It is unfortunate that Bill O'Reilly and Mertin Dugard decided to popularize the death of Jesus. Operating without benefit of the past two hundred years of biblical scholarship that has helped us understand the historical, political, economic and religious situation in Judea and Galillee in the first century of the modern era, they have presented a rehash of Catholic grammar school stories and grossly oversimplified gospel sayings as a masquerade of truth. Reporting some statements as fact that are barely whispered myths (""It is a fact that the disciples of Jesus traveled as far as India, Britain, and even into Africa...."), they wrench the history of Christianity into a shape that would have been recognized by none of its engineers. In addition, writers known for their wit and interest have produced a book that is boring.
The story of Jesus is, in fact, enormously fascinating and challenging, and the continued existence of Christianity as the world's largest religion deserves careful inquiry. Read almost anything written by Garry Wills to see how it can be done accurately and with enormous literary skill. This book does neither.
David Downing has written a series of mysteries set in Berlin with a fictional hero journalist - John Russell - who alternatively spies for the Russians, Nazis, British and Americans. His latest, Each is named after a pre-World War II Berlin railway station and in each the morality has gotten murkier. The latest, Lehrter Station, returns Russell to Berlin in the aftermath of the World War. Sadly Mr. Downing's amoralism and anti-Americanism have sunk to the point that he makes the bombing of Hiroshima the moral equivalent of the Nazi war crimes tried at Nuremberg. My father, after flying 50 missions as rear gunner in a B-17 over Germany, was being cross-trained on B-29s when the war ended, making him one of those estimated 100,000 Americans whose lives were saved by the bombing of Hiroshima. Since Mr. Downing is plainly intelligent, he clearly is counting on the historical ignorance of his readers to make a cheap and blatantly unhistorical comment. His storytelling is decent, but not sufficiently compelling to overcome his prejudicial point of view.
Harrison Salisbury wrote the definitive popular history of the siege of Leningrad, The 900 Days. City of Thieves may be the definitive novelistic treatment of the siege in English. Covering only 30 days or so relatively early in the siege, the novel relates the experiences of the narrator's grandfather discovering his right to live through the siege through an errand he runs for an NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) colonel in need of a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. The grandfather, suffering under the double handicap of being a city boy and a Jew, accompanies a Rabelaisian army deserter on a grim, winter odyssey 50 kilometers into the countryside, through both Soviet and German lines, under attack by their own soldiers, by partisans, by peasants, by the regular German army and by the Special Action Groups scouring the country for the untermenschen not deserving of life. True to the feel of the time, to the geography and culture of the land and to the Russian soul, the novel captures a virtually perfect microcosm of one of the most brutal sieges against one of the most brutal regimes in world history. Its images are haunting, its language enveloping and its characters terrifically and fallibly human. It deserves its place on the Community book list.
If the purpose of biography is to leave the reader feeling he knows the subject, Naifeh and Smith have succeeded with Van Gogn: The Life perhaps beyond their intent. Exhaustively researched and documented, Van Gogh presents the life of the painter in a way that asks the question: how many lives is art worth? Long before the end of his life, Van Gogh had repulsed his friends, convinced the inhabitants of everywhere he lived that he was not only mad, but impossible to abide, and caused his own family to reject him. Even his faithful brother Theo had rejected his increasingly selfish and self-centered demands for more money, more intimacy and the abandonment of his own dreams. His fellow artists - including those such as Gauguin who had tried repeatedly to understand and ally with him - rejected his ideas, his influence and his companionship. After abusing his father to the point that may have led to the older Van Gogh's death and compelling his mother to expel him from their home and her life, he gave new definition to the term "needy" by trying to impose himself on virtually every acquaintance who expressed even ambivalence toward him and his work. Long before the end of this lengthy volume, the reader begs to be acquitted of the artist's life.
Naifeh and Smith do so thorough a job of documenting the ugly repulsiveness of Van Gogh's nature that the reader, who has waited more than half the volume before Van Gogh paints his first (unsuccessful) canvas, must question whether all the pain, hurt and desolation dealt by Van Gogh to all who knew him was worth his contributions to art. As one sad example, he tortured his sister-in-law, suffering from classic symptoms of post-partum depression with a collicky newborn, by suggesting that her milk was inadequate and was the cause of her baby's problems because of her unwillingness to relocate with her husband, Theo, to Auvers to live with Van Gogh.
At the same time as the authors continually reassert that Van Gogh's painting style changed art forever, they do nothing to prove it. Ending the volume at the moment of Theo's death only eight months after Van Gogh's, they record virtually nothing of Van Gogh's effects on art after his death. His influence, his acolytes, the schools that took their ideas from him - we learn nothing of any of these. The descriptions of his painting technique leave huge gaps in the record, even as the ultimately repetitive recounting of the effects of his childhood and early years on all of his subsequent life left the reader desperately begging for an editor. Also, it is hard to understand how two authors so steeped in Van Gogh's world could mistranslate relatively simple French phrases.
But these are quibbles. The overall effect of the volume is magisterial, leaving the reader convinced that few facts of Van Gogh's life remain to be uncovered. Even the manner of his death - a mystery for more than a century - is plausibly reexamined in a way that fits the evidence into a nested pattern, even as it fails to totally convince. Written clearly, free of cant, and doing a marvelous job of recreating the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and France during the late 19th century, Van Gogh: The Life begs leisurely exploration.
I have read all of the volumes thus far issued in the Oxford History of the United States. Without exception, they have been brilliantly researched, masterfully written and exceptionally explanatory of the period of history with which they dealt as witnessed by their 4 or 5 cumulative Pulitzer prizes). The Empire of Liberty is sadly the exception that proves the rule. Its author has no feel for the United States, marshalls his facts not by how illustrative they may be of the period he is describing, but by how little likelihood we are to know of them, and writes with a condescension for the characters he is describing that is painful to read. His use of the word "middling" to describe the great American middle class is not only non-historical, it is grating and intrusive. I struggled to get through this volume and would not recommend it.