Book Review: Basin and Range

Basin and RangeBasin and Range by John McPhee

The highway known as U.S. Interstate 95 passes through a rock formation known as the Palisades as it approaches the George Washington Bridge from the New Jersey side. On a recent trip to Flushing, Queens, the driver of the vehicle in which I was a passenger remarked that John McPhee wrote a book, Basin and Range, about this and many other rock formations traversed by Interstate 80 (I-80). (As it happens, I-80 begins its westward journey in Teaneck, New Jersey, a couple of miles west of the Palisades, but that’s a minor quibble.)

John McPhee, writing about I-80 and geology? I had no idea. No one, at least no one who lives in the New York Metropolitan region, can claim to be literate without some exposure to John McPhee. Mine has been minimal at best to this point: I’ve read some short stories, but none of McPhee’s nonfiction. I’ve since come to learn that John McPhee is regarded as a pioneer of creative nonfiction, also known as literary nonfiction.

Basin and Range is a great example of creative nonfiction. It is a gift to the field of geology and to laypersons such as I who could stand to know more about it but who slept through those lectures in high school science classes. The genius of this book is that it tells the story of geology by telling stories about geologists and how they go about their work. To get those stories McPhee traveled and worked alongside several geologists, often performing work that graduate assistants might perform during field work seasons. We find McPhee and his subject standing just feet from a congested highway in Paterson, New Jersey or hiking into some remote location in Nevada to expose, excavate, collect, and sometimes even taste rock samples.

The term “basin and range” refers to series of parallel mountain ranges and intervening valleys. The mountains of the Eastern United States include some basin-and-range groupings, such as the First and Second Watchung mountains of New Jersey. These and the Palisades are places that I know, places that I’ve visited, so it is fun to read about them in this context. John McPhee goes into detail in describing the processes by which they were formed, and what the landscape would have looked like while they were being formed. He describes theories of continental drift early in the book; later he gives a history of the science of plate tectonics. Again, McPhee uses the stories of the scientists who put forth their theories and pioneered the disciplines within geology. We learn, for example, of a U.S. Navy officer who brought a device known as a fathometer along during his deployment on an attack transport vessel during World War II. The officer, Harry Hess, used this device to map the seafloor as he traveled and even as he participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima.

There is plenty of humor in the real-life adventures that McPhee experienced while researching and writing Basin and Range. There is also a funny passage about a dream that he had about a fire at Nasser Aftab’s House of Carpets, a real store in Paramus, New Jersey. The fire, which is fictional, destroyed the store. At the same time an incident in the adjoining ice cream factory created a scene where molten carpet fabric, ash, and liquified ice cream combined in much the same way that phenomena within and beneath the earth’s crust combined to create a specific set of geological features.

I have some work to do to explore more of McPhee’s nonfiction, and for that matter his fiction, but I suspect it will be worth the effort when I do.

Thank you for stopping by!



Book Review: Believe Me

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpBelieve Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea

At the time of this writing one of the more popular books on the Trump administration is yet to be published: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. From what I’ve heard and read about Fear, it describes the current state of affairs in the White House. It describes where we are now. Believe Me by John Fea describes how we got here: how Donald Trump was able to convince millions of evangelical Christians to vote for him.

Believe Me is well written and well documented, with extensive endnotes and an index. It will take a competent reader only a couple of hours to read, although it would also be worth the time to investigate some of the references as well. It should be read critically and thoughtfully.

There is little in the way of prescription. Many of us who call ourselves evangelicals and who did not vote for Donald Trump are eager for help in understanding where we go from here. John Fea does not provide much help, but that’s not a bad thing. He provides enough references for readers to find some of those answers themselves.

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Where Were You When the White House Melted Down?

More likely than not the United States will survive the flames of crisis and chaos fanned by the publication of an anonymous op-ed piece in The New York Times and by Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House. You may be glued to social media, cable news, or radio to hear the latest spin on these events. In a few days they will be pushed out of the news cycle just as they pushed the Kavanaugh hearings from the top of the news. Meanwhile, you may want to be physically and mentally present somewhere other than in front of a news feed. Here are a few places you may want or need to be. Feel free to suggest others.

  • Home sharing a meal with your loved ones
  • At your place of work giving one hundred percent to the most mundane tasks
  • In your garden, or at the produce market supporting local farmers
  • At the beach picking up plastic trash
  • At a hospital or nursing home visiting a relative or friend
  • In the woods or a neighborhood park listening to the birds and looking for butterflies
  • At your place of worship or community involvement joining in the proceedings with focused attention

Spending time in any of these places won’t douse the flames of crisis and chaos, but it may help you see that there are people who need you (or whom you might need) to help keep things in perspective, that there is work to be done, that there is a world that needs our care and attention.

Forest scene
Photo by Jens Cederskjold [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
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Book Review: Before We Were Yours

Before We Were YoursBefore We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

It is a testament to the popularity and impact of Before We Were Yours that there are dozens of copies in the library consortium where I have borrowing privileges, and most are on hold for someone, or checked out. Lisa Wingate is widely acknowledged to be a master storyteller, and that mastery is fully on display in this book. It is a satisfying read, if not always enjoyable.

The narrative is divided between 1939 and the present day. In 1939 five children in a poor family living on a shanty boat on the Mississippi River are kidnapped from their home while their mother is taken to a hospital for what has become the difficult birth of twins. The children are taken to an orphanage run by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, where they are mistreated and ultimately delivered for adoption by wealthy couples. In the present day the granddaughter of the oldest of the five children, who has no idea of her family’s true history, is distracted from her promising political life by an encounter with another survivor of the orphanage. The encounter sends the politician grandchild on a search for details of her grandmother’s past.

The crimes of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and specifically of Georgia Tann, are described in vivid if not quite graphic detail. Graphic detail is not required; it would rob the victims of what little innocence they retain. Those crimes should shock even the most callous readers nonetheless. Moreover, human beings are capable of carrying out or looking away from great evil. It is still hard to believe that Georgia Tann could carry on as she did in full view of law enforcement personnel, hospital staff, and judges.

A few details of the story that Lisa Wingate delivers seem out of place. Zuma, the housekeeper for the family that adopts Rill/May and Fern, refers to them as “river rats” on page 236. The details of the children’s previous lives are carefully hidden, however, so how did she know to call them that? Also, we learn on page 239 that Zuma has raised Mr. Servier from childhood, yet she has a child of her own who is only ten years old at the time of Rill and Fern’s arrival. Finally, the romance that builds between two of the characters in the present-day half of the narrative is charming, but one wonders if it adds anything to the story. Maybe I just want the present-day lives to serve as means of uncovering the truth of the past and nothing more; I don’t want to invest them with stories of their own.

Never mind those quibbles, though. This excellent book tells a moving story of surviving and thriving despite being caught in a world of evil and greed.

Thank you for stopping by!


Good Versus Evil in the Films of Christopher Lee

Good Versus Evil in the Films of Christopher LeeGood Versus Evil in the Films of Christopher Lee by Paul Leggett

Disclosure: Paul Leggett is the pastor of the church where I am a member ( He is a gifted teacher and writer and this book is a fine example of both skills. I haven’t read his earlier book, Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth, and Religion but I would imagine the quality of that content is equal to this book.

The author traces the career of Christopher Lee, largely chronologically, through the horror, fantasy, and Sherlock Holmes films in which Lee appears as a significant character with a role in the conflict between good and evil. Leggett does not avoid or minimize the flaws in the films, and they are many, especially in the later films issued by Hammer Film Productions. Also, Good Versus Evil in the Films of Christopher Lee is not a biography and has little biographical information, but Leggett is clearly a fan of Christopher Lee and offers homage to him throughout.

Readers with an eye for proper grammar will wince many times. I’ve read many pages of Paul Leggett’s writing aside from this book. I know those pages have not had the benefit of an editor’s review, yet I seldom find anything that is out of order grammatically. The worthy subject matter of this book, and the learned treatment that the author gives it, are undercut by inferior editing or proofreading or both. However, don’t let that discourage you from reading this fine discussion of a fine actor’s work; your forbearance with such minor issues will be duly rewarded!

Three Books on Reading

The Art of ReadingThe Art of Reading by Damon Young

The shelving suggestion on the back cover of The Art of Reading categorizes this book as a gift book or as belonging to the category of literature. The second category is completely appropriate. The first is puzzling. Gift books, in my experience, tend to be light reading; there is seldom a need to have a dictionary handy when reading them as there is this gift book. Two of the cover blurbs use the word “erudite,” and that describes not only the content of the book but could also be used to qualify potential readers.

I wish I had finished and paid better attention to all of the assigned reading in high school and college. I wish I had taken a class in philosophy. Either might have helped prepare me to grasp Damon Young’s arguments on the first reading. His writing is clear enough, but it asks the reader to draw on prior knowledge that I simply do not have. The premise, though, is straightforward. The art of reading is empowered by disciplines that the reader must bring to each work: curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance, and justice. Young cites examples from literature, mostly twentieth- and twenti-first century works, of how these disciplines are applied.

Some passages are surprisingly confessional. Consider this passage from the chapter on temperance:

More than a third of the fiction archived on my tablet is from the _____ franchise. All purchased over eight months, and most deleted once finished. There was a criminal tidiness to this: cleaning up the scene of the crime. The transgression was not in the genre, but in my reading of it. Buying sequel after sequel, pausing for Earl Gray but not for thought, I felt addicted, and this habit was ugly to me.

Through such writing Young reveals his own literary misdeeds and encourages his readers to admit theirs. Thoughtful and erudite readers will enjoy this book.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an AdultWild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy

The most recent book I completed before reading Wild Things was Damon Young’s The Art of Reading. Several of the promotional comments from the cover of The Art of Reading use the word “erudite” to describe the author’s approach to and presentation of his subject matter. The same word could be used to describe Bruce Handy’s approach and presentation for Wild Things. The biographical and historical information he presents is substantial and obviously well researched.

The book itself is largely a pleasure to read. References to Portnoy’s Complaint and a supposedly erotic story from Maurice Sendak are a bit disturbing in a book about children’s literature. More so the references and quotations from some of the fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, but such is the history of children’s literature.

The adult’s eye that Handy casts on the classics of contemporary children’s literature uncovers such gems as this observation about The Cat in the Hat: “Every reader of The Cat in the Hat will feel that the story revolves around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires compelled this mother to leave two young children home all day, with the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish?” The follow-up observation about The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is equally funny: “Sally and her brother have been abandoned once again by their mother who, blithe as ever, has skipped off ‘down to the town for the day.’ Worse, she has added Dickensenian cruelty to her arsenal of bad parenting skills by forcing the siblings to dig out the house from what looks to have been several feet of snow.”

Not all of children’s literature is filled with such fun that is funny. In the final chapter Handy discusses several books—E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web in the most detail—that deal with the subject of death. He cites White’s description of Charlotte’s Web as being an “appreciative” book and not a book that is intended to convey a moral of some sort. Wild Things may be the same as well, and that is Handy’s aspiration for it. His research and his years of reading children’s books to his own children have given him an appreciation for the genre, and he conveys that quite effectively.

I have two minor quibbles with this book. The first is with the use of the word “Joy” in the title. I realize that titles are not always assigned by the author, so maybe my beef is not with Handy but with the publisher. After having read this book I will certainly have a different approach to the children’s books that I read to my grandchildren and others, but the approach will not be one of greater joy. Joy might come to a child who learns that Wilbur is forever spared from the butcher’s knife, or Knufflebunny is safe and sound after all. My experience will be one of pleasure at knowing what the author’s life was like and understanding the difficulties that the author had to overcome, but not of one of joy.

The second concerns his chapter on C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. Handy treats Lewis and his work with the utmost respect, but he takes pains to state that he will not reread the books as an adult. It seems that he wants to keep faith, the faith that Lewis is hoping to kindle in his readers, at arm’s length. In 2018 it is understandable that people want to keep Evangelical Christianity at arm’s length or even further away, but I am concerned that Handy uses the opportunity afforded by this book to model such avoidance.

I did not read many of the classics of children’s literature, or have them read to me, as a child. I have made a point of including them in my regular reading as opportunities arise. My children and grandchildren have also provided many opportunities to read them. My sense of affection for Horton Hears a Who, for instance, is therefore different than it might be if I had grown up with such books. If you grew up with Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary, or if you are reading some of their stories for the first time as an adult, Bruce Handy’s appreciation of them is worth your consideration.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

In my two most recent reviews, for The Art of Reading and Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, the word “erudite” is used to describe the authors and their work. Alan Jacobs looks at erudition from a slightly different direction. He mentions erudition as the goal of a reading program that includes books from some authority’s list of must-read books. “The conviction,” he writes, is that “you just need a bit of guidance—a single volume’s worth of recommended strategies and tactics—and you can take it from there, following your own path to erudition.” (pp. 3–4)

While he mildly disparages the notion that any single authority can prescribe a reading program that will deliver this erudition, Jacobs clearly believes that it is possible for individuals to read their way to greater wisdom. If wisdom is not the goal, simple delight is not a bad alternative. The key is to read “at whim,” and not because of some constraint or sense of guilt.

Interestingly, especially because he is a professor of English at a prestigious private college, Alan Jacobs suggests that reading should be decoupled from education. “Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about . . . skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.” (p. 114)

What does Jacobs write about reading in “an age of distraction”? He cites Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows in describing how our attention spans and ability to read for long stretches have been affected by our exposure to the Internet. Although I don’t recall any suggestions for how to accomplish these goals, Jacobs suggests that we cultivate habits of reading slowly, reading in quiet spaces, reading in community, and reading critically to enhance our enjoyment of and ability to absorb what we read. He returns to the theme of reading at whim, of reading things that we truly want to read and not things that we feel constrained to read, as a strategy for improving our enjoyment of reading.

Alan Jacobs enters the discussion of ebooks versus printed books in a chapter entitled “True Confessions.” He comes out in favor of ebook readers, partly because he believes being able to store and carry multiple large books on an Amazon Kindle restored his own love of reading. In the same chapter he suggests leaving behind the devices that connect us to the Internet and its many distractions when we enter our reading places. The original Kindle (and Nook, for that matter) might have been single-purpose devices, but later versions include Web browsers and other apps that are still active anywhere a WIFI connection is available. iPads have always been able to connect to the Internet.

Although footnotes adorn many pages, they are asides or explanatory notes and not references to sources. Instead, a chapter-by-chapter “Essay on Sources” is included at the end of the book. The sources are many and varied. The dates on the sources start in the fourteenth century and continue until 2009.

If you find yourself believing, as I have, that a truly literate person must have read most or all of the so-called Great Books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction might just set you free from that belief and set you on a path to a more enjoyable reading life.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Getting to Know God Through Science: 10 Questions about Faith across the Multiverse for Andy Walsh

Andy Walsh’s book, “Faith Across the Multiverse,” is now out from Hendrickson Publishers. This post on Hendrickson’s blog features a Q&A with Andy.

Hendrickson Publishers Blog

Science is often presented as a set of propositions to affirm. On those terms, the existence of God becomes yet another such proposition, and all science can offer is a yes or a no. Andy Walsh thinks science offers more. In Faith across the Multiverse, Walsh writes,

Telescopes made it possible to explore the profoundly big: planets and solar systems and galactic clusters in every direction. Microscopes opened up the world of the infinitesimally small, microbes and viruses, atoms and quarks. We may not know what God-scale is (or if “scale” is even relevant), but surely pushing our minds beyond the human scale can help us begin to comprehend it. That is why I think science has the possibility to offer a rich world of metaphors for those of us who want to know God better, deeper, more.

As Walsh so eloquently expresses, there are so many more connections…

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Book Review: The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForThe American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough

The American Spirit is a collection of speeches that David McCullough has given over a span of seventeen years, from 1989 until 2016. They include university commencement speeches and speeches at events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the White House, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette. There is also a speech given at a naturalization ceremony at Monticello in 1994.

David McCullough is one of the most engaging writers of American history for general audiences. His writing is optimistic and focused on the positive while still acknowledging the tragic episodes in the history he is recounting. If you are looking for nonfiction that will give you hope—not unshakeable confidence; that’s asking too much—for the future of America, this short book is worthy of your consideration.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Review: The Lord of the Flies

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding

In his introduction to the 2011 Perigee centenary edition, Stephen King tells a story from his youth of a librarian giving him The Lord of the Flies in response to his question “Do you have any books about how kids really are?” This book is certainly a story about how kids really are, or really can be given the necessary circumstances. It is also a story about how the behavior of people in general can devolve.

It seems almost too easy to easy to compare the behavior of the boys on the island with people in the United States in the current era. How quickly we mock, question, challenge, or ignore one another. How quickly we pay lip service to ideas that we think are important for our good and the good of the community, then proceed to forget those ideas and follow our own selfish paths. How quickly we break up into tribes, follow those who will speak loudly enough or fashion the cleverest memes about their opponents, and turn on one another with little thought for the consequences.

I appreciate the fact that William Golding could, as recently as 1954, tell a story as full of interpersonal conflict as The Lord of the Flies with only the mildest of profanities. More contemporary fiction, especially twenty-first century fiction, can’t tell any kind of story without language that still gets bleeped out on broadcast media.

It took too long for me to get around to reading The Lord of the Flies. (Although it was assigned reading in high school I remember not finishing it and maybe not getting beyond the first chapter or two.) For reasons that have nothing to do with most of the action in the book taking place on or near a beach, it’s not necessarily a beach read, but it’s a great book for stirring one’s thinking about human nature and the things that we are capable of doing.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Richfield Farms

Richfield Farms is nursery and garden center in Clifton, New Jersey. They raise  vegetables on approximately two acres and sell them on site. Their total property comprises just under five acres. They are faced with a large property tax bill, which they struggle to pay, because their property is not large enough to qualify as a farm and therefore a reduced tax rate. This week an article appeared in the Herald News and the Clifton Journal describing an effort that the City of Clifton is making to resolve the dilemma.

The rest of this post is the the text of a letter to the editor that I had drafted in response to the article. The Herald News asks that letters to the editor be kept to 250 words or fewer, and this draft is much longer, but it includes observations that I still wish to make.

Late season lettuce.

It is heartening to see that the City of Clifton is willing to help Richfield Farms stay solvent without having to sell property to a developer. Matt Fagan’s fine piece from Thursday, June 21, mentions several options under consideration. Might a land conservancy or other nonprofit also be interested in purchasing part of the property and leasing it back for a nominal fee so that it could continue as farmland? If the city or another nongovernmental organization takes ownership, the property is removed from tax rolls and taxes may increase for other Clifton property owners. For this Clifton property owner, it’s worth the investment.

Deborah Morton and her family might be inclined to scale back or eliminate the farming operations at Richfield Farms. It should be their prerogative to do so. Farming, even on a small scale, is hard work. Farming and running a retail nursery and garden center has to be an exhausting way to earn a living, but if the descendants of Leenhardt Van Breeman wish to continue raising vegetables on some of their acreage, that would be a very good thing.

First, although nostalgia and romance are important, there is more at stake than the nostalgia and romance associated with a century-old business such as Richfield Farms. When family-owned and operated businesses thrive, the community around them thrives. Big-box retailers that provide the same goods and services provide jobs and tax revenue, but the profits don’t stay in the community. If a big-box store thrives, the local community doesn’t necessarily thrive with it.

Second, small local farms can be part of a food supply that is more resilient in the face of climate change. Third, and related to the second, Richfield Farms, along with other local farms, is in a position to model sustainable and even regenerative growing techniques for local gardeners. By such practices as composting on site and planting cover crops in the fall they are helping to nourish the soil. Through social media and other advertising they are encouraging local gardeners to do likewise. Recent coverage of soil science in the The New York Times, in The Atlantic, and on NPR point out that such practices can remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. Such practices also foster biodiversity, which is important for a healthy planet.

Best wishes to Clifton’s city officials and to the Morton family for success in this enterprise. Clifton will be a better community if Richfield Farms can begin its second century with solid support from city officials and the community at large.

As always, thanks for stopping by!