Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk

Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Doing Germany by Agnieszka Paletta

AuthorAgnieszka Paletta
TitleDoing Germany
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
Summary/Review:

This is a book I idly picked up from a Kindle sale, because I enjoyed travelling to Germany.  What a surprise that the author declares early on that she never had any interest in visiting German.  As a Polish-Canadian, moving back and forth between the two nations, Paletta’s real love is Italy.  She only ends up in Germany after meeting the man she calls M in a Cracow nightclub, falling in love, and deciding to move into his Munich apartment for three months.  That three months turns to years as the couple are engaged, married, do a lot of house shopping, and have a child.  Along the way, Paletta records the cultural adjustments of living in Germany.  Her stories are episodic, a bit gossipy in tone, and she seems unusually wed to traditional gender stereotypes.  I could offer criticisms, but forget that.  Everyone thinks that they can write a book about their travels and life abroad, but few do, so good for her.  And Agnieszka seems like a fun person who’d I’d like to hang out with, perhaps to go dancing.  So it’s a breezy travel/memoir/life adventure story, and I’ll leave at that.

Favorite Passages:

“I can also relate to keeping one’s roots and traditions alive and not changing your culture just because you’ve changed borders. Canada is great that way – it promotes multiculturalism. Germany is more like the US: once you cross the border, you’re expected to drop everything and mould yourself into a citizen of your new homeland.”

“Unlike on that typical bike, you don’t sit leaning forward; you sit up like a lady, much like in a chair. Therefore, you don’t crane your neck to look up; your head is as God meant it to be – straight on. It makes cycling dignified and comfortable.”

“M tells me it’s impolite to stare and talk to strangers here. You don’t ask how their day is going, how they are feeling. Basically, you don’t intrude because it’s none of your business. So like, they’re not trying to be rude or cold, but polite. They say good morning or God bless you but not how are you – that’s a private matter and none of their business.” (Note from Liam: this is probably why I like Germany.  They follow the same rules as Bostonians).

Recommended books: My ‘Dam Life by Sean Condon
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Information by James Gleick

AuthorJames Gleick
TitleThe Information
Publication Info: New York : Books on Tape, 2011
Summary/Review:

The Information is a sweeping historical / scientific / technological account of information across time and disciplines.  From talking drums, language, DNA, telegraphs, and bytes to  Claude Shannon, Charles Babbage, Ada Byron, Samuel Morse, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and John Archibald Wheeler.  It’s all very fascinating although it gets more complex for a lay reader (that is, me) to understand as it goes along.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Walking Dead: All Out War (vol. 20) by Robert Kirkman

Author: Robert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead: All Out War (vol. 20)
Publication Info: Image Comics (2014)
Summary/Review:

It’s called All Out War, part 1, so there’s no expectation that this would be all about war and that the war will not end.  Still, I’m reading at this point just to tread water until the Negan story is completed and they move on to something else.  Hopefully, at that point the story will show something interesting about continuing survival rather than contrived violence.  On the other hand, maybe they’ll just keep going with All Out War, part 3!

Rating: **

Book Review: “Guns” by Stephen King

Author: Stephen King
Title: “Guns”
Publication Info: Philtrum Press (2013)
Summary/Review:

I downloaded this long essay for the Kindle app on my phone.  Author Stephen King ruminates about the gun debate in the United States from the predictable media response to a mass shooting, violence in American culture, and explaining his reasons for pulling his book Rage from publication.  While admitting to being a gun owner himself, King proposes that further regulation of firearms is necessary in the United States.  And he believes that the NRA, conservatives, and others opposed to gun control need to be involved in creating these restrictions.  King’s arguments for firearms regulation are sound, but there’s nothing that hasn’t already been put forward.  Similarly, while he addresses the necessity of pro- and anti-gun control factions working together, I doubt that his words will convince anyone to change their views.

Favorite Passages:

My book did not break Cox, Pierce, Carneal, or Loukaitis, or turn them into killers; they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken. Yet I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

Superhero movies and comic books teach a lesson that runs directly counter to the culture-of-violence idea: guns are for bad guys too cowardly to fight like men.

The assertion that Americans love violence and bathe in it daily is a self-serving lie promulgated by fundamentalist religious types and America’s propaganda-savvy gun-pimps. It’s believed by people who don’t read novels, play video games, or go to many movies. People actually in touch with the culture understand that what Americans really want (besides knowing all about Princess Kate’s pregnancy) is The Lion King on Broadway, a foul-talking stuffed toy named Ted at the movies, Two and a Half Men on TV, Words with Friends on their iPads, and Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles. To claim that America’s “culture of violence” is responsible for school shootings is tantamount to cigarette company executives declaring that environmental pollution is the chief cause of lung cancer.

Ididn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, “We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.”

Recommended books: Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Where God Was Born by Bruce Feiler

Author:Bruce Feiler
TitleWhere God Was Born
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2005)
ISBN: 9780060888572
Summary/Review:

Feiler’s book is a unique combination of travelogue, history, theology, and personal growth.  Feiler documents his journeys to Israel, Iraq, and Iran to visit the sites of places mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures.  There’s a lot of interesting discussion of the Israelites and the connection to land, but how the religion was born only once they were taken from the land.  There are also hints that the Babylonian captivity was not as bad as depicted in the bible.  Feiler also has an interesting take on David, the flawed hero, who spent many years as a bandit and even collaborated with the enemies of Israel. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the book is when he worships with a Jewish community in Iran who have a surprising amount of religious freedom, something Feiler traces back to the Persian king Cyrus who liberated the Israelites from captivity.  He also traces Zoroastrian influences to the Abrahamic religions to this period.  In the end, Feiler finds in the Bible a blueprint for religious tolerance and understanding that could be followed today.
Rating: ***1/2

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: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Author: Ellen Ruppel Shell, Lorna Raver (narrator)
Title: Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
Publication Info: Tantor Media (2009)
ASIN: B002HIT0SG
Summary/Review:

Cheap is an intriguing expose on the modern American desire for bargains fed by discount stores and discount ideology in more areas of commerce than one would realize.  Ruppel Shell offers a fascinating history of discount stores from the late 19th-century to present.  Interestingly, many of the originators went under by the 1980s to be absorbed by the more ruthless corporations of today.  The hidden costs of inexpensive purchases are then detailed from environmental destruction, human rights violations of the employees who manufacture, distribute, and sell the products, the dangers of poor quality goods to the consumer, the erosion of the middle class, and the fact that a lot of this cheap stuff isn’t even worth what we pay for it.  Ruppel Shell makes the interesting point that we now live in a world where there are high-end goods and discount goods, but no reliable in-between.  IKEA, Wal-Mart, and outlet malls are singled out as some actors in the discount culture, but the closing “hope-for-the-future” chapter also details companies like Wegmans and Costco that are thriving despite adopting strategies that go against the grain of discount culture.  While the essence of this book is not likely to be surprising to most readers, it is still eye-opening in its details.


Recommended books:Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan,
Rating:****

Book Review: The Walking Dead: March To War (vol. 19) by Robert Kirkman

Author: Robert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead: March To War (vol. 19)
Publication Info:Image Comics (2013)
ISBN: 9781607068181
Summary/Review:

As noted in my review for volume 18, The Walking Dead series too often forces the drama by having the survivors in violent conflict with one another and all too often with a sadistic bully who is using the zombie apocalypse as an excuse to make a personal fiefdom.  I think there are more possible stories to be told of survival and adapting to the new world, but here we have a whole volume with preparation for war, with the upcoming two volumes dedicated to the war itself.  Sigh.  I guess in a way, The Walking Dead shows the post-apocalyptic world is a lot like our own after all.
Rating: **

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