblical scholarship between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ scholars, much like discussions about Solomon himself). However it is not just scripture and scholarship which had enshrined her popular imagination; literature and folk memory had also been at work down through the centuries.

A previously reviewed work Africa and the Bible devoted a chapter to the possible identity of the Queen of Sheba and whether or not she was from Africa, and now I present a full length treatment of the same.

Sheba is part documentary, part memoir, part work of journalistic detection. The author, though not himself a professional (or even an academic) archaeologist, nevertheless embarks on a journey across two continents like a modern Schliemann (though with less detrimental consequences) sifting through multiple historical sites in search of evidence for one of history’s most alluring females, the aforementioned biblical Queen of Sheba.

5 parts and 22 chapters, plus 5 appendixes, numerous maps, figures and illustrations, along with black-and-white photographic plates, bibliography to chase down other sources yourself decorate the pages of the book.

In a previous book (his first ), Clapp chased down the equally legendary “Atlantis of the Desert”, Ubar, and I suspect his engaging style is much the same there as here. He begins his tale with the accidental circumstances that launched his quest for the historical Sheba and fueled his increasing absorption with the Queen and his multi-year quest.

From Jerusalem to the deserts of southern Arabia, Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, Clapp journeys, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of family and colleagues, chased by tribesmen, escorted by other tribesmen, scouring known sites and places previously inaccessible to Westerners -all for the sake of documenting the historical existence of Sheba. Along the way, digressions about theology and literature, not to mention popular culture and folklore demonstrate how embedded in popular consciousness she became, with appearances in opera, circus performance, master-works of art, even allusions to involvement in The Last Judgement as the Queen of the South, quite apart from her appearances in Bible, Qur’an, and Ethiopian national historical record.

One whole appendix is taken up with the many names the Queen , evidence that Sheba , whatever else it was, was not the personal name for the Queen. Then follow two appendices that treat of Sheba as demon or witch, in Kabbalah (where she us identified with Lilith, legendary ‘first wide’ of Adam) and as representing purest elements if alchemical virtue in the pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone.

He is hesitant to reach any hard and fast conclusions, knowing full well how sketchy at best the archaeological record is, especially in southern Arabia, but in the end, leaves the reader with the definite impression that the Queen of Sheba (whatever her personal name) did exist, that her kingdom had possible connections with both Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and even that her existence helps shore up the existence of Solomon.

More academically inclined researchers and readers may feel the book lacking in methodology, too familiar in tone, or feel that he gives too much attention to the dramatic anecdote as opposed to the rigors of ‘real’ research -and yet as the acknowledgements tell us, Clapp was not without serious help from the academy. In fact I found that the book reads like the History of Herodotus, an engaging inquiry into the causes of the longevity of the Queen of Sheba in historical and popular consciousness.

Generally narrated in the first person, as memoirs are wont to do, he does offer numerous digressions from the narrative to bring up the results of research along the way. This adds flavor to the work, and demonstrates the fundamental integrity of his purpose, understanding, not appropriation.

In the final anaylsis then, Clapp’s book is an easy read that treats a serious subject with respect, passion, and awareness of the tentativeness of things in this world.

Six Books [Phile]

11 Jun

n.b. So I’m jumping the gun a bit about not posting anew until August. But this article is good stuff. It might also provide a new source of reading -and posting- material for this and other blogs.  Thank you Paris Review!

This marvelous post “Six Books We Could and Should All Write” by Anthony Madrid,  -via The Parish Review   came my way the other day thanks to the magic of  new tab algorithms and prior surfing history.  And really it’s a must for any writer. Writing these books makes us better observers  from diaries, to quotation collections to dictionaries, books of lists, and even a book of what not to say aloud. I haven’t read the books myself (apart from the usual extract of Pepys’s Diaries on the Great Fire of London which was a part of English Literature in high school), but now I want to.  I would probably add the book Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright a travel book masquerading as fiction, because anyone can write a travel description of places they’ve been to.

(Re)Introducing the Blog (yet again)

21 May

At one time, Piles and Philes was meant to be my primary point of access for my intellectual endeavors, supplemented by 3 -call it 4- more target book review blogs, because I foresaw no other means of producing anything of intellectual merit,And then I decided that I required an array of Masters Degrees to be followed by a capstone PhD that combined Cell Biology, Philosophy, and Theology, and my reading priorities began shuffling, on nearly a weekly basis, as I thought that any moment now I would embark upon my grand venture. Well, any quick reading of the time and date stamps of my last 4 posts shows how committed I was to *that* set goals!

But my, the times how they are a’changing!

Now, though, after a mid-life correction that revolved around my relationship with and  marriage to a wonderful woman who is a help-mate in every sense of the word (which explains in part why I lacked time to commit to the blog) I find my main efforts re placed into The Walsingham Way – pilgrim thoughts on the journey of faith,  with as many as 10 concurrent and sequential projects underway.

But even so, I find that I want to branch out to the other blogs with the same sweeping vision I had, albeit with a more limited output. My problem, though, as ever remains:

Of all the blogs within my mind
to meet them all t’would place me in a bind:
One blog for the Politics of Man,
One for the Science to Understand.
One to indicate the friction,
With two to celebrate my fictions.
Yet coursing through
on my words to chew,
there will but remain-
One blog to rule them all,
and from the Darkness save them.

My intention is to eventually work these other ideas back up to viable blogs. My first priority, though is, and must remain The Walsingham Way, which essentially means, crafting reviews, comments, and life posts to cover three months of scheduled entries (what, you didn’t think I just sat down in front of a computer, popped them out of my head and published them the same day did you? It’s ok if you did, though. I thought the same thing, once. before turning to those other Blogging Goals. The majority of my other blogs, then, will contain at most 2 posts a week, though with the possibility for more depending on what projects become a part of their identity. Each blog connects some facet of life and the wider world to the Faith of Jesus Christ as I live it, primarily explored through expanded book reviews, guest posts, and the patient building up of an understanding of Created Reality post by post. In addition, each subsequent blog will also be worked up to a three month surplus of scheduled posts before I let my eyes and fingers turn to the next intellectual itch.

The first blog to revive, then, will be Piles and Philes with its new subtitle: A journal of reading, viewing, and thinking with the mind in the heart. And this will occur, sometime within the next 4 months or so, when I’ve built up enough book reviews.

For Piles and Philes, this means 2 posts a week: one of them a set of First Impressions presented on Mondays, and 2) an actual Pile Review or Phile Reflection posted every Wednesday. The other 2 (or 3, possibly 4) as yet exist only in draft form on my computer and within my WordPress account.  With that in mind, I plan to go full out active this August 1 (a Wednesday, no less). And yeah, that’s about three months from now, –well, two months and change. So please be patient with me a little longer folks.  I can promise you though, that the first review is already complete, and it will be on Sheba : through the desert in search of the legendary queen  by Nicholas Clapp.

Until then my friends, stay reading!


n.b. why YES this was x-posted from The Walsingham Way, why do you ask?

Phile #5 Journaling with the Mind in the Heart

4 Jan

A New Year brings renewed commitments, renewed hopes,  renewed ambitions, and in this case, a renewed blog with a new rationale for posting -that my reading may be entertaining, informing, and transforming. I plan to bring this about through the power of self-education. So without further ado, let me introduce you to:

The Education of a Reader or, The Wordy Nature of Michael’s Mind: Ruminations of Education, Books and Personal Grounding

Education is about bettering one’s self through the acquisition of knowledge that leads to wisdom. In schools (public and private) we learn the rudiments of how to educate ourselves through Authority, Observation, Analysis and Synthesis, (and more often we are only taught a basic vocational skill set that quickly becomes out-moded and out of date in the working world)  but this is not itself education, for at the end of our schooling -including grad school- we at most have a piece of paper that announces to one and all that we (presumably) know how to do research, and how to think critically about [fill in blank here], as well as an introduction to a subject of learning.  It is a beginning, in other words.  In this we see that education  -from the Lain “to lead out of ignorance”- is a lifelong vocation and commitment to our selves.

It follows then, that to say that one is an educated person is at best a partial truth, far better is it to apply a paraphrase of Aeschylus from Agamemnon, referring to of course, Agamemnon (though it could just as likely be from Sophocles in Oedipus Tyrannus referring to, well, Oedipus), call no man educated until he is dead. At best one could say of himself (or herself) that he (or she) is on the path to being educated.

Education properly called consists of many realms, the most important of which is moral and ethical, followed by intellectual (comprised of social, political, economic, scientific, artistic) emotional, and physical.

The best ground for life-long education is the classical tradition. In the West it would Greek and Latin, or more generally, “The Great Books” whereas for the East it would be the Six Classics comprising the Confucian, Mohist, Taoist, School of Names, Yin-Yang, and Legalist Schools.  I admit to not knowing what a comparable foundation would be for the Indian subcontinent, and as Africa  to the best of my knowledge, West and sub-Saharan Africa had no written language tradition until fairly late, and nothing like a unified continental culture to supply a fixed canon of texts (whether oral or written), nor for a foundation for the First Nations of Turtle Island for roughly the same reason; however, I will work primarily from the Occidental foundation of Christian Humanism.

At the same time, education has always been oriented toward vocation, or one’s calling in life. And my calling is to read, to write, to shape, and to serve God and fellow Man.

  Reading for Life, not (yet) Orders

In the Church of England/Anglican Christian tradition (which I call my Christian home), before the rise of the institutional seminary it used to be commonplace for aspiring young men to “read for Orders” under the tutelage of an older priest. This was not necessarily  the ideal situation for the training of Ministers of the Gospel and was often an incomplete process, but it was the most -or only- effective means of supplying a rudimentary theological education, from which the prospective ordinand was expected to continue into a lifetime study of the Gospel.Unfortunately, most priests were hard pressed to come up with weekly Sunday sermons, much less engage in rigorous intellectual formation after ordination.  (Thanks to The New Continuing Anglican’s   “The Bishop’s Course of Study” for the background thoughts).

I though, have always like that concept, of reading your way into being qualified for an office, or an opportunity of ministry to others. But I had never taken it seriously, until now. Back in October, my mother brought my attention to a certain box in the basement of her house that appeared to be a box of old journals of mine. Well, the course of my own mental and emotional development is dear to my heart, so I went down to see what it was, and it turned out to be, not journals, but the missing first half of my collection of The Great Books of the Western World. This sparked in me a renewed desire for reading, which had been lagging of late. In fact, since July I have only been able to read 21 books from my own bookshelves. This led me back to the notion of “reading for…:”

It is my desire adapt this conception (sans the presence of a mentoring elder  at this time to provide accountability) into wider intellectual categories, and so I am proposing to myself a goal: to read myself into a humanistic, philosophical, theological and even scientific (in the biological and human sciences) education. Over the next seven years (or sets of seven years considering the multiplicity of  disciplines I am integrating) I am proposing to engage in intensive readings and responses to gauge my level of understanding. The subjects to be covered include: Theology (especially sacred scripture, dogmatic, moral, pastoral, sacramental and liturgical, spiritual and ascetical theology), Philosphy  (especially metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, of science, and of mind; moral philosophy. political philosophy, and the argument from reason) and Biology (especially evolutionary theory, cell biology, and molecular neurobiology). Other subjects to be treated of include -to a greater or lesser extent: Classics, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Area Cultural Studies. and Literature.

Of necessity, as I am reading out of my own resources for the time being (until I can organize my thoughts, prepare more systematic reading lists culled from my existing books, solicited recommendations, and online resources; and arrange visits to my alma mater‘s library) my selections will be eclectic. Although, I have it on good authority that I own, not to mention have already read, more theology than most priests, yet alone most seminarians. Knowing this, my other fields of intellectual interest and endeavor are, I am sure likewise well represented in my library. I say this not to boast, for the only thing worth boasting about is my faith in Christ Jesus- but to ponder the circumstances of a layman having a potentially greater knowledge of theology than some priests. To me this is a humbling condemnation of the state of clerical education (Although this really a post -or set of posts- for a sister blog “The Walsingham Way” and really belongs to a discussion of catechesis, Christian Formation, and the Christian response to God and Neighbor), and worth pausing for a moment before going on.

My goal for this first year is two books, How to Read a Book. Revised and Updated Edition, by Mortimer J Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972) -“The classic guide to intelligent reading” as it is billed- , and Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: a Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis, by Joan Bolker, Ed. D -even though currently I have no prospects of entering a formal academic program of instruction- and as much of the Great Books of the Western World by Encyclopedia Britannica, -edited in part by one Mortimer J Adler- as I can with the remainder to be read the following year(s).

After this initial taste of the Pierian spring,  I plan to read  selections from the Greek and Latin Classics with Loeb Classical Library,  volumes of Blackwell’s Companions to Philosophy and Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, the English translation of Kittel’s Dictionary of New Testament Theology, and companion series Dictionary of Old Testament Theology, volumes from Anchor Bible and Anchor Bible Reference Library, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, the Popular Patristics Series from St Vladimir Seminary Press, Paulist Press’s Classics of Western Spirituality, and numerous individual volumes.

I title drop here not to boast of how wide my reading is or will be, or how well read I will (potentially) be, and certainly not to boast bout my academic and intellectual achievement or achievements (or lack thereof), but to show how far I have to go before I can begin to consider myself on the road to a holistic education.

Readings will be complimented by language studies: Hebrew, Koine (possibly Classic as well) Greek, Latin, German, French,  Japanese (because…Japanese) one year primarily devoted to each language in turn.

Every Wednesday, a Note*

Piles and Philes will become a sort of running personal journal of reading responses, with new content posted every Wednesday, in emulation of certain online graduate degree programs I have researched over the years that use Wednesday as weekly deadlines for posting reading and critique assignments.  No matter where I am in my reading, Wednesdays will provide the summary of my understanding to date. So, I will be changing the Piles and Philes description to read : a journal of reading, viewing, and thinking with the mind in the heart. This does not, of course mean that I will cease from writing free-standing interviews, though I suppose a three year gap between entries might suggest otherwise. I have plenty of draft reviews -I only need to finish them.

I am sure that my reading lists will be more exhaustive than my actual capacity to read them (though this knowledge won’t prevent my making the attempt).  The reading lists are more of an ideal, the closer I come to the ideal, the better prepared I will be when chance happens.  An old saw says that if you devote an hour a day every day for seven years to a subject of interest, then at the end of seven years you can attain expert understanding in that field. This too, is a ideal to live up to, not a ironclad demand that must be obeyed on penalty of intellectual disfigurement. Other recent reading about directed self-study suggest that I should spend a minimum of 10 hours per week in my studies. This I can do. And hopefully, my Wednesday posts will prove the pudding.

Every Reader a Prayer

And yet, I must become ruthless in pursuing prayer as well. If I am not grounded in prayer, all the studying, reading, viewing, thinking, and writing in the world will not benefit me one iota. But that, again, is a post for another blog.So look for it soon!  What this means in part is that I consider my reading itself a form of prayer to God (in fact, some Orthodox Jews consider study of Talmud itself to be a fitting prayer unto God in lie of sacrifices due to  the  [current] abeyance of Temple worship, and then there’s the wonderful verse in 2 Timothy “Study to shew yourself approved unto God” (2 Tim 2:15) but oh look, another Rabbit Hole). It also means that I must integrate prayer into study and study into prayer, and even apply Lectio Divina, if possible (out of one rabbit hole into another).  My prayer life, though is always a work in progress, and seems to be more like public road works projects -lots of noise and very little to show for it more days than not than anything else.

So join me on this renewed journey of the mind in the heart, and I promise you will be entertained, informed, and just possibly, as transformed as I hope to become.

For next Wednesday, I plan to introduce How to Read a Book, as well as other people’s responses to it at work.  Look forward to some interesting times, y’all.

*Of necessity, this post was not pre-read or vetted by anyone other than myself, so that I could push it out this first Wednesday of 2017. If you. my good reader, should find any error, inconsistencies, or other room for improvement, please let me know and I shall incorporate your advice as best I can.  Thank you for helping me to improve myself.

Meta-Pile #6 Cleaning the Plate, 13 Weeks at a Time

17 Jun

Of late, I have found myself  bogged down among a plethora of books from two separate libraries, as well as volumes from my personal collections, while simultaneously pulled in 5 or 6 directions intellectually speaking (on top of  the rest of my life happenings). This has been the result of  half-hearted intentions on my part to prepare for  further graduate work in history, humanities, and philosophy.  Needless to say, this has even negatively affected my output of reviews: attempt too many tasks and nothing gets done.

10 June 2014

So I have decided to make a “clean sweep”, return all (or at least the very, vast majority) and start anew with 6 books filling the role of text-books to provide background exposure to the courses of instruction I desire to take. From there I shall proceed to actively read only 6 volumes at any one time from all combinations of sources: personal public, college, or private library collections, giving me 6 days of active reading and one day of rest.

17 June 2014

Yeah, okay that idea died an ignominious death. I did, however take the step of returning all my borrowed volumes from Berry College. I still plan to ultimately reduce my reading loads to 5 books a week at a time, one volume per anticipated blog (with allowances for this blog, which may require more volumes and produce more reviews, once I’ve built up enough entries to make regular posting worthwhile.

The Thirteen Week Reading Diet

In the meantime, I still plan to continue  my background reading toward the various M.A. degrees I am seeking, only this time I will give myself deadlines. I also  have a definite format in mind, based on the syllabi for the courses in the programs, with which to direct my reading, note-taking, and responses to the material (this is my way of making myself accountable to myself, by announcing what I am doing, that way people can bug me about my progress). The programs I plan to pursue maintain a 13 week course schedule; so to acclimatize myself to the reading and writing workload that these degrees entail I shall take a text or texts on a subject (for instance Mortimer J Adler’s How to Read a Book, or Will (and Ariel) Durant’s 14vol Story of Civilization), and spend  (up to) 13 weeks reading them.  For each week of reading, I will produce a review for the book, or  in some cases the section of book, I’m reading, and a final summary of my reading at the end of the 13 week cycle; only then will I  move on to the next assignment.

I will title each review “Select Reading Program” to keep track of my progress. (Incidentally, this process is also a good way to work my way through the ginormous backlog of reading material I have accumulated over the years.)


To give you a hint of how many directions my fertile mind has been stretched into, the following six areas have the most volumes within my personal library, and form the core of my intellectual pursuits. In fact, with the exception of Japanese Studies, I have found that all these areas comprise sections in a larger endeavor conceived of as a ‘natural history of the soul’ that engages philosophy, theology and science.

Biology and Chemistry

Humanities and Classics

Japanese Studies/Anime

Jewish Studies

Patristic Studies

Philosophy – Epistemology / Metaphysics / Ethics / Political Philosophy / Philosophy of Science (Biology)


Select Reading Plan, The Texts:

The books listed below represent the choice of books for my first four ‘courses’ of reading, what I have termed my “Select Reading Plan

1) Humanities

How to Read a Book : The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading Rev. and updated ed. / Mortimer J. Adler, and Charles Van Doren. New York: Simon and Schuster 1940. [1972].  xiii, 426 p. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

The Story of Civilization  / Will Durrant. NY: MJF Books. 1935. 1963. 14v.  v1 Our Oriental Heritage

History of Philosophy 9v. / Frederick Copleston.

2) Theology/Patristics/Jewish Studies

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10v / Gerhard Kittel, editor. Geoffrey W Bromiley, translator. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.  1964.  [v1 Alpha – Gamma] [Fifth Printing 1972]

3) Anime/Japanese Studies

Culture Shock! Japan [third edition] / Rex Shelley. Portland, OR: Graphics Arts Center Publishing Company. 1993. 2000. 280 p. ; ill. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

 The Electric Geisha: Exploring Japan’s Popular Culture / Atsushi Ueda, ed. translated by Miriam Eguchi.  Tokyo:  Kodansha International. 1994.  260p.  Includes Glossary

The World of the Shining Prince : Court Life in Ancient Japan / Ivan Morris.   New York:  Vintage. 1964. Introduction copyright 1994.  xxvii,  336p. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature  [2d ed] / J. Thomas Rimer. Tokyo: Kodansha International. 1999.  244p. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

4) Science

Biology:  [bibliographic citation not yet available] *

Chemistry: [bibliographic citation not yet available] *

a variety of used college-level textbooks acquired from *cough* Goodwill Stores, as well as popular science magazines provide the basis for my background science readings


For simplicity, I’ll update this post with my current status each week

Week One:  June 22-June 28 2014

Meta-Pile #5 The Gentle Art of Reviewing: The Five Forms

17 Jun

As part of my ongoing quest to perfect my reviewing style, expand my knowledge base, and make better analyses of what I read, thus improving the reviews I offer, (the perfect excuse to spend mindless hours browsing and searching Wikipedia, naturally,I have tried to identify just what it is I am doing when I craft a book review. To my surprise, I learned that book reviews are considered to be a form of literary criticism.

Oddly enough, it’s hard for me to think about myself engaging in literary criticism when I’m only writing  book reviews (especially when most of them are non-fiction), because for me  literary criticism involves  the production of articles of 10-30 pages or longer monographs that evaluate the literary quality of an author’s work, and I have no formal training in literature,  but that is exactly what I am doing. In researching styles and templates for reviewing books, I  have had cause to look back to my student days, and  the instructions from my undergraduate professors on critiques we wrote on assigned reading, and realized that I preferred writing reviews that looked like that, but then I wondered,  is a ‘critique’ the same as a ‘review? And what about those pesky terms “bibliographic essay” and “literature review?” How do they fit into the equation, And then,  to complicate matters further,  I like to read Publishers Weekly, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, Books & Culture, the book review sections of academic periodicals, and even user-generated reviews on Amazon and, so you could say that I like formal book reviews over informal assessments.

In all I have come to identify five forms of book evaluations, some which consider only the “book-in-hand”, some which cover multiple books:  Book Review, Book Critique, Annotated Bibliographies, Bibliographic Essays and Literature Reviews,  all of them forms of directed literary criticism -even when the source material is non-fiction. To keep them straight in my mind, as well as to help you, the gentle reader, I decided to  air out my findings and so I present to you the Five Forms of Book Reviews:

  1. Book Review.  A book review gives an evaluation of a book (text or audio) that either provides a recommendation for or against reading it, (which seems silly to my mind, because simply hearing about a work is not the same as reading -or seeing, or hearing- the work for yourself), or that provides a (hopefully reasoned) judgement about the story or argument.  These can be academic and journal reviews, personal reviews, paid reviews, volunteer reviews, and professional reviews  According to Wikipedia, a book review is a “form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. … Reviewers, in literary periodicals, often use the occasion of a book review for a display of learning or to promulgate their own ideas on the topic of a fiction or non-fiction work” (1) and notes that often, evaluations are based on personal taste, which translate into only those books get reviewed that a reader really likes or really hates. The majority of people, however understand, and use a book review as a way to respond to the experience of reading, and don’t always provide convincing reasons for this response, so instead of a reasoned opinion on an author or a boo, it becomes a statement of personal taste and we all know the maxim about taste: De gustibus, non est disputandum.
  2. Book Critique  A critique of a work covers more than just the bare bones of plot, theme, style.  It considers the author’s credentials (and thus his expertise or authority in writing), the strengths and weaknesses of the argument, as well as engaging with other reviews of the work to give a more balanced view. A proper critique should also provide some context about the work: when, where, and why it was written, and how -if at all- it should affect our judgement of the work. In some of the more august reviewing literature,  critiques and reviews blend together, but I like to make a distinction. I suppose this means my ‘reviews’ are actually critiques, but since ‘review’ is a little less pretentious-sounding than ‘critique’, I’ll stay with ‘review’ to describe my evaluations.
  3. Annotated Bibliography :  Annotated Bibliographies are perhaps the ‘easiest’ or simplest form of literary criticism that covers multiple titles. It’s really a listing of books, together with a one or two sentence description of its contents, or recommendation about it’s use. These are usually topically and/or chronologically oriented, and find a home within public libraries, undergraduate libraries, or even museums.
  4. Bibliographic Essay :  Bibliographic essays are usually stand alone works that include comments and evaluations of multiple works either by the same author, or on the same topic.  I will use them in two other ways:   to review an author’s entire corpus, or a majority portion thereof; or to provide readers wit a generalized reading plan on a topic of interest.
  5. Literature Review:  Literature Reviews cover the current state of research (or scholarship) on a problem of scientific or humanistic note, or within a particular  academic discipline.  They are designed to be more impartial than a bibliographic essay, and are usually found within a larger research context, such as scientific research papers, a master’s thesis or  doctoral dissertations.

These five forms make up the expected literary and intellectual content  of Piles and Philes, and to a lesser extent my other forthcoming blogs.


Sources:  Accessed on 9 June 2014  Accessed on 9 June 2014

Mini-Pile #6 on Neil Shubin’s Fish and Rocks

26 Feb

This post is an anomaly, in that it features two books, albeit by the same author in the same post.

Your Inner Fish: a journey into the 3.5 billion-year history of the human body / Neil Shubin. NY: Pantheon Books. 2008. ix, 229p ill. : Includes Bibliographic References and Index.


The Universe Within: discovering the common history of rocks, planets, and people / Neil Shubin. NY: Pantheon Books. 2013. x, 213p ill. : Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

This pair of books, published five years apart by Neil Shubin, associate dean at the University of Chicago, paleontologist who specializes in the evolution of fish (paleoichthyology),  and a lecturer in human anatomy for the medical school makes a combined argument about the shared history of the human body -it’s  organs, tissues, and molecules- not just with all over animal life, but indeed stretching to encompass the planet, sun, solar system.

As  works of general science (biology, evolutionary biology, paleontology, geology, astronomy) they provide tantalizing hints and explanations for the existence and origins of our bodies relatively free of bio-technobabble  in a compact package.  Easily readable by anyone in High School. He places notes, references, and suggestions for further reading together at the back for each volume, and sprinkles photographs, figures, and charts throughout the text.

Definitely not a primary source for research (or even a proper secondary source for anything beyond a undergraduate introductory course in Biology), Shubin nonetheless shows himself to be a good and patient teacher. He fills the page with personal examples from his own fossil-collecting expeditions, as well as the results of research from other scientists to make his points.

I feel almost foolish for adding this, but the books are accessible even for those who reject the notion of  evolution as an unguided,  non-directional  and non-progressive, natural (and sexual) selection process that just happens to have budded a self-conscious twig from the vast tree of life, and prefer or accept instead either a 6-Day Creation (with or without a young earth component) or the notion of  evolution as a guided process by intelligent design as providing the best explanation of our origins, and who are at least willing to read arguments in opposition so they will have an educated appreciation of the same.

A more detailed summation and critique for each separate volume will (eventually) reside at The Strange Affair of the Evolutionary Creationist blog

Mini-Pile #5 “Igniting the Reaches” by David Drake

24 Feb

Igniting the reaches / David Drake. New York:  Ace Books. 1994. 262 p.

Igniting the Reaches is the initial volume in a short (three volume) series about buccaneer style trade and diplomacy at the point of a sword (or in this case the laser rifle-barrel), set in the far future after the “Collapse” -the sudden decline and fall of the last great human empire a thousand years before the story opens.  The story follows the mercantile exploits of two men from the planet Venus: Piet Ricimer a young deep-space sailor and Stephen Gregg, scion of a merchant family, in their attempt to restore  Venus and Venerian trade to the stars  while making their fortunes. They  do this in a small spacecraft  named “Peaches”  with a ragtag crew that even includes a genetically-engineered former alien slave.  The book  ends up being a set of conflicts between the Venerians and the other two primary human political entities: the  Earth based North American Federation and the Southern Cross, along with other independent traders/privateers or “pirates” (depending on your point of view).

Drake is good at writing combat, but I found it hard to get excited by either the characters, or the plot -even knowing  it’s historical basis in the writings and exploits of  Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Hakluyt in the Age of Discovery as explained by the author.  In fact, I nearly had to drag myself to finish the book.  It doesn’t flow as smoothly as the RCN series (Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy), nor does it have the punch of “Hammer’s Slammers”, or the character engagement of the Belisarius series (I can’t speak to how it compares to his fantasy works such as “Lord of the Isles” as I haven’t read any of them yet). My other ‘plaint, as the Publishers Weekly review (1994, as excerpted on points out, is the characters’  lack of concern for, and even a moral disengagement about, the consequences of their actions other than  those that lead to the success of their own mission: they take it for granted that life should be this way. This though seems par for the course for Drake’s characters and is not unique to the “Reaches” series.

This last bit, though is partially explained by Drake himself:  in an author’s afterward, he gives a philosophical justification for his writing style and treatment of characters. Commenting that the truth that each person holds in his head is unique to that person and “can’t really be expressed to anyone else,” he yet tries to write his fiction from the standpoint of  this truth, and admits: “One of the ways I achieve that end is to use historical events as the paradigm for my fiction”.  For the “Reaches” series  this involves reading of the exploits of  the 16th and 17th century explorers and  the writings of Richard Hakluyt, and projecting these real life events into a far future setting.

I can’t bring myself to recommend this book to anyone. At the same time, I wouldn’t say don’t read it; that is to say Igniting the Reaches failed to ignite my interest in the characters and not a story I would read again, so becoming one of the “Indifferent” books that will inevitably litter the posts of my blog.

Pile #15 “Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Significance” by John Baggley

30 Jan

Doors of Perception: Icons and their spiritual significance / John Baggley. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1988.  xi, 160p. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

Worship with the Senses

We Christians of the 20th and 21st century live in a highly visual culture – while relying for the most part on oral and written testimony to learn of, and know God in Jesus Christ mostly through proclamation.  And yet, Christian Faith and Worship is a more than merely verbal and mental, it is a sensual experience: utilizing sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell; through these God-given senses we bring all of ourselves as an offering to the Lord each Sunday when we gather, and ideally in our daily lives when we turn to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving.

Of all the senses the one most honed throughout most of human history is that of sight (which means it is also the sense most easily debased) To aid this understanding and appropriation of the Spirit, a long and rich tradition of Christian art exists, one that has not always remained in chancel or chapter house. The down side to this is that Western religious art, like academic, scholarly study of the Scriptures has often become divorced from the Faith and Church that such studies and practice were meant to serve.

To See or Not to See, That is the Question…

And yet our contemporary (western) liturgical and devotional forms are in a sense vestiges of a much richer approach to worship  that relies less on a realism so prominent in our Western Christian art and theology, than on expressing the inner spirit in visible form. This alternative to artistic realism is found most readily in the Orthodox (and Coptic) East, and in their primary expression of religious art -the Icon.

Icons are an integral aspect of corporate worship and devotion of the Eastern Church, bringing the Communion of Saints to mind in a highly visible format, as well as teaching the faith without words. They are also a legacy of faith from the undivided Church. My own parish, Our Saviour is privileged to possess no less than three Icons  from different liturgical backgrounds and styles within the Church grounds:  two in the Lady Chapel after the Byzantine fashion and an Ethiopian Icon that hangs in the parish hall.

Sadly, though, they are not often utilized for their proper devotional function. This may have something to do with our lack of understanding of the force, and influence of Icons. Many books exist that introduce Icons for a Western Christian, but most are written for an Eastern audience by Eastern writers, and don’t always address Western concerns. Happily, the parish library once again comes to the rescue, for its shelves hold  the Doors of Perception: Icons and their Spiritual Significance by Fr. John Baggley.

Opening the Doors…

Doors of Perception is a book on Icons written for a Western audience by a Anglican priest (at the time of writing, Fr. Baggley was serving as Team Rector of the Bicester Team of Parishes in Oxfordshire) who is a sympathetic outside observer of Orthodoxy, and published by a venerable American Orthodox publishing house to introduce the discipline, decorum, and devotion of iconodulia -the veneration of holy Icons. It explores the history, theology, and spirituality of Icons for the Western audience, without taking prior experience or knowledge of Orthodoxy or Icons for granted.

Fr. Baggley offers 8 Chapters, an essay on the painting of icons by Richard Temple, a section of color plates with meditations, and two appendixes.  The first 98 pages of text covers the general historical and theological introduction, as well as  the spiritual tradition that surrounds Icons.  The second part, pages 99-105, consists of an essay by Richard Temple of The Temple Gallery, London (which is a centre for the “study, restoration, and exhibition of Icons”, specializing in Russian Icons) about the nature and techniques of Icon painting, and the third section is a collection of 18 Icon plates with provenance  and commentary and meditation.

After the introductory chapter, two chapters deal with a historical overview of the use of Icons, two chapters cover biblical language and imagery, and as well as it’s interpretation, and two chapters cover the Orthodox spirituality (especially the monastic setting) that forms the background for Icon painters (actually most of the book is a primer on Orthodox spirituality as the making, and use of Icons owes so much to this spiritual theology), and the last chapter situates the Icons in their liturgical and devotional context.

For Beginners, and Well-Seasoned Travelers

Fr Baggley does not presume that we know anything about Icons, other than the fact that they are a style of Eastern liturgical and devotional art (if indeed we know that much), so shies away from lots of technical jargon, unless the terms are first explained.

Having myself read a number of earlier books on Icons (including the two volume Theology of the Icon by the late Léonide Ouspensky -my first fora into Icons) I wasn’t expecting to learn many new things about Icons and their use but, found myself pleasantly surprised at the depth of information, as well as the integration of theology and spiritual aesthetics which Fr. Baggley and Mr. Temple offer. I can honestly say that this book has done much to increase my love of the Icon.


The next complete Pile  (#16) I am preparing is Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, which marks a milestone of sorts for me, as it marks the last Amazon Book Review that I submitted way back when I was consumed with climbing the ranks of Amazon reviewers -said fervour has since died down somewhat. I mentioned in a previous Pile that I thought it best to savor Mary Through the Centuries only when placed alongside it’s predecessor, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the  History of Culture. I have since rethought that position, not least because I have read so many other books in the meantime without returning to Jesus Through the Centuries and now think it best to actually finish the review, so  along with my Select Reading Project of Foreground Reading for additional university degrees, I am putting the finishing touches on Mary. Until then my friends, keep reading, learning, and loving.