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review 2018-03-23 18:35
Zealot by Reza Aslan
Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan

This is an accessible work of history, looking at what the historical evidence tells us about Jesus of Nazareth and his times. Not knowing much about the context of those times, I found it enlightening, though it sometimes seems that the author overstates the certainty with which much of anything about the ancient world can be known. In the end much of the book is educated guessing – worth reading because it is very educated, but not much can be proven.

Part 1 covers the context of first-century Palestine, a far-flung Roman province bursting with discontent about tribute requirements, leading to high taxes, leading to exploitation of the poor. Many men claimed the mantle of messiah, or the chosen one who would liberate their land from the Romans and restore God’s kingdom. Eventually the Jews revolted in 66 C.E. and kicked out the Romans, only for the Romans to return and wipe out Jerusalem four years later. In this milieu, and given the way the Romans executed Jesus (crucifixion was the standard punishment for sedition and treason, as a warning to others), the author builds a case for interpreting him as a political revolutionary. For instance, an act such as overturning the moneylenders’ tables at the Temple would have been a protest against the priests’ collaboration with Rome and enrichment of themselves at the expense of the common people.

Part 2 is more focused on the information in the gospels: what is credible from a historical perspective, and how Jesus’s words would have been understood at the time. Finally, Part 3 is about the early church in the aftermath of his death, particularly the schism between James (Jesus’s brother, who led the Jerusalem assembly) and Paul, who comes across as a bit of an egomaniac who reinvented Jesus’s message entirely, transforming it from a Jewish sect into an entirely new religion. Jesus claimed that he had come to fulfill Jewish law, while Paul decreed that he had replaced it; when Jesus was originally referred to as “Son of God,” the author argues that this designation meant simply the “chosen one” (David was also a “Son of God”) while Paul interpreted it literally. During his lifetime Paul did not have great success, but his version of Christianity was better suited to take off in a post-Jerusalem world, where the Jews had become pariah and the Temple no longer existed.

I found this to be an interesting and thought-provoking book. While not a fast read, it provides an engaging narrative and is readable and accessible to the non-academic reader. The author’s arguments in general seem extensive researched, well-documented and persuasive. When discounting sources or filling in gaps in the record, he generally explains his analysis rather than simply stating his conclusions as if they were fact.

However, it isn’t a perfect book. The organization can be a bit scattershot, jumping around in time and between general historical background and Jesus, especially in the early sections. There are no footnotes, and some assertions are supported by extensive endnotes while others are not. While not representative of the book as a whole, there are some eyebrow-raising arguments to authority, stating that “the overwhelming consensus” (204) among scholars tells us something, or that another author has “definitively proven” (240) something else. It is helpful to know which ideas are subjects of controversy and which aren’t, and I don’t expect the author to perform independent research on every single topic surrounding life in the ancient world, but it is an odd phrasing for a book premised on the method of drawing conclusions from primary sources even if they differ from established dogma.

More broadly speaking, the book’s analysis left me with big questions unanswered. If the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death by people who didn’t know him, and who did not live in a society where fact-checking and documentation were a thing (though the Romans kept extensive records on issues of interest such as tax collection), and were written as testaments of faith with the intention of converting non-Jews to their religion rather than as historical documents, then why remove some politically-charged bits but not others? The author argues that the Gospel writers must have changed the agency in Jesus’s execution from the Roman governor to the Jews for palatability to their intended audience, given that Pilate cared little to nothing what his subject population thought about anything, but why then leave in the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables, the sermon on the mount (which the author argues would have been about the new social order in God’s kingdom on earth rather than a spiritual promise), and other statements targeting the Temple and the Roman government? 

And if the writers needed to transport Jesus’s birth to Bethlehem to argue that he fulfilled the prophecies, why would they have explained this through a census story that their readers would have known to be false, because the census not only didn’t happen at that time but did not work that way (the Roman census was about tallying up property in order to tax it, and putting the economy on hold for months for everyone to travel to their home village without said property would have been absurd)? It’s fair to say that I am hopelessly modern and nonreligious and can’t claim to understand the mindset of a first- or second-century convert, but immersion in a story to me depends on finding it at least plausible. It also seems likely that a new religion isn’t trying to recruit skeptics who will question its facts but rather true believers who will accept the religious leaders’ word. But there still seems to me to be a difference between facts that can be disproven, and unverifiable assertions that must be taken on faith, and why hand your opponents the former if you can avoid it?

So I wish the author would have delved more into the historicity of the Gospels as a whole rather than focusing on specific passages one at a time; for me at least it would have been helpful in evaluating the overall argument. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and educational book of reasonably short length, and I’m glad I read it.

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review 2018-03-20 14:50
Guardian of Darkness (Darkness #7) by Katie Reus
Guardian of Darkness - Katie Reus

We met Vega in the first book in the series. She used to be a rebel child but not anymore. She’s found her own path and now works for a special force that takes out rogue supernatural beings. I really liked this side of her. She came off as the strong, independent, sensible heroine she’s supposed to be.

Gabriel, knowing what he knew of their future, always proceeded with caution but was never overbearing or possessive. The romance trope was kind of fated mates however it was sweet and believable with a high dose of pure passion and explosive chemistry. During their mission, Vega and Gabriel always behaved as the true partners and the professionals they were supposed to be while keeping their emotions on check. I always love it when an author keeps the plot real yet knows when it should be about the romance. There was only a little scene that made me think “Uhm, why are they doing this now?” Then again that scene gave continuation to the arc so I guess it wasn’t so bad.

We also get to meet new characters and the story digs further into the paranormal world. I think we may be seeing more humans in the future since it seems supernatural and human beings are working together to keep peace all around. All in all it was a great book and I recommend it to anyone looking for a fast-paced, entertaining read. 


*** I received this book at no cost to me and I volunteered to read it; this is my honest opinion and given without any influence by the author or publisher.***

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review 2018-03-14 19:18
The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir - Kao Kalia Yang

This is an interesting memoir by a Hmong-American writer, about the experiences of a community that is opaque to many Americans. The Hmong are an ethnic minority who moved from China to Laos centuries ago; the Chinese outlawing their written language is apparently the reason they lack one even today. Many Hmong assisted the Americans in the Vietnam War, in which about a third of their population died; another third was killed in the persecution after the American army’s departure. The author’s parents and extended family, like many others, fled into the jungles of Laos and later to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for several years before relocating to Minnesota.

Though a memoir, this book is more about the author’s family than about Kao Kalia Yang herself. It begins by detailing her family’s travails in Laos and Thailand before her birth in the refugee camp, and the bulk of the book focuses on the camp and the family’s immigration to America when she was seven. It goes on to describe the difficulties of their adjustment, for her (being too shy to speak English in school even once she learned it), but mostly for the family: part of the extended family winds up in another state; money is tight, and her parents are forced to take exhausting night shifts at a factory to support the family, while Yang and her older sister are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and sometimes serving as interpreters for their parents. There is little sense of the author’s life after elementary school, though; while she is a student at Carlton College by the end (and later went on to Columbia University), the later chapters focus exclusively on the last years of her grandmother’s life and the grandmother’s death and elaborate funeral. I would have liked to see more of the author’s life and how she has related to Americans and American culture – her educational choices indicate that she has her own stories to tell – but the focus of the book does make clear how extremely family-oriented both she and her community are.

It is an incredible story, and especially given that the Yangs’ experiences were evidently common among the Hmong after the Vietnam War, it’s an important one to tell for the sake of awareness. The writing is fairly good, though it doesn’t always flow in the clearest way. Here’s a sample:

“My mother and father told us not to look at the Americans. If we saw them, they would see us. For the first year and a half, we wanted to be invisible. Everywhere we went beyond the McDonough Housing Project, we were looked at, and we felt exposed. We were dealing with a widespread realization that all Hmong people must do one of two things to survive in America: grow up or grow old. In the case of the noticeably young, the decision was made for us. For those who were older, the case was also easy to figure. Those marred by the war, impaired by the years of fighting, social security and disability were options. [sic] For my mother and father, already adults who had waited on life long before it was their time, the government stepped in and told them: the welfare clock was ticking. She was twenty-five. He was twenty-eight. They knew they wanted a chance to work, but they did not know how to keep that chance safe, so on the streets, before the slanted brows of mostly white men, they held us close for security.”

The gist of the passage makes sense: the family feels insecure, they don’t want to attract attention, and the parents are under pressure to find work. But the notion that there is pressure on “all Hmong people” to “grow up or grow old,” and how this is meant to apply to the author’s parents, is unclear to me even after taking the time to re-read it carefully. And perhaps because of the author’s cultural and linguistic background, she has a distinct way of expressing ideas that may not make a lot of sense to American readers if read quickly or with less than full attention.

Overall then, I found this memoir worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity to learn more about a community that was unfamiliar to me. However, it’s not the first one I would recommend for literary reading.

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review 2018-03-13 21:12
Falling from Horses by Molly Gloss
Falling from Horses: A Novel - Molly Gloss

Molly Gloss is an excellent writer, but this isn’t my favorite of her books. I loved Wild Life, and The Hearts of Horses is a lovely examination of a rural community. This one is a sequel of sorts to The Hearts of Horses, featuring Martha’s son Bud, who at age 19 takes off for Hollywood to become a stunt rider. Much of the book is about the difference between the real American West and the West as portrayed in cowboy movies, and about the dirty underbelly of Hollywood at the time: the frequent injuries and deaths of men and horses in stunts, the sexual harassment, the various tricks used to make everything in movies look more exciting than it really is.

And I think the best of this book is in its themes, in its examination of Hollywood and its contrast between the myth of a West full of heroes, villains and derring-do and the real world in which a hardscrabble ranching family does unromantic work and loses a child in a meaningless accident. It’s a very well-written book, and there’s a resonance to Gloss’s writing that more literary-oriented readers will enjoy. But I found the plot of this one a little lacking. It has a very long, slow start – half the book passes in Bud’s bus trip to Hollywood, initial attempts to find work and first job working for a stable that rents horses for the tamer scenes – which doesn’t leave much time for the meat of the story. Bud also interested me less than Gloss’s heroines; his friend Lily, a budding screenwriter whom he meets on the bus to Hollywood, is a more interesting and colorful character, but she isn’t the narrator and so we see less of her.

Overall, then, this book has a lot going for it, but my expectations for this author are very high. I liked it, but for most readers I’d recommend Wild Life or The Hearts of Horses first.

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review 2018-03-07 18:38
Review: "Gagged" (The Clipped Saga, #3) by Devon McCormack
Gagged - Devon McCormack


~ 2.5 stars ~


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