“Lincoln’s Melencholy”by Joshua Wolf Shenk’s: A Review

Amazon.com: Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a ...“When he started again, his handwriting was smaller and he pressed harder on the page. “For not giving you a general summary of news,” he wrote, “you must pardon me, it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.” (62)

The beauty of history is how simple and complicated it is. The biography of Abraham Lincoln is a great example on this. On the one hand, his story is simple. Born to poverty in pioneer Kentucky. He moved to Indiana and then to Illinois and became a self-made man who educated himself to become a lawyer and then a politician. He joined the newly formed Republican party and became their first elected President. In this last role, he preserved the Union and became the last death of that morbid war. Lincoln is still considered to be one of the best Presidents of the nation he died for.

At the same time, his biography is more complicated than that. No other figure in American history has had more books, articles, and words written on than Lincoln. This is not because his story is popular, but because history is often more complicated than presented in one-volume history textbooks.

One work that illustrates the complicated nature of Linoln is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. As the title suggests, Shenk explores the inner emotional, mental, and spiritual battle the 16th President fought throughout his life.

In one sense, this is a biographical work. The author begins with Lincoln’s childhood and largely follows Lincoln’s struggle with melancholy from a chronological perspective. One clear example of this approach is it demonstrates how Lincoln was a real man who lived in a difficult world and faced dark times. By the time he reached adulthood, for example, Lincoln (along with his father) was the lone survivor of his family. He would go on to mourn the loss of a woman he loved, defeat in politics, and rejection in Springfield. Lincoln was a man of great success, yes, but works like this are a reminder that behind the successes of a man is one who has had to wrestle with much failure.

This volume is also a work of psychology. As a Christian who rejects the school of Sigmund Freud, this is the weaker aspect of the book. The author writes from a secular perspective and at times this clouds his analysis and storytelling. With that said, Shenk uses Lincoln as a case study for a deeper psychological discussion. I suspect most readers will enjoy this aspect as much as the former. I less so.

Regardless, this is a fascinating read that kept my attention. Much has been written about Lincoln, yet little has been written regarding his battle with depression. In an age where depression is on the rise, this is a timely work of history.

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“When the Man Comes Around” by Douglas Wilson: A Review

When the Man Comes Around: A Commentary on the Book of Revelation ...The thing to keep in mind is that the book of Revelation is about the replacement of the old Jerusalem below with the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven like a bride. In order to make way for the new Jerusalem, the old Jerusalem must be destroyed, just as Jesus had predicted. (73)

Revelation is an enigma for most readers. Understanding the images, metaphors, and symbols is a serious challenge for us all. Over twenty centuries after its composition, a handful of interpretive frameworks dominate most people’s reading of the book. One eschatological view I have not considered with any depth is preterism – the view that the events of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation were fulfilled in AD 70 with the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem during the first Jewish-Roman war.

Given my agnosticism toward some of the more prevalent views of Revelation (like Dispensationalism and Amillenialism), I thought I would consider the preterist view. To be clear, I do believe and have taught that preterism has some legitimacy. Revelation is written to present believers, not just to future readers. Thus its content must apply equally to them as to us. John clearly condemns the Roman Empire throughout the book. Thus on the surface, I agree with some of preterism.

With that said, I am hesitant to embrace preterism as the primary framework for reading Revelation and other eschatological passages. Therefore, I picked up and read Douglas Wilson’s commentary on Revelation brilliantly entitled When the Man Comes Around (taken from one of Johnny Cash’s best songs).

Wilson’s volume is straightforward. He begins with the open verse of John’s apocalypse and walks the reader through each line of the Revelation. Throughout the commentary Wilson explores various interpretations and lands on the preterist view.

In regards to his preterism, I will confess that Wilson makes arguments that are attractive. His exploration of the Jewish-Roman war and its parallels with Revelation are striking. It has made me want to do my own research on that war in hopes it will give me a fresh reading of Revelation for myself. For the most part, Wilson does not force interpretations, although at times he does assume them. His preterism provides fresh perspectives on some of the interpretative difficulties of Revelation that are worth considering.

With that said, I do not believe Wilson proves preterism. I was surprised to find no introduction to the book of Revelation. Much of typical introductory material is weaved into the commentary but even that is scant. The date, author, and purpose behind the book are largely explored in the first three chapters. Yet beyond that, the book is largely without introductory material.

My concern here is not with Wilson’s view about Patmos and why John was there, but on his dating of the book. In order for Wilson’s preterist view to be true, he must place the composition of the book prior to AD 70 otherwise it would not be a prophetic book. I consider this a major weakness of strict preterism. If the events are primarily about the judgment of Jerusalem and then a broader condemnation of the Roman Empire and every empire that follows, then he must prove that earlier date. However, the evidence (as I see it) favors a later date of the 90s. This corresponds with John’s other writings – his Gospel and three epistles. I was disappointed that Wilson provided no argument as I was open to hear his case.

With that said, the book is not a waste. It is easy to read and to follow and he makes a compelling case for preterism. Although the book lacks the creative energy and writing style Wilson typically utilizes, his style of writing does appear occasionally. Here is my favorite:

If English had an analogous system,it would be easy to compute the numerical value of our names. For example, my name is Douglas. All we would have to do is add the value of the numbers up: D (4), O (60), U (300), G (7), L (30), A(1) and S (1–). The number of my name would therefore be 502. And while this strikes us as odd and contrived (because we don’t do it), it was very common in the ancient world. Graffiti at Pompeii has been found that said, “I love her whose number of 545.” Roman historian Seutonius pointed out (abut Nero) that some doggered poetry was circulating in Rome that pointed out the numerical value of “Nero,” and “murdered his mother” were the same. This was pertinent because Nero had murdered his mother. And because we are talking about a particular intellectual skill set, someone once figured out that if you rearrange the letters of Presbyterians you can spell out Britney Spears. There are always people like this, and so we can be grateful that gematria died out before Facebook was invented.

Now mark this. John knew the name of the person he was thinking of, and he also believed that any reasonably clever member of the churches in Asia would be able to figure it out also. Let the one “with understanding” calculate the identity of the beast. It would odd in the name extreme if young Demetrius of Ephesus stayed up late the night after revelation was read to their church, and in the morning asked his father who Henry Kissinger might be.  (156)

Not only is that quality wit, but his argument is a helpful one in understanding the six hundred sixty-six number.

Overall, I enjoyed this commentary and consider it an important work. When we interpret Revelation we would do well to have the Bible in one hand and gospel-affirming, Bible-believing, yet varied interpretations in the other. Leave the newspaper on the front porch.

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“John Adams” by David McCullough: A Review

Amazon.com: John Adams (9780743223133): David McCullough: Books“Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”

At the end of each year, I, like most bloggers, post my favorite books of the year. I am an avid reader and perusing the year of books is a real favorite of mine. Most years deciding on the winner is a real challenge. This year, however, will unlikely be that way. One of the nation’s leading historians and writers, David McCullough, has written one of the best biographies I’ve read. Simply titled “John Adams” McCullough has turned Adams, known as a stubborn and at times cranky founder who carried the burden following Washington in the White House, into my favorite founder.

McCullough’s biography is a detailed look at Adam’s public career – from his move to Boston as a lawyer to his death – written with engaging prose. The author presents a heroic, though flawed and sympathetic portrait of a founder that, for reasons unknown, has been largely forgotten.

The motive behind cracking this biography came from my wife and I finally starting the HBO miniseries on this book. Two episodes in, I knew I needed more than what the series was offering (a common pattern in my life). As much as I enjoyed the HBO exploration of this American hero, McCullough’s telling is far superior.

First, no one has been at the center of some of the most significant historical events in American history than Adam. Eisenhower might be second, but Adams is first. I was unaware of his involvement in the Boston Massacre. It was Adams, hired by the British soldiers when no one else would take their case, who defended their rights and innocence. He won in the end.

Adams then appears at the Continental Congress and was arguably the most influential character. Although persons like Franklin and Washington loomed large, it was Adams who spoke the loudest. Moving forward, he played the pivotal roll in selecting George Washington to lead the American army, lead the charge for Independence, asked Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, negotiated peace following the war, established both England and France as partners (which was volatile to say the least), served as America’s first vice president, second President, and lived long enough to be the first former President to witness the inauguration of his son to the presidency – a feet that would not be repeated until the inauguration of George W. Bush.

Outside of his absence to the organization of the US Constitution, Adams was a leader among our Founders. Yet for reasons beyond my comprehension, Adams is largely backdrop to figures like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others. That is not to say that Adams is not well-respected or recognized as one of the most significant Founders, yet his stature is less than the others. McCullough changed this perspective for me. Without Adams, American history and America itself would look significantly different.

Secondly, McCullough presents Adams as he was, not as we imagine him to be. To some, Adams is a heroic figure that should be venerated. To others, he, like the other Founders, were flawed white men who hypocritically tolerated slavery and other bigotries. McCullough avoids these simplistic, political narratives.

Adams was heroic. There can be no doubt about that. Though close to his wife and children, they often suffered because of his service to his country. His defense of the British soldiers in Boston launches Adams down a path of courage and fortitude. He stood up to Jefferson who wrongly defended the French Revolution. He fought for the cause of Independence at the risk of his own life and the well-being of his family. He stood on neutrality when France and England were at war with each other. He was, indeed, heroic in the truest sense.

He was also deeply flawed. McCullough shows a man great in ambition and yet sensitive to criticism. He was well known and greatly loathed. Beloved by many and hated by others. He stood on principle even in the world of politics. It is good, indeed, that the Lord made him stubborn (a common criticism of Mr. Adams) especially when he was right!

We live in an age that either demeans or worships significant heroic figures. McCullough present a hero who, behind the public mask was a husband, a father, a citizen, a lawyer, a saint, and a sinner.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed the antidotes that McCullough provides. Adams famously said that “facts are stubborn things” during the Boston Massacre trial. This is likely the most memorable line from Adams’ entire illustrative career. Yet given the modern love-affair with feelings over facts, it is one worth putting into practice.

My favorite comes near the end. Adams was not secretive regarding his disregard of the Vice-Presidency, which he discovered the hard way. After Adam’s came a long line of former Vice-Presidents who loathed the position. When he finally surrendered the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson, Adams was both disappointed (in an ugly way) and yet relived.

While in retirement, Adams reflected back on his life and suggested that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have chosen the life of a shoemaker. McCullough then tells us:

Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to now who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greater philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.

Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, had said, among other things, “it is difficulties that show what men are.” (570-571)

Indeed. And Adams lived in trying times – the times that would test the soul of man. And he left it on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and on the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Its poetic.

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“The Tower of Babel” by Bodie Hodge: A Review

Image result for Tower of Babel: The Cultural History of Our Ancestors"Did the Tower of Babel, as recorded in the Bible, happen? What role does it play in the Bible? What does it say about races, languages, nationalities, and the nations? In his book Tower of Babel: The Cultural History of Our Ancestors, Bodie Hodge explores these questions and more.

I came across this book at the gift shop of the Creation Museum run by Answers in Genesis. Hodge has authored several books for AiG and like his other works, this volume reflects his young earth creationism and his biblical literalism. His commitment to biblical inerrancy is laudable. It is good to read works that take the Bible seriously and walk you through what the Bible says and means.

Hodge has clearly done a lot of work on this volume. His chapters explore the table of nations is fairly exhaustive and exhausting to the reader. Through the text of Scripture, he explores the origin of countless nations and people groups. I find this a fascinating topic that is well beyond my abilities.

Hodge also seeks to answer some of the most common questions regarding Babel. He walks the reader through what we know and is cautious about speculation. Hodge does not shy away from secular sources, histories, or archeology. But rather shows how all of them demonstrate the validity of the text.

With that said, my primary critique of the book regards its limited worldview. My reoccurring critique of AiG books is that every one of them proclaims young earth creationism even when unnecessary. In this volume, like so many others of its ilk, are often distracted by the evolution vs. creationism debate that it distracts from the main topic.

Regardless, this is an easy-to-read in-depth look at one of the great stories in the Bible. There is nothing fancy here, but the author answers the big questions and takes us on a deeper journey of a story few take more than a cursory look at.

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“Embattled Rebel” by James McPhersion: A Review

Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief: McPherson ...About a year ago, I took my children to our state capital building and introduced them to the four statutes in the rotunda. Most notable was Abraham Lincoln, tall and heroic (for now). There was also Henry Clay, the great compromiser who nearly won the presidency multiple times and was a significant figure in the Senate for many years. Then there was Jefferson Davis, a son of Kentucky who served as the first and only commander and chief of the Confederate States of America. I told my children then that it would be only a matter of time before this statue is forever removed.

I’m not sure it was even a year.

Given the riots and protests of early summer, it was inevitable that statutes would be sacrificed. Whatever one may think of such acts, it was inevitable that the Jefferson Davis statute in our state capital building which houses both the House of Representatives and the Senate would remove the statute.

An act that cost our cash-strapped commonwealth over $200,000.

Davis is known for one thing: serving as president of a failed state that rebelled from the United States. He is the loser in the Civil War and will forever be remembered for that. As the statute was being removed, it occurred to me that I have known this man to be a Kentuckian but never read his story. So I went to our local library (when it finally opened) and checked out the book Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Civil War by James McPhersion.

As the title suggests, McPhersion only explores the short-lived presidency of Davis. Little is given regarding the years prior to his rise and post-war life. Although his work in the Civil War is an area of interests to me, so is what follows. Davis was viewed as a traitor to his nation who was arrested for a year after. Accusations of his role in the assassination of Lincoln were abundant and given his willingness to go to war against the union, he couldn’t be trusted.

Regardless, McPhersion offers an intriguing chronicle of Lincoln’s adversary. Although he seeks to present a bias-free narrative, it is difficult to accomplish. Davis was the loser and thus his decisions are looked through the lens of defeat. Every lost battle and every poor decision is viewed through this lens. The opposite could be said of Lincoln since he is the victor.

With that said, McPhersion has penned a book that is worth your investment especially in light of these troubling times. What one believes about statutes is one thing. Ignoring (or even erasing our history) is another. Ignorance is not bliss.

 

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“40 Questions About Islam” by Matthew Bennett: A Review

40 Questions About Islam: Bennett, Matthew: 9780825446221: Amazon ...Although the headlines have been dominated by protests and pandemic, for a decade, Islam was headlining the news. Beginning with the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the ongoing War on Terror that followed, Western media was saturated with news about Islam, radical jihad, and the middle east. As a high schooler, my world civilization class changed its entire course immediately following the 9/11 attacks to the study of middle eastern history and politics.

As a result of these events, Americans have had a curiosity about the religion of Islam and the culture of the middle east. For Christians, there are countless volumes of books and materials that explore their theology, politics, and history. The best introductory resource I’ve come across is Matthew Bennett’s 40 Questions About Islam.

As the title suggests, this volume is part of the broader “40 Questions” series. I have read several of these books and each has been excellent. Bennett’s work is equally good and I would recommend it as a helpful guide to Islamic thought, history, and politics.

Perhaps what I love most about Bennett’s work is his careful crafting of each answer. Too many volumes tackling Islam do so in a hostile tone that diminishes Muslims and their worldview. Bennett is more winsome in his language.

Beyond the tone is the content of the book. Bennett’s answers all the typical questions we ask regarding Islam: its genesis, Muhammad’s biography, radical Islam, the difference between Sunni and Shia, the nature and content of the Quran, Islamic theology, and how we ought to respond to Muslims.

Each of these would be worth exploring, but one area highlighting would be his exploration of historical and theological errors of Islam and the Quran. Historically speaking, there is little support for the genesis of the Muslim movement. Our earliest sources regarding Muhammad’s biography are late and very bias. The details we’ve received from these sources are not very reliable and question the historical claims of Islam.

Likewise, Islam has theological errors in the Quran especially when it comes to its understanding of Christianity. First, the Trinity according to the Quran is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Mother (Mary). This, of course, is inaccurate. Likewise, the narratives regarding Jesus are takien from both the Bible and non-biblical, non-historical sources. In one example, the Quran quotes from Gnostic The Infancy Gospel of Thomas which tells the story of Jesus turning clay into living birds as a young boy.

These, and other reasons, are what I loved about this book. Bennett writes in an understandable, carefully researched and articulated book that is a real asset to the church.

 

This book was given to me courtesy of Kregel Publications for the purpose of this review.

 

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“The Great Revival” by John Boles: A Review

Image result for The Great Revival bolesFor a year I studied the Great Revival in Kentucky that was launched in 1800 and came to a conclusion around 1803. The purpose for this in-depth studied was both professionally and pastorally.

The parallels between the Great Revival and the modern age are striking. The religious setting prior to the revival’s spark was dominated by both the rise of Deism and a clear apathy toward religion. The modern world mirrors that with the rise of secularism and the Nones. The spirit within the church prior to the 19th century was despondent and panicked. The same spirit dominates the average evangelical congregation today.

What sparked the Great Revival in Kentucky, which was part of the broader 2nd Great Awakening, was the providential grace of God. I studied the Baptist side of things. Revival was sparked among the Baptist when John Taylor joined a group of Baptists and Methodists and there witnessed the beginning of revival. Their world was changed immediately.

Of all the books I’ve read on the subject of the Kentucky Revival, John Boles’s book The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt is perhaps the best. Boles explores the revival through the lens of the American South (as the subtitle suggests). So though my interests was the state of Kentucky and the Baptists within the state, Boles provides a broader context. What started in Kentucky soon spread beyond her borders.

The real strength of the book regards his setting of the frontier scene leading up to the revival, the story of how it was sparked and spread, and some of the fall outs from the revival. Although I would question a few things in the book, Boles presents a compelling, well-researched look at this pivotal moment in history. His general argument that the South still benefits from the Great Revival is largely true. The Bible Belt was born as a result of this revival. In many ways, American itself was changed because of this significant work of God.

 

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“The Saints of Zion” by Travis Kearns: A Review

Image result for The Saints of Zion: An Introduction to Mormon TheologyWe’ve all had that experience of two young missionaries wearing white dress shirts and a black tie riding their bikes show up at our door to tell us about Jesus. The problem with these missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is their Jesus is not orthodox.

We’ve all had such encounters, but there remains much confusion over what Mormons actually believe. I have read numerous books and almost all of them have a negative agenda against the LDS Church. More recently, I read the book The Saints of Zion: An Introduction to Mormon Theology by North American Mission Board missionary to Utah, Travis Kerns.

Unlike most evangelical works on Mormonism, Kerns is careful to let the LDS Church define its doctrines and beliefs. At times, this process is painstaking and slow. Kerns clearly wants the reader to understand and reject Mormonism, but is careful to articulate what they actually believe.

Each chapter surveys the basics of their faith from Divine Revelation to the Godhead to Salvation to the Church. Each page demonstrates Kerns years of experience in Mormon country and years of academic study of the movement.

Thus of all the works critical of Mormonism, this stands as the most reliable and best work I’ve come across. I suspect some will find the book difficult to read primarily because Kerns is an academic concerned with precision rather than a pop preacher or journalist looking to sell books.

So if you are interesting in understanding what Mormons actually believe, this work is fantastic. On top of that, his work in Utah has been instrumental in the work of the gospel in that state. Continue to pray for the church planting efforts there.

 

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“The Prodigal Prophet” by Timothy Keller: A Review

Image result for The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God's MercyJonah is more than a fish story. It is one of the most unique books of the Old Testament, especially among the Minor Prophets where it is classified. The book has challenged many readers and recently I tolle lege Timothy Keller’s exegesis of the book in his volume The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy.

Tim Keller is one of my favorite preachers and authors. To this day, I return to some of his earliest works (like The Reason for God and Generous Justice) for insights. Keller is a unique voice in our time. He has the ability to exegete Scripture while being sensitive to the needs of our broken world.

This is what makes this exegetical book so fascinating. Keller’s exegesis is excellent. I have preached through Jonah and read several commentaries and other works, yet Keller’s exploration is more lively and pastoral. His insights into each section is insightful without the draw commentary common in treatments of Jonah 1-4.

At the same time, Keller shows how the book of Jonah speaks to our current historic moment. From laying a biblical foundation for justice or justification, Keller takes the time to walk the reader through it all. As one who has read Jonah my entire life, I came away loving the book even more and, more importantly, glorying the God who inspired it.

My one criticism has to be the division of the book. Keller walks the reader through the entire book and then returns back to chapter 1 to start over. Essentially, the author exegetes the book twice. I found little in the second part that could not have been explored in the first round of exegesis. With that said, the second time around emphasized the justice issues more, but some of those were introduced in the first exploration of the book.

With that said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend to anyone wanting a deeper appreciation and understanding of this wonderful book of Scripture. Keller is a special voice and I am grateful he took the time to explore this story from the Old Testament.

 

Reviews in Brief

We return to a list of books I have read but for various reasons am not offering a full review.

 

A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen

The mission of the church did not begin immediately after the resurrection of Jesus, but began to formulate at creation itself. In this work of ecclesiology, missiology, and biblical theology, Goheen walks the reader through the biblical story and shows how the “people of God” have always been called by God to be a light to the nations. The story picks up with Abraham in Genesis 12 and continues until the eschaton. This is a wonderful book I first read in seminary and returned to it for a sermon. Though at times dense, I highly recommend.

 

Tree and Leaf” by J. R. R. Tolkien

This is not my first rodeo with this forgotten masterpiece by the creator of Middle-Earth. Yet next to The Hobbit and “The Lord of the Rings,” this short volume may be my favorite thus far from Tolkien. The book consists of three smaller books – an essay on fairy tales and fantasy, a poem, and a short story entitled Leaf by Niggle. Each are worth your time, but the narrative is most significant. This rare allegory (Tolkien famously hated allegory’s) unveils for us what Tolkien means by “subcreation” and the purpose of fantasy. In essence, for true fans of Tollkien an fantasy literature, this short volume may well be worth your time.

 

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth” by Bradley J. Birzer

I’ve been reading a lot of Tolkien lately and plan on making him a focus for 2019. In this volume, Birzer explores some of the major themes of the middle-earth stories (and not just The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) with keen insights from Tolkien’s biography. I have read several books like this which often read too much into the stories, yet Birzer offers a more serious and honest exploration of the themes and interpretations of Tolkien’s fantasy. Finally, someone takes Tolkien’s Catholicism seriously and understands it through that lens. If you’re looking to explore Tolkien’s fantasy at a deeper level, this certainly would be at the top of that list.

 

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings” by Anne M. Pienciak

Sometimes it helps to read the cliff notes of a book in order to better understand what is happening. In this volume, Pienciak summarizes the plot, characters, and some of the themes of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is brief and clearly meant to summarize without much nuance. I find such volumes helpful when studying them and when trying to get a simple grasp of the author’s writing. Pienciak does a good job here.