Books: A Cultural Handbook to the Bible

May 25, 2015

I first learned of John Pilch’s research into cultural aspects of the Bible when I was looking for resources to help me understand Luke 12:49. What did Jesus mean about wanting to “cast fire on the earth”? Is this the fire of divine wrath? Is it talking about the work of the Holy Spirit (associated with fire in verses such as Matthew 3:11 and Acts 2:3)? John J. Pilch explains that a better translation would be “light the earth-oven” , and that Jesus is referring to himself as a catalyst for conflict, much as salt acts as a catalyst in the earth-oven.

Pilch’s explanation gives a new meaning to Jesus’ teaching about his followers being the “salt of the earth,” which in the past I had always heard interpreted to refer to salt’s use either as a seasoning or a preservative. I was curious what insights on other passages I could gain from his work, and I decided his A Cultural Handbook to the Bible and decided it would be a good resource to have.

Read the rest of this entry »


Books: Mistress of the Art of Death

May 14, 2015

The title of the audiobook, Mistress of the Art of Death, didn’t particularly appeal to me – it sounded like it might be one of those vampire novels so strangely popular these days. But then I picked up a different title by Ariana Franklin, a historical fiction novel which looked interesting. When I saw that it was a follow-up to Mistress of the Art of Death, of course I had to check that one out first.

Adelia Aguilar is a forensics pathologist, but she has few of the resources available to Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, for the simple reason that she lives in the twelfth century. Trained at the medical school in Salerno, she is sent with a (Jewish) investigator to find out who is murdering children in Cambridge, England, both to put an end to the heinous killings and to absolve the Jews who have been accused of ritual murder.

Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Ridge

May 9, 2015

Perhaps it was when I saw that Dean Koontz had praised Michael Koryta’s writing that I decided to check out The Ridge. I don’t think I realized it was a ghost story as well as crime fiction, but it seemed like it would have enough suspense to motivate me to climb on my exercise bike to listen to it.

That worked pretty well, though I ended up having to listen to part of it during my commute to finish the book within the four weeks allowed by the library (including a two-week renewal). Until I manage to either exercise every day or lengthen my workout (half an hour on the exercise bike most evenings, and an hour at the Y on Saturday), that seems to be the way it goes with most eAudiobooks.

I saw that some reviews considered it a horror story, but I don’t think it goes that far. One (disparaging) review said it is more bizarre than scary, and I agree – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing from my point of view. I’ve never seen what is entertaining about being scared.

I won’t say it’s a great book. Some of the characters are quite interesting, especially the newspaperman who has just lost his job because the paper couldn’t compete with the internet. The main character, Chief Deputy Kevin Kimble, is less appealing, in part because of his infatuation with a female convict who killed her husband and shot Kimble. I liked the people at the large cat sanctuary, but they come into the story too late to be developed all that well.

As for the central mystery, I thought at first that the supernatural elements would prove to have a logical explanation as they do in most crime fiction. If you allow for ghosts with supernatural powers, I suppose you can call the rest logical. I enjoy the supernatural elements in Dean Koontz’ books, but I found it less satisfying in Koryta’s. Perhaps it’s because in the struggle between good and evil, the evil side seemed to have the upper hand.


Books: Made in America

May 8, 2015

Years ago I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue – English and How It Got That Way, so when I saw his book Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States in the library, I thought it would be interesting to get a similar treatment of specifically American English.

I have read that The Mother Tongue is full of factual errors, so I would not be surprised to find out that Made in America is also. After all, Bryson is neither a trained linguist nor historian. But I admire both his wide-ranging interests (he has obviously read widely on the subject, regardless of his degree of expertise), and he writes well.

What does annoy me is that there is more general history than history of language. Obviously, the history of language depends on the general history, and I enjoy the history itself. But I was looking forward to learning the reasons behind more of the changes to pronunciation and vocabulary.

He cites some, certainly, but other times he merely states the fact that they happened. More than once he goes through a long list of neologisms, in each case citing the year each first appeared. Why in the world would I care about the year if there is no explanation of the origin of the word or phrase? Of course he can’t list them all, but why mention so many while answering no questions about them?

Still, it’s an entertaining and sometimes educational book. I enjoy history, and Bryson mentioned all sorts of facts I wasn’t familiar with (even if I’m not positive whether everything I learned from him is accurate). And along the way I learned a bit about the history of some words. I now understand why we say “ten of nine” to mean 8:50 (the preposition of used to be used in other ways that have mostly faded from use), and the convoluted history of filibuster, among many other linguistic factoids.

But I think the book would be more accurately subtitled “An Informal History of America Including Comments on American English.”


Books: An Officer and a Spy

April 25, 2015

I was actually looking for a historical mystery by Tessa Harris, a book which I didn’t find on the library’s shelves because (I figured out later) I had not noticed that the catalog identified it as an ebook. But I quickly realized that the shelf did have several historical novels written by Robert Harris.

After looking at the flap copy (a useful term that has eluded me for some time) of a few of his books, I selected An Officer and a Spy. I vaguely remember learning about the Dreyfus Affair in some history class or other, but all I could remember was that it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. I didn’t remember how it turned out (for Dreyfus himself, though I knew he was shown to be innocent) – which made the novel more suspenseful than books based on history generally manage to be.

Unlike many (probably most) historical novels I have read, the main characters are all real people from history. Rather than using historic events as the backdrop for a fictional story, Harris is telling history from the point of view of one of the participants. Naturally he has to use his imagination to flesh out the character of Colonel Picquart, his thoughts and motivations and details of his daily activities.

I was quickly engrossed in the story. Picquart no doubt has some significant moral shortcomings (a long-time affair with a married woman, as well as prejudice toward Germans and Jews), and this review of the novel asserts that Harris has “mildly sanitised” the character of Picquart. But his dedication to his duty and to the pursuit of truth and justice, despite the dangers to his career and possibly his life, make him a heroic character.

Knowing the end of the story (that Dreyfus would be shown to be innocent), the officers involved in the cover-up seem foolish as well as corrupt. But of course cover-ups are as old as human history, and a quick review of recent history shows that they are as prevalent now as ever. Whether the motivation is preservation of personal power and reputation, or keeping in power a political bloc that one believes is truly better for the country, the same justifying excuses are made for (what is eventually seen as) blatant injustice.

Many years ago, I ended up buying The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus by Jean-Denis Bredin because I had forgotten to respond to a book club’s monthly selection. I decided it was, after all, a book worth having, and intended to read it someday. I never have yet, but perhaps now I will.


Books: The Astronaut Wives Club

April 18, 2015

This was our book club’s selection this month, selected in large part because it is light, easy reading. Our previous book, The Sandcastle Girls, was a gripping story but full of tragedy. The Astronaut Wives Club is not devoid of tragedy, primarily the Apollo 1 disaster, but none of the book is deep enough to draw the reader in far enough to feel the grief all that strongly.

Lack of depth is my primary complaint about the book. I want to be drawn into a book, not read it casually as I might a magazine article in the doctor’s waiting room. There are a number of themes that could have been explored more deeply, but apparently Lily Koppel preferred breadth over depth.

Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Sandcastle Girls

April 17, 2015

The Sandcastle Girls was our book club’s selection last month, but I found it difficult, immediately after reading it, to figure out what to say about it. There is so much I could say about the awful tragedy recounted in the book, both at a personal level for characters in the book and for the millions of people affected by the genocide of the Armenian people.

Then again, what is there I could say that would really do justice to the subject? Chris Bohjalian does it far better, bringing to life an ugly chapter of history that has been largely forgotten by most of the world. The stark reality of human suffering is depicted in more grim detail than I might have liked, but the fact that people do such horrible things to one another is reason to tell them, not to ignore them.

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers