Henry by Katrina Shawver

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaHenry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

by Katrina Shawver

eARC, 381 pg.
Koehler Books, 2017

Read: October 11 – 13, 2017


Looking for something for her Arizona Republic column, Katrina Shawver found and interviewed Henry Zguda, a octogenarian, who’d been a competitive swimmer in Poland who’d spent three years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The interview struck a chord with her and she soon returned to his home to propose they write a book about his experiences.

This book is the result of a series of interviews Shawver conducted with Henry, her own research (including trips to the original sites), and some letters, photographs, etc. that Henry provided (some of which Henry pilfered from Auscwitz’ records some time after the war!). We get an idea what life was like in Poland before Hitler invaded and began to destroy the nation and its citizens — then we get several chapters detailing his life in the camps. Following that, we get a brief look at his life in Poland after the war and when the Communists took over, followed by his life in America after that — meeting his wife and living a life that many of us would envy. The bulk of the book is told using transcripts (with a little editing) of interview tapes with Henry, so the reader can “hear” his voice telling his stories. Shawver will stitch together the memories with details and pictures, as well as with bits of her trip to Poland and the camps there. We are also treated to a glance at the friendship that develops between Henry, Shawver and Henry’s wife through the production of the book.

More than once while reading it, I thought about how much I was enjoying the read — and then I felt guilty and wrong for doing so. This was a book about someone who lived through Auschwitz and Buchenwald, how dare I find it charming and want to read more (not for information, or to have a better idea what atrocities were committed). I’ve watched (and read the transcript) Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (for one example), and never once thought about cracking a smile. I certainly never wanted to spend more time with the subjects. This is all because of the way that Shawver told Henry’s story, and Henry’s own voice. I did learn a lot — I should stress. For example, there was mail back and forth between the prisoners and family (for those that were willing to give the Nazis an address for their family), Henry at one point looks at some letters from prisoners online, checking not for names, but numbers he recognizes. Or the idea that there were light periods in the labor duty — not out of mercy, compassion or anything, but because the guards got time off, and there was no one to make the prisoner’s work.

The subtitle does tell us that it’s a story of friendship — several friendships, actually. Without his friends, Henry’s story would have likely been much shorter, with very different ending. It’s easy to assume that others could say that because of Henry, as well. There’s also the story of the brief friendship of Henry and Shawvver, without her, we wouldn’t have this book. There were some moments early on that I thought that Shawvver might be giving us too much about her in the book, but I got used to it and understood why she chose that. In the end her “presence” in the book’s unfolding helps the reader learn to appreciate Henry the man,not just Henry the historical figure.

This is a deceptively easy read, the conversational tone of Henry’s segments, particularly, are engaging and you’re hearing someone tell you great stories of his youth. Until you stop and listen to what he’s talking about, then you’re horrified (and relieved, sickened, inspired, and more). Shawver should be commended for the way she kept the disparate elements in this book balanced while never undercutting the horrible reality that Henry survived.

This is something that everyone should read — it’s too easy to hear about the Holocaust, about the concentration camps, and everything else and think of them as historical events, statistics. But reading this (or books like it), helps you to see that this happened to people — not just people who suffered there — but people who had lives before and after this horror. If we can remember that it was about people hurting people, nothing more abstract, maybe there’s hope we won’t repeat this kind of thing.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

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The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook) by Ben Sasse

The Vanishing American Adult (Audiobook)The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

by Ben Sasse

Unabridged Audiobook, 11 hrs., 9 Min.
Macmillan Audio, 2017

Read: July 24 – 26, 2017


I typically don’t like to do this, but in the interest of time, I’m just going to use the text from the publisher’s page to describe the book:
Raised by well-meaning but overprotective parents and coddled by well-meaning but misbegotten government programs, America’s youth are ill-equipped to survive in our highly-competitive global economy.

Many of the coming-of-age rituals that have defined the American experience since the Founding: learning the value of working with your hands, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliant—are being delayed or skipped altogether. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents.

From these disparate phenomena: Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse who as president of a Midwestern college observed the trials of this generation up close, sees an existential threat to the American way of life.

In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your body—and explains how parents can encourage them.

Our democracy depends on responsible, contributing adults to function properly—without them America falls prey to populist demagogues. A call to arms, The Vanishing American Adult will ignite a much-needed debate about the link between the way we’re raising our children and the future of our country.
The first third or so is Sasse laying out the problems with the 30-and-younger set (and the parents and grandparents that got them and their society in the sorry state they’re in). The next two-thirds are his suggested solutions, what he believes parents can do to help raise a generation with the necessary rigor and grit to make it. Nothing here can be implemented like blueprints — these are all just things to get parents thinking. Even if the reader disagrees with Sasse (as I do frequently), you get the feeling that he’s more concerned with people and parents thinking about these ideas and doing something about them, even if it’s what he doesn’t think needs to be done.

There’s a chapter devoted to helping our children and teens become critical readers — talking about the necessity of being more than just functionally literate, but people that interact with books — good books, as well as entertaining books. People reading this blog should find a lot to love (and a little to demur with) in this chapter — I almost listened to it twice in a row it was so good.

The book is largely a-political. Yes, politics does enter into it. Yes, if you agree with him (before or after reading the book), it’ll likely lead to certain political moves — but people on all points on the political spectrum should be able to get something out of this book. Just because Sasse is a U.S. Senator, don’t think that this is a book about that. He does highly value “republican” values — but he usually goes out of his way to stress that it’s “small-R republican” he’s referring to. Ditto for the Christian point of view he writes from — Sasse’s very up-front about that, but goes out of his way to show how non-Christians (or even Christians from different traditions) can agree with much of the book, or disagree constructively.

There was problem with the audiobook — there’s no text to refer to. There’s so much that you want to go back and re-read, notes you want to take, quotations/citations you’d like to double check. The literature chapter alone needs to be re-read. And it’s just such a pain to do all that with an audiobook. Trust me, get the hardcopy. The audiobook is a very effective advertisement for the hardcover. It is good to hear Sasse read this himself.

There’s a lot of this book that I just don’t get — I’m not saying he’s wrong, necessarily, but I don’t think he’s always as right as he thinks he is. But I’m telling you, I thought a lot about what he talked about — I talked a lot about the content of this book. I’m looking for ways to put some of this into practice, and wish I’d done a better job of doing it years ago.

Agree with it or not, this is a book well worth reading.

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5 Stars

Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far) (Audiobook) by Dave Barry, Patrick Frederic

Dave Barry's History of the Millennium (So Far)Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far)

by Dave Barry, Patrick Frederic
Unabridged Audiobook, 4 hrs., 29 mins.
Penguin Audio, 2007

Read: April 10, 2017


Back in high school, I worked at a public library (shock, right?), and I kept shelving this book — Dave Barry Slept Here, and eventually succumbed and took it home — several times. I fell in love with Barry’s humor, and read him a lot over the next decade — every book, as many columns as I could find, etc., etc. But I eventually stopped, for no good reason that I can think of (it’s probably not Harry Anderson‘s fault) — and have really only read his novels since then.

Still, when I saw this audiobook on the library’s site, it was an automatic click — without even reading the description. This is essentially a reprinting of his “Year in Review” columns for the first few years of this millennium and a review of the previous 1,000 years of human history.

It was hilarious. Just that simple. There’s nothing more to say, really.

In the beginning Frederic played it straight — which surprised me a bit, but I liked the effect. A serious reading of Barry’s goofiness worked remarkably well. Later on, Frederic seemed to loosen up — he even did a couple of decent impressions. I really enjoyed his work on this.

Yeah, the humor’s a bit dated, but funny is funny. This is a great look back at the early part of the 21st Century (and before). I laughed a lot, remembered a few things, and generally had a good time with this.

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3.5 Stars

The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee by R. David Cox

The Religious Life of Robert E. LeeThe Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

by R. David Cox
Series: Library of Religious BiographyPDF (will be published as paperback), 259 pg.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017
Read: December 25, 2016 – January 1, 2017

I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in a crowded city. I know in whose powerful hands I am, & in them rely, & I feel that in all our life we are upheld & sustained by Divine Providence. But that Providence requires us to use the means he has put under our control. He deigns no blessing to idle & inactive wishes, & the only miracle he now exhibits to us, is the power he gives to truth & justice, to work their way in this wicked world.

So wrote Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife while serving in Texas, and according to R. David Cox it summarizes his theology. If you have to sum up a man’s theology in 3 sentences, that’s a decent one to have.

Robert E. Lee was no theologian, he wasn’t a pastor or preacher or religious scholar of any kind. He was a churchman, however. Seemingly a faithful one who served as he could — and he was a believer in the middle of a tumultuous time for American Protestantism and American as a whole, as such what he thought about the tumult from his religious perspective is instructive and fascinating reading. Which is pretty much why anyone might want to read this (and probably why Cox wrote the thing).

By and large, the book is a chronological look at Lee’s life, what’s going on in the national and ecclesiastical culture, and how Lee (and his family members — particularly his wife) responded to it and how his faith grew throughout his life. It’s not exactly a biography, but it is biographical. There were a couple of chapters that stepped back from the chronological look, and examined Lee’s perspectives on specific topics (the above quotation about providence comes from one of those). I particularly enjoyed and appreciated those.

I was surprised how little space was devoted to the years of The War Between the States, honestly. It may be that there wasn’t that much material — Lee was probably too busy to write a lot of things in letters that he might normally have (like: thoughts about sermons heard, theology, ecclesiastical concerns, etc.), that’d certain be understandable. Cox might be the one historian who doesn’t like writing about that time period. It might just be that his pre- and post- War writings were better material for the book — there are any number of good reasons for it, I was just surprised that the one thing the man is best known for is so little represented in the book.

One of the drawbacks of this book is the author’s perspective on Lee himself (at least what came across to me as his perspective, I could have read him wrong, he could have written it in such a way as to be easily misinterpreted, etc.). I’m not saying that I want a hagiography, nor do I want Cox to be some sort of Lee fanboy. A critical eye is essential. There’s an element of Chronological Snobbery (to borrow Lewis’ phrase) here when reflecting on Lee’s racial and political views. I have no problem with Cox disagreeing with them (I disagree with many of them), but he came across as patronizing (at least on the border of it). To a lesser degree, I thought the same about some of Lee’s religious views. But this didn’t crop up often, and when it did, it was easy to gloss over or ignore. It’s a drawback to the book, but not a reason to avoid it. If anything, Cox came across as detached and neutral when it came to the subject and his religion (it was impossible to tell if Cox shared any aspect of belief with Lee) 98% of the time. It’s just that 2% or so . . .

This is a part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography series — which I hadn’t heard of until now. I have one sitting at the top of my To Be Bought pile (talked about it last month in a Saturday Miscellany post), but I didn’t realize it was part of a series. The books in the series are intended to “link the lives of their subjects – not always thought of as ‘religious’ persons – to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” It’s a fascinating concept, and I’m glad this series exists. I hope to get more of them soon.

This was a fascinating read, if a bit dry and detached. Neither’s bad, and may be commendable under the right circumstances (which may include such a divisive figure as Lee), but it doesn’t make for the best read. That, plus my ambivalence towards some of Cox’s attitudes toward the subject, makes me rate this 3 Stars. That’s still a recommendation, and I’ll gladly tell anyone to read it — believer or nonbeliever — if they want to understand Lee better, but I’m not that enthusiastic about the book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this opportunity.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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3 Stars

The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee by R. David Cox

The Religious Life of Robert E. LeeThe Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

by R. David Cox
Series: Library of Religious Biography

PDF (will be published as paperback), 259 pg.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017

Read: December 25, 2016 – January 1, 2017

I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in a crowded city. I know in whose powerful hands I am, & in them rely, & I feel that in all our life we are upheld & sustained by Divine Providence. But that Providence requires us to use the means he has put under our control. He deigns no blessing to idle & inactive wishes, & the only miracle he now exhibits to us, is the power he gives to truth & justice, to work their way in this wicked world.

So wrote Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife while serving in Texas, and according to R. David Cox it summarizes his theology. If you have to sum up a man’s theology in 3 sentences, that’s a decent one to have.

Robert E. Lee was no theologian, he wasn’t a pastor or preacher or religious scholar of any kind. He was a churchman, however. Seemingly a faithful one who served as he could — and he was a believer in the middle of a tumultuous time for American Protestantism and American as a whole, as such what he thought about the tumult from his religious perspective is instructive and fascinating reading. Which is pretty much why anyone might want to read this (and probably why Cox wrote the thing).

By and large, the book is a chronological look at Lee’s life, what’s going on in the national and ecclesiastical culture, and how Lee (and his family members — particularly his wife) responded to it and how his faith grew throughout his life. It’s not exactly a biography, but it is biographical. There were a couple of chapters that stepped back from the chronological look, and examined Lee’s perspectives on specific topics (the above quotation about providence comes from one of those). I particularly enjoyed and appreciated those.

I was surprised how little space was devoted to the years of The War Between the States, honestly. It may be that there wasn’t that much material — Lee was probably too busy to write a lot of things in letters that he might normally have (like: thoughts about sermons heard, theology, ecclesiastical concerns, etc.), that’d certain be understandable. Cox might be the one historian who doesn’t like writing about that time period. It might just be that his pre- and post- War writings were better material for the book — there are any number of good reasons for it, I was just surprised that the one thing the man is best known for is so little represented in the book.

One of the drawbacks of this book is the author’s perspective on Lee himself (at least what came across to me as his perspective, I could have read him wrong, he could have written it in such a way as to be easily misinterpreted, etc.). I’m not saying that I want a hagiography, nor do I want Cox to be some sort of Lee fanboy. A critical eye is essential. There’s an element of Chronological Snobbery (to borrow Lewis’ phrase) here when reflecting on Lee’s racial and political views. I have no problem with Cox disagreeing with them (I disagree with many of them), but he came across as patronizing (at least on the border of it). To a lesser degree, I thought the same about some of Lee’s religious views. But this didn’t crop up often, and when it did, it was easy to gloss over or ignore. It’s a drawback to the book, but not a reason to avoid it. If anything, Cox came across as detached and neutral when it came to the subject and his religion (it was impossible to tell if Cox shared any aspect of belief with Lee) 98% of the time. It’s just that 2% or so . . .

This is a part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography series — which I hadn’t heard of until now. I have one sitting at the top of my To Be Bought pile (talked about it last month in a Saturday Miscellany post), but I didn’t realize it was part of a series. The books in the series are intended to “link the lives of their subjects – not always thought of as ‘religious’ persons – to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” It’s a fascinating concept, and I’m glad this series exists. I hope to get more of them soon.

This was a fascinating read, if a bit dry and detached. Neither’s bad, and may be commendable under the right circumstances (which may include such a divisive figure as Lee), but it doesn’t make for the best read. That, plus my ambivalence towards some of Cox’s attitudes toward the subject, makes me rate this 3 Stars. That’s still a recommendation, and I’ll gladly tell anyone to read it — believer or nonbeliever — if they want to understand Lee better, but I’m not that enthusiastic about the book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this opportunity.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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3 Stars

Beyond the Gray Leaf by Dustin Renwick

If you’d asked, I’d have sworn I posted this back in August. I just knew I had. But I just found a half-completed draft in my draft folder and I can’t seem to find it on the blog. Ugh. I’m a horrible person.

Beyond the Gray LeafBeyond the Gray Leaf: The Life and Poems of J.P. Irvine

by Dustin Renwick

Kindle Edition, 154 pg.
Fleetwing Books, 2016

Read: August 8, 2016


This book is a look at the Nineteenth-Century poet J. P. Irvine — a little bit of a biography, a little sampler of his poems — and then Renwick explores some of what contributed to his disappearance from the cultural consciousness.

That’s a lot for 154 pages to pull off, but Renwick does it.

J. P. Irvine hailed from Illinois, and while he didn’t serve during the Civil War, some of his brothers did — in the same regiment featured in Huelskamp’s Friends of the Wigwam, so I felt like I already knew them. After the war, he bounced around from job to job working in newspapers, as a clerk in Washington D. C. and writing poetry throughout. He was widely published in papers throughout the country, had one collection published (to mostly positive reviews), and even read at a Presidential event.

Yet who’s heard of him? No one. Not even our author until he very accidentally ran into his book.

I’m not the biggest poetry fan in the world, but I know what I like — some of the poems printed here were pretty good, some did nothing for me. But I can see why Irving had a measure of success.

I thought this was a good short read — thought-provoking, interesting and made me think about Nineteenth Century poetry more than I had since my American Literature II class. I’d recommend this for someone needing a different type of read.

Disclaimer: This was provided to me in exchange for my honest take on the the book. My thanks for the book and apologies for the tardiness, Mr. Renwick

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3 Stars

John Knox by Simonetta Carr, Matt Abraxas (Illustrator)

John KnoxJohn Knox

by Simonetta Carr, Matt Abraxas (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 64 pgs.
Reformation Heritage Books, 2014
Read: May 25, 2014

I’m tempted to say, for a children’s book, this is quite good. But honestly? For a brief biography for any reading level, it’s quite good.

In these pages we get a good picture of Knox’s life (public and private), his historical context, and his teachings/beliefs. Essentially, everything you could want. There’s excitement, there’s hardship, there’s triumph and there’s tragedy. This isn’t a hagiography — Carr isn’t afraid to point out weaknesses, or problems with Knox (although she could’ve gone a little further in that direction). Nor is this all sweetness and light, as you might expect from a children’s book. While not dwelling on the details of the violence in Knox’s Scotland, she doesn’t sweep it under the rug, either.

The illustrations are great — the map, the photos and historic portraits are as well. Abraxas does a really good job in making his illustrations pop — but not to the degree that they become the focal point. The text carries this book, but the illustrations aid the text, as it should be.

Assuming this is a representative sample (and, based on a couple of interviews I’ve heard with Carr, I think it is), this is “Christian Biographies For Young Readers” series to get for anyone with kids. Or anyone just wanting small biographies to teach them Church History without having to wade through a tome like Shelley or González.

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4 1/2 Stars