Winston Churchill — Paul Johnson’s Worthy Biography

This past Sunday marked the 45th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill, the man widely regarded as the greatest leader of the twentieth century. Churchill’s life was large in every way. Born in the splendor of Blenheim Palace on November 30, 1874, Churchill’s life would span the most decisive years of the transition into the modern world. Though faced with great adversity — and driven by a titanic self-confidence — he would emerge as the man who saved England from collapse in its darkest hour.

In my personal library I have two entire sections devoted to Churchill’s own works and books about him. The most massive biography of Churchill is the multi-volume official biography written by Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert. In recent years, significant single-volume biographies have been written by both Martin Gilbert and Roy Jenkins. Shorter works have been written by historians such as John Keegan. Those who love Churchill cherish the two volumes written by William Manchester, and lament that the third volume will never be written. Biographical studies on Churchill have been offered by figures ranging from Lord Moran, his personal physician, to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Yet, until now, no shorter biography has done Sir Winston justice. Until now, that is, for the publication of Churchill by Paul Johnson fills that lamentable gap in the literature.

Johnson is a well-known British historian and a man of ideas. His books have their own honored place in my library, ranging from Modern Times and Intellectuals, to his History of the American People. With Churchill, he succeeds where others have failed. He captures Winston Churchill in under 200 pages of elegant and clear prose. The reasons for Johnson’s success are these — he knows how to write, he knows the history of the era, and he knows Winston Churchill. Johnson never gets over his admiration for the great man, but he sees him in honest and very human terms.

Johnson is a master of the English language, as was Churchill. Noting Churchill’s famous oratory — one of his major weapons of warfare — Johnson remarks that “he switched it on to its full power just as Hitler switched his off.”

Johnson traces Churchill’s life from his rather tragic childhood to the glory of his funeral service, an occasion of Britain’s most severe mourning. He deals honestly with his shortcomings, character flaws, and setbacks. But he never loses sight of the man’s greatness, nor the importance of his place in history. Paul Johnson’s Churchill is now the first book I would recommend to anyone who would ask why Winston Churchill still matters. Lest anyone miss the lessons of the biography, Johnson offers five important lessons from Churchill’s life in an epilogue. Churchill will please those who know little about Winston Churchill, as well as those who know a great deal.

An excerpt:

In his ninety years, Churchill had spent fifty-five years as a member of Parliament, thirty-one years as a minister, and nearly nine years as prime minister. He had been present at or fought in fifteen battles, and had been awarded fourteen campaign medals, some with multiple clasps. He had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second. He had published nearly 10 million words, more than most professional writers in their lifetime, and painted over five hundred canvases, more than most professional painters. He had reconstructed a stately home and created a splendid garden with its three lakes, which he had caused to be dug himself. He had built a cottage and a garden wall. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, an Elder Brother of Trinity House, a Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a Royal Academician, a university chancellor, a Nobel Prizeman, a Knight of the Garter, a Companion of Honour, and a member of the Order of Merit. Scores of towns made him an honorary citizen, dozens of universities awarded him honorary degrees, and thirteen countries gave him medals. He hunted big game and won a score of races. How many bottles of champagne he consumed is not recorded, but it may be close to twenty thousand. He had a large and much-loved family, and countless friends.

Empire of Liberty — When America Became American

Gordon S. Wood is one of the most influential historians writing in the field of American history today. His reputation will only be enhanced with the publication of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815,  the newest volume in “The Oxford History of the United States.” Wood has written a massive work of over 750 pages, tracing the life of the early Republic and the transformation of America in what amounts to its national adolescence. “By 1815 Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to one another and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them,” Wood observes.

Americans tend to jump from the Revolution to the Civil War with little concern for the period Wood so thoroughly covers in this volume. And yet, America came of age during those years, developing political habits, establishing a national identity, and claiming more new territory than had been claimed during the entire colonial period.

During this period, America left behind its British identity and forged a new American ideal. It was the Age of Jackson and of the notion of the average American as “a new man.” It was also the age of the Second Great Awakening and the transformation of American Christianity. As Wood notes, many of the changes that occurred on the American religious landscape during this period continue to be determinative today.

Empire of Liberty is an important work that is both encyclopedic in scope and incisive in judgment. His treatment of religion during this period, though theologically thin, is genuinely interesting. Evangelical readers should supplement Wood’s volume with Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Religion and Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism.

An excerpt from Wood:

This Second Great Awakening was a radical expansion and extension of the earlier eighteenth-century revivals. It was not just a continuation of the first awakening of the mid-eighteenth century. It was more evangelical, more ecstatic, more personal, and more optimistic. It did not simply intensify the religious feelings of existing church members. More important, it mobilized unprecedented numbers of people who previously had been unchurched and made them members of religious groups. By popularizing religion as never before and by extending religion into the remotest areas of America, the Second Great Awakening marked the beginning of the republicanizing and nationalizing of American religion. It transformed the entire religious culture of America and laid the foundations for the development of an evangelical religious world of competing denominations unique to Christendom.

Giving the Nook a Good Look

Just before Christmas I took delivery of a new Nook, the dedicated e-reader recently released by Barnes & Noble. Just having a Nook was something of a sensation, since the device had been so popular on pre-order that many orders still remain unfilled. Is the Nook an admirable e-reader? You bet. A Kindle-killer? Not yet, anyway.

I am a dedicated Kindle user, and have been for some time. The e-reader will not replace the printed and bound book (see my article on the Kindle), but it will become the technology of choice for reading many types of printed material and many books as well. My Kindle DX is loaded with good material and is always close at hand.

The Nook is a very handsome e-reader, very similar in appearance and functionality to the smaller Kindle models. It is actually very much like the Kindle in most respects, with the same screen and basically the same technology. It does have a color screen below the main reading screen — a very handsome addition that is both a navigation system and a catalog of your books on the Nook.

Before a long trip during the Christmas season, I loaded my Nook with several titles ranging from spy thrillers to serious theological works and literature. On a long flight, I read The English Assassin by novelist Dan Silva. As with the Kindle, I found that reading this kind of book on the e-reader is actually a delight. I soon forgot that I did not have a codex in my hand.

The Nook has access to the huge inventory of digital books at Barnes & Noble, including many free books that are in the public domain. You will not run out of reading material.

At the same time, I wish Barnes & Noble had more titles available. Another complaint is that the machine is rather slow compared to the Kindle. I did not find this a major frustration, but it is noticed. B&N promises to fix that issue with a software update — rather standard fare for a new technology.

Battery life seems less than my Kindle, but is very workable. With the unit turned to “airplane mode” you can read for days between charges.

I do like the Nook. It is good for Amazon to have competition for the Kindle. Do I think the Nook will displace the Kindle? No. Amazon has been at this longer and the Kindle is a really fine technology. Nevertheless, the Nook is really handsome and may over time reveal advantages not yet fully appreciated.

We are living in a remarkable era of human history, with the experience of reading changing (quite literally) before our eyes. You will know this for a fact when you read a favorite book on your Nook.

The Kindle Experience — A Personal Report

Books are a major part of my daily life. As I write this, I am surrounded by many thousands of books, each with its own feel, appearance, and meaning. Many of these books have played crucial roles in my thinking and understanding. Even as Christianity requires a certain level of literacy for its transmission and understanding, the book (whether scroll or codex) is rightly cherished by Christ’s people.

There is something special about most books and the experience of reading them. The physical reality of the book, including its cover, paper, typeface, and design are part of its charm. Books are wonderful to behold, to sense, to hold, and ultimately to read. As a technology, books have survived the test of time. They do not need batteries, they hold up well with a minimum of maintenance, and, unlike a computer, they never crash. Books are almost perfect as a combination of design and purpose. Who could ask for more?

I do. The printed book is superior to almost every imaginable technology in any number of respects, but not in all. The digital revolution has reached the world of books, and things are forever changed. I was an early adopter of the Kindle,’s almost iconic electronic reader. My first Kindle was bought soon after the technology became available. I purchased a few books and intended the Kindle to operate as a supplement to my library of printed books. I did not expect to spend much time with it, but I saw the advantage of instantly-available books that could be carried in my briefcase by the hundreds.

Now, I travel with an unreasonable number of books inserted throughout my luggage, but I cannot stash more than a few. The Kindle allows me to carry hundreds, and eventually thousands. Even as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT predicted the shift of all information from atoms to bits, the Kindle allows this transformation for the book. Writing in The New Republic, Anthony T. Grafton predicts that “electronic reading will move from being one of the ways we access and consume texts to the dominant mode.”

I am not sure of that when it comes to books, but it is already true for any number of other published formats, ranging from newspapers to academic journals. I cannot imagine that the Kindle (or any similar technology) will replace the printed book in affection or aspiration, but it has already become a means of transcending the material barrier when it comes to books.

Put bluntly, I seldom leave home without my Kindle. It rides in my briefcase, holding more books than I could ever carry and ready for more.

I started with the original Kindle, then switched to the Kindle 2, and upgraded to the Kindle DX. I eagerly recommend the Kindle DX as the state-of-the-art Kindle. Amazon now also offers a Kindle that can be used to purchase books internationally.

Some thoughts:

1. Do not think of the Kindle as replacing the book. Bury that thought. Bury it deep. Then go and hold a favorite book in your hand. Enjoy. Then pile 50 of your favorite books and carry them with you all day, through airports, onto airplanes, checking into hotels, sitting in meetings, reading in bed at night. You get the point. You sit (gloriously) in a library. You take a Kindle in your briefcase.

2. Yes, you really can read books with this thing. The experience is not identical to reading a printed book, but it is very satisfactory for most books, magazines, and newspapers. The screen technology makes the Kindle look much like a printed book with type on a page. You will gain a feel for reading on the Kindle quite quickly.

3. The ability to purchase and receive books almost instantaneously is nothing short of amazing. I recently needed a couple of books for an article I was urgently writing in a New York City hotel room at 2:00 AM. No worries. I had both books on my Kindle within five minutes.

4. My Kindle holds dozens of theological classics, Bible translations, and seminal works of theology, history, and philosophy. It also holds a great deal of literature, including novels. I find reading fiction particularly profitable on the Kindle. I tend to forget the technology and just get lost in the book. I also have dozens of biographies, books on current events, and books by favorite authors on my Kindle.

5. I purchase and read some books on the Kindle, knowing full well that I probably do not want to maintain them in my permanent library collection. The Kindle is glad to hold them for me. You can often request a sample chapter to see if you want to purchase the book. I generally find myself hooked.

6. I really like the ability of the Kindle DX to receive and display PDF files and the ability of all Kindles to receive my own files as books. I can send a manuscript to my Kindle by email and it is there for the reading whenever I need it. That is extremely helpful.

Will the Kindle and its digital competitors replace the printed book? I think not. Indeed I hope not. I think most of us will reserve a special pride of place for printed books. Think not of replacement, but of supplement. CEO Jeff Bazos recently told The New York Times Magazine: “For every 100 copies of a physical book we sell, where we have the Kindle edition, we will sell 48 copies of the Kindle edition.”

That stunning figure tells the story. Digital books are here to stay, and sales will only grow. You are probably reading these very words on a screen. That ought to tell you something.

“Tear Down This Wall” — A Book for Leaders

Communication is one of the central tasks of leadership. No one seemed to know this like Ronald Reagan. Much like Winston Churchill, President Reagan understood the power of words and the opportunity of a great speech.

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan delivered the 1,279th speech of his presidency. He stood at the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall and called for the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to take down the wall.

Well into his speech, the President said:

We hear much from Moscow about a new policy of reform and openness. Some political prisoners have been released. Certain foreign news broadcasts are no longer being jammed. Some economic enterprises have been permitted to operate with greater freedom from state control.

Are these the beginnings of profound changes in the Soviet state? Or are they token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West, or to strengthen the Soviet system without changing it? We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace.

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

“Tear down this wall.” Those four words, now so memorable, were words with effect. Just over two years later, the wall fell, torn down by a people tasting freedom.

In Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech that Ended the Cold War, author Romesh Ratnesar, deputy managing editor of TIME magazine, tells the story of that speech and its delivery.

That story is nothing short of amazing. Ratnesar’s book takes the reader into a feverish debate at the very top levels of the American government. He tells of diplomats and other figures who sought at great length to prevent the President from speaking those four words. The diplomatic establishment feared that the President’s ultimatum would “embarrass” Gorbachev.

Ratnesar takes the reader into the times, into the White House, and into the mind of President Reagan. The book is a fascinating historical account. Leaders will be especially interested in Tear Down this Wall for its lessons in the strategic importance of words, a message, and the power of the spoken word.

From the book:

Reagan loathed the Wall. On a trip to West Berlin in 1978, he was taken to an eighth-floor office overlooking it and told the story of Peter Fechter, the youth who had been gunned down by East German police in 1962 as he tried to crawl over. The authorities left Fechter unattended for nearly an hour, while he bled to death. “Reagan just gritted his teeth when he heard all of this,” says Peter Hannaford, a longtime aide who was with Reagan that day. “You could tell from the set of his jaw and his look and some of the things he said that . . . he was very, very determined that this was something that had to go.

Reading Log, August 6, 2009 Public Enemies

To be human, it seems, is to be fascinated with crime. This simple fact explains why so much of our popular entertainment is driven by narratives and plots dealing with crime, crimefighters, criminals, and the police. News about crime and criminals often takes the top position in the newspaper and leads the nightly news.

From a Christian worldview perspective, this is actually quite understandable. Our Creator gifted us with a moral sense and the capacity of conscience. At some very early age, sin becomes an active part of our consciousness. As we grow older, we grow more and more aware of our own capacity for wrongdoing. The spectacular evil represented by notorious criminals becomes a fascination hard to resist. This can be healthy if a closer look at crime and criminality brings greater moral discernment and deeper insight into the reality of human depravity. On the other hand, a preoccupation with criminality can reflect a fascination with evil that must never be granted.

Millions of Americans have gone to see the movie “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis of the FBI. In the course of the movie, viewers are reminded of the gangster era of the 1930s and notorious characters including Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and a host of others. But, whereas the movie reduces the story of this era to only a handful of its most famous personalities, the book upon which the movie is based offers far more.

The movie is based on Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough. I put the book in my stack for summer reading and, once I had begun reading the book I could hardly put it down.

Burrough drew his research directly from the records of the FBI. He takes his reader right to the scene of the crime, so to speak, tracing the rise of these infamous gangsters and placing the era within its own fascinating historical context. By the time the reader finishes the book, Public Enemies has offered a short course in America during the Great Depression, the rise of America’s most famous gangsters, and the emergence of the FBI as a respected law enforcement agency.

“When one looks back across a chasm of 70 years, through a prism of pulp fiction and bad gangster movies, there is a tendency to view the events of 1933-34 as mythic, as folkloric,” Burrough writes. An entire generation of Americans knew these gangsters as contemporaries, but the passage of time has obscured their history. As Burrough writes, “After decades spent in the washing machine of popular culture, their stories have been bled of all reality, to an extent that few Americans today know who these people actually were, much less that they all rose to national prominence at the same time.”

The cultural and historical context of the gangster era is truly interesting. Before the rise of these criminals, Americans associated organized crime with immigrants and cities. But the stereotypical gangster of the 1930s was raised on a farm with what most Americans had assumed to be typical American values. They had names like Barker, Floyd, Nelson, and Dillinger. They were home-grown criminals.

Burrough also points to the context of the Great Depression and the fact that so many Americans blamed the banks for their own economic distress. When the gangsters started robbing banks, many Americans saw them as modern versions of Robin Hood. But when the scene turned ugly, with bodies strewn from one crime scene to another, Americans demanded action.

At this point J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI enter the picture. Burrough traces the rise of the FBI during the “war on crime” declared by Hoover. As his careful telling of the story makes clear, the emergence of the FBI as a credible national law enforcement agency was anything but inevitable. The states did not want a national police agency and the structure of American law made the formation and functioning of a national law enforcement agency extremely difficult. When FBI agents first began investigating the gangsters, they were not even allowed to carry guns. As Burrough demonstrates, it was the gangsters who made the FBI what it is today. The FBI owes much of its current stature to these early years when its first agents transformed themselves from incompetent investigators into skilled crimefighters.

Burrough tells the story in such a way that the reader will understand why these infamous gangsters appeared as such glamorous figures to the public. Yet, as the story unfolds the gangsters lose their glamour as the evil and murderous violence of their crime spree shocked Americans into understanding evil in a whole new context.

Bryan Burrough tells the story well and documents his account with care. Readers will be fascinated with the twists and turns of the story and with the sheer audacity of figures on both sides of the “war on crime.” Beyond this, the details reveal just how far this story reaches into our history. I was fascinated to learn that J. Frank Norris, one of the best-known fundamentalist preachers of Baptist history, had once sought to negotiate the surrender of pretty boy Floyd to the FBI. Similar surprises abound within the book.

An excerpt:

The spread of bank robberies was the result of technology outstripping the legal system. Faster, more powerful weapons, especially the 800-bullet-per-minute Thompson submachine gun introduced after World War I, allowed yeggs (gangsters) to outgun all but the best-armed urban policeman. But the greatest impetus was the automobile, especially new models with reliable, powerful V-8 engines. While a county sheriff was still hand-cranking his old Model A, a modern yegg could speed away untouched. A Frenchman may have been the first to use a car to escape a bank robbery, in 1915; one of the first Americans to try it was an aging Oklahoma yegg, Henry Starr, who used a Nash to rob a bank in Harrison, Arkansas, in 1921. The practice caught on.

Reading Log, June 19, 2009 Fathers and Sons

The theme of fathers and sons is one of the constants of literature, both ancient and modern. From Ivan Turgenev to Chuck Palahniuk, modern literature seems particularly obsessed with fathers and their sons — and sons without fathers.

Thinking this week about Fathers Day, I was particularly reminded of significant memoirs that relate to fathers and sons. One of the most touching of these was written by J. R. Moehringer. His memoir, The Tender Bar, is one of the most elegant and moving accounts of father loss to be found anywhere in modern literature. J. R.’s father disappeared when he was an infant, but the boy grew up in New York City listening to his father’s voice. His father was a prominent disc jockey whose voice came through the radio. Listening to the radio, the boy was filled with a hunger those represented by “The Voice.” Looking for father figures, he found his way to the local bar, where he began to hang around with the men who frequented there.

J. R. Moehringer came to understand that his father was a man of talents, “but his one true genius was disappearing.” The men at the bar, on the other hand, tended to come around and hang around. They befriended the young boy and became, in the main, the only positive adult male influences in his life. They taught him both honorable and dubious male habits and introduced him into the world of men.  Speaking of one particular summer, he reflected: “Everything the men taught me that summer fell under the loose catchall of confidence. They taught me the importance of confidence. That was all. But that was enough. That, I later realized, was everything.”

I was deeply moved by reading The Tender Bar and the story of this young boy who so desperately wanted his father, even as he listened to “The Voice” on the radio. Moehringer’s experiences with the men in the bar, though formative and hugely important to him, could never replace the authentic role of his father.  How many boys are still listening in hope of hearing ‘The Voice” of their fathers?

Another important memoir on fatherhood, written by a son, is Closing Time by Joe Queenan. A well-known author and contributor to leading newspapers and magazines, Joe Queenan is a professional writer who brings great skill to his memoir. In Closing Time, Queenan offers a grim, humorous, touching, and haunting story of his coming-of-age in Philadelphia during the 1960s. He offers some sweet reminiscences of times with his father, including a break-neck trip in a delivery truck through the streets of Philadelphia. Nevertheless, most of his account is about a man who is deeply tormented by alcoholism. Queenan was abused in both body and soul by a father whose presence was more often than not a threat to his family.

Queenan traces his father’s decline through a series of jobs he could not hold and through neighborhoods of one or another sort of trouble. “My father got broken when he was young, and he never got fixed. He may have wanted to be a good father, a good husband, a good man, but he was not cut out for the job. He liked to drink, but unlike some men who liked to drink, it was the only thing he liked to do. Among our relatives, he had a reputation as a happy-go-lucky fellow who, once he got a few beers in him, would turn into the life of the party. He was not the life of our party.”

Closing Time is a moving book and I learned a great deal about Joe Queenan, Philadelphia, and life as a boy there in the 1960s. Given the chronological overlap of our lives, I could not help reflecting on the fact that my boyhood was so different than his. Reading the book made me all the more thankful for my own father and more greatly concerned for the many children, both boys and girls, who knows such pain at the hands of an abusive and/or alcoholic father.

After reading those two memoirs, one may wonder if many sons are moved to write memoirs about their appreciation and affection for fathers. At this point, it is good to remember that literature favors disaster over peace, conflict over calm, and, in a general sense, pain over pleasure. A father doing a good or adequate job as father does not make for the kind of character and plot that drives so much literature. Furthermore, too many writers in our own day would be frankly embarrassed to write a memoir in which they honor and celebrate their fathers. It simply isn’t done.

That is what makes Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir by Paul Clemens such a refreshing surprise. Clemens, who grew up in one of Detroit’s transitional neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s, saw the city transformed before his eyes and came to know his father as the great Gibraltar that held his family together. Clemens’s father appears as a normal dad in the context of his working-class neighborhood. Dads were just there and they did what they had to do for their families. They may have been short tempered at times, but they were occasionally capable of much fun with their children and they showed their absolute dedication to family by the fact that they gave themselves to such hard work under such difficult circumstances. More often than not, they were tired to the bone, even as they had to patch a wall or discipline a son.  As Paul Clemens relates, fathers in his neighborhood demonstrated a central task of manhood by doing what, under almost any circumstance, just had to be done.

He writes: “Families were fundamental to the way the area was organized, which is not to say that anyone spent much time getting sentimental over them as a concept. Families were viewed like most other things in this life, which is to say as sometimes dreary and ultimately disappointing, but preferable to a long list of even less desirable alternatives. . . Though they cursed aloud while doing so — and, internally, likely cursed the days they’d wed our mothers and fathered us — the men in our neighborhood, whether in hats and gloves during the dead of winter, or sweating and swearing up a storm in the middle of the summer, somehow manage to fix broken carburetors, replace drafty windows, and keep basement furnace is going a little bit longer, while their wives bought box after box of whatever was on sale and saw to it that their children didn’t waste all their money at McDonald’s. . .”

In his own way, in Made in Detroit, Paul Clemens demonstrates a model of respecting and honoring his father while telling the story, warts and all. His book is unique in being both gritty and sweet. I would suggest that Christian men — and fathers in particular — would do well to read this kind of literature. These secular memoirs, filled with both pain and promise, tell us a great deal about the world around us and, at the same time, remind us of our own calling — even as we hear that voice through words of pain.

Happy Father’s Day.  Let’s be sure our children hear our voices and know our love.

Reading Log, June 15, 2009

I appreciate the fact that many people have found my 2009 Summer Reading List to be helpful.  The list is just a start, of course, and it was intended from the beginning to be helpful also for Father’s Day.  Thus, it is long in history and military history — which is no coincidence given my own enjoyment of these reading fields. There will be more to come this summer.

A few comments have raised issues or questions.  Why no fiction?  Well, that is a horribly difficult genre to recommend in the same sense that I can recommend many non-fiction titles.  I will mention a recent novel below, but a recommendation is something else.  I find recommending fiction to be excruciatingly difficult.  I read several dozen novels a year, enjoy many of them, and would gladly recommend a few of them . . . if I knew what kind of fiction you like to read.  I like many forms of fiction and have a collection of favored authors.  I probably learn more by reading fiction than by reading much non-fiction.  Still, the great challenge vexes.

With Fathers Day looming, I read Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.   Lewis is a well-known author who, like others before him, decided to reflect on fatherhood.  Nothing very profound appears here, but Lewis’s secular bemusement about what he is supposed to feel toward his young offspring is often fun to read.  His language is bracing, but he is onto something when he asserts, “Maternal love may be instinctive, but paternal love is learned behavior.”  Sadly, it is a behavior some men never learn.

Home Game is often funny, and the diary Lewis keeps after the birth of each of his three children is never boring.  He affirms the fact that the experience of parenthood makes a man grow up (something many men are reluctant to do).  My favorite line in the book, and one I know will be appreciated by my colleague Russell Moore: “School-age children are the rats of our time.”  His reference is to the fact that rats supposedly carried the Bubonic Plague and the Black Death.  As Lewis continued:  “After a day of happily swapping germs with their peers, my children apparently returned home with what felt to them like a mild cold, and kissed their baby brother — who promptly lost his ability to breathe.”   Don’t worry; he regained it.

In Republican Leader, John David Dyche offers the only significant biography of Sen. Mitch McConnell yet to appear.  Dyche does a good job of capturing McConnell in his essence — a master politician.  The most interesting part of the book for me was his recounting of McConnell’s boyhood and years as a college student.  The author’s account of McConnell’s political rise — and especially his campaigns for the U.S. Senate — is riveting.  Republican Leader will be of particular interest to Republicans (what a brilliant observation) and Kentuckians, but anyone interested in contemporary American politics will find the book both interesting and useful.  I wonder, would a biography of Sen. Harry Reid be as interesting?  I’ll be on the lookout.  In the meantime, I am on the hunt for a really good biography of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Reading Republican Leader also reminded me what a lousy politician I would have made.  While every position of leadership is political in some sense, electoral politics requires what we might call a certain “flexibility” on the issues that I would find impossible.

In City of Thieves, novelist David Benioff has written a masterful work of contemporary fiction.  The plot of the book is absolutely brilliant, his characters are so authentic that they seem to jump off the pages, and the dialogue is spare.  Benioff takes the reader into the heart of despair as the Wehrmacht strangles Leningrad.  A 17-year-old Soviet patriot, Len Beniov, finds himself facing execution when he, along with a slightly older young man, are given a choice:  Find a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake, or be shot in the back of the head.  So . . .  they go after the eggs.  Their determined search for the eggs becomes a journey into human depravity and lingering hope.  No one reading this novel will escape being moved by the account of horrors within and without Leningrad — and within and without the human heart.

City of Thieves is brutal, and is not for the faint of heart.  It glides very close to nihilism, but pulls back.  It is one of the most thought-provoking coming-of-age novels I have read in years.  I thank the eager salesperson at Borders who recommended it to me.  One interesting aspect of the book:  Supposedly, it is loosely based on Benioff’s own grandfather’s experience as a teenager trapped in wartime Leningrad.  After spending time with his grandfather (then living in Florida), Benioff told him that he needed clarification of parts of the story.  “David,” said the grandfather, “You’re a writer.  Make it up.”