After reading a good novel about Catherine the Great, I wanted to read a good biography to refresh my knowledge of her. Years ago I had a book called Elizabeth and Catherine by Robert Coughlan, a double biography both of Catherine and her predecessor Elizabeth. Judging by the look of the spine as I glance up at it on my shelf, it’s one I reread several times, which probably explains why when reading Massie’s recent biography of Catherine, the details of her life quickly began coming back to me. Catherine’s life is a great, epic story stretching across sixty-plus years, the vast Russian landscape, and a half-century of events in Europe including the Seven Years’ War and the French Revolution.
This biography is highly readable and engaging. It’s definitely written for the average, non-scholarly reader and there were times I wished Massie had dug a little deeper into his sources or given us more background. For example, Massie presents Catherine’s explanations for her own actions and motives in her Memoir (which covers her early years but was written much later) without much critique, whereas I think it would often be more interesting to explore why Catherine presented herself, or others, in a particular light — I suspect the Memoir tells us much more about the older Catherine who wrote it than it does about the young Catherine it describes.
I finally got around to reading this young-adult blockbuster, not because the movie was coming out, but because my daughter, an avid Hunger Games fan, convinced me to read it. I’ve heard so many great things about the series — from kids, from reviewers, from other adult readers. So I came in with high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a compelling futuristic dystopia, the plot is a page-turner, and the characters are strong and well-developed. And there’s a lot for a mom to discuss with her pre-teen daughter after they’ve both finished reading it.
Warning: If you haven’t read the books yet, and plan to, this review will contain spoilers.
Even people who haven’t read the books or seen the movie may have heard the basic premise by now. In a dystopian, post-catastrophe North America, twelve resource-producing “districts” are ruled by an autocratic government in the Capitol, where people live lives of luxury and ease off the profits of the backbreaking work people do in the Districts. In their bread-and-circuses quest for entertainment: the people of the Capitol have taken reality TV to the next level. Every year, 24 young people culled from the Districts are forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised fight-to-the-death that amuses Capitol residents while reminding people in the Districts that the Capitol holds the power of life and death over them. Katniss becomes a competitor when she volunteers to compete in place of her younger sister, and ends up unintentionally becoming the face of a revolution.
If you asked, I wouldn’t have said I was particularly interested in Ernest Hemingway. I still have bad Old Man and the Sea flashbacks from Grade 11, and none of the Hemingway novels I tried to read in college really did it for me. I’ve occasionally advised “Read Hemingway!” to a young writer who’s given to over-writing long, elaborate sentences, but while I appreciate his place in American literature, the only book of his I ever really enjoyed was A Moveable Feast. That memoir, written late in his life, covers the same years as Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife treats in fictional form — Hemingway’s early years as a young writer in Paris and his marriage to his first wife, Hadley.
It’s Hadley’s first-person perspective that McLain recreates in The Paris Wife, and I found it absolutely engaging and believable from the beginning. What impressed me was that she managed to portray the young Hemingway so convincingly that I fell in love with him as Hadley did — and experienced his shortcomings as a husband and the pain of his betrayal along with her as the marriage crumbled. The world of ex-pat American and British writers in Paris in the 20s is vividly rendered, and so is the portrait of a woman who dedicates her life to supporting her husband’s art — only to find herself discarded as an unsuccessful first draft.
I’ve read some bad reviews of this book by reviewers who found it, and Hadley, dull, but I have to say I was completely caught up in it and found it hard to put down.
Oh, A.J. Jacobs always makes me laugh. And often makes me think. Whether he’s striving to follow every precept in the Bible, or attempting to assimilate the sum total of world knowledge, he’s invariably entertaining and readable. Yes, I do blame him for the “I did something quirky for a year and got a book contract” phenomenon (and, in my proudest moment ever as a book blogger, Jacobs commented here to apologize for starting that trend) but he does it so much better than most of his imitators. So I wasn’t about to bypass the opportunity to read about Jacobs’ attempts to become the healthiest man alive by following every principle of healthy living he could find — even the ones that flatly contradicted each other.
So he follows several different diet plans, from the raw-food vegan diet to the caveman all-meat diet; he experiments with every imaginable form of exercise, including completing a triathalon; he meditates to reduce stress, wears noise-cancelling headphones, and consults everyone from doctors and dieticians to his ninety-six-year-old grandfather and his health-nut aunt who sees deadly toxins under every plastic shower curtain.
There’s a lot of genuinely sensible advice mixed in with a healthy dose of craziness, and, as with Jacobs’ book on the Bible, there’s serious attention given to the problem of how to choose the correct path when surrounded by so many seemingly contradictory pieces of advice. There’s nothing scholarly about this book: it’s an Everyman’s guide to navigating a world we all find increasingly confusing and difficult. Are eggs good or bad for you? What about jogging? Bread? Eight glasses of water? The competing voices of those claiming to have the secret to a healthy life can overwhelm the average person to the point where they just give up. In this book, Jacobs doesn’t give up — he listens, talks to people, sometimes mocks them gently, tries even their most extreme suggestions, and emerges with some common-sense rules that he applies to help him live a healthier life.
This memoir was a great choice for my last LentBook of the year, although there’s nothing specifically religious or spiritual about it. In fact, a strict religious upbringing (in a Pentecostal church in the north of England) was one of the reasons why the author’s childhood was as narrow, restrictive and difficult as it obviously was. However, Winterson is a perceptive and thoughtful enough writer to do what far too many writers don’t or can’t do in writing about narrow religious worlds: she shows the richness, depth and joy of that world even as she shows why it was a world impossible for her to live in. She celebrates the fact that the church, so central to the lives of her adoptive parents, gave many working-class people the sense that their lives were part of something bigger and more important than the daily routine of work, and though she obviously doesn’t share the belief system, she laments the fact that many people’s lives are poorer because that sense of purpose has been removed with the decline of Christian churches in communities like the one where she grew up.
All that said, it’s pretty clear that Winterson’s adoptive mother was on the far-right-crazy side of conservative Christianity, and that a hellfire and brimstone religion was a natural match for her obsessive-compulsive personality — also that it was a bad match for Jeanette, a bright, rebellious girl who as a teenager fell in love with another girl and was kicked out of the house at sixteen. She went on to get an Oxford degree and become a critically acclaimed novelist — but she continued to be haunted, not just by her harsh upbringing but by the secret that lay behind it — the identity of her birth family.
Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? is a book about many things — adoption, abuse, mental illness, faith, doubt, the quest for love and family. Winterson first explored her background, and these themes, in her autobiographical first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I haven’t read but now really want to. Some years later, she takes away the thin veneer of fiction and writes about the same characters and events directly, extending the story into her own midlife crisis and her search for her birth mother. Her honesty is raw, fair-minded and very appealing — while meeting her birth mother is obviously an important step, she doesn’t pretend it was the perfect happy ending, and while her (now long dead) adoptive mother was abusive and unkind, Winterson views her with compassion: as she says, “she may have been a monster, but she was my monster.” A rich, thought-provoking and very satisfying book.
I didn’t intend to add this book to my Lenten reading list, but I can never resist a good addiction memoir. Why is that? It seems odd for a person who’s never used or abused any mind-altering substance to be so drawn to stories of addiction, but I can’t pass one by. I could justify it by saying that many of the youth I work with are alcoholics or drug addicts and it helps me understand them better, but while that’s true, I think it really works the other way: I enjoy working with that population because I’m fascinated with the mindset of addiction, and how people manage the seemingly impossible task of breaking free. When a writer tells that story in a compelling and readable way, I can’t pass it by, so when I read an excerpt of Bill Clegg’s new book, 90 Days, in Newsweek magazine, I had to seek out his first book.
This is a simple story: a bright, talented young man with plenty of skeletons in his closet slides from heavy drinking and occasional drug use into hard-core crack addiction. The story of an epic crack binge that entirely derails Clegg’s life, ruins his business and his relationships, and drains his considerable bank account, is interspersed with scenes from his early life. There’s nothing in his childhood and youth that makes you go, “Aaaahhh, that’s why he became an addict,” and maybe that’s the point — sure, he had his troubles, but who doesn’t? Nothing ultimately determines who takes that deadly slide into addiction — choices made along the way certainly contribute, and so, no doubt, does trauma in the past and some ticking thing in the brain that can’t be controlled — but in the end, it happens, and Bill Clegg does a powerful job of describing what it’s like when it happens. There may not be anything new or startling here, and maybe, for those of us who aren’t addicts ourselves, reading books like this does have a kind of train-wreck voyeurism — but it’s certainly well-told, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of book.
Flame of Yahweh is the most serious scholarly book of theology I’ve read in a few years (as opposed to books like the N.T. Wright or Peter Enns book I just reviewed, which are written by serious theologians but with a well-informed general reader like myself in mind, so that the references and footnotes are kept to a minimum). This was slow going, with the kind of pages where there might be ten lines of actual text at the top and the whole rest of the page is detailed footnotes cross-referencing the work of other scholars. But it was a very interesting read once I settled in to it. I actually started it well before Lent but one of my disciplines for this season was to stay focussed on actually finishing it, which I did.
The book was loaned to me by someone with whom I had been discussing the church’s position on gay marriage, and my position which is, admittedly, a bit different from that of my church. Richard Davidson is a very learned and very orthodox Seventh-day Adventist scholar who tackles the Bible’s statements about homosexuality, along with literally every other thing the Old Testament says about sexuality in any form at all, in this exhaustive and very thick book. While Davidson didn’t convince me to change my heretical views, I did appreciate seeing those texts carefully and thoughtfully examined in their historical context.
Some readers, coming to this book, will find it jarring that Davidson is difficult to fit into standard liberal/conservative Christian molds. He argues strenuously that the Bible views all homosexual sex as always sinful, and argues just as strenuously (despite scanty Biblical evidence) that life begins at conception and that abortion is therefore always a sin. These are standard conservative positions, but he is even more determined and passionate in arguing for an egalitarian view of the relationship between men and women. He argues that Adam and Eve are shown as equal at creation, that male headship in marriage is a post-fall concession rather than a creation ordinance and that the goal should always be to return to true equality, and that in any case, male headship, where it applies, applies only as servant-leadership in marriage, not outside the marriage relationship — thus, that women are equally suited to leadership in society and in the church as men are. He also argues (not always convincingly, in my view) that many passages in the Old Testament which modern feminists view as horrifically sexist are actually, in the context of Ancient Near East culture, far more generous to women than the law codes of similar cultures.
Subtitled “Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament,” this book was an obvious choice for me in the midst of my current struggle with reading the Bible (for those who haven’t been following my regular blog with bated breath: I’ve been reading through the Bible in a year and the Old Testament is really giving my faith a beating).
The “problems” with the Old Testament that Enns raises are not necessarily the same one that trouble me (and the subtitle is misleading, because he spends a substantial amount of time on a New Testament problem too). The main issues he addresses are the parallels between Old Testament writing (creation story, flood story, Mosaic laws) and similar, demonstrably older writings from other Ancient Near East cultures. The question he poses is: can we truly believe the Bible is inspired if it appears to draw so heavily on (or at least parallel so closely) other, non-inspired writings from the same time and place?
The New Testament problem he poses is a bit different: he looks in detail at how the New Testament writers use the text of the Old Testament and concedes that it usually doesn’t follow what a modern scholar would consider good hermeneutic practice: they routinely wrench quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures out of context and use them to “prove” points they have already determined upon. (Interestingly, he does not choose Isaiah 7:14 as one of his examples here). He demonstrates that in handling Scripture this way, Paul and the gospel writers were following the hermeneutic practices of other Second Temple Jewish writers — writers the church doesn’t consider inspired or canonical. Again, he asks, can we read Scripture as inspired when it’s borrowing from and drawing upon non-inspired material.
Enns’ answer to these questions is that yes, Scripture can be seen as inspired even though it draws on non-inspired sources. The key to his argument is in the title: for him, Biblical inspiration is a form of incarnation. Just as Jesus was God’s self incarnate in a human being, the Bible is God’s word incarnate in a human book. Jesus was incarnate as a particular type of human — a Galilean male living in and sharing the characteristics of His particular time and place. Likewise, Enns says, the Bible is God’s word, but it is incarnate as a book written in a particular culture, for the people of that culture, drawing upon the source material and presuppositions of that time and place.
While he wasn’t answering the specific questions I’m asking right now, I did find this book a thoughtful and helpful addition to my ongoing process of trying to understand the Bible and what it means to say the Bible is “inspired.”