Posts Tagged ‘Biography’

Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Author: Reza Aslan
TitleZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Publication Info: Random House (2013)
ASIN: B00BRUQ7ZY
Summary/Review:

I’ve not read a lot about the historical Jesus so this short summary of his life and times was engaging and enlightening.  “His times” is an important part of the title as few historical documents survive outside the scriptures (canonical and otherwise) which tend to provide a spiritual truth rather than historical facts (or are completely made up if you’re a non-believer).  Aslan does a great job of establishing first century Judea with its Roman occupiers and Jewish elites who accommodate them.  Then there are the various Jewish groups who seek to fight against Roman oppression and/or purify the practices of the Jewish people.  It’s among these where Aslan places Jesus, a more revolutionary figure than often depicted.  The transition of Jesus from a Jewish zealot to a peaceful, spiritual leader for all peoples comes about after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the success of Paul to appeal to the Gentiles, the Gospels being written after this date.  While finding no historical backing for some of what the evangelists wrote about Jesus, Aslan is sensitive to the belief in Jesus as messiah that survives to today, and the revolutionary message of Jesus remains relevant.
Favorite Passages:

This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus’s birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word “history.” The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths. The readers of Luke’s gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.

 

That Jesus had brothers is, despite the Catholic doctrine of his mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, virtually indisputable. It is a fact attested to repeatedly by both the gospels and the letters of Paul. Even Josephus references Jesus’s brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death. There is no rational argument that can be made against the notion that Jesus was part of a large family that included at least four brothers who are named in the gospels—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas—and an unknown number of sisters who, while mentioned in the gospels, are unfortunately not named.

 

In other words, according to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be “given back” the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be “given back” the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land: “The Land is mine,” says the Lord (Leviticus 25:23). Caesar has nothing to do with it. So then, give back to Caesar what is his, and give back to God what belongs to God. That is the zealot argument in its simplest, most concise form.  And it seems to be enough for the authorities in Jerusalem to immediately label Jesus as lestes. A bandit. A zealot.

 

To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus’s healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least. Acceptance of his miracles forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker. It may then, to say that there is more accumulated historical material confirming Jesus’s miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha. To be clear, there is no evidence to support any particular miraculous action by Jesus. How one in the modern world views Jesus’s miraculous actions is irrelevant. All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was—a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate?—there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker

 

Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus’s resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus. Obviously, the notion of a man dying a gruesome death and returning to life three days later defies all logic, reason, and sense. One could simply stop the argument there, dismiss the resurrection as a lie, and declare belief in the risen Jesus to be the product of a deludable mind. However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. The disciples were themselves fugitives in Jerusalem, complicit in the sedition that led to Jesus’s crucifixion. They were repeatedly arrested and abused for their preaching; more than once their leaders had been brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges of blasphemy. They were beaten, whipped, stoned, and crucified, yet they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus. And it worked! Perhaps the most obvious reason not to dismiss the disciples’ resurrection experiences out of hand is that, among all the other failed messiahs who came before and after him, Jesus alone is still called messiah. It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.

Recommended booksJesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg, The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine, and The Rapture Exposed by Barbara R. Rossing
Rating:

Book Review: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg

AuthorAmy S. Greenberg
TitleA Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Publication Info: Knopf (2012)
ISBN: 9780307592699
Summary/Review:

Like many Americans, I know very little about the Mexican War, which is a shame since what I learned from this one-volume history, we Americans keep repeating the same mistakes our nation made in this war.  Greenberg writes a page-turning narrative starting with the drumbeat for war – ostensibly caused by the United States annexation of the Republic of Texas, but with many American leaders hoping to annex California and other Mexican lands as well.  The United States first war with another republic was one guided by a greed for land and featured many atrocities – pillaging, rape, massacres – by American soldiers against the Mexican populace.  The American troops were able to occupy Mexico City and hardliners desired to annex all the land of Mexico.  But if the Mexican War is overlooked in American history, even more so is the first American anti-war movement prompted by reports from returning soldiers and embedded reporters of the real horror of the war.  In the conclusion of this book, Greenburg documents how the Daughters of the American Revolution grew out of this war, an attempt to reclaim the virtue and glory of the founding war and overshadow the avarice and criminality of the war with Mexico.

A Wicked War is by no means a comprehensive history of the war with Mexico.  Greenburg focuses her narrative on five historical figures.  The first is President James Polk who Greenburg describes as an apprentice of Andrew Jackson, a hard worker determined to meet his goals, and unusual for his time considered his wife Sarah an equal partner in his political career.  While a hard worker, his aims seem less admirable as Polk is depicted as wanting to seize the Southwest by any means and with this expand the slaveholding territory of the United States.   Opposing Polk is anti-slavery and anti-war candidate Henry Clay in his third and last failed campaign for President.  Clay’s son Henry, Jr. would go on to fight and die in the war adding to the elder Clay’s agony at this time.  But he would rally for one more great speech that would inspire the nation’s response to the end and aftermath of the war.

Another featured figure is John J. Hardin, a popular Illinois congressman who went against his fellow Whigs to support the invasion of Mexico and volunteered to fight.  His death at the Battle of Buena Vista became an image of glory for the war supporters even at a time when support for the war was flagging.  Hardin’s death also opened the door for his friend-turned-political rival Abraham Lincoln who was elected to represent their district’s seat in Congress in 1846.  Inspired by Clay, Lincoln would speak out against President Polk and the War in Congress despite the unpopularity of his views among his constituents, who saw to it that he would serve only one term.  The final figure in this book is Nicholas Trist, a diplomat sent by Polk to negotiate the Mexican surrender.  Upon growing familiar with the reality of the war and the conditions of the Mexican people, Trist refused to follow Polk’s instructions and negotiated a fairer deal with Mexico that ceded a smaller amount of territory to the United States.  After negotiation the Treaty of Guadalupe, Trist wrote “My feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than the Mexicans’ could be.”

I found this historical work very compelling and a good introduction to a bad war.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Author: Alison Bechdel
Title: Are You My Mother? 
Publication Info: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)
ISBN: 9780618982509

Previously Read By the Same Author: Fun Home

Summary/Review:  The follow-up to Fun Home, Bechdel’s graphic biography of her father, this book deals with Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her mother. It’s actually about a lot more than that as center to the story is the process of Bechdel writing the story about her father and how that was troubling to her mother. Psychology is also central to the narrative as Bechdel details decades of sessions with her therapists and the book is heavily illustrated with quotes from the writing of the psychologist Donald Winnicot. My favorite aspect of Fun Home was how Bechdel worked in literary allusions into her story and that is at play here, most fantastically in she compares Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with the plexiglass dome in Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book. The psychology stuff is rather heavy and kind of weighs down the story that it makes it less perfect than Fun Home for me, but nevertheless an excellent examination of the human condition.

Recommended BooksTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Rating: ***

Book Review: Life by Keith Richards with James Fox

AuthorKeith Richards with James Fox
TitleLife
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2010)
ISBN: 1600242405
Summary/Review:  I generally shy away from celebrity autobiographies but with the audiobook read by Johnny Depp and Richards himself, I had to give it a listen.  I figured that Richards would be a good storyteller and was not disappointed.  At its best, Life allows Richards to talk about the music he loves, the creative process, and songwriting which is all very insightful.  He also talks about musicians he loves such as saxophonist Bobby Keys and singer-songwriter Gram Parsons.  Richards can also be very catty.  More than 40 years after Brian Jones death, Richards does not let bygones be bygones and is very dismissive of his former bandmate.  On the other hand, Bill Wyman is virtually ignored.  Most of his venom is reserved for Mick Jagger, although it’s a brotherly kind of hate, and frankly Mick deserves it.  The book reflects the career arc of the Rolling Stones in that the best parts are at the beginning depicting Richards’ early life, the formation of the stones, their rise to fame, and their greatest artistic successes in the late 60s and early 70s.  The middle part of the book is bogged down by endless stories of drugs and excess as well as Richards’ legal battles.  The final part of the book is more of a hodgepodge with some humorous anecdotes and a few moments where the reader feels the triumph of 50 years of the Stones, but at the same time one is left mostly wondering why this is still going on.  I think the audiobook narration really helps make this book, so I expect it would not be as good to read in print.

Rating: **

Book Review: Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield

Author: Rob Sheffield
Title: Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Group (USA), 2010.
ISBN: 9780525951568
Summary/Review: Sheffield, a music critic for Rolling Stone, writes an amusing and touching depiction of his life growing up in the 1980s with each chapter built around a song from that misunderstood decade.  Sheffield stands out from the stereotypical music critic as he declares a true love for a lot of this music, even the songs and bands he knows aren’t very good.  The book resonates with me because so much of his life story is similar to my own.  We both grew up in the 80s fascinated with the music and culture of the decade, we lived in New England suburbs, we had Irish-American families, we were unusually active in the Catholic church at a young age, we had sisters who influenced us greatly (he has three younger sisters, I have one older sister) and we went to college in Virginia (I went to William & Mary for undergrad, while Sheffield went to University of Virginia for graduate studies).  Perhaps the most eerie similarities are when he (like I) works at a Harvard University library and he shares a house with his grandfather in the same neighborhood, and possibly even the same street, where I now live.  So, if I never write my own biography, this book will give you the gist.  Even if you have nothing in common with Sheffield I recommend this book for Sheffield’s humor, cheerful optimism, and deep love for the 1980s.

Favorite Passages:

“When I started out as a music journalist, at the end of the 1980s, it was generally assumed that we were living through the lamest music era the world would ever see.  But those were also the years when hip-hop exploded, beatbox disco soared, indie rock took off, and new wave invented a new language of teen angst.  All sorts of futuristic electronic music machines offered obnoxious noises for plundering.  All kind of bold feminist ideas were inspiring pop stars to play around with gender roles and sexual politics, on a lever that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.”  p. 4

 

Recommended BooksAmerican Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times by Steven Travers

Author:Steven Travers
TitleThe Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times 
Publication Info: Lanham, Md : Taylor Trade, 2011.
ISBN: 9781589796607
Summary/Review: I received a free advance review copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  The biography of the great Mets pitcher and Hall of Fame baseball star is generally a hagiography from the title to the conclusion.  Not that I would prefer a hatchet job but depicting Seaver as near-superhuman does him no favors in my opinion.  Also, Travers and Seaver share the same alma mater of USC and Travers doesn’t miss any opportunity to mention it.  I did learn some interesting things about Seaver such as the fact that he was a late bloomer and didn’t become a great pitcher until his college years.  There are also some interesting details of his Mets years and relationships with coaches and players.  The diehard Mets or baseball fan may want to read this book but otherwise I think the great Seaver biography remains to be written.

Recommended booksGil Hodges: The Quiet Man by Marino Amoruso, The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove and If at First: A Season With the Mets by Keith Hernandez.
Rating: **

Book Review: Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand

AuthorLauren Hillenbrand
TitleUnbroken
Publication Info: Random House (2010)
ISBN: 1400064163
Summary/Review: This improbable true-life adventure tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner (who even met Hitler at the 1936 games, naturally)  who goes to war in the South Pacific, survives a plane crash at sea, spends weeks adrift on a life raft (surviving strafing and shark attacks), and then is taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  There due to his fame as an athlete he is singled out for abuse by the cruel commandant.  Historically, this book illustrates a level of cruelty of World War II era Japanese that I’d previously not been familiar with. This book is a stunning depiction of survival against unrelenting attacks on the human body and psyche.  It’s also a story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Sleepwalk With Me by Mike Birbiglia

Author:Mike Birbiglia
TitleSleepwalk With Me 
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster, c2010.
ISBN: 9781439157992
Summary/Review:  Stand-up comedian,  monologist, and This American Life regular Mike Birbiglia writes about his life and sleepwalking issues in this collection of autobiographical essays.  In the early going, I was disappointed because these were the same exact stories I’ve heard before but lacking the same resonance they have when you hear Birbilia’s voice.  Later on, the book improves as the written form of his storytelling gets better for less familiar stories.  If you like Birbiglia’s work in stand-up, storytelling, or even his upcoming movie you might like this book.  On the other hand, he may just work better in those other media and this book is extraneous.

Favorite Passages:

p. 102 – “Data entry is a fascinating job where you .. type … in … data….that’s been…written on something else. You can press tab and jump from field to field, and you need to remember to capitalize proper nouns like people’s names and their streets. The first ten minutes of data entry fly by, because you’re really getting the hang of it. The remaining seven hours and fifty minutes go a lot more slowly, because you glance at the clock after you finish every entry. Data entry is the white-collar equivalent of potato peeling.”

Recommended booksNerd Do Well by Simon Pegg and Bossypants by Tina Fey.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Author:  Eric Foner 
TitleThe Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
Publication Info:  New York : W. W. Norton & Co., c2010.
ISBN:   9780393066180
Summary/Review:

Every year on or around Lincoln’s Birthday I read a book about Abraham Lincoln, and this year I read this study about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery.  Some people consider him the great emancipator while others think he was racist and never freed a slave.  Both views have an aspect of truth.  Foner shows that Lincoln was anti-slavery from early in his life but did not think freed black persons were equal or capable of living alongside white Americans.  Until late in his Presidency he held true to a plan of colonization and resettlement of freed blacks in Africa or Latin America.  Yet, even these views were modified over time as during his Presidency he was actually exposed to meeting and respecting black individuals on a regular basis.  It’s an interesting look at how a mind changes and how the country changes as Lincoln was often just a step ahead of popular opinion.

Recommended booksThe Radical and the Republican by James Oakes
Rating: ***1/2

  • The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Book Review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Author: Dave Eggers
Title: Zeitoun
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2009
ISBN: 9781440764134
Summary/Review:
This work of literary non-fiction captures the harrowing story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun immediately before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.  Zeitoun, by all accounts a decent and honest man, is a hardworking Syrian immigrant who runs a contracting business.  When the storm comes, he has his family evacuate, while he stays to keep an eye on some properties he manages.  The scenes immediately after the storm are eerily beautiful with Zeitoun paddling a canoe through the streets of New Orleans joining up with other survivors to rescue people and care for dogs left behind.  Then mysteriously Zeitoun and his companions are arrested.  He is held under shockingly cruel conditions, abused, and not allowed to contact family or a lawyer for several weeks.  It’s a chilling tale of injustice in America and indictment of the nation’s values in the post-September 11th paradigm.  Most telling is how government agencies were unable to coordinate rescuing survivors, yet within days after the storm had constructed a large, high-security prison in a bus station parking lot.  Eggers writing is straightforward and fleshed out with flashbacks to Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria and his wife Kathy’s conversion to Islam.  The writing style is a delight to read but the story makes me angry and depressed.

Recommended books: The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede, In the Name of the Father by Gerry Conlon and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast.
Rating: ****
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