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: Caleb’s Crossing

November 10, 2014

Having enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book so much, I decided to listen to the audiobook version of Caleb’s Crossing. It has a lot of features that appeal to me – it’s historical fiction, and it deals with themes related to cross-cultural communication, religious faith, and education.

I was fascinated by the depiction of life in the 1660’s, told by a minister’s daughter named Bethia. The language uses a variety of words unfamiliar to the modern reader, but never difficult to understand in context. This archaic phrasing helps reinforce the sense of the story being solidly set in the past, in a cultural context very different from ours.

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Books: People of the Book

October 11, 2014

I looked at this audiobook on at least two other occasions before finally deciding to check it out from the library. I’m not sure what made me hesitate – perhaps the phrase “intimate emotional intensity” on the back of the case.

There different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of emotional intensity, some much more pleasant to read about than others. Some books get too intimate, and even with those that are a level – and kind – of intimacy that I would want to read about, sometimes I shy away from because I want to enjoy my commute, not find myself drawn into the wrenching emotional upheavals of someone else’s life.

But I enjoy historical fiction, and I enjoy books about books. I liked the idea of a mystery surrounding a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript, and the different places in Europe where the book had traveled during its long history. I decided People of the Book was worth checking out.

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