Book Review: Medic!

Medic, book coverThis week’s used bookstore find is the slim World War II memoir Medic! by army medic Robert “Doc Joe” Franklin. Subtitled “How I fought World War II with morphine, sulfa and iodine swabs,” it offers an unflinching “worm’s-eye” perspective from the European front, specifically the invasion through Italy. In its pages, Franklin traces the path of the 45th Infantry Division, whom General Patton described as “one of the best, if not the best division that the American army has ever produced.” Though he was thrown into combat with no medical training, he quickly learned to improvise and saved numerous lives, winning two Silver Stars for bravery under fire. With clean, unadorned, and compelling prose, Franklin leads the reader through a lifetime in 146 pages.

This is no ghost-written puff piece. Most of the book is heavily based on Franklin’s own diary, and his distinctive voice comes through loud and clear to give a cohesive, day-to-day narrative. The final third of the book is more anecdotal, but even this section does not feel awkward or choppy. Franklin is a skilled writer, with a special gift for presenting the most powerful human moments in the simplest way. This makes them all the more effective by their lack of sentiment.

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A Book a Week: America’s Favorite Movies, Behind the Scenes

Here is the first of my used bookstore finds: America’s Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes, by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Published in 1982, this now out-of-print work is a treasure trove of primary source material for some of the most enduring classics of Hollywood’s golden age. It covers some that I either don’t know or don’t care for, but it also includes many personal favorites such as The Adventures of Robin HoodStagecoachCasablancaThe African QueenSingin’ in the Rain, and High Noon. These are movies whose staying power derives largely from the fact that you don’t have to be a stuffy film critic to appreciate them. No directorial narcissism or abstract mucking about, just good stories well told, made by people committed to getting it right, sometimes at enormous personal cost. The book also sets their production in rich historical context, explaining how they were affected by the Depression, WWII and the Cold War. Herewith, a few quotes and notes that I found to be of particular interest (with trailer links in the titles).

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A Book a Week: Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

Gloria Jean, A Little Bit of Heaven

As promised, here is my review of the biography of child singing star Gloria Jean, written by Scott and Jan MacGillivray. The sub-title is A Little Bit of Heaven. Presumably this was chosen because That Awkward Moment When I Caught a Skin Rash From Bing Crosby, Mel Torme Proposed, and Donald O’Connor Hugged Me So Hard He Broke My Ribs would’ve run a tad long.

Although this isn’t an autobiography, Gloria is generously quoted from interviews conducted by the authors, so her own voice still comes through clearly. And what a treat it is! Gloria Jean is one of those people you’re not likely to have heard of. She never attained the legendary status of a Shirley Temple, and most of her work is out of print. But once you get to know her, you’re very glad you did.

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New Series Announcement: A Book a Week

For the last stretch of the summer, I’ve decided to spend the time that might otherwise have been wasted sleeping in, arguing with atheists on the Internet, surfing the Internet, etc., on reading and reviewing one good new book per week. Happily, I just popped in on a lovely little used bookstore the other week and picked up several good ‘uns. So I thought I might let you, my readers, take a peek at what I’m reading for the next few weeks. But since it seems half the country is on vacation right now, I decided to wait until next Friday to publish the first installment. All the books in my queue so far are non-fiction, mostly revolving around entertainment history, or in one case, military history. The two sections were right next to each other at the bookstore. It’s a wonder I dragged myself out of that place at all!

My first entry in this new little series will actually not be a used book purchase, but something I recently purchased new. It’s the biography of a forgotten child singing star from the same era as Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin. Her name is Gloria Jean. This young lady was the original Jackie Evancho—a true prodigy. She was trained as a coloratura soprano from childhood on up and achieved worldwide fame through her facility with both classical and pop standards. Along the way, she rubbed shoulders with so many legendary show biz names it would make your head spin. And not just names only show biz buffs would recognize either. The book draws heavily from her own words and contains stories you won’t find anywhere else—funny stories, strange stories, and downright beautiful stories. It’s also a sober look at the less pleasant side of child stardom and show business in general, as the small-town girl rose to fame only to fall off the map again.

She has her own Youtube channel now and still interacts with fans via a website. Here she is introducing some vintage clips of her singing and acting, to whet your appetite and get you counting stars. Come back next Friday for the full review!

Book review: Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller

“The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can truly forgive you.” — Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods

This is a first for southerngospelyankee: a book review! I don’t intend to do very many of these, but since someone recommended this particular book to me recently, I thought I would check it out and share my thoughts.

In our world today, there are many things striving to draw our attention away from God. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes subtle. And often, they are things which may not intrinsically be wrong, but if perverted, they become idols. In this brief book, Tim Keller walks his readers through the various shapes and forms an idol can take in our world today while combining his observations with stories from Scripture. Chapter titles like “Love is Not All You Need” and “The Seduction of Success” make it clear that Keller is prepared to challenge common assumptions of pop culture.

Some of the illustrations Keller chooses for his various points include the story of Zacchaeus (money), the story of Naaman (success and prestige), and the story of Nebuchadnezzar (power). In a number of cases, these work very well. The re-telling of Naaman’s story is particularly well done, as is the closing account of Jacob’s wrestling match with God. However, there are other cases where he strains too hard for the application and ignores surrounding context. One example is the story of Jacob and Leah. Keller looks at the passage where Leah hopes to gain Jacob’s love by bearing sons and concludes that her desire to be loved was an “idol” she let go of only after having Judah. He contrasts her statements after bearing each son before Judah, which all involve her husband in some way, with the statement for Judah: “This time I will praise the Lord.” He concludes that this means God worked a change in Leah’s heart, resulting in a “breakthrough” for her. While that makes a nice, tidy illustration for Keller’s purposes, it is unfortunately not accurate.

For one thing, Keller is either missing or ignoring the fact that the entire passage is a series of word plays on the names of Leah’s sons. One son is named Reuben, which means “see, a son” (as in “Look! I have a son…see?”), when Leah greets his birth by saying, “It is because the Lord has seen my misery.” When Simeon is born, Leah declares, “Because the Lord hath heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” “Simeon” means “hearing.” It goes on and on. When you get to Judah and realize that “Judah” means “praise and thanks,” suddenly it doesn’t stand out so much anymore. But the real killer is that Leah wasn’t “reformed” after having Judah at all. She and Rachael continued to compete with each other, sometimes in very strange and even bizarre ways. Also, Keller misinterprets the part where it says Leah stopped having children to mean that she never had any more, when it’s actually only a temporary pause. She had three more children later.

Keller tends to fare better when he remains in the present time, offering stories from his personal life experience and soberly commenting on the decadence of our surrounding culture. He is spot on with many of the things he says in this context. I found the section where he discusses the idol of success particularly insightful. He observes that many stars crave success because it gives them a feeling of self-worth. But because God alone can fill that void, they find themselves continuously feeling empty, and the cycle starts all over again as they keep pushing for more success to fill themselves up again.

The influence of C. S. Lewis is apparent throughout as Keller quotes generously from Lewis’s writings to support his own points. Keller himself is no Lewis, but Lewis has obviously had a very healthy effect on him, and it gives the book added substance. Keller also makes good use of familiar stories like The Lord of the Rings and Chariots of Fire. I had never really considered the fact that Harold Abrahams is making an idol of his running, but that is exactly what it is. Keller quotes from a scene I had forgotten where Abrahams’ girlfriend asks, “You love running?” and he responds wryly, “I’m more of an addict.” Abrahams runs to prove himself and satisfy his own desire for success. Keller could have gone on to discuss that Eric Liddell provides the natural contrast to this attitude by running for God, but he uses only the Abrahams illustration.

Unfortunately, Keller does make a false step when he tries to talk about “political idols” in the section on power. He takes a good general point (that ideologies can take on the form of an idol as easily as things like money and pleasure), and then tries to imply that conservatives are no different from liberals. With the tone of a chiding parent who tells the children that “they’re really both to blame,” Keller makes vague, relativistic generalizations that no discerning observer of the current political landscape could take seriously. He solemnly warns each side not to “demonize” the other, because it’s not good to view our opponents as “evil.” As a fairly reliable supporter of the pro-life and pro-marriage causes, Keller himself ought to know better. There is indeed much evil in the left, and there are evil people representing it, including our own President. That may not sound comfortable and diplomatic, but the truth is rarely comfortable and diplomatic. Meanwhile, Keller is only nudging the Church in a direction it’s already been taking for years, to its own detriment.

This combined with the book’s various instances of exegetical carelessness is enough to keep it from a perfect score, but  on the whole, it contains enough good, solid insight that I’ll give it 3.5 stars. It’s well-written, accessible to the average reader and capable of generating good conversations about this important topic, one which is too often overlooked in the Church. However, for those who haven’t already read it, I would recommend Lewis’s The Great Divorce as a more imaginative and profound look at the same subject. And I have a feeling Tim Keller probably would too.