Books: Palace of Darkness

January 18, 2016

I was recently introduced to the novels of Tracy Higley by a comment on one of my recent posts. The library didn’t have the book he mentioned, perhaps because The Incense Road was just published last year (it is a collection of novellas, individually available only on Kindle as far as I can tell).

But one of the libraries in the system did have Palace of Darkness: A Novel of Petra, and I just finished reading it yesterday. As historical fiction it is an absorbing read. It begins in Rome for Julian, in Damascus for Cassia, and as a result of the death of someone important in each of their lives, they both flee to Petra, where of course they meet. Read the rest of this entry »

Books: The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass: Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend

January 16, 2016

Looking at my 2016 Reading Challenge, I had wondered how I would find “a book guaranteed to bring me joy.” There are books by favorite authors that I know I will enjoy, but that’s different from books that bring me joy.

As it happens, I had already ordered the latest book in Adrian Plass’ Sacred Diary series, as a Christmas present for our whole family. We’re read – and re-read – all the previous books in the series, and I was happy to discover he had written a new one.

If you haven’t read Adrian Plass before, you might want to start by reading the previous five books, starting with The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 3/4. Some reviews say his latest is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to my husband while he was reading just the first chapter.

I find it more quietly amusing – but then, I rarely laugh out loud. What I appreciate about Plass’ writing is how well he weaves together humor with wisdom and with a view of God who loves us more than we can imagine.

A lot of what passes for humor these days is just making fun of people, but while Plass gently pokes fun at human foibles, it is always good-natured fun. People do such foolish things, but it’s not a reason to despise or disdain them. (Though I don’t think I could stand spending much time around Minnie Stamp, a new character in this volume.)

There is always an assurance that we are loved by a God who not only loves us but actually likes us. I know I find that hard to accept, though I’m not sure exactly why. Because I don’t think someone who knows all there is to know about me would like me? Because I think I need to want to work hard for God’s approval, otherwise I’d take it easy? Or because so few Christian books seem to convey that same message?

If I tried to convey what Plass’ books are like, I’m sure I’d fall far short. So if you have a chance to read some, find out for yourself.

Books: If the Oceans Were Ink

January 3, 2016

I have several times thought about reading the Koran for myself, rather than just depend on what I have read about it. But each time I pick up a copy in a bookstore or library and leaf through it, I find it so inaccessible that I decide to wait until I find some kind of guide to it. (And since such a guide would naturally reflect the religious/social/political perspective of its author, I still wouldn’t know whether I was getting a proper understanding of the subject.)

So when I saw If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power in the library, I thought this could be a very helpful book. Power spent a year studying the Koran with Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi, an Islamic scholar. Along with Power, I would learn from the Sheikh some rudiments of his holy book.

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Books to read in 2016

January 1, 2016

I’ve seen a couple of 2016 reading challenges posted on Facebook. This one looks pretty interesting.

I had been planning already on reading a book translated to English (no particular one, it just sounded like a good way to broaden my reading). I had planned on a biography rather than an autobiography, but I could probably manage both.

A book set in my state – well, that should be easy. Though at first I was thinking Iowa, where I live now, then I realized it says “home state” which would be Connecticut where I grew up. Well, still shouldn’t be too hard. I’m less sure about finding a romance set in the future.

I’m not generally keen on reading books from Oprah’s Book Club (though I see from this list that there are some I read before they were ever on the list), but there seems to be enough variety there that I can pick out something, while still expanding the range of my reading to something I might not have picked up otherwise.

A protagonist with my occupation – now that might be difficult to figure out. If I say “computer programmer” there are probably lots of them, but programming has never been the bulk of my job. I’ve always done a mix of IT work (though I like programming best – I just don’t want to do it eight hours a day), and my current job includes troubleshooting, training, user access control, documentation, release testing, implementation of new features in the software, and writing queries to run ad hoc reports.

I’m glad that, unlike the other challenge and the one I did last year, it doesn’t ask me to read a book I should have read in high school, only one that I haven’t read since high school. I think I can manage that. A Tale of Two Cities, maybe? I liked that one and have sometimes thought of rereading it.

One category that could be very difficult is “first book you see in a bookstore.” At Barnes & Noble, the first books I see are generally the ones on clearance in the entryway, and are often things like cookbooks, craft kits, and children’s books. I like cooking a little but I’m not going to read a whole cookbook; I like crafts but generally not the kind that require a book to make them; and the children’s books on clearance are generally not the greatest – otherwise what would they be doing on clearance?

I don’t generally care for satire, but reading one would no doubt expand my reading horizons, which is of course the idea. And I have no idea what kind of book would be guaranteed to bring me joy.

One category not in this list, that is in the other one, is a book that was banned at some point. I’m sure I’ve already read some of those, but it would be interesting to find another one.

Others that I had planned on that aren’t in either list are

  • a book written as a sequel to a book by another writer
  • a book where an animal is a main character
  • a book published the year I was born
  • a book about books
  • a book of short stories

I’m already in the middle of a murder mystery (Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) and a book at least 100 years older than me (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). So I guess I’m off to a good start.

More books I’ve been reading

December 29, 2015

I’ve enjoyed science fiction since I was a girl, so when I saw How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu in the New Books section of the library, it didn’t take me long at all to decide to check it out.

It’s an unusual book, kind of hard to categorize although it’s obviously science fiction. When asked how he would like to see it characterized, Yu answers, “In terms of genre, I would be happy for it to be shelved in both fiction and in science fiction. Or maybe under a new category, where they would put books that resist either classification. A lot of my favorite books would be in that category.”

Like the best science fiction novels, it’s more about real life than it is about science fiction. It’s about time travel, but it’s not time travel to go sightseeing in the future or the past, or to rewrite history or to prevent history from being rewritten.

Charles Yu (the protagonist, who happens to share a name with the author) is a time travel repairman. He responds to service calls from people who have caused their time machines to malfunction in their efforts to change their own past – which they can’t do.

Of course, he can’t change his own past either, but he spends a lot of time thinking about it. (Not real time, since he lives outside of time, but his own subjective time.) His father is lost somewhere/somewhen, and he hopes to somehow eventually find him. His mother lives in a repeating one-hour time loop of her choosing. (Or is it?)

Author Yu explains that he started out wanting to write a story about family, but it didn’t come together until he got the time travel idea. So it’s serious sometimes, sad sometimes – but also often humorous in a quirky way. There’s an operating system with a low self-esteem problem, a boss who is a computer program but thinks he is human, a dog who is mostly hypothetical, and a whole universe that was not quite finished by the manufacturer.

The book isn’t for everyone. My younger son started it enthusiastically but lost interest after a while. Not his soft of time travel book. It’s not really a page-turner, and it doesn’t follow any kind of normal plotline (the protagonist gets stuck in a time loop after shooting his future self), but it’s worth reading if you like that sort of book. Of course, the only way to find out if you do is to try reading it…

Much more traditional are a set of young adult time travel books I read earlier this year. I was trying to find a downloadable MP3 to play on my iPod while riding the exercise bike, and the selection from the library is rather limited. But this one turned out to be a good choice.

The Ruby Red trilogy by Kerstin Gier is all about time travel, but unlike most time travel novels, it employs no time travel machine. There is a Chronograph, but its function is not to cause travel but simply to control the timing of it. Time travelers are born with the ability, though it does not manifest until about age sixteen, and the person has no control over it except by using the Chronograph.

Those who control the Chronograph, therefore, have all the power, and over the centuries have built up a secret society. It’s not surprising they would want to keep time travel a secret (since only twelve time travelers will ever be born, and most people would consider the whole idea lunacy), but it turns out there are some very dark secrets being hidden.

These are hardly dark books, however. Gwen is very much the modern teenager (British, as it happens, though I discovered with surprise that author Kerstin Gier is German, and what I read is the English translation), and more concerned with clothes, boys, and TV and movies than all the dull history and etiquette she is expected to learn in order to blend in when she visits older centuries.

She is annoyingly emotional and self-absorbed sometimes, but also gutsy, loyal to her friends, and determined to find out the truth behind all the secrets — which turns out to have a great deal to do with her personally. One of the big secrets is fairly obvious to the reader long before Gwen overhears it, but the identity of the villain remains a surprise at the ending.

Books I’ve been reading

December 28, 2015

I haven’t found enough computer time or the inclination over the past couple of months to post about the books I’ve been reading. Back when I started this blog, it was easier for people to comment, and the blog was a way of having a conversation of sorts with other people who were interested in some of the same things. But these days it’s mostly a monologue.

But I have plenty of time this week, since the college where I work is closed between Christmas and New Year’s. So I’m going to try to post about some, at least, of the books I have found most interesting. Not a post for each, but grouped by some characteristic the books have in common.

I’ll start with books based on Biblical characters, because I just finished one yesterday and it is fresh in my mind. But before I get to that one, I’ll start with one I read a few weeks ago, since it is set about one generation earlier.

I noticed The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks on the New Books shelf at the library, first because it was by an author whose other books I had enjoyed – People of the Book and Caleb’s Crossing. When I saw that it was about King David I eagerly checked it out of the library.

As with other retellings of Bible stories, it is not the plot that draws one it – after all, anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows what’s going to happen – but the characters, exploring their feelings and motivations. Much of this is inevitably speculation, especially with those who play a minor role in the Bible stories, but it’s always interesting to see how it might have been.

The character with whom Brooks takes perhaps the most liberties is her narrator, Natan the prophet. (Throughout she uses transliterations of Hebrew names which are closer to the original Hebrew than the versions we are familiar with from the English Bible.) We know next to nothing of Natan from the Scriptures, only that he speaks God’s words to David, whether of blessing or rebuke.

Brooks invents for Natan a backstory and a personality, though as narrator he tells others’ stories more than his own. He is not zealous for God (as one assumes from the Bible) so much as for the truth, and serves as mouthpiece for God because he really has no choice in the matter when visions seize his mind and the divine voice uses his mouth (though in a distinctly different voice from his own).

It is of course where the Bible says least that Brooks can be most inventive, offering a somewhat far-fetched explanation as to why David’s brothers despised him, a circumstance that also helps explain why he allows his sons to turn out as they did. The story of Natan’s origins is equally unlikely, and does more to explain David than Natan himself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brooks uses the idea, common today among those who read modern assumptions back into Biblical characters, that David and Yonatan were lovers in a homosexual relationship. For some readers, that may be a positive thing. A Washington Post book review asserts that

The one true love in the novel, beautifully drawn in its complexity and sheer joy, is between David and Shaul’s son Yonatan (Jonathan). It is this story that most fully humanizes the king, finally allowing us to see him as a man of great soul.

I tend to see it more as Brooks catering to modern values. For many people today, it may be hard to envision a soul-deep love between two men (who are not related) that finds its highest fulfillment without a sexual component. Personally, I would like to see a good storyteller depict such a relationship and show how it is not diminished by the lack of sexual expression.

But David’s relationship with Yonatan is hardly at the center of this novel anyway, any more than his harp-playing is, although both always hover in the background. It is about his rise to power and then his efforts to hold onto power, even as his own bad choices bring about tragedy within his own family.

He doesn’t come across as all that much of a hero. As one review points out, David is depicted as “power-hungry, duplicitous, murderous and cruel.” Perhaps there is too much effort to show what a flawed human he is, rather than a divinely favored king set on a Biblical pedestal.

It is a good reminder, however, that just because many things he did were not explicitly condemned by God as was his behavior in the matter of Uriah and his wife, does not mean that what he did was good or right. In the Bible study I lead, we have been reading through 1 Samuel, and I have noticed that Bible study guides I have looked at online seem to assume most of the time that David is in the right if Scripture does not say otherwise. But is that a valid assumption?

In the end, the character I found perhaps most intriguing is young Schlomo (Solomon). In the Bible, we see nothing of his childhood, only the young king appearing fully formed and full of wisdom – at least the wisdom to ask for wisdom, and then receive it as a gift from God along with great riches and power.

In Brooks’ novel, he is an inquisitive child, not expected (by anyone but Natan who has foreseen the future) to become king, and thus left free to pursue his interests in learning about nature, philosophy, and anything else he can learn with the help of his tutor Natan (who knows the future king needs guidance). His adult interest in learning of all kinds makes far more sense when it is an outgrowth of his natural childhood curiosity.

It was this aspect to his character that also contributed to my interest in reading The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen by Tosca Lee, which I also found on the New Books shelf of the library, and just finished reading yesterday. It is told from the point of view of Bilqis the queen of Saba (known as Sheba to the Hebrews), but of course it concerns Solomon a great deal as well.

The story of her visit to Solomon in the Bible had always struck me as a bit odd. Would a queen of such great wealth as hers is described really travel that far with such a huge entourage to see if the reports of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom were true? And what was the purpose of all those rich gifts, on both sides?

Lee’s novel presents the journey as part of Bilqis’s project to impress trading partners with her country’s greatness, as well as to give both her and Solomon the opportunity to meet one another, after they have exchanged written correspondence which has increased their mutual curiosity and desire to know one another.

Solomon comes across as a man unable to find what he really wants in life. As readers of the Bible know from Ecclesiastes, he has tried everything life has to offer, including all the luxuries available to a rich and powerful king. He has hundreds of wives, yet as Bilqis realizes, he has no one – until she arrives – who really knows him. She understands, because she feels the same weariness with the demands of ruling a country.

Solomon also feels trapped between his desire to achieve political power and stability, which he accomplishes by his many marriages to daughters of allies, and his God’s disapproval of his foreign wives with their foreign gods. He has justified it to himself, but even during Bilqis’s visit, he faces increasing unrest among his own people, who resent both the forced labor he requires and the presence of this pagan queen.

Bilqis, meanwhile, increasingly doubts her own god’s care for her. She has long wondered what the gods make of human prayers and sacrifices, and questions how one can truly claim to love a god when all that is done for the god is to secure what one wants from the god.

Solomon suggests a different perspective, where one loves God by loving other people, who are made in God’s image. His words sound good, but clearly he has not done very well at putting them into practice in his own life.

Lee drew on legends related to Solomon and the queen of Sheba that I was not aware of, from the Kebra Nagast, a work describing the origins of the Solomonic rulers of Ethiopia, considered to be the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.

On the whole, I think both books accomplish what I look for in this type of fiction. They bring the historical setting to life, they offer alternate ways of seeing a familiar story, and at their best they offer new insights into people and their relationship with God. And they’re well-told stories that I enjoyed reading.

Books: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

October 12, 2015

I remember reading reviews of this novel when it was first published. Perhaps I was put off by the glowing reviews by a publication whose views often differed so much from my own. Perhaps it was the incongruity of a union of Yiddish policemen in Alaska that made me think the book was kind of off-the-wall. Somehow I just didn’t find the idea of reading it appealing.

But sooner or later my quest for more books on CD to listen to during my daily commute makes me reconsider books I hadn’t thought I was interested in reading. I suppose it didn’t hurt that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was one of the books recommended by my librarian friend when I asked for suggestions.

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