For The Someday Book

Archive for January 2019

My ministry connects me with the Association of International Churches in Europe in the Middle East, and the annual conference this year was in Athens, followed by an extension to northern Greece. We visited ancient sites along with tracing the footsteps of Paul’s second journey. I read a host of books in 2018 related to that trip, and the preaching and teaching that emerged from it.

On classical Greece:

Ancient Greece VSIAncient Greece: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Cartledge, Oxford University Press, 2011, 184 pp.

The Very Short Introduction series is just as described, and very helpful for a solid, amateur yet sound foundation in any topic. Cartledge takes a chapter for each of eleven Greece cities, unpacking ancient history and major themes in each. It was a very helpful precis before going deeper into topics of interest, and noting highlights of all the cities we saw along the way.

OracleThe Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science behind its Lost Secrets by William J. Broad, Penguin Books, 2007, 320 pp.

This was a fascinating read in preparation for a visit to Delphi. The Oracle tells the ancient history of mysticism and worship that happened at the site for millenia with an open mind and sense of awe, while telling the parallel story of a recent scientific quest to explain the power of the Delphic Oracle by a geologist, archeologist and neuroscientist. The book was fun to read, and made the visit to beautiful Delphi even more compelling and fascinating.

Hellenistic ReligionsHellenistic Religions: An Introduction by Luther H. Martin, Oxford University Press, 1987, 170 pp.

This was a text in my New Testament class in seminary, but I reread it as a refresher in the many gods, goddesses and cults of Greece and Rome. It covers 800 years of history and worship practices, from 400 BCE to 400 CE, and prepared me to better understand the various temple ruins we saw and interpret their place in the story of religious life in the time of Jesus and beyond.

ParthenonThe Parthenon by Mary Beard, Profile Books, 2010, 229 pp.

Mary Beard was unknown to me in the U.S., but here in the UK she is a household name, a witty classicist and brilliant storytelling scholar. This quick, accessible read tells the history of the Parthenon: its building, decline, destruction and looting from ancient days to the present controversies, including a thorough guide to both the Elgin Marbles here in the British Museum and the new Parthenon Museum in Athens. Reading this ahead of our trip made the day at the Parthenon come alive.

On Paul’s Journeys:

CorinthA Week in the Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington III, InterVarsity Press, 2012, 158 pp.

This is best described as educational fiction. Witherington uses his extensive knowledge of first century Corinth to create a fictional character who interacts with Paul and others there. Events are historical, and there are many insets presenting non-fiction content, but the author’s own imagination fills in conversation and intent. Not my favorite, because it read a bit like a secondary school textbook that is trying to engage young people. Still, it was interesting to have a detailed bit on Corinth for our day there.

Paul Very Brief HistoryPaul: A Very Brief History by John M.G. Barclay, SPCK Publishing, 2017, 128 pp.

I hoped this would serve as the foundation for an adult Bible study course, but it worked better as deep overview of Paul’s life and writings, including a review of scholarly debates about authorship, timing and biography. It was a good refresher and introductory course to organize my preaching and teaching.

Paul BiographyPaul: A Biography by Tom Wright, SPCK Publishing, 2018, 464 pp.

When you are embarking on an eight-week preaching and teaching series, and Tom Wright publishes a new tome on the subject one month before, you should read it, so I did. At first, I struggled to overcome the informality of the popular biography style, wishing that there were footnotes and arguments to defend Wright’s assertions about character and motive. As I progressed through, I abandoned myself to Wright’s vision and trusted his accumulated knowledge. When I did, I met in his Paul a fascinating, radical, inspiring and inspired man whose passion for Christ extended to the entire world, from ancient days to our own. This offers a unique view on Paul, told chronologically and in third person, rather than by his own letters and the arguments they reveal about the church. I felt a greater kinship with Paul as a fellow preacher, a greater compassion for his faults, and a deeper appreciation for his contribution–along with a better engagement with his world in Greece and beyond.

Fiction:

Cartes PostalesCartes Postales from Greece by Victoria Hislop, Headline Review, 2017, 448 pp.

I love to immerse myself in a good novel about a place I am visiting. This was more a collection of short stories within a novel-like frame. Each story took place in a different town in Greece, which was described in detail. Some of the stories were excellent, some just alright, and the overarching frame did not excite me. However, I enjoyed an insight into modern Greece and Greeks, and it made for good travel reading.

OutlineOutline by Rachel Cusk, Faber Books, 2014, 249 pp.

Like Cartes Postales, Outline is a collection of short stories framed as a novel. However, in this collection, a woman visiting Greece keeps meeting with people who tell her their stories, so everything happens in long, first-person narratives, with a new and distinct voice each time. The stories read with the wistful tone of memoir, and explore the emotional lives of characters more than events themselves. It was beautifully written.

 

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This year has been so full and so busy with good things that I never paused to write about them here. My reflections found expression in sermons and church writing instead. However, as 2019 begins, I am ready to write again–at least about books–so I am starting up my habit of book reviews once more.

I can’t bring myself to skip all the way to the first review of 2019, so this is a bit of a catch-up list from 2018. I did manage to write reviews for the first few months of the year, but then I started a lot of reading and very little writing that continued until now.

A whole subset of this year’s reading involved a trip to Greece and related books, which is what caused me to get tripped up in the first place. Those are listed in their own post.

First, the fiction.

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith, Random House, 2000, 448 pp.

I enjoyed White Teeth shortly after it came out, but I wanted to read it again as a Londoner, as it is considered an iconic novel of contemporary London life. I agree! I understood it much more now that I inhabit this diverse city, and enjoyed recognizing familiar places and types of people. Whether you know London or not, though, White Teeth is worth a read.

A God in RuinsLife after LifeLife after Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, Black Swan, 2014 and 2015, 640 and 460 pp.

The two-part Todd family series tells the narrative of life in 20th century Britain, though both novels play with the reader’s ideas about linear time. Life after Life tells the story of Ursula Todd, who keeps being reborn over and over again, seemingly until she gets it right–managing her own longevity and protection for the lives of others. The London Blitz features prominently. A God in Ruins tells the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, the family favorite and an RAF pilot who flew many dangerous missions. While he does not have his sister’s habit of reincarnation, the narrative does move about through Teddy’s past, present and future simultaneously. Good stories, well told.

Retaliation in KindRetaliation in Kind by Kathryn Allen, Vantage Press, 1994, 343 pp.

Kathy is a clergy friend I knew Kentucky, who came to the ministry after retirement from the Marine Corps. When we were saying our goodbyes before I moved, she gave me a gift: “Just a book I wrote back in another life.” (!!??!!) This international spy thriller draws on her days in the Marines and her own imagination about military intelligence to weave a brilliantly entertaining spy story. Though the geopolitics have shifted dramatically in the last 20 years, it is still an entertaining story.

We Are WaterWe Are Water by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2013, 562 pp.

This is just the sort of story I have come to expect from Wally Lamb: long, wrenching, emotional, full of human brokenness and depression. The story here involves divorce after a longĀ  heterosexual marriage and a new engagement between the former wife and her new female partner; a history of childhood violence and sexual abuse (trigger warning); the ex-husband seeking a new life, and the adult children in the middle. All of this is set into a backdrop of artists and art dealers, New England now and in the days of segregation, with a few ghosts thrown in for good measure. It was chilling and disturbing, as Lamb always is, though I did not think it was his best.

London by Edward Rutherfurd, Arrow Books, 1997, 1302 pp. London Rutherfurd

I’m still reading my way through all kinds of books that help me learn the stories of my new home. This novel traces families across generations, from Roman times through the Blitz, often skipping a century or more to pick back up generations later. Consequently, it feels like a period collection of short stories with common threads by name and sometimes occupation or location. The book is quite a commitment, but Rutherfurd provides entertaining and interesting stories to imagine happening around town in ages past.

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Bantam Classic edition, originally published 1847, 315 pp.

Recovering from my final cancer surgery this year, I spent hours every day walking on Hampstead Heath, near our home. Naturally, I was reminded of Heathcliff and Catherine, though the moors they haunted are far to the north of here. I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager and loved it, so I looked forward to the return. I discovered that Victorian dramas capture something of the passion of youth, and my middle-aged self had far less interest in the swooning, all-consuming love and hatred of these characters. Still, it was good to return to a classic.

A Dark NativityA Dark Nativity by George Pitcher, Unbound, 2017, 335 pp.

I stumbled into this book by accident in December 2017, and bought it to read during Advent 2018, thinking by title and plot summary about an aid worker in the Middle East would connect the Christmas story to the plight of modern refugees. Wrong. Instead, it was a spy novel about an aid worker turned Anglican priest, caught up in international intrigue. Entertaining, but not something to draw upon for sermon illustrations.

The RefugeesThe Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Press, 2017, 207 pp.

For someone who doesn’t usually read short stories, I’m noticing that this is the fourth book in 2018 in this genre, though the other four have a frame story to classify them as novels. The Refugees is everything I love about reading fiction: powerful prose, engaging characters, emotional depth, and a glimpse into worlds I would not otherwise know. Each of Nguyen’s stories tells about the life of a Vietnamese refugee adapting to life in California, unpacking a whole world familiar to all immigrants, yet deeply particular and contextual to this group arriving 40 years ago. I felt like I was meeting real people I may have passed on the street. One of the best books I read all year, and especially worth reading as we work to address the needs of migrants in the U.S. and the UK, currently experiencing displacement and harsh treatment by government authorities.

LibrarianThe Librarian by Salley Vickers, Penguin Books, 2018, 385 pp.

I got suckered by the advert. Named by Waterstone’s as Book of the Month in November 2018, it was described as the story of a children’s librarian saving young lives by the power of books in the early 1950s. I couldn’t resist buying it. I don’t regret the purchase or the time reading it, but it wasn’t especially memorable. A love story, a love of books (most of which, because they were published in Britain before 1958, I did not know), and children changed by reading, all in solid prose, with a restrained, subtle style that felt very British. Good book for tucking in on a holiday with a warm blanket.

 

 

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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