Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Christmas Cantata by Mark Schweizer

Longer than a short story, shorter than a book, The Christmas Cantata is the latest in the Liturgical Mystery series by Mark Schweizer.

It is also quite different from the other books ( The Alto Wore Tweed, The Tenor Wore Tapshoes, The Organist Wore Pumps, etc) because the plot involves a literary mystery rather than a murder mystery and does not feature Schweizer's trademark hilarious takeoffs on Raymond Chandler's writing style. I read it on my Kindle (for only $2.99) and loved it!

The story is set in St. Germaine and features the familiar characters of the series: Police Chief/Choirmaster-Organist Hayden Konig and his wife Meg, erstwhile Mayor Pete Moss, Pauli-Girl, Noylene  Faberge'-DuPont, and all the usual suspects.

Searching for a new musical offering for the Christmas services at St. Barnabus, Konig finds the score of The Christmas Cantata and begins searching for its composer and the story behind it.
Instead of weaving his usual Chandler parodies into the plot, Schweizer creates a backstory that is well integrated into the narrative. Even though I sensed where the story was going towards the end I found myself tearing up (in a good way!) at the conclusion.
The Christmas Cantata is a classic that anyone could enjoy!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Although I am a big fan of Sharon Kay Penman's historical fiction and mysteries, I confess I was disappointed with her latest historical novel, Lionheart, about King Richard I of England.

Penman, a former attorney, is a meticulous researcher. I have found her stories to be historically accurate and free from the anachronisms that plague much historical fiction. 

Herein lies the problem, I think: the author and her story got lost in the weeds of her extensive research on the Third Crusade. This book is far more history than fiction. It needed a good editor to pare down the recitation of facts and genealogy that bogged it down, and to encourage more of the character development that is a great strength of Penman's other work. Most of the characters in the book (including King Richard) are one-dimensional.

Alternatively, it could have been a good work of non-fiction. I admire the author's thorough research and use of primary resources. In fact Penman says in her afterword that she developed so much information about Richard I that she found it could not all be used in one book--which was her original plan.

Penman plans a second part to her story of the Lionheart--picking up after the Third Crusade where this novel ends and continuing through the King's capture and subsequent life. That book will be called The King's Ransom. I'll probably read it and will be interested to see if the author gets out of the weeds of history and regains her creative approach to telling the story. 

I would only recommend the book for Penman fans because it is atypical of her writing. If you have never read her work, start with any of her other novels, like The Sunne In Splendor or When Christ and All His Saints Slept.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Although Alice Hoffman is a popular author, The Dovekeepers is the first of her novels that I have read. I was drawn to her subject--the tragedy of Masada--because of our recent trip to Israel where we visited that site.

Hoffman was also inspired by her visit to Israel and to Masada. Although the story is pure fiction, it rests on a solid historical foundation. While reading it I was constantly reminded of our own tour of Masada and the desolate land that surrounds it. Anyone who has had that experience will find themselves reliving it as they read the book.

The Dovekeepers is told from the point of view of four women narrators who are living in the Masada fortress as the Roman legions are encamped around them preparing to storm their defenses and quell their rebellion. The women have been assigned to care for the dovecotes--a vital task because the dove's waste becomes the fertilizer that causes their plants to grow and thrive in the salty desert. 

Themes of the story include the spirituality of silence, the brutality of men, devotion to God, the life-giving force of women and the persistent appeal of pagan mystical practices. 

It's that last theme that has brought Hoffman the most criticism. Several Jewish reviewers took great exception to the prominent role given to devotion to Ashtoreth and the consistent emphasis on magic expressed by the key characters.

I wasn't perturbed by this until I reached the last part of the book where the narrator is the Witch of Moab. At this point  the mysticism became tedious and I began skimming over it. In an afterword Hoffman lists a couple of books on Jewish magic as sources for her writing along with several historical works. 

Although I tired of this theme by the end of the novel, I think it is believable. The characters in the story live in the late first century AD. Each of the narrators are women who are not completely accepted by the main Hebrew community--they are outsiders and have a different point of view from the more orthodox Jews. Whenever people face grave danger that they are powerless against, like the Roman legions, it is always tempting to fall back on "magical thinking" as a way of exerting control over your circumstances.

And after all, Hoffman wrote a popular novel Practical Magic (which I have not read), so the reader should not be surprised by the incorporation of this theme.

The Dovekeepers is well written and the four major characters are complex and well developed. Women readers with a background in the history of Masada and/or the experience of visiting it will enjoy reading the book. I'm not sure men would like it because there are really no admirable male characters in the story.

And of course if you have little tolerance for the fey and the mystic, I don't recommend it to you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Rome and Jerusalem by Martin Goodman

Our recent trip to Israel piqued my interest in reading more about the country. One of the books recommended to us by our guide was Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations by Martin Goodman.

When you read the New Testament you are aware that the power and influence of Rome surrounded Jesus, the disciples, Paul and the early church. But a trip around Israel, with numerous Roman ruins and relics, makes the Roman presence very real.

At 624 pages, Rome and Jerusalem is not light reading--in both senses of that adjective! So I am glad that I read it on my IPad instead of in hardcover.

Goodman covers the period between the  first and fourth centuries A.D. The destruction of the temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 AD is, of course, the focus of the book. For most of the period prior to the destruction of the temple Rome allowed the Jews much religious freedom because they respected the antiquity of their religion. Why this relatively benevolent attitude changed is attributed by Goodman to the foundational differences between Roman and Jewish culture, religion and practices.

Comparing and contrasting Roman and Jewish lifestyles, politics, identities, communities and perspectives, Goodman reveals the distinct and unreconcilable differences between these two civilizations that ultimately led to the destruction of the ancient Jewish state. The author makes a persuasive case for his theory that the origins of anti-semitism can be found in the Roman response to this clash and the attempt to wipe out the Jewish nation.

I found the book fascinating and informative and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the world where Jesus lived and in which His church formed and grew. It certainly has enriched my understanding of the New Testament.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron

Intrigued by the title, I accepted the offer from Thomas Nelson publishers of a review copy of Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron. 

The author is an Episcopal priest in Greenwich, Connecticut. I was not familiar with him, but he wrote another book, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale, and apparently is on the speaking circuit as well.

Cron's father was a brilliant and handsome man who made and lost several fortunes as his growing addiction to alcohol took over his life. The author, as the youngest child in the family, had the worst experience as his older siblings had left home by the time their father turned violent and abusive. 

Cron calls his work "a memoir of sorts". This is not a traditional biography or autobiography, but a gradual revelation of who and what his father was as the author experienced it growing up.

As a young adult Cron learns that his father is actually a CIA operative and that this explains the long, unexplained absences from home that punctuated his childhood. His father's work history turns out to be a series of "covers" for his intelligence gathering assignments. 

So how does Jesus fit into all of this? Cron weaves the story of his own spiritual journey in parallel to the story of his relationship with his father. As a young boy he was drawn to God and to the church but as a teenager, in reaction to the disfunctional and frightening dynamics of his family, rejects faith in a fury at a God who seemingly does not hear his prayers for relief.

But Jesus keeps calling to him, even as he experiences his own spiral into alcohol abuse as a young adult. Cron's resolution of his spiritual crisis eventually comes when he hears a voice saying "I'm sorry" during a communion service. For years he puzzles over whether or not this voice could have been the voice of Jesus or was it an apology he was making to himself.  Several years later,  while in seminary in Denver he shares his question with "Miss Annie", an African American woman who was a member of the church he was attending.

Her answer, which I am going to summarize with her last words: "Son, love always stoops", is one of the most grace-filled moments I have ever read. 

The author is painfully honest about how the pain of his childhood informed, and continues to inform his life. His faith and relationship with Jesus help him to recognize and try to amend the ways in which he is tempted to repeat the patterns he learned growing up in an alcoholic family where the secrecy imposed by his father's employment with the CIA reinforced the impulse to denial and secrecy. 

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me is well written and, at times, compelling. The theme of substance abuse and its effect on the extended family that Cron explores from his personal experience will resonate with many readers. His testimony to the transformative power of faith will inspire them as well.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite contemporary authors of literary fiction. The only reason I bought the kindle copy of this book is because it is her latest novel. I never expected to become enthralled with a historical novel about Doc Holliday, of "gunfight at the OK Corral" fame. But I did and I bet you will too.

Those of you who are already fans  of Russell will not be disappointed. Those of you who have not yet read one of her books have a real treat in store.

Russell did a lot of historical research about John Henry Holliday, his life and times, and writes a compelling tale about the infamous gambler and gunman who began life as the son of a genteel Georgia family scrambling to survive in the post Civil War south. 

Holliday contracted tuberculosis at an early age and, having lost his mother to the same deadly disease at age 15, traveled west in an attempt to find a cure or remission. He appears in Dodge City, Kansas which was then a lawless cattle town where he takes up with the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson. Trained as a dentist, he tries to establish a practice there, but finds his skills at cards a surer way to support himself than dentistry.

One of Russell's greatest strengths is character depiction. Doc, his prostitute girlfriend Kate, the Earp brothers, Masterson and bevy of minor characters are believable and complex. 

For those of you who know the nickname of the author's book The Sparrow, ("Jesuits in Space"), you will recognize the character of Father Alexander von Angenspurg as the "Jesuit in the Wild West." I particularly loved the character of Father Alex, especially when he turned to the letters of Paul to Timothy to guide him as he replaced a beloved older priest at the Indian missions.

Another memorable character is Kate, the highly educated prostitute who was born to be a lady in waiting to the court of Maximillian in Mexico but had to learn to live by her wits and her body when that regime was overturned and she fled to the United States.

The novel focuses on Doc's "nightmare life in death"-- the long slow process of dying of tuberculosis in an era where there were no drugs to cure or control it. This gives the author many opportunities to explore Doc's varied responses to his mortal illness and its effects on those around him. At one point he tells Morgan Earp, "Flaubert tells us that three things are required for happiness: stupidity, selfishness and good health, I am," he told Morgan, "an unhappy man." Doc is neither stupid, selfish, and certainly is never in good health.

The story is beautifully written, dramatic, and philosophical. That's quite a  combination and is a testimony to the skill of the author. I give Doc: A Novel my highest recommendation.

I have previously reviewed these other novels by Mary Doria Russell: Dreamers of the Day, A Thread of Grace, and The Sparrow and The Children of God.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Countertenor Wore Garlic by Mark Schweizer

Just when the circus in Washington DC and the doin's of the PC(USA) were starting to seriously work on my last nerve along came Mark Schweizer's latest Liturgical Mystery: The Countertenor Wore Garlic.

Okay, True Confession, the book didn't just come along, I was hoping it was about time for a new entry in the series (this is number 9) and surfed the net hoping to find  it.  Faithful Readers of QG know I really LOVE this series.

All the craziness of the world drops away from me when I read one of these entertaining mysteries. If you are a church music nerd and spend more than your share of time on vestries, sessions or church committees, you will relate to the adventures of our hero, Hayden Konig, in his role as church organist at St. Barnabus Episcopal Church of St. Germaine, NC, even if you've never been a police chief like he is. 

Countertenor takes place during Halloween. A famous author of vampire novels comes to town for a book signing, attracting teenage vampire fans in addition to the annual influx of fall foliage tours. Meanwhile St. Barnabus is once again between priests and the temporary replacement, Vicar Fearghus MacTavish, a Scottish priest with decidedly Calvinist views, heads toward an inevitable clash with the Congregational Enlivener in one of the funniest scenes in the entire series.

Oh, yes, there is another murder to solve, too, as well as our hero's continuing attempts to write mysteries like Raymond Chandler. Which are scarily getting better rather than worse.

My only criticism of this one is that there was too little MacTavish! I would love to see him take on the Giant Paper Mache' Calvinist Puppets of Doom in addition to the Congregational Enlivener. And Brenda, the Christian Educator character, would be just the type to bring in those puppets.

I bought and  read the Kindle version and will probably read it again as soon as my last nerve is again inflamed. Which will probably be tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith

I'm reviewing the enhanced Kindle edition of this latest story in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series so I can post about the video interview that is included.

The Big Tent Wedding Party is an entertaining and delightful addition to the ongoing series by Alexander McCall Smith.

At the end of the Kindle addition are a series of brief--two minutes or less-video clips from an interview with the author on a variety of subjects. Each clip is labeled with its topic so you can jump around and view the ones you like the best. I read my Kindle books on an IPad most of the time so I watched it in color.

McCall Smith discusses future plans for development of the characters in the series, reminisces about growing up in Africa, describes Mma Romotswe's little white van and Grace's shoes as ongoing characters in the stories, and invites you to join him in a cuppa tea. 

It's a fun little addition to the Kindle version. I expect to see more use of digital technology like videos, music and links to outside references becoming incorporated in e-books as publishers embrace this new technology.

Oh, and you wondered about the story in The Big Tent Wedding Party? Could it be that wedding bells will ring at last for Grace and Phuti Radhiphuti? Can Precious derail the campaign of that minx Violet Sepotho for Parliament? And was that really the little white van or its ghost that Precious saw on the road?

I'm not going to play the spoiler, but if you're a fan you will enjoy this one, too!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Heaven by Lisa Miller

Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife by Lisa Miller is an intellectual history of the concept of heaven in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, with an emphasis on its development and importance in Christianity.

Miller's style reminds me of authors Lee Strobel and Bruce Feiler, journalists who write about religion and faith by combining literary research and interesting interviews with experts from a variety of fields whose viewpoints expand and deepen the reader's understanding of the subject. 

Lisa Miller states her own bias in the Introduction. She was raised in an non-observant Jewish family and is married to a former Catholic now "turned nonbeliever". She says " like so many Americans, I approach religion from an uneasy, untraditional place, and like so many I have struggled with what I believe about heaven." Many readers will identify with her struggle. Miller has devoted her career as a journalist to reporting about religion and is an editor at Newsweek where she writes regularly on the subject.

Heaven is thoroughly researched and well-written. It begins with the origins of the concept of heaven in the pre-Biblical Middle East and follows the development of the concept throughout history by Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers. It is fascinating to trace the changes in the idea of heaven through the ages and cultures. The heaven of the early Christians differs from the heaven of the medieval period and the heaven of the Reformers and the Puritans.

Miller skillfully weaves personal anecdotes and interviews with religious and scientific experts throughout the book which makes the text lively and relevant, although backed by sound scholarly research (just check out the tables of footnotes in the back of the book!). I thought her chapters on the development of the concept of resurrection and the debate over salvation were particularly enlightening. She does delve into the subject of near death experiences with those who claim to have seen heaven as a result and with scientists who proffer their explanations for this phenomenon.

I'm one of those Miller identifies as not giving a lot of thought to heaven, probably because my religious tradition (Presbyterian) does not emphasize it nor encourage speculation about what it will be like, although we believe in it. This book did not change my viewpoint, but reinforced it. I join with Maimonides (quoted in Heaven) who echoes St. Paul in saying "As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to Come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it."

I highly recommend Heaven to my Gentle Readers! This is one you will want to keep on your bookshelf and would make a great study for an adult class or book club.

(I was given a copy of this book by TLC Book Tours. for  Harper Collins. I did not promise a favorable review and did not receive any other compensation for writing this review.)

Other reviews by blogging friends:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James

Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James was inspired by the author's reading of the classic book Half the Sky by Amy Carmichael. 

Amy Carmichael was an Irish Presbyterian missionary who served for 55 years in India, where she founded an orphanage and mission that rescued young Indian girls dedicated to the Hindu temple and forced into prostitution to earn money for the priests. She spent her life defending and protecting Indian women from a culture and tradition that exploited and suppressed them and was a prolific author.

Sadly, women in parts of the world today are not yet freed from oppression. Honor killings, female infanticide, and sexual exploitation of very young girls, as well as barriers to the education and inclusion of women in society continue to keep many women from using their God-given talents.

Carolyn Custis James offers a thorough exegesis of scripture to show that God intended women to be a full partner with men using both Old and New Testament examples. She calls this the "Blessed Alliance". She embraces the term "ezer" (image-bearer) for women in order to highlight the theological point that women as well as men are God's "ezers" in this world.  I found both terms a bit contrived and over-used throughout the book.

For those of us who are already persuaded, she is preaching to the choir. But this book is not really meant for us, it is meant for that part of the evangelical church that does not fully embrace the equality of women and men in society or the church. This is a concept called "complementarianism" which means that God intended women and men to have not equal, but complimentary roles. Egalitarians and Complementarians are currently at odds in a number of these denominations as they debate the extent to which women should submit to the leadership of men in a culture where women are increasingly empowered in every area of life.

James does point out that women ministers and priests still struggle with a "stained glass ceiling" but she is more focused on advocating an egalitarian viewpoint to those who have not yet accepted it.

One of the strongest points she makes in the book is that too often Christian teaching to women focuses to that particular phase of life when women are wives and mothers.  This  applies to most women for less than half of their lives and does not take into consideration the 60% of women at any given time are single and do not have dependent children. Another strength of the book is her vision for the church's advocacy of the empowerment of women everywhere in the world.

Half the Church is written for small group  or individual study. Each chapter has suggested questions for discussion included afterwards. It would be an interesting choice for classes or book groups in the more conservative churches, but probably not as compelling for liberals and progressives.

The publisher, Zondervan, sent me a copy of this book for review. I did not promise to write a favorable review in exchange and did not receive any compensation other than the book.

Zondervan generously sent me an additional copy of Half the Church to give away. I will also give away my review copy, which I was careful NOT to mark up and highlight. Please leave me a comment with your email address if you would like one of these copies. I'll hold a random drawing if more than 2 of you are interested!

Here's another review from my friend Robin at Metanoia. Also, check out Dorcas' review of the book from the perspective of a woman pastor in a conservative evangelical tradition.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A View From The Back Pew by Tim O'Donnell

The subtitle of A View From The Back Pew is "God, Religion & Our Personal Quest for Truth." This is a memoir of the VERY personal quest of Tim O'Donnell, who grew up a Catholic but whose search for faith results in a New Age-y post modern spirituality created by himself.
O'Donnell's motivation for writing about his experiences is to keep others from wrestling with the same guilt and fear that he attributes to his Catholic upbringing. It is interesting that although he questions the very foundation of the Catholic Church, he is so convinced that it is the only "true" church that he never takes the next logical step of investigating the theology and practice of any Protestant church. Would his conclusions been different if he read C. S. Lewis or Tim Keller?

Rejecting both the tradition of the Catholic Church and the Protestant emphasis on the authority of scripture, O'Donnell becomes fascinated with the Gnostic Gospels and the writings of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels. This leads him to reject the orthodox doctrine of the divinity of Christ in favor of the belief that Christ was a human being with a highly-evolved spirituality. He concludes that "if we just have a measure of the faith in our own divinity that Jesus had, we too will exist on a plane where we can transcend time and space." 

The book combines O'Donnell's quest for religious truth with his life story, but the transitions are awkward.

(I received a free Advance Reader's copy of the book from the publisher for review and did not promise to post either a positive or a negative review.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Accidental Anglican by Todd D. Hunter

The Accidental Anglican: The Surprising Appeal of the Liturgical Churchby Todd D. Hunter has been on my "book reviews in progress" list on the sidebar for some time. I took it off today because I decided that I wasn't going to finish it and decided to post this review to explain why, since I seldom fail to finish a book I start.

I was interested in reading it because the book is about the author's change from being a pastor in a contemporary evangelical church (The Vineyard) to becoming an Anglican priest and now Bishop in the Anglican Mission in America. That's the reverse process that you often read about, and that is what intrigued me as a Presbyterian who prefers a more formal, liturgical service to the trendy "happy clappy"  service that one finds in most of our churches today. 

I assumed the book would present an apologetic from an unusual viewpoint for traditional Anglican liturgy and practice.

However I found the book focused on the personal experience of the author and not, as the subtitle seemed to promise, on the differences in faith and practice between The Vineyard and the Anglican communion. I bogged down about halfway through the book as I grew weary of reading the fulsome praise of his mentors and the self-congratulatory recounting of his journey.

If any of my Gentle Readers finished the book and have a different perspective, please let me know in the comments. I can't recommend The Accidental Anglican to my readers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

At Home by Bill Bryson

At 512 pages, Bill Bryson's At Home is not really the "short history of private life" promised in the subtitle. After wrestling the 600+ pages of Heartstone, I was very happy I could read it on my Kindle.

At Home is not easy to classify. I would put it in the "Domestic History" category, if there is such a thing.

Bryson and his family live in a former Church of England rectory built in the 1800's. He takes each room in the house--from the cellar to the attic--as the prompt for a fascinating excursion into why and how that room was used and became part of the house.

It's an eclectic read as Bryson tackles topics as varied as prehistoric private lives, epidemiology (cholera, plague and santitation), the perils of fashion (toxic makeup, corsetry, wigs and heels), the growth of the British empire, the dangers inherent in staircases and old wallpapers and why it is that this rectory has come to be a private residence. And I've left out a lot!

"Houses aren't refuges from history. They are where history ends up," Bryson says and he makes a great case for his assertion.

At Home is chock full of interesting trivia and factoids. Here are just a few examples:
  • The dining table was originally just a board that was hung on the wall when it wasn't needed. From this comes the expressions "room and board", the use of the term "boarders" for paying  lodgers", and the evolution of the term "aboveboard"--keeping your hands visible on the board-- meaning honest.
  • The expression "barking mad" comes from a symptom of grain poisoning (ergotism), a cough that sounded like a dog's bark.
  • "Cabinet" originally meant the most private and exclusive chamber where the king met with his  closest advisors. Over time it became a collective term for those advisors as well as a type of furniture.
  • Thomas Jefferson invented the French fry. Hmm..wonder why he called it French? Bryson doesn't tell us.

Here's one of my favorite quips from the book: "These days the study is the final refuge of old furniture and pictures that one member of the marriage partnership admires and the other would happiily see on a bonfire." Reminds me of a certain rug in a certain study in a certain house!

At Home combines history, anthropology, epidemiology, engineering, architecture, etymology, and fun factoids in a lively and entertaining narrative, all those "olgys" notwithstanding. If you've never read a Bill Bryson book before, treat yourself!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Heartstone by C. J. Sansom

Heartstone is the latest novel in the Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery series by C.J.Sansom. 

I was so eager to read it that I didn't wait for the e-book edition and sprang for the hard copy--all 640 pages of it!

The series, which starts with Dissolution, is set in the England of King Henry VIII. Our hero, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchbaked lawyer in London with a passion for uncovering the truth wherever it takes him and a penchant for finding trouble without half-trying.

Heartstone is set in the waning days of King Henry's reign as the French fleet threatens the English coast. Shardlake is asked by Queen Catherine (the one who survived Henry) to take the case of one of her servants whose son warned of a "monstrous wrong" being done to one of the King's wards who he had tutored just before committing suicide. As Shardlake begins his work, he decides to couple it with an investigation into the mystery surrounding Ellen Pettiplace, an inmate of The Bedlam, whom he befriended in the previous mystery (Revelation)  in the series as he travels to the area where the ward lives and also where Ellen was born. Shardlake's old nemesis, Sir Richard Rich, surfaces to threaten him again in the process.

Sansom weaves these two mysteries into a compelling tale that reveals the corruption of the wardship system of the day against the backdrop of the King's disastrous invasion of France and its aftermath for England. The events leading up to the  tragic sinking of the King's ship, the Mary Rose, in the Solent provide the exciting and unexpected conclusion to the story.

Sansom is a master of historical fiction. Like the other novels in this series, Heartstone is meticulously researched, well-plotted, satisfying and exciting to read. Matthew Shardlake, as well as the other continuing characters in the series, is both a sympathetic and a complex character who continues to evolve in his spiritual and personal life. I'm praying that Sansom will continue the series into the reign of Edward VI since Shardlake is in his forties in this book. Pretty please????

I loved it, achy wrists notwithstanding!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

Literary historians have lamented the fact that many of the most personal letters of Emily Dickinson were destroyed by her family after her death, so we don't really know much about her personal life.

Jerome Charyn, the author of the recently published novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, says he was inspired by her work early in his own writing career. This novel is his imaginative depiction of the inner life of the famous poet and recluse. Most of her personal letters were destroyed after her death by her family, so literary historians do not have much information about her personal life with which to compare Charyn's speculative version. I agreed to read and review this book as part of a book blog tour for Tribute Books.

This fictionalized account does follow the outlines of Dickinson's real life but focuses on her emotional attachment to several fictional men, none of whom are suitable matches for the Belle of Amhurst. 

Charyn writes in the voice of Emily Dickinson, with a few narrative exceptions, and has taken much care to echo her poetic conceits. For example, in the book Emily refers on multiple occasions to her "feathers" and "plumage", an obvious reference to her well known poem "Hope is a Thing With Feathers." While Charyn does an excellent job of making Emily's dialogue authentic to her time and place, I found the style hard to read and not engaging.

I read a couple of brief biographies on the internet to check the accuracy of Charyn's work and found that it is quite true to what we know about Dickinson's life, her family relationships, and her growing isolation from the world as she becomes the "Queen Recluse" of the last chapter of the book. The "secret life" is of course the work of the author's imagination and  is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes fanciful, and sometimes overwrought and improbable.

The ideal reader for this book would be someone like the delightful English professor my husband and I met on a group tour last summer who was not just a scholar of poetry, but also a lover of it--which I am not. I am sure she would be fascinated with Charyn's use of his subject's poetry in the fictional narrative. I appreciated it more when I finished reading it than when I was struggling through it, if that makes any sense.

One more observation: the book could have been better titled. "The Secret Life Of" sounds more like something from a tabloid like the National Enquirer or the Star than a work of literary fiction, which this is.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust

When I agreed to review an advance copy of Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust as part of a TLC Book Tour, I was struck by the suggestive title. The title reminded me  of Misquoting Jesus, a book by Bart Ehrman.

And lo and behold, who should be quoted on the front cover of Unprotected Texts but the self-same Bart Ehrman who calls the book "explosive", "fascinating" and a "terrific read by a top scholar." Not surprisingly, I found it none of these things (although I do not mean to imply the author is not a top scholar). It is sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious, but not "explosive". At least it is not explosive to anyone with a broad knowledge of scripture.

First of all, let me make it clear that I am NOT a Biblical scholar. I don't know the ancient Biblical languages and I never went to seminary. I'm a lay Christian educator and Presbyterian elder with a passion for inspiring people to in-depth Bible study in the tradition of Reformed theology. As an elder, I am vowed to "accept the Scriptures of the old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal and God's word" to me. (PCUSA Book of Order W-4.4003 b. That is my point of view on the authority of the Bible.

The author is Jennifer Wright Knust, an American Baptist pastor and assistant professor of religion at Boston University . She states her thesis in the introduction  " the Bible is not a sexual guidebook." She sets out to prove  it with an exhaustive (and exhausting) discussion of every word of scripture that mentions sexual activity, bodily parts, bodily fluids and reproductive functions .

To anyone familiar with the Bible, the fact that it contains  tales of prostitution, rape, homosexual behavior, concubinage, incest, and adultery is not a surprise. In my opinion, this does not constitute an endorsement of these behaviors. Knust offers some novel interpretations of these stories, apparently based on her own translations of the original text and ancient Middle Eastern mythology and culture.

For example, she says the first three chapters of Genesis are not necessarily about marriage, but are a story about farming because it is similar to the Babylonian creation myth Gilgamesh. 

She devotes a whole chapter to interpretations of several Biblical and Apocryphal passages that she says show that the only sexual sin clearly condemned in scripture is sexual intercourse between humans and angels. She points to the Nephilim (according to Genesis the offspring of angels and women), the apocryphal books of Enoch and The Watchers, the men of Sodom, and the admonitions of Paul to the women of Corinth to keep their heads veiled in worship (so as not to tempt the angels). A novel interpretation, for sure!

With regard to homosexual relationships, she interprets the relationship between Naomi and Ruth as a single sex household where Ruth and Boaz's child Obed (to become the grandfather of King David) is raised. Last time I read that story, I don't recall Boaz being out of the picture. Predictably, she interprets the relationship between David and Jonathan as a "love affair" based on her translation. I checked several other translations and did not find the language she used in hers. Knust analyzes the condemnation of homosexual behavior in Leviticus and the letters of the New Testament  in tandem with ancient contemporary writings on the subject and concludes that the condemnation was only directed at the passive partner in the act.

The well-known story of Jesus meeting the  Samaritan woman at the well, revealing he knew she had five husbands  is transformed into an allegory of the sin of pursuing the pleasure of the five senses (her five husbands) instead of pursuing the love of Christ. The more commonly accepted interprestion of this passage is twofold: the revelation of who Jesus is to someone who is not a Jew (showing that Christ did not come only to redeem the Jews) and an affirmation by Jesus that sexual promiscuity is sinful behavior. Knust does admit that this allegorical interpretation is not widely accepted today.
My copy of the book, which is an uncorrected publisher's proof, is riddled with yellow underlines and a lot of notes. The book is mostly written in an academic style, with 81 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Much of the research she includes will no doubt be useful to other scholars. There are some livelier anecdotes about modern life included which are aimed at discrediting conservative, fundamentalist understandings of scriptural teaching on sex.

Unprotected Texts is another partisan entry in the "sex wars" going on in the mainline Christian denominations. I would argue that when the Bible is read as a whole,  it does provide clear moral guidelines for human relationships , including sexual relationships, such as the story of the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, previously discussed in this review.

My progressive friends and I may differ on the parameters of those guidelines, but I think we agree that they are there. One could point of agreement is these words of Christ in response to the question "which is the greatest commandment?":
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12: 30-31)
Unprotected Texts seems to be directed at an academic audience rather than the lay reader. Some progressive church groups and pastors will find it useful in supporting their side of the controversies regarding ordination of actively gay persons and the definition of marriage. It is not going to win over those who disagree with that position, in my opinion.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent

The Wolves of Andover is the prequel to The Heretic's Daughter, which is a novel about the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts, written by a descendant of Martha Carrier, one of the women executed for witchcraft. As a descendant myself of one of those women (Mary Ann Averill), I was interested in these novels and since both had good reviews, decided to start with the prequel and read them in sequence.

Well, that may have been a mistake. The Wolves of Andover did not capture my interest or imagination. I appreciated the historically accurate descriptions of the difficult living conditions of the day, but ultimately did not find the protagonist, Martha Carrier, a sympathetic or engaging character. If the author depicts her accurately, then perhaps others in the community felt the same way, thus setting the stage for the accusation of witchcraft and her execution that comes in The Heretic's Daughter. But since I haven't read that book, I don't know how she is depicted in that book.

Spoiler Alert: Martha falls in love with a mysterious farmhand who turns out to have had a pivotal role in the execution of King Charles I during the English Civil War and is being sought by assassins in the pay of his son, Charles II. The chapter that fully discloses this part of the story is set in italic print, which I found annoying, hard to read, and unnecessary. I didn't find the love story very convincing, either.

The Wolves of Andover is not a bad novel--parts of it are well-written and evocative of its time and place.  On the whole, I would give it an average rating. I don't plan to read The Heretic's Daughter any time soon, but if you are interested in these novels I recommend you read that one first because it has more positive reviews.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

It's taken me a month to finish reading Ron Chernow's highly acclaimed (and rightfully so) new biography of George Washington.

The hard copy of the book is over 900 pages long, but I read it via IBooks on my IPad, which made it much easier to handle a work of this size and scope. In the process I learned how to highlight, bookmark and make footnotes digitally, and became quite comfortable with those techniques. Hooray for IBooks!

Chernow set out to explore every facet of Washington's complex character and brilliantly succeeds in bringing the reader to appreciate both the greatness and the shortcomings of the man recognized as the "Father of our country". I did not realize the vast collection of documents, letters and other papers that were available to historians because Washington was acutely aware of his future place in history and carefully saved virtually every scrap of paper that documented his life and career. His influence on the creation of our country, government, the capital and even our way of life is so pervasive that only a monumental biography like this one can begin to uncover it.

This biography is so extensive and well-documented that it is hard to know how to write a review in the relatively short format of a blog. There are so many things I learned in the course of reading it that I would love to share, but in the interest of keeping my readers with me, I am going to focus in this review on Washington the slaveholder and Washington the man of faith.

It seems fitting to reflect on the slavery issue as I am writing this review on January 16, now a national holiday celebrating the birth of a descendant of slaves, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Washington held two types of "slave property"--those he owned outright and those that were "dower slaves". Although Washington owned outright about 100 slaves at his death, most of the slaves he held were dower slaves. These Dower slaves were given to Martha as gifts when she married her first husband. Under the law of the day, dower slaves would pass to Martha's children by her first marriage and therefore George had no legal authority to free them.

Over the course of his life Washington became more and more convinced that slavery must end or else ultimately would be the destruction of the republic. He decided he would not purchase slaves nor would he sell them away from their families. The resulting growth in the slave population on his Mount Vernon plantation and other properties came to be one of the causes of economic strain in the latter part of his life. 

Chernow recounts that 47 slaves were documented as runaways from the Washingtons. George Washington did attempt to reclaim them, despite his stated aversion to slavery. 

A memorable incident recounted by Chernow involves the case of the slave Oney  "Ona" Judge. Ona, Martha's personal maid, was the mulatto daughter of a slave and an indentured servant at Mount Vernon. She fled from the President's residence in Philadelphia to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after learning that Martha Washington had promised her as a wedding gift to her  temperamental granddaughter, Eliza Custis, upon their return to Virginia.

President Washington advertised a reward for her capture and return and furtively attempted to arrange her kidnap from the free state of New Hampshire. Ona later wrote that the Washingtons never taught her to read or write or gave her any "moral education." When Washington's stated ideals about slavery conflicted with his financial interest his ideals were ignored and his actions hypocritical.

In the last year of his life Washington secretly wrote a new will giving the slaves he owned outright to his wife Martha, but providing that upon her death, they would have their freedom.   An unforseen consequence was that his widow became fearful for her safety because the other slaves knew that they would be free upon her death, so she freed the remainder of these slaves the following year.

Chernow points out that Washington was the only one of the Founding Fathers who actually freed his slaves, albeit posthumously.

There has been a lot of sentimentalization about Washington's faith by later generations. Washington was a regular in his attendance of an Anglican church in Virginia, but his statements about faith seem formal and stilted to the modern reader. This does not mean he did not have it, but rather that his ways of expressing it are very different from what is viewed as "authentic" today. 

Washington did believe in religious toleration and carefully attended worship at churches in other denominations to set an example for others.

I highly recommend Washington: A Life. It is well worth the effort I put into reading it. I'm buying a hard copy for El Jefe, who still isn't onboard with digital books.