Friday, September 28, 2018

'Why Religion?' by Elaine Pagels

Why Religion?: A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wrenching memoir matched with intellectual study of Christianity from a groundbreaking scholar.

Elaine Pagels has had to endure incredible loss: first her six-year-old son, and a year later, her husband. She survived and apparently thrived in part through her research on the "heretical" texts of early Christianity. Her own story is interspersed with passages examining the meaning of the Nag Hammadi texts, also known as the Gnostic gospels. Pagels' personal suffering informs her research, and her the texts in turn help give her perspective.

My only beef is that I wanted to keep going with her life as she raised her children and worked, but she skips those years. As a middle-aged adult, I can understand why - life happens and time flies. No doubt her existence returned to more ordinary levels of stress during that time.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Nag Hammadi texts and Elaine Pagels.

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mini-review: 'Transcription' by Kate Atkinson

TranscriptionTranscription by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In general, I love Kate Atkinson's work. I really loved LIFE AFTER LIFE but didn't want to get into the same territory again with A GOD IN RUINS, so I didn't read it.

I had trouble getting into TRANSCRIPTION because I had just finished Dan Fesperman's SAFE HOUSES, also about spycraft and WWII. So, it took me a long time to read the beginning, and my being able to follow the plot and characters through time suffered for it.

Once I picked up TRANSCRIPTION and kept with it, however, I really enjoyed it. I love Atkinson's humor, provided through her heroine Juliet's divergent thoughts. (At one point Juliet wonders if anyone has every died from thinking too much.)

Keenly planned and masterfully executed, both the plot and writing are terrific. Readers who like to go from A to Z without detour may not enjoy it, but there's so much to like here for Atkinson's fans, readers of spy thrillers, and WWI fiction readers alike.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mini review: 'Safe Houses' by Dan Fesperman

Safe HousesSafe Houses by Dan Fesperman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Dan Fesperman's latest - a complicated espionage mystery that moves back and forth through time, from 1979 West Berlin to modern day Maryland, with a strong heroine at its center. Its timing couldn't be better, as the action that sets the narrative going fits neatly into the zeitgeist of #metoo. Fesperman's crisp writing brings the world of Cold War spying to life, and he deftly maintains suspense as he moves between the two eras, weaving in real-life history of a super secret intelligence agency. I recommend it!

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Review: 'Stay Hidden' by Paul Doiron

In the 9th book in this series, Mike Bowditch has just been promoted to investigator in the Maine Game Warden Service. As the new guy, he’s left behind when there is a hunting homicide in Berwick. This makes him the only warden available to work on the second incident that day, out on the remote, fog-bound Maquoit Island. Mostly inhabited by lobstermen after summer, the island is teeming with deer and ticks. Mike is flown out to the island by his friend and mentor Charley, along with a seasoned investigator from the state police and another warden. The victim is the famous journalist Ariel Evans, who came to the island to write about the Blake Markman, a Silicon Valley executive-turned-hermit. Suspicious this shooting was no accident and eager to prove himself, Mike pursues the recalcitrant locals through the cold, fog, and a huge plot twist.

After a slow start concerned as much about deer as the people (and one liable to make the reader quite itchy, with all the talk of ticks), Stay Hidden picks up steam and provides a thrilling read. Fans of the Bowditch series will not be disappointed, and readers of books of other outdoor lawmen will find it right up their alley. Mystery lovers will enjoy the plot twists and turns as well.

A version of this review was originally published in Library Journal.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Mini review: 'Artemis'

ArtemisArtemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, what a ride! Science in digestible bite sizes, wrapped in a mystery, set on the moon. I love the culture of the moon city Artemis. What a fun read to me.

If you're looking for literary, nuanced take on human life, you should look elsewhere. I was not offended by the locker room banter about sex, but I can understand how many reviewers were, especially in the current climate.

I still enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

'God: A Human History'

godgod by Reza Aslan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What is God? Where did the idea of God come from? These are the questions Reza Aslan examines in his latest book.

I am an agnostic brought up in the Christian tradition and a lover of Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I also read many popular science books about the brain, so I was excited to find that Aslan included cognitive science in his consideration.

Although it is written in a clear and engaging style, I am afraid I was disappointed in this book, a result I will lay at the feet of a mismatch in expectation and execution. Aslan provided a great many notes that I would have wanted in the text; that is, he just asserts things like "we are born believing in a soul," without discussing it. Yes, there is more in the notes (the bibliography and notes take up half the book), but I found it a very dissatisfying construction.

What the book is, Aslan says in the end, is a tracing of God through archaeology and history that mirrors his own journey to a religious view that most closely resembles Sufism, a mystical tradition of Islam. I guess I expected a more scholarly discussion; I might have found that more enlightening.

I wonder if I could adjust my expectations if I would find this trip through Western religions -- very little is said of Buddhism and Taoism, for instance, while focusing on the religions born of the Middle East -- providing more food for thought. This book should certainly spark discussion and would be best read a jumping off point rather than an end point.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Harry Potter and the Endless Inventiveness of Fans

I discovered a podcast recently called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and I LOVE it. Brought to us by a couple of employee-graduates of Harvard Divinity School, I have never come across such a thoughtful, delightful, and uplifting discussion of pop culture.

I don't know whose idea it was originally to apply practices for reading sacred texts (the Bible mostly) to secular literature, but it is brilliant.

Lest this sound like sacrilege, let me be clear: nobody is saying the Harry Potter series is a set of sacred texts. These folks are just taking thoughtful practices from the Judeo-Christian traditions and applying the to Harry Potter to see what they can learn, about themselves and living an ethical life

I thought it was weird too, until I started to listen. The hosts, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, are lovely and wholesome and funny. It does my heart good just to hear a couple of Millenials talking about how to be good people and bringing an intellectual approach to it. What they are doing is so counter to the approach of the current people in power in the U.S. government and those who put those people in power. To use a Harry Potter metaphor, they are a warm and fuzzy version of the Order of the Phoenix.

If Harry Potter isn't your thing, you can bring this approach to your favorite literary work; Vanessa Zoltan wrote her masters thesis on reading Jane Eyre as a sacred text; her explanation of how she came to that project is touching and told in an early episode of the podcast.

Read an interview with Vanessa and producer Ariana Nedelman published last year in the Harvard Gazette here.

Happy listening!