Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meet my newest friend Chico

When I go walking, I talk to all the neighbors who are outside and seem friendly, and there are lots of them in my part of town. This green parrot lives on the street directly behind my house. I was visiting Lynn, my new friend who happens to be Chico's next door neighbor, when she heard Chico talking in his yard. We slipped through the trees and bushes so I could meet him, and I think he likes me! When I later suggested to someone that he probably liked the jungle on my shirt, she said it was obvious he was enjoying the company of another word person.

Monday, June 22, 2009

End of Grace ~ by K. Thomas Murphy, 2009

My eyes usually glaze over when I read that a book is a "thriller." That's not my cup of tea. But this one is somewhat different. It definitely was not the "intriguing world of murder and suspense" that drew me to the book, but the fact that it's about the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), better known as Mormons. Though I taught religions of the world at the college level for a decade, I don't know as much about the Mormon church as I would like. So I agreed to review this "thriller."

Title, author, copyright date, and genre?
End of Grace ~ by K. Thomas Murphy, 2009, fiction (okay, thriller)

Summarize the book without giving away the ending.
Publicity material says the book "explores the [Mormon] church's habit of converting millions of deceased souls into Mormonism, and turns the tables when someone starts baptizing Mormons into an alternative church. Initially deemed a nuisance, Mormon leadership reacts with sinister professionalism when it's discovered the baptisms have taken a toll on their tithing revenue stream. ... It forces the reader to wonder if churches have become all too business-like, not at the local level, but certainly at the highest bastions of power." The computer geeks who are behind this are also trying to get the LDS church to pay up to get them to stop these activities.
Were the characters and their problems believable?
The author writes very well, so yes, the characters and situations are believable. And because Murphy is a technology expert by profession, he even made me believe some of the things the characters could do with computer technology.

What do you think will be your lasting impression of this book?
I wonder if the Mormons convert (or baptize?) into their church those who have died, but since this book is fiction, I won't take it as fact unless I learn more from some other source. It's an interesting thought, but I can't think of any reason to be concerned about it. I, too, "wonder if churches have become all too business-like" (see above), but the Mormon church as portrayed in this story was not shown as business-like as much as it was portrayed as predatory and evil. Was the author trying to do with this church what Dan Brown did with the Catholic church?

How would you rate this book?
Rated 8 of 10 because it held my attention and interest.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Serena ~ by Ron Rash, 2008

Title, author, copyright date, and genre?
Serena ~ by Ron Rash, 2008, fiction

What's the book about?
From the publisher: "The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains — but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning."
Location and time period
North Carolina is "next door" to my home state of Tennessee. I am familiar with the area around Waynesville, NC, where the story takes place, having spent a few days there every summer for over twenty years. That's what drew me to the story. Even more interesting, to me, was the subject of lumberjacks and sawmills because my maternal grandfather was a sawyer at exactly that time. His job was to find the next place his company would move the sawmill and cut down trees.

What did you think of the cover?
Look at those logs jamming the river. Click to enlarge the photo and imagine trying to unjam such a mess. I think somebody picked the right cover for this novel.

Did you like the way the book ended?
I didn't like much of the book, actually, but it made me think — mostly about my grandfather. A sawyer moved around a lot, and my mother's family followed her father from one stand of trees to the next, which meant the children were born in different places. My aunt Bonnie (I was named for her) was born in 1904 in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, but by the time my mother came along in 1917 the family was living in Chattanooga. With five sons and two daughters who lived (and a sixth son born after my mother), my grandmother was tired of moving. That's when they bought a house here in Chattanooga — I lived there myself after my grandmother died when I was three. At the time there were only five houses in that area. At some point in his career, my grandfather rode the trolley to work at the sawmill located on the Tennessee River at the foot of Cameron Hill.

What do you think will be your lasting impression of this book?
The violence was appalling, especially the way Serena and Pemberton (the author calls him by his last name) would eliminate problems by causing a huge variety of deaths. Sometimes deaths appeared "accidental," but always coldly calculated to their advantage. It was a time when land was being acquired for what would become the Smoky Mountain National Park, and the Pembertons didn't want to give up their land. Their cut-and-run style of clear-cutting left mud to clog waterways which destroyed the beauty of the area. The story made me wonder if my grandfather was also guilty of such destruction. And then I began to wonder how true to the times the "accidents" were — my grandfather died alone in an "auto accident" while scouting for the next area to cut. I'm left wondering, Was it an accident? Was there something more sinister? But there's no way I'll ever know what happened in 1930, one year after this novel began. Reading this book has made me ponder what happened when he died when my mother was only twelve years old.

How would you rate this book?
Rated 7 of 10.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A gospel by Judas?

The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel ~ by James M. Robinson, 2006

Last week I ran across this book and bought it, based on dust jacket information:
"The discovery of a previously lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot has electrified the Christian community. What Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us about Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, in inconsistent and biased. Therefore, the revelation of an ancient gospel that portrays this despised man as someone who saw his role in the Passion of Christ as integral to a larger plan -- a divine plan -- brings new clarity to the old story. If Judas had not betrayed Jesus, Jesus would not have been handed over to the authorities, crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. Could it be that without Judas, the Easter miracle would never have happened?"
I should have looked it over more carefully, though it has a good publisher (HarperSanFrancisco) and the author (as I already knew) had edited The Nag Hammadi Library. Should have been a book right up my alley. It wasn't. Oh, the subject matter was -- and is -- but the book is misrepresented. Though I've read about the papyrus found decades ago that wasn't published until 2006, this book is really about "peddling" the resurfaced Gospel of Judas that had been condemned by Irenaeus in 180 CE and subsequently supressed by the Church and "lost." Most of Robinson's book, subtitled The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel is about who said and did what, and when, and how he was (mostly) left out of the loop as shady dealers took it from continent to continent. His book was timed to get his information out before the National Geographic special, which was to be followed by three books published by NG. Robinson had not seen this codex and, thus, didn't know anything specific about its contents. How disappointing!

Reading Judas ~ by Pagels and King, 2008

I recommend another book, instead: Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King. I haven't read it -- yet -- myself, but I will. I wanted to know what was IN the newly discovered scroll, not who held onto it until the fragile papyrus from antiquity until it was almost totally destroyed before National Geographic got access to it. I recommend this book based on my having read works by both of these women; I have read every book by Pagels I could get my hands on since reading her Gnostic Gospels (1979). John Dominic Crossan (I wrote about him last year) wrote favorably about this book in a review for The Washington Post:
"In their slim but excellent Reading Judas, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King rightly focus on the text's ancient and provocative theology rather than on the codex's modern and tortured history, with King also providing a new and very well annotated translation of this early Christian document."
How would I rate The Secrets of Judas?
Nah, don't waste your time.

P.S. Judas didn't write it, and it isn't what you probably expect a "gospel" to be. In other words, The Gospel of Judas is not a narrative gospel like those that were included in the New Testament.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Book on the Bookshelf ~ by Henry Petroski, 1999

Question for my readers:
Do you align books at the front edge of your shelves? Or way back from the edge? Or an inch back? Why? Or do you stack your books, instead?
The Book on the Bookshelf ~ by Henry Petroski (1999, history) is about the shelves where we put our books. I'll start with a couple of quotes from the book:
"The recessed alignment of books on my bookshelves also gives me a narrow shelf space before the books where I can keep mementos like pencils and letter openers. It all seemed sensible to me until one day a writer visiting my office expressed surprise at my arrangement and remarked that he always pulled his books forward to the edge of the bookshelves and thought that was the proper way to display them. I did not have a definitive answer for him at the time, and I still do not, but I have learned that the literary critic Alfred Kazin kept his books well back from the edge of the shelf, giving him room to display photos of his grandchildren and to lay down books being read. Like so many questions of design and the human adaptation to and interface with technology, there are arguments that can be presented in support of either option. I was, however, pleased to have the visitor question my book arrangement, for it assured me that I was not alone in thinking about bookcases and how to use them" (p. 12).

"For centuries, the spine was shelved inward..." (p. 22).
Another question: Do any of you shelve your books with the spine toward the back of the bookshelf? Why? When I owned a bookstore, I was surprised at the number of people who inserted books "backwards" after browsing, so I'm really curious.

For the record, I shelve my books with the spine out and usually slightly back from the edge. In my bedroom, however, the top shelf of one bookcase has all the books pushed to the back. Why? Because that's where I empty my pockets each night -- I usually wear jeans and have pens, paper, and cell phone in my pockets, ever handy for making notes or inquiries.

What did I like about this book?
The author gives us a history of books, back to when they were scrolls, and the storage problems along the way. Scrolls were rolled up, so shelves like mine wouldn't work very well. Imagine, instead, storage racks similar to wine racks. But how would you ever find the one scroll you wanted? The earliest books didn't have titles on the spines, leaving readers with the same problem of finding what was wanted. I was happy to have the illustrations for what the author was talking about. But most of all I liked finding things I just had to write down:
"Is an empty bookshelf an oxymoron?" (p. 22).

"The more things change, the more they remain insane" (p. 222).

"When I travel, I find myself drawn into bookstores and to books I wonder if I will ever see again. Many of these volumes must be bought, of course, lest the opportunity to possess them be lost, and I have lugged inordinate numbers of titles through airports and squeezed overstuffed bags into undersized overhead bins (ill-formed bookshelves of a sort?)" (p. 230).

"It is a spectator sport to look at someone else's books, if not an act of voyeurism or armchair psychology" (p. 6).

"The use of electric lights in bookstacks became firmly established in the early part of the twentieth century" (p. 181).
Note to myself after the last quote: I was born at the right time!

How do I rate this book?
I give it 8 out of 10 because most of it was fun to read, but some parts were dry and tended to drag.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dogsong ~ by Gary Paulsen, 1985

Title, author, copyright date, and genre?
Dogsong ~ by Gary Paulsen, 1985, YA fiction (YA designates young adults, but I frequently read this genre)

Summarize the book without giving away the ending.
From the back cover:
"Inspired by the Eskimo shaman Oogruk, Russel Suskitt takes a dog team and sled to escape the modern ways of his village and to find his own 'song' of himself. He travels across ice floes, tundra, and mountains, haunted along the way by a dream of a long-ago self whose adventures parallel his own."
What was the book's central question, and how was it answered?
Yesterday I told you about The Fiction Class by Susan Breen (and did you notice the author came by and commented on that post?), a novel with writing assignments that my friend Donna and I chose to do along with the fictional students. One of the assignments was to find the theme of the book:
"Choose a novel or short story that you like and try to discover its theme. How does the author get the theme across? Title? Plot? Names of characters?" (page 231 in The Fiction Class).
The theme is the book's central question, its dominant idea. Even though I have this question in my book review outline, I don't think I've ever used it here on my blog. Now that I know the importance of themes, I'll try to do this more often.

Okay, so what's the theme of Dogsong?
How to live an authentic life. Russel, the main character, is a 14-year-old who hates noisy snowmobiles and yearns for the life Eskimos used to live. His father understands his need and refers Russel to Oogruk, the only person in their village with dogs and a sled. Oogruk is blind, but has ways of "seeing" that Russel only slowly recognizes. Russel comes to trust that Oogruk will be able to teach him what he needs to know. At no point does the author use the word "authentic" that I wrote above; instead, the story is all about finding his song. Modern people no longer have their own songs, but it's what Russel needs for his life.

What did you think of the main character? How did the main character change during the novel?
Russel knows nothing about dogs or sledding at the beginning of the book, but he learns what he needs to know.

Was location important to the story?
The whole story is set in the far north, in weather colder than I have ever experienced. Yet I could feel the weather and the tiredness of Russel and the sled dogs. I got a feel for a place I can only imagine, and the author placed me there so that I felt the biting wind and ached from the bitter cold along with the characters.

Did you like the way the book ended?
I expected Russel to succeed in his quest, but I did not expect what happened to the people and animals he encountered.

How would you rate this book?
It held my attention throughout, and I highly recommend it. Rated 9 of 10.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Fiction Class ~ by Susan Breen, 2008

Title, author, copyright date, and genre?
The Fiction Class ~ by Susan Breen, 2008, fiction

Why did you read the book?
I got a copy to give my best friend for her birthday. She taught English for over 20 years and it looked like her kind of book. Before I got out of the store, however, I looked through the book and discovered something that made me go back and get a copy for myself so she and I could ... (Are you ready for this?) ... do the writing assignments together. Okay, now you know I'm a nerd. I may be retired and long out of school, but I was excited about the fact that this novel had, on separate pages all laid out, the assignments the fictional teacher assigned her class. Yes! I was in luck. My friend Donna is as crazy as I am, and we did the assignments together. We didn't read (and write) at the same speed, so I still "owe" her some writing assignments, but I haven't given up on doing them.

Summarize the book without giving away the ending.
Arabella Hicks, whose mother named her after the heroine in a novel by Georgette Heyer, teaches a weekly fiction class and has been trying for seven years to find an ending for a novel she is writing. We watch her week after week, as she deals with her students, works on her own novel, and deals with her own mother -- who is driving her crazy. Every week she visits her mother in the nursing home and on one visit learns her mother wants to be a writer. Surprise, surprise!

What did you think of the main character?
As a former college adjunct teacher, I was cheering for her all the way. I also agreed with Arabella's assessment of what happens in classrooms. Here's an early example:
"Nothing disrupts the mood of a class more quickly than people whispering" (p. 4).
Here's a comparison of the writing classes, which I am still pondering:
"She can hear people laughing in the next classroom; that's the screenwriting class. They are always so cheerful in screenwriting; the memoir class is always in tears, and the fiction class seems to be confused" (p. 31).
What did you like most about the book?
The author made her settings come to life, as in this description of the library in her mother's nursing home:
"The library is surprisingly lovely. In the midst of so much pastel neutrality, the bright colors of the book jackets are a welcome explosion of color. Here is life; even a nursing home cannot deaden the joy of a book" (p. 104).
How would you rate this book?
I'll give it a 9 out of 10 because I'm still enjoying it. Yes, don't laugh -- I do believe writing assignments can be enjoyable.
For an example of one of the writing assignments, see my next post: theme