Howard Shirley

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If you live with anyone under the age of 20, you might have noticed them looking longingly at the calendar and marking off the days (indeed, you might be marking off the days yourself). School’s already out, summer’s well along, the final Star Wars movie hit the screens weeks ago, and Christmas . . . well, even the stores don’t start playing carols until October. So what’s causing the sighs and anticipation? Why, it’s the magical arrival on July 16 of the sixth book about the young wizard in training.

<b>Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince</b> (or <b>HBP</b> to fans) has a first printing of 10.8 million copies, the largest initial print run for any book in American history. But exactly what happens in book six, no one, except J.K. Rowling and her tight-lipped editors, can say. The book has been treated with a level of security worthy of a state secret, and with remarkably fewer leaks to the press. It’s harder to get an advance copy of HBP than it is to Disapparate from Hogwarts. Unless you have the Inner Eye of Professor Trelawney, you’ll just have to wait with the rest of us Muggles until July 16. (Bookstores around the country are hosting midnight parties and will start selling the book just after 11:59 p.m., July 15.) Depending on your budget, you can choose between the regular edition of <b>HBP</b> and the deluxe edition, a slipcased beauty with special artwork and a retail price of $60.

Needless to say, the secrecy hasn’t stopped a steady stream of speculation and even outright wagering as to the plot, events and characters. Whole Internet sites are dedicated to analyzing the least little clues, from the cover art to offhand remarks by Rowling. Recently, bookies in the U.K. refused a flurry of wagers on who gets killed off in book six, in part because the wagers originated from the town where the books are being printed. Rowling has since downplayed the rumors, though not so far as to rule out the prediction.

The two great mysteries of <b>HBP</b> are the identity of the Half-Blood Prince and the question of which favorite character will die. As for the latter, Rowling has stated that no one (except Harry and Lord Voldemort) is 100 percent safe, and has kept mum otherwise. The identity of the Half-Blood Prince has seen a few more tidbits spilt; it is not (as some speculated early on) either Harry or Voldemort (or his teenage counterpart from <i>Chamber</i>). Could it be a character whose mixed heritage is already known (such as Hagrid, Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas and a few others) or a character who is well-known but whose origins are not (Snape is a favorite, as is Dumbledore) or a character not yet introduced or one mentioned but never encountered (such as Godric Gryffindor, co-founder of Hogwarts and ancient defender of Muggle-born students)? If you want to join the speculation, a great place to start is Rowling’s official website. It’s a delightfully animated exploration of Rowling’s cluttered desk, brimming with clues, hints and hidden oddities. From there you can follow links to Potter-fan web sites and Rowling’s American and British publishers. The Scholastic site offers a glossary and an audio pronunciation guide for wizardly words a great boon to Muggles like me, who discovered that I said many things woefully wrong.

<i>Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee, who is convinced that Godric Gryffindor is the Half-Blood Prince. Unless, of course, it’s Hagrid. Or someone else.</i>

If you live with anyone under the age of 20, you might have noticed them looking longingly at the calendar and marking off the days (indeed, you might be marking off the days yourself). School’s already out, summer’s well along, the final Star Wars movie hit the screens weeks ago, and Christmas . . . […]
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What weighs more 16,700 tons, has an orange and yellow jacket and appears one minute after midnight on July 21? It doesn’t take much wizardry to guess it’s the first U.S. printing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking series about the boy wizard. The story runs for 748 pages, the only instance where this book’s numbers dip below any of its predecessors. (Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, topped out at 870 pages, making Book 7 the second longest in the series.)

Here are a few more numbers to consider as anticipation builds for this unprecedented publishing phenomenon:

• 12 million — Total number of books in the first U.S. printing, the largest first printing of any book in history, beating out the runner-up by 1.2 million books. The runner-up was 2005’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which had a first printing of 10.8 million copies and sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours of its release, making it the fastest-selling book in history.

• 65 percent — The percentage of the paper used in the U.S. first printing of Deathly Hallows that will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), making Harry Potter’s seventh installment the largest purchase of FSC-certified paper to be used in the printing of a single book title. All of the paper will contain at least 30 percent post-consumer waste fiber.

• 100,000 — Deluxe edition sets of Deathly Hallows available in the U.S., featuring an exclusive wraparound jacket and full-color frontispiece by illustrator Mary GrandPré, along with a foil-stamped slipcase. List price for the deluxe edition is $65, compared to $34.99 for the regular book, although both prices are being deeply discounted by many booksellers.

• 37, 10 and seven — The number of libraries, cities and weeks for the cross-country Knight Bus National Tour sponsored by Scholastic. The tour features a triple-decker purple bus decorated like the magical bus Harry rides in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Fans can add their thoughts about the series to a video journal when the bus stops in their town.

• 1,700 — Fans who will get to meet Rowling for a midnight book-signing party at London’s Natural History Museum on July 21. Five hundred lucky winners, chosen at random, will also attend her midnight reading prior to the signing. And seven of these fortunate youngsters will be from the U.S., courtesy of an online sweepstakes from Scholastic

• 325 million — Total sales of the first six Harry Potter books to date, worldwide.

• 120 million — Number of Harry Potter books in print in the U.S. alone.

• $3.5 billion — Total gross worldwide for the Harry Potter films (so far).

• 138 minutes — Reported running time for the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to be released in the U.S. on July 11. Not bad, considering the length of the book (870 pages).

• 12 — Number of Harry Potter stamps to be released by the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail. The stamps will feature the cover art from Bloomsbury’s British editions of all seven novels, as well as the Hogwarts school crest and the emblems for each of its four houses.

• $265 million — Expected cost to build "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," a theme park set to open at Universal’s Orlando Resort in 2009. Visitors will be able to immerse themselves in the village of Hogsmeade, the mysterious Forbidden Forest and, of course, Hogwarts castle. "The plans I’ve seen look incredibly exciting, and I don’t think fans of the books or films will be disappointed," Rowling says of the project.

Enough facts, more fantasy

Of course, the impending release of this seventh and final book has only served to spur curiosity about the fate of Rowling’s magical hero. And the biggest question is: Will Harry survive his final battle with Lord Voldemort?

Though the "Harry dies!" voices are the loudest in this discussion, most fans (including this writer) think they’re wrong, based on the tone of the novels, statements by Rowling and the audience for the books. On the other hand, bookmakers in the U.K. are now refusing wagers from bettors who believe Harry will be killed off in the final book, citing an avalanche of bets.

In any case, Rowling has stated that at least two major characters will die, and that one will get a reprieve, but she has hinted that these are not the only deaths. Speculation revolves around which of the characters she is referring to—Harry, Lord Voldemort, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Snape, Draco, Neville Longbottom, Ginny or another Weasley (or more than one).

Other questions fans would like to see answered in Deathly Hallows: Is Dumbledore really dead? Will Sirius Black come back from the dead? (In Egyptian mythology, the dog star Sirius is a symbol of resurrection.) What are Harry and Lord Voldemort reaching for on the book’s cover (shown above)? And of course, the classic question: Is Severus Snape evil or good?

Whatever the outcome for Harry and his friends, one prediction is certain—on July 21 a legion of fans will be reading into the wee hours to find out what happens to their hero. And I’ll be one of them.

Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee, with a fascination for Harry Potter and the wizarding world.

What weighs more 16,700 tons, has an orange and yellow jacket and appears one minute after midnight on July 21? It doesn’t take much wizardry to guess it’s the first U.S. printing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s record-breaking series about the boy wizard. The story […]
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As the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth arrives, along with it come three books celebrating the scientist and his revolutionary ideas. All three offer intriguing views on the man and his theories, and their mutual impact on society and science.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore places Darwin and his ideas within the context of the worldwide struggle with slavery that eventually exploded into the American Civil War. Darwin was born into a family at the forefront of the British abolitionist movement, growing up during the days of Wilberforce—British emancipation was passed while Darwin was aboard the HMS Beagle. But that was an opening salvo, and to Darwin’s horror the pro-slavery forces latched onto science as a rationalization, declaring that the various races of man were distinct species created independently—with Europeans conveniently the dominant race. This idea was anathema to Darwin on a moral level as well as a scientific one, and authors Desmond and Moore set out to show how Darwin’s fury over slavery drove his theory of the unified descent of man as much as did his innate curiosity about nature.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a compelling narrative, well researched and convincingly presented, offering a new understanding of who Darwin was and the passions that motivated his thought. Particularly eye opening is the surprising connection between Darwin’s theory and the Christian abolition movement as they together fought a scientific community that rejected the Christian belief that all mankind was descended from a single pair. The story of that unlikely alliance is fascinating to follow, full of colorful characters both noble and vile, revealing how science and religion were debased by the evil of racism.

Darwin’s Garden: Down House and ‘The Origin of Species’ by Michael Boulter uses the garden of Darwin’s country home—Down House—as a picture of the progress of evolution science and ongoing biological studies. Still in existence today (maintained both as a museum and a living laboratory as Darwin used it), the garden at Down House becomes, in Boulter’s words, a metaphorical path through both history and modern science, its plants and animals offering the same insights to the reader as for Darwin. Here are fascinating glimpses into the lean edge of modern biological science, beautifully tied to the simple pleasure Darwin found in experimenting in his garden. Like a stroll with the scientist himself, the book points out that for all we do know about life, we still do not even fundamentally understand the events happening in a quiet English garden, much less the raucous turmoil of the living world. Science, like life, Darwin might say, continues to evolve.

After Darwin
Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America by Barry Werth is as much about the societal impact of Darwin’s theory as it is about Darwin himself. On November 9, 1882, a remarkable group gathered at the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York to host a banquet honoring the ideals of evolution, and in particular the philosopher of evolution, Herbert Spencer. Though Darwin himself had died seven months before, everyone attending acknowledged the naturalist as the founder of the movement (with the possible exception of the rarely humble Spencer). It was a night to praise the ideals of evolution and look forward to the golden age the philosophy would bring. The dignitaries present ranged from the capitalist Andrew Carnegie to the famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher, with an assortment of scientists, politicians and orators mixed into the bunch. The story of how each came to be at the banquet is the story of how Darwin’s theory of evolution was influencing American thought in the latter 19th century.
Werth’s book is a thoroughly involving read, weaving history and biography together as the various actors move toward the culminating dinner. It is a tale of philosophy, science, political chicanery, public scandals, capitalism, socialism and eccentricity on many sides. The final contrast between the attendees’ assumptions compared to the eventual progress of history (for good and ill) ends the book on an ironic note. The banquet at Delmonico’s may not have signaled a triumph for anyone, but the book is a deliciously evolving read.

Howard Shirley writes from Franklin, Tennessee.

As the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth arrives, along with it come three books celebrating the scientist and his revolutionary ideas. All three offer intriguing views on the man and his theories, and their mutual impact on society and science. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution […]
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Fatherhood is fascinating, frustrating, frightening and funny—and the wise man appreciates all four aspects. As another Father’s Day rolls around, five books offer insight and interest for fathers of all ages—as well as mothers, sons and daughters, too.

Fathers, sons and the game of golf
At the same time that boys turn into young men, their fathers often reach their own turning points. The boy of 16 is learning what sort of man he may become; the father in his 40s is discovering the difference between the man he thought he’d be and the man he is. In his latest book, A Son of the Game: A Story of Golf, Going Home, and Sharing Life’s Lessons, golf writer and journalist James Dodson weaves together both these journeys, wrapped in a story of homecoming and the love of an ancient game. The tale begins as Dodson, disillusioned with golf journalism, returns to Pinehurst, North Carolina, “the home of golf in America,” to bid goodbye to a dying friend. Set amid the pine-covered sand hills between the mountains and the sea, Pinehurst is a home of sorts to Dodson, a place where he first learned the game of golf from his own father. When an opportunity to join a small regional newspaper arises, Dodson ponders it as a cure for his jaded soul—but worries how his family will respond, in particular his teenage son, Jack. There is conflict for both, but as father and son build a connection on the golf course, the “Pinehurst cure” leads them to a better understanding of themselves and each other. A Son of the Game is a magical memoir of midlife crisis, teenage uncertainty and the power of a legacy gently handed down. Whether you love the game of golf or can’t tell a sand wedge from a six iron, Dodson’s book will put the spell of Pinehurst on your heart—a spell that is simply the call of home.

From one dad to another
Children do not become teenagers overnight, and dads are not 40 in an instant. Fatherhood stretches for many years, and is experienced by men in many different ways. The Book of Dads: Essays on the Joys, Perils and Humiliations of Fatherhood, edited by Ben George, collects essays and memories about fatherhood from an assortment of writers, including Clyde Edgerton and Rick Bragg. Some of the accounts are pure humor, others are poignant, but all offer a fascinating record of ideas, attitudes and approaches to fatherhood. One wishes the collection were somewhat broader—the authors seem to share similar ideologies, with very little diversity in their views—but the essays themselves are well written and fascinating to read.

Lessons for survival
A consistent theme in the previous books is how fathers prepare their children to survive in life. Norman Ollestad’s Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival recounts the author’s experience of his own father’s unconventional approach to parenting, and how it led to the boy’s ability to survive in a situation his father had not planned—the crash of their chartered Cessna into a mountainside. Ollestad cuts back and forth between his travels with his surfer father, his life with his mother and her abusive boyfriend, and his fight for life as the lone survivor of the plane crash. It is a story of both a father’s successes and his failures, and is as much about surviving the actions of child-like adults as about the dangerous descent down the ice-covered mountain. At times beautiful, at times heart-wrenching, Crazy for the Storm is a commanding read—a tale that proves the power of the human spirit can rise against any challenge, and a father’s legacy can be larger than he imagines.

Norman Ollestad didn’t have Hawke’s Green Beret Survival Manual during his mountain ordeal, but he lived the most important part of it: “Never quit!” It is Myke Hawke’s first rule of survival, and his book tells how to apply it in the worst possible situations. Hawke served as a Green Beret for 25 years, rising from enlisted man to officer. His specialty: survival. Hawke’s book is full of techniques and instructions on everything from building shelters to identifying edible plants. And his advice covers situations from surviving the wilderness to dangerous urban environments—including gangs, riots, even a nuclear aftermath—and includes a strong dose of expert philosophy on the nature of survival. Hawke doesn’t just study survival, he has lived it, both as a soldier and as a 14-year-old boy abandoned to the winter streets of urban Virginia. Hawke is a survivor—and if you take his advice, when worse comes to worse, you can be too.

The best of ESPN
Lastly, fatherhood isn’t all about seriousness or survival. It’s also about having fun. And if your father is the type for whom “fun” means “sports,” you could do worse than to give him The ESPN Mighty Book of Sports Knowledgeedited by Steve Wulf. Instead of a collection of stats, this book is a delightful hodgepodge of trivia, essays and tips—like how to throw a Whiffle ball and strategies for winning Rock, Paper, Scissors. There are also accounts of great sports moments, lists of best (and worst) sports movies, and such essential items as a tour of Donovan McNabb’s locker. The contributors range from athletes to coaches, and the stories stretch from the poignant to the peculiar (like the time a lacrosse team fielded a six-foot-five-inch, 600-pound goalie). Fathers and kids (and like-minded mothers) will enjoy this crazy little mix of knowledge. After all, where else can you learn legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s rules for putting on socks? That’s the sort of stuff a father loves to pass on—especially if it drives a kid nuts.

Howard Shirley is a writer who is surviving fatherhood in Franklin, Tennessee.

Fatherhood is fascinating, frustrating, frightening and funny—and the wise man appreciates all four aspects. As another Father’s Day rolls around, five books offer insight and interest for fathers of all ages—as well as mothers, sons and daughters, too. Fathers, sons and the game of golf At the same time that boys turn into young men, […]
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Veterans Day, November 11, began as Armistice Day—the day on which World War I, or The Great War as it was then known, came to a messy, awkward close. But as later wars became more significant to America, Armistice Day changed to Veterans Day as a way to celebrate all veterans of conflicts past and present. In keeping with that goal, five excellent new books offer fresh perspectives on the American military experience.

A grandfather’s legacy
James Carl Nelson’s The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War began as a quest to uncover the past of one American veteran of that war—Nelson’s grandfather, a taciturn Swedish immigrant named Jon Nilsson. He came to America only to be drafted by his newfound nation and sent back across the ocean to fight on the very continent he had left behind. Knowing only that his grandfather had been wounded by a German machine gun in the battle of Soisson, Nelson was inspired to discover his story, as well as the story of the other men who found themselves running into the German lines on that fateful July day. The result is a moving account of young men swept into a war few truly understood, who nevertheless found exceptional courage amid horrors they never imagined. Using personal accounts derived from journals and letters of the men and their families—many who never knew their sons’ and husbands’ final fates—Nelson recreates their experiences in vivid detail. The Remains of Company D immerses the reader in the world of the doughboys, helping us see a war of dwindling memory through the eyes of those who lived—and died—while waging it.

From Pusan to Inchon
Another war even less well-known to modern readers is nevertheless considerably closer in time—the Korean War, with origins almost as muddled as that of World War I. The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950: The Battles that Saved Korea—and the Marines—From Extinction, by Bill Sloan, recounts the origins and first year of what almost became America’s greatest military disaster. As might be expected from the subtitle, Sloan focuses heavily on the contribution of the Marine Corps, which prior to the Korean conflict was in danger of being reduced to little more than a ceremonial guard. In Korea, the Marine Corps proved itself to be America’s only truly battle-ready force in the wake of drastic post-WWII military cuts. Sloan deftly combines a thorough explanation of the causes and politics behind the Korean War with riveting descriptions of the battles, from the near rout as North Korean forces pushed the woefully ill-equipped and under-trained U.S. Eighth Army almost into the sea at Pusan, to the stunning reversal at Inchon that handed the U.S. its greatest military triumph since D-Day—only to be reversed yet again when China poured human wave attacks across the Yalu River. Sloan’s account ends there—but one hopes he will pick up the story once more. In era when the world is once again facing strategic challenges in Korea, The Darkest Summer is a compelling read and a timely reminder of a “forgotten war.”

New appraisals
Like the veterans of World War I, the men and women of World War II are slowly leaving us behind, and with them goes the living memory of their deeds. Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy is a powerful reminder of just how great their accomplishments were. Beginning with the build-up to invasion, Beevor follows the Allied forces through the greatest amphibious landing in history, across the hedgerows of France and through the glorious entry into Paris. From the upper-level planning of generals to the desperate fights of the men themselves, Beevor skillfully covers the full scope of the summer offensive that liberated France and signaled the inevitable end of Hitler and the Third Reich. Whether you’re familiar with the names and events of 1944 or curious to learn more, Beevor’s D-Day is a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging journey back through time.

Equally engaging is John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. The master of military history sets his pen to what may be the most seminal war of the American experience, the war that remains the bloodiest conflict and the most indelible in the American historical consciousness. Whereas many books share the story and causes of the war, or discuss the personalities, politics and battles, Keegan examines how and why the war unfolded as it did—both the deliberate strategy-making and the almost accidental developments brought about by such disparate concerns as geography and social politics. The result is a highly readable overview of the war that goes far beyond merely describing who fought where. Through Keegan’s book, one gains an understanding of why the battles happened as they did, where they did, and how they fit into the whole story of the war and its resulting influence on our nation. Both the casual reader and the Civil War buff will find much to appreciate in this excellent work.

Final rest
Lastly, we come to a book about a place that is unquestionably the most sacred military site in the national psyche. No battle was ever fought there. It saw no triumph of arms, no treaty, no surrender, no speech of resounding note—but its importance to the nation and the nation’s military is unequaled, because it is the final resting place of our most honored dead. Robert M. Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery explores the history of the vaunted cemetery across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., and the uniquely American approach to honoring our military heroes. What began as a way to punish Robert E. Lee by seizing his Arlington, Virginia estate and rendering it “inhospitable” for his return, turned into one of the greatest sources of healing for a grieving, divided nation. It also inspired an unparalleled commitment by the country to find, identify (if possible) and, if requested by the family, bring home with honor the body of every American service person who died in battle, regardless of where or when. Poole’s book is both sobering and inspiring as it explores the history of this remarkable tradition and the quietly majestic site to which many of those men and women have returned. As we celebrate the living on Veterans Day, On Hallowed Ground is a beautiful portrait of the place where we honor their fallen comrades.

Howard Shirley is a writer in Franklin, Tennessee.

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YouTube trailer of On Hallowed Ground:

Veterans Day, November 11, began as Armistice Day—the day on which World War I, or The Great War as it was then known, came to a messy, awkward close. But as later wars became more significant to America, Armistice Day changed to Veterans Day as a way to celebrate all veterans of conflicts past and […]
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As Easter approaches, churches and believers around the world place a special emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah—events that are the cornerstones of modern Christianity. As reading selections for the season, we’ve chosen five new books that offer messages of faith, resilience and hope and expand on the promise of Easter.

FILLING A VOID

Pete Wilson’s Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You’re Believing examines the many things we chase in the quest for fulfillment. Some are obvious—wealth, success, appearance—but others are surprising, including religious practices like trying to pray more or do good works. Wilson’s point is that even though we try many solutions for the emptiness we feel, if God isn’t at the heart of our journey, we will find only empty promises. As in his previous book, Plan B, the Nashville pastor writes in a conversational style that’s easily accessible, while still offering moments of great challenge, like a tap on the soul to say, “This is you, pal.” If you’ve been chasing after “the next thing” that will finally make your life worthwhile, I highly recommend Empty Promises—you might discover you’ve bought into a few dead ends yourself.

SPIRITUAL POWER

Also calling us to re-evaluate our lives and our religion is Jim Cymbala’s Spirit Rising: Tapping into the Power of the Holy Spirit. The pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, Cymbala believes that the true power of faith is found not in prayer and worship songs, but comes only from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Cymbala acknowledges that many Christians today hear the term “the Holy Spirit” and picture emotional church services dominated by bizarre behavior. As a result, they become cautious and withdrawn from what the Spirit really is—the presence of God as a guide and comfort. Using examples from the teachings of Christ and the writings of Paul, Peter and more, Cymbala reveals how fundamental the Holy Spirit is to Christian faith. He also shares effective accounts from friends and members of his own church who have experienced the Holy Spirit’s power to transform lives. Spirit Rising is a thought-provoking call to Christians to set aside “to-do list” religion and seek the power of God as a real and active presence in every moment.

A PRESIDENT’S DEVOTIONAL

During his time in office, President Jimmy Carter displayed a candor about his Christian faith that until then was remarkably rare in a modern president. Others had kept their faith largely private, but Carter spoke readily about both his faith and his personal failings as he strove to live by it. Through the Year With Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President is a reflection of that life of faith, offered as a guide for other believers. Drawn from Sunday school lessons Carter taught throughout his life (a ministry he followed even while president), each daily devotion offers the insight of a man trying to connect with God and understand his place in the world, not as a leader or politician, but as a child of God and a follower of Christ. The passages are brief—a Bible verse, Carter’s personal thoughts on the passage and a closing prayer—but the thoughts are often rich and surprising. Neither politics nor history nor memoir is the point here; this excellent devotional is all about looking at life and faith and learning how to live them together.

LOST AT SEA

The Fourth Fisherman, by Joe Kissack, is a story about men lost at sea—one lost in the sea of worldly success and excess, and the others lost in the actual vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. The story begins in 2005 as three day-laborers gather to act as hands for a small fishing boat captain in the remote Mexican village of San Blas. Their fishing trip goes awry when an unexpected storm and their captain’s misjudgment set them adrift in the powerful currents of the Pacific. As the fishermen struggle to survive exhaustion, dehydration and lack of food, Kissack contrasts their story with his life as a driven television executive headed for his own personal storm. The stark hardships the fishermen face and Kissack’s life crumbling under the weight of his material success serve as effective counterpoints. The fishermen, who have never had anything, find a faith that sustains them against unbelievable odds, while Kissack, who has everything, must almost lose it all in order to come to the realization that what he really needs is Christ. In the end, Kissack suggests, all of us are lost at sea, and the only thing we can do is place our faith in the One who can bring us safely home.

FROM GRIEF TO HOPE

The worst fate most parents can imagine is to live through the loss of a child—especially a child lost to murder. This is the tragedy that has weighed on John Ramsey for more than 15 years. The murder of his daughter JonBenét was a media sensation, sparking a frenzy that saw accusations raised against John, his wife Patsy and even JonBenét’s nine-year-old brother. For Ramsey, it felt as if he had entered the life of Job, going from successful business owner and happy family man to a shattered father hounded by paparazzi and cynical policemen. The Other Side of Suffering is Ramsey’s story of his struggle, compounded by the death of Patsy from cancer and the loss of all he thought he was.

One might expect such a story to be bitter, with railings against a heartless media and incompetent investigators, not to mention JonBenét’s killer (whose identity remains unknown). The Other Side of Suffering, however, is instead a beautiful and soul-wrenching account of a man’s struggle to find God’s grace in the midst of tragedy and injustice. Ramsey’s growing faith through mounting grief and disappointments is moving, stirring the heart with both the pain he has felt and the love he has experienced. Amid crushing sorrow, Ramsey finds uplifting peace; through sadness and loss, he learns the real promise of God’s joy. As he puts it himself, he has survived to reach “the other side of suffering” and discover hope again. And in the end, isn’t that the very heart of Easter?

As Easter approaches, churches and believers around the world place a special emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah—events that are the cornerstones of modern Christianity. As reading selections for the season, we’ve chosen five new books that offer messages of faith, resilience and hope and expand on the promise of Easter. […]
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In time for the Easter season, six new books offer guidance for living a more spiritual life. Some are inspirational, some inspirationally practical. All offer wisdom for those seeking a stronger connection with God and a more fulfilling life.

The meaning of an abundant life in Christ is the central theme of Jonathan Merritt’s Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. In this deeply personal and highly evocative book, Merritt takes the reader on a search for God through times of intimate communion and soul-searing doubt, sharing the highs and lows of his faith. Whether it’s in the silence of a desert monastery or the brash environs of a bar filled with sacrilegious art, Merritt discovers unexpected truths about Christ and about himself, and realizes that what Christ offers is more than anyone expects and far more than anyone even imagines. Written with soul-stirring simplicity and soul-baring honesty, Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined is both a balm to the wounded believer and the scarred skeptic, as well as a challenge to the committed traditionalist. Merritt calls for a personal encounter that’s not a list of dos and don’ts or pros and cons, but rather an invitation to a lifelong, one-to-one intimacy with a God who knows and loves us, regardless of who, what or where we are.

WORRY NOT
Part of Merritt’s point is that Christians are neither perfect people nor promised perfect lives, and that Christ promises to be there through every mess, mistake and miracle that comes along. This, too, is the central theme of Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry by Perry Noble. Depression, anxiety and worry are not strange afflictions to which Christians should be immune, Noble writes. After all, Moses, Elijah and Paul all suffered through periods of deep depression, even to the point of wishing for death, while heroes like Joseph, Daniel and Christ himself dealt with sources of stress simply unimaginable to most people today. Noble points out that the promise of Christ is not that such struggles will not come, or that we will not feel overwhelmed, but rather that God will carry us through these struggles. With heart and humor, Noble shares details of his own personal battle with depression and stress, using the touchstone of Daniel and his compatriots (and even his kings) to reveal that God has a path through the worry and the fear, and a promise of Christ’s presence amid it all.

HAVING IT ALL
If the superheroes of the past weren’t immune to feeling overwhelmed, then certainly the superwomen of today aren’t, either. Holley Gerth’s You’re Going to Be Okay: Encouraging Truth Your Heart Needs to Hear, Especially on the Hard Days tackles stress, depression and anxiety from a woman’s perspective, for a woman’s life. Gerth brings her knowledge as a counselor and her own experiences with overwhelming worry to relieve the stressed-out and the harried. Filled with practical solutions, family stories and her trademark Southern wit, You’re Going to Be Okay is an intimate conversation with a friend who’s been there too and knows not only what you’re going through, but also that you can go through it—that you’re not alone, no matter what. If you’re a woman dealing with stress, anxiety or depression, or if you love a woman who is, then this is the book for you to seek out.

THE POWER OF FORGIVENESS
One of the foremost leaders in the fight against apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa comforted countless victims of brutality, rape, torture and murder while facing death threats and virulent racism himself. Yet after apartheid ended, Nobel Peace Prize winner Tutu was among the loudest voices calling not for revenge, but for forgiveness. That commitment and his own personal experiences—as well as those of his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu—form the basis for The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. This is not a history of apartheid, though it informs the work, but rather an inspirational, practical and moving guide to finding and giving forgiveness, whether for a criminal action or a slight as ordinary as an insult. It is a path to peace, both internally and in community, offered with wisdom, honesty and beauty. Whether the pain you’ve received or given is great or small, The Book of Forgiving offers a roadmap to healing, from one who has followed it.

WISDOM FOR THE ASKING
In The God of Yes: How Faith Makes All Things New, Jud Wilhite points out that wisdom is neither mysterious nor unattainable—with God, it’s ours for the asking. Wilhite explores our lives today through the prism of Ecclesiastes and the eponymous Teacher’s attempts to discover the purpose and meaning of life. Anything but a dry Bible study, Wilhite’s book combines levity with modern-day reality to present an Ecclesiastes that is very much relevant to today’s reader, and an enjoyable read. By comparing our everyday experiences and cultural quirks and showing how there is “nothing new under the sun,” Wilhite offers insight into a God who offers the gifts we need for a fulfilling, meaningful life.

LIFE IS A CANVAS
Wisdom can be practical, but it can also be sublime—and the latter is the best word to describe Erwin Raphael McManus’ The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art. Beautiful, rich, philosophical and inspiring, The Artisan Soul argues that we are all “little creators,” and that human creativity, imagination and love are what make us “the image of God.” Though his own background and relationships are with artists and artistic people, McManus says that we all have “an artisan soul,” from a master painter to anyone who flunked finger painting. It’s not the activity that defines us, but our imaginations—and our canvas is life itself. God has given us the paintbrush and the paints, and like a gentle master guiding a pupil, He is there to help us see what art we make of it. Whether you’re an artist or an accountant, The Artisan Soul will inspire you to make your life the masterpiece God intends it to be.

In time for the Easter season, six new books offer guidance for living a more spiritual life. Some are inspirational, some inspirationally practical. All offer wisdom for those seeking a stronger connection with God and a more fulfilling life.

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Easter is a time for self-discovery and reflection on relationships, faith and the soul. Five new books offer fresh perspectives to help readers find God, themselves and each other, and renew their hearts for another year.

Rediscovering the meaning of the gospel is the soul of N.T. Wright’s Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. Wright has a gift for cutting through religious dross to the essence of faith, and this book is no exception. Challenging conventional views of what is meant by “gospel,” Wright calls for an understanding of the Good News as just that: good and news. Like an ancient herald declaring “There is a new king—everything has changed,” so too is the gospel, and that change is as immediate and world-shaking today as it was on that first Easter morning.

Wright’s book is a call to stop defining Jesus by what fits our culture, but as the world-changing king He is, with believers as active participants in His kingdom, building it now, brick by brick. Fascinating and uplifting, Simply Good News is the must-read book of the year for every Christian. It will surprise you, it will challenge you, and it will make you see the world and your faith with fresh eyes—good news, indeed.

WORLDS APART
Discovering God’s kingdom is the theme of Chad Gibbs’ Jesus Without Borders: What Planes, Trains, and Rickshaws Taught Me About Jesus. A native of Alabama—“the buckle of the Bible Belt”—Gibbs grew up surrounded by the culture of the Christian South. While on a European vacation, he observed churches very different from those at home, prompting him to think about how Christianity itself must differ around the world. For more than two years, Gibbs hopped around the globe on a quest to see these differences for himself, calling on contacts everywhere from Africa to Australia. In all, Gibbs visited 12 countries, worshiping with Christians of all cultures and hearing their experiences of faith—often in lands where that faith was in the minority. The result is more than just a travelogue of sites and curiosities; it’s an insightful examination of the assumptions made by American Christians and a look at how much we can learn from other views of the faith. Gibbs has a gift for humor—Jesus Without Borders is a very funny book—but also a greater gift for exploring profound questions about how culture alters faith, and how what we think it means to be Christian is at least partially the result of the society in which we live. Enjoyable and eye-opening, Jesus Without Borders will take you on a journey you did not expect and change you for the better along the way.

Unexpected discoveries also lie at the heart of Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, by Ryan J. Pemberton. A successful young marketing writer, Pemberton had his life spun completely off track when he was jolted by a profound certainty that God wanted him to leave his comfortable, well-paying job in Oregon and travel around the world to study theology at Oxford. Facing obstacles of financing and finding living space for himself and his wife, and of course the rigors of the most prestigious academic setting in the world, Pemberton found himself in an unexpected place, where he could only rely on faith to carry him through. Called is his account of those challenges, and of the surprises God had in store for him throughout—including the opportunity to live in C.S. Lewis’ Oxford home. Told in vignettes both simple and sublime, Called is a record of faith and revelation, and a reminder that life with Jesus will shake up all our expectations—but that upheaval will be worthwhile.

LOOKING INWARD
Sometimes discovery must come not only for ourselves, but also for others in our lives. Donald Miller, the best-selling author of Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, confronts this reality in his latest memoir, Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy. In his typically straightforward, revealing manner, Miller shares his difficulties with finding and keeping an intimate relationship, culminating in a year-long quest to change himself from an actor playing at love into a human being able to trust another with his heart. As with all his books, Miller’s faith lies at the center, guiding him through this journey of self-discovery. As Miller prayerfully lays bare his own habits of manipulation and deception, he exposes these same tendencies in the rest of us, pointing the reader and himself toward the openness and honesty that God intends for us to share with those we love.

Discovering the self is also at the heart of Jessica N. Turner’s The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You. “Fringe hours” is Turner’s phrase for moments of unused time that pass unnoticed on the edges of a busy day, moments that can be redeemed to restore the spirit and pursue passions. Since Turner’s work is aimed at the busy American woman, I recruited the perspective of one I know well—my wife, Betsy. Reading the book with me, she offered her thoughts: “The Fringe Hours gives a lot of suggestions for ways to find and do what you love when you are limited by time, finances, job and family constraints. As a woman who measures herself against peers, this book helps me get excited about my passions (what makes me tick) and pursue what I need (rest and quiet time) without feeling guilty about what I’m not doing or being. Turner’s transparency about her life, as well as the survey comments from other women in the book, are refreshingly candid and compassionate. Her book extends grace, hope and inspiration to the reader. After reading this, I actually feel excited about my own fringe hours.” The book features short segments and brief questions, making it easy to glean inspiration and insight, even if the reader only has a few “fringe moments” to spend. If you’re feeling a bit lost in the whirlwind of daily pressures, The Fringe Hours can help you find yourself again.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Easter is a time for self-discovery and reflection on relationships, faith and the soul. Five new books offer fresh perspectives to help readers find God, themselves and each other, and renew their hearts for another year.
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An early Easter brings the hope of spring and the promise of seasons to come as winter’s shadow slowly recedes. It’s a time of faith, a time to remember and renew, a time to reflect on the promise of Christ.

EMBRACING CHANGE
The cycle of life and the wonder of nature rest at the heart of Christie Purifoy’s Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. When Purifoy and her family left Florida for Maplehurst, a 19th-century farmhouse in Pennsylvania, they dreamed of experiencing the full spectrum of changing seasons. From the August day they opened the old front door to a year later and a new August day, Purifoy found not only the beauty of the seasons, but also a growing appreciation for God’s gifts, asked for and received, looked for and unexpected—a year of faith as well as a year of nature’s bounty. Roots and Sky is Purifoy’s memoir of striving to make a home and face the ins and outs of life as it moves from one moment to the next. Throughout the year, she sees how God is speaking to her, touching and teaching in every event〞a faith lived in the metaphors of life. 

Purifoy refers to her experience as “a pilgrimage in one place,” which perfectly captures this beautifully written book. Her memoir celebrates ordinary life, but does so with the depth and power of a river, flowing ever onward.

EMBRACING POSSIBILITY
Finding God in everyday life, or despite everyday life, is Logan Wolfram’s mission in Curious Faith: Rediscovering Hope in the God of Possibility. Like Purifoy, she ponders the seasons of life, which offer opportunities for growth and understanding. Every moment lived with God is a moment to discover something new, Wolfram suggests; it’s not a route to a destination, but a path of constant discovery that never ends. In these discoveries, we can find peace from our worries, strength for our trials, celebrations of our triumphs and comfort in our tragedies. Wolfram shares her personal stories of pain and fear, including a time when she suffered several miscarriages, and reveals how she learned to embrace the discovery God has for her.

Insightful and challenging, but filled with encouragement, Curious Faith reaches into the reader’s life, calling for a renewed faith in a God who is trustworthy, faithful and good, the leader on a journey worth the risk and a life worth the search.

CLOSE TO HOME
Renovate: Changing Who You Are by Loving Where You Are is both a challenge and a call to full involvement in faith and community. For Léonce B. Crump Jr., this call came personally, as he and his wife left a ministry in Tennessee to move to a depressed, neglected neighborhood in downtown Atlanta. Bemoaning the process of gentrification, Crump set out not to change the neighborhood, but instead to honor and uplift the community that was already there. Passionate and uncompromising, Crump doesn’t hold back in either his criticisms or his call to action. His challenge isn’t always comfortable to read, nor may the reader agree with every point, but since when were challenges comfortable, or passion perfect? The point is to be involved where you are, with whomever surrounds you, to be a servant of God not after a drive across town, but right next door.

A BIBLICAL JOURNEY
In Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, journalist and fiction writer Tom Bissell chronicles his journeys to the tomb sites of Christ and his Apostles. Bissell’s eye for detail shines as he recounts his explorations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. From a Greek Orthodox priest who communicates with broken English and expressive gestures to the startling contrasts of India, Bissell’s memoir is a modern-day pilgrim’s tale of Old World churches and historic sites. Throughout, Bissell presents the history and cultural traditions behind the sites and the Apostles themselves, both in Christian teaching and secular scholarship. Although he grew up Catholic, Bissell reveals in an author’s note that he experienced a “sudden and decisive” loss of faith as a teenager. The book is framed by that perspective, but it’s a fascinating read for believer and nonbeliever alike. Bissell’s sense of place is evocative, vividly casting images in the reader’s mind of the catacombs, ruins and cathedrals he sees, as well as the variety of faith he encounters.

THE GOSPEL TRUTH
A search through the history of Christianity is also the focus of The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. In the view of skeptics, the Gospels are unreliable tales, altered by numerous hands to suit a constantly changing early theology. These theories hold that the authors of the Gospels are unknown, that the works were written nearly 100 years after the events and that they are not intended to be accurate records of Jesus’ teachings and actions. With skill, logic and exceptional research, Brant Pitre, professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary, argues that such theories are based not on scholarship, but on assumption and speculation〞and a lack of understanding of 1st-century Jewish thought. To affirm the Gospels as truthful biographies, not tall tales, Pitre establishes the credibility of the claimed authorships, dates the time the Gospels were written to within 30 years of Jesus’ life and asserts that the four Gospels fundamentally agree on the divinity of Christ. Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ famous works, The Case for Jesus brings sound historical authority to any discussion on the nature of New Testament scripture and the beliefs of early Christianity.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

An early Easter brings the hope of spring and the promise of seasons to come as winter’s shadow slowly recedes. It’s a time of faith, a time to remember and renew, a time to reflect on the promise of Christ.
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The Easter season is a time for pondering life’s promise and seeking new direction for the path ahead. It is also a time of love, for the love of Christ is at the heart of the Christian experience. This Easter, five new books offer inspiring journeys of change, hope, amazement, empowerment and love.

“You are one decision away from changing your life forever,” writes Craig Groeschel, bestselling author (Soul Detox) and founding pastor of Life.Church in Edmond, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize that decision when it comes along or make the best choice. But like the proverbial domino, each decision knocks into the next, and soon we find ourselves in circumstances, for good or ill, that we never imagined and never intended.

Recognizing those moments of decision and following God’s guidance is the focus of Groeschel’s latest book, Divine Direction: 7 Decisions That Will Change Your Life. The seven decisions are characterized by the actions that define each circumstance: Start. Stop. Stay. Go. Serve. Connect. Trust. Using life moments, humor and biblical examples, Groeschel explores how these decisions arise in our lives and how God’s word offers wisdom and encouragement in every circumstance. Divine Direction is an engaging read, with both challenges and insight, pointing the reader toward making conscious, deliberate, life-changing decisions with confidence in God’s plan. If you are struggling with challenges, whether overcoming past pain or seeking a better future, Divine Direction will be a welcome guide.

JOURNEY TO THE CROSS
North Carolina pastor Steven Furtick explores God’s love through Christ’s words on the cross in Seven-Mile Miracle: Journey into the Presence of God Through the Last Words of Jesus. Furtick weaves the story of the seven-mile walk to Emmaus, where the resurrected Jesus revealed His place in Scripture to two of his followers, with the seven sentences Christ uttered on the cross. Imagining these statements as mileposts along the way to Emmaus, Seven-Mile Miracle examines not only how each of Christ’s words fulfilled prophecies about Him, but also how each sentence matches our own experiences and struggles in life—and offers us hope, through Christ, in this world and the next. Furtick’s writing is approachable and accessible, but also offers deep insight into Scriptural truths. Whether you’re looking for a compelling Easter read or want to grow richer in your faith at any time, the Seven-Mile Miracle is a journey worth taking.

THE POWER OF GOD
Another journey winds its way through James Robison’s Living Amazed: How Divine Encounters Can Change Your Life. Through autobiography and personal testimony, the renowned evangelist and minister traces the moments of amazement he has found—and continues to find—in his walk with Christ. From miraculous answers to prayer, to unexpected direction and even unwanted (yet needed) spiritual correction, Robison reveals how the Holy Spirit has worked in his life and in the lives of others he has encountered. Filled with interesting anecdotes and firm conviction, but also an uplifting openness towards others, Living Amazed encourages the reader to seek a deeper relationship with Christ and to trust Him in all things. Amid these insights and Scriptural teachings runs Robison’s call for unity in the Christian faith, and a challenge to overcome denominational disagreements and embrace every believer as part of the body of Christ, working together to serve Christ’s purpose. Robison’s life story is remarkable, and his challenge to personally embrace the limitless power of God is compelling. Robison has lived a life of amazement, and Living Amazed calls everyone to do the same.

WOMEN AND THE BIBLE
The rise of feminist thought has brought a swell of challenges against the Bible and its treatment of women. From the admonition that wives should “submit” to their husbands to Paul’s instruction that women should “remain silent” in church, the Bible faces questions and outright rejection by many activists. Wendy Alsup counters those arguments through in-depth analysis in Is the Bible Good for Women? Using the Christian principle that the Bible’s purpose is to point to Christ, Alsup argues that even the most troubling passages of Scripture reveal God’s love for women and their status as equal heirs of Christ. Throughout the book, she reveals the historical and cultural realities behind laws, stories and restrictions that are troubling today, placing these strictures in context both in their time and in our biblical understanding. In the end, Alsup argues, the Bible is not only good for women today, but also at the heart of a truly empowering identity for all God’s daughters.

LOVE IN ORDINARY DAYS
I can think of no more empowering book for either God’s daughters or sons than Maria Goff’s inspirational Love Lives Here: Finding What You Need in a World Telling You What You Want. In beautiful, touching and often amusing stories, Goff, wife of bestselling author Bob Goff (Love Does), offers wisdom gleaned from her life as a mother, neighbor and wife. And a life of love it is. From imaginary lava flows down staircase steps to actual dangers in war-torn Iraq, she shares a life both ordinary and extraordinary, and through that life the love God has for us all. This is not a book you gobble up in a reading rush. Rather, Love Lives Here is like a home-cooked meal with cherished friends, full of moments to be savored, each chapter a delightful morsel for the soul. It is a night around the table—laughing, talking, sharing, full of smiles and sometimes tears. Love lives in Love Lives Here, and Goff’s words will linger in your heart.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The Easter season is a time for pondering life’s promise and seeking new direction for the path ahead. It is also a time of love, for the love of Christ is at the heart of the Christian experience. This Easter, five new books offer inspiring journeys of change, hope, amazement, empowerment and love.

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What is history but the story of how we came to be? All our past—every tiniest tick of it—led to today, and every passing second casts us into tomorrow. We do things for reasons whose origins we barely remember, and the things we do set the pattern of the future, with our own choices no more assuredly understood than those of our ancestors. Ronald Reagan quipped that “status quo” was Latin for “the mess we’re in.” It might also mean “the mess we’ve been handed,” for all history is simply a mess handed forward, from which we are expected to sift out treasure, if we can but find it.

Thomas Cahill made a life of publishing others’ thoughts on history and religion before deciding to put forth his own examination of “the mess we’ve been handed.” His Hinges of History series, beginning with How the Irish Saved Civilization, offers his interpretation of pivotal moments, cultures and individuals who have contributed both treasure and trash to the mess we’re in. Heretics and Heroes, his latest addition, turns his glass upon the Renaissance, the era of grandiose art and even greater upheaval, as the culture of medieval Europe slammed headfirst into an onslaught of new ideas and new discoveries. Columbus found an astounding New World, the Italian artists pursued incomparable forms of expression and a priest in Wittenberg challenged the understanding of faith—and between them all, they brought forth political and religious changes that overturned the world.

Cahill’s book is not strictly a history, but rather a selection of gleanings from it—an interpretation of history, rather than history itself. As an interpretation, it very much arises from Cahill’s own world view, rather than an objective assessment. The book is not about what happened, but rather what happened as Cahill sees it—history salted heavily with opinion, ranging from art criticism to religious interpretation to political commentary. Yet even where the reader may disagree, Cahill’s insights remain thought-provoking, and his examination of the characters who altered their age and our own, for good or ill, is often quite fascinating. Though flawed as history, Heretics and Heroes still offers an interesting window into a time when muddle piled onto muddle, and does indeed manage to brush away that debris for bits of gold.

Howard Shirley is a writer living in Franklin, Tennessee.

What is history but the story of how we came to be? All our past—every tiniest tick of it—led to today, and every passing second casts us into tomorrow. We do things for reasons whose origins we barely remember, and the things we do set the pattern of the future, with our own choices no […]

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