20 Books of Summer

Most book bloggers love a good reading challenge and I’m no exception. Last week thanks to one of my favorite bloggers, Jean at Howling Frog Books I learned Cathy, of 746 Books is hosting her annual 20 Books of Summer Challenge. The rules are simple and there’s no pressure. Just choose 20 books to read between June 1 and September 3. Nothing is set in stone. You can swap out a book for different one, skip a book or two or even fail to read all the books on your list. You can even cut your list down to 10 or 15. This sounds like a reading challenge I can’t pass up. I’ve selected 21 books, which includes an alternate in case I end up tossing one aside. Truth be told, I’d love nothing better than to read all 21 of these before the end of summer.

  1. A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Bloom
  2. The Enlightenment: An interpretation; The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay
  3. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand
  4. Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football by Jim Dent
  5. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett
  6. Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb
  7. The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge by James Burke
  8. A History of Western Morals by Crane Brinton
  9. The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery by Richard Elliott Friedman
  10. God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam
  11. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  12. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright
  13. The Evolution of God by Robert Wright
  14. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
  15. Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View by Richard Tarnas
  16. The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
  17. Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative by David Brock
  18. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes
  19. The Story of Judaism by Bernard Bamberger
  20. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray
  21. When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman

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Three More Coming Attractions

I’m going to try to work my way out of my current blogging slump by doing yet another Coming Attractions post. Good grief, if I can’t write about books perhaps I can remind the world I’m still reading. Who knows, maybe this will inspire me to finally get off my butt and do a little blogging!

Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution by Leonard Shlain – I’ve been wanting to read Shlain’s 2004 book for well over a decade but after hearing my brother-in-law rave about it over a couple of beers at a local watering hole a few weeks back I took his advice and borrowed a copy from my public library. While I’m still weighing the pros and cons of this readable and thought-provoking book let’s just say after waiting so many years to finally read it I was not disappointed.

The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions by Marwan Bishara – I kept seeing Bishara’s book at the public library but never grabbed it. Then one day my curiosity got the better of me and I secured a copy. Bishara, chief policy analyst of Al Jazeera English and the anchor of the program “Empire,” looks at the state of the Arab World, chiefly through the lens of the Arab Spring. I didn’t enjoy The Invisible Arab as much as I’d hoped but nevertheless Bishara taught me more than a thing or two.

Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics by Lawrence O’Donnell – From one cable TV news host to another. Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell,” has written a superb book chronicling the 1968 Presidential Election and above all its lasting importance. Not only am I confident Playing with Fire will make my year-end Best Nonfiction List there’s a good chance it might end up my favorite piece of nonfiction for 2018.

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Six More Coming Attractions

The bad news is I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump. The good news is, even though I haven’t been posting, I’ve read some excellent books. As you can see, I’ve been hitting the nonfiction stuff pretty hard of late. As far as subject matter goes, it’s a diverse lot, covering science, history, memoir and politics.

Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt – A friend recommended this a few years ago and I finally got around to reading it. Imagine the science writing of David Quammen and Carl Zimmer with a dash of Bill Bryson’s humor.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos – Not only did this win the National Book Award, it was also a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and an Economist Best Book of the Year. And yes, it deserves all the hype.

Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith by Carlene Cross – After seeing this one of the library shelf over the last couple of years my curiosity finally got the better of me so I borrowed a copy. I was not disappointed.

Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer- One of a handful of “thought leaders” I follow. I’ve been a fan of Bremmer ever since I saw his interview on The Charlie Rose Show eight years ago.

An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler by Peter Fritzsche – An outstanding look at life in Nazi occupied Europe based on first hand accounts like letters and diaries. Right now this book is a strong candidate for my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson – This book sat ignored and unread in my private library for far too long. Glad I finally got around to reading it.

Not only are these excellent books there’s a good chance most or even all of them will make my year-end Best Nonfiction List. Hopefully soon I’ll break out of my blogging slump and start writing about these six outstanding works of nonfiction.

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The Case for Impeachment by Allan J. Lichtman

I usually don’t get book recommendations from my mom, but when I do, they’re pretty good. About a year ago, she told me about a book called The Case for Impeachment. She’d seen the book’s author Allan J. Lichtman interviewed on TV and thought this was a book I needed to read. After a great deal of procrastination I was able to secure a copy through my public library. After leisurely making my way through Lichtman’s book I’m glad my Mom recommended it to me.

In The Case for Impeachment Lichtman (who also predicted Trump’s electoral victory) makes a straight-forward, level-headed argument for the impeachment of Donald Trump. He begins with an explanation of the impeachment process. As stated in the Constitution, the President can be removed from office if both houses of Congress find him guilty of committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.” (According to Lichtman, unfortunately for Trump this includes crimes committed before taking office.) Lichtman also discusses how the impeachment process has played out in history by looking at the past presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. From there, it’s on to the alleged high crimes and misdemeanors of Donald Trump, a laundry list of transgressions including but not limited to: colluding with the Russians during the recent Presidential election (treason), using his office to personally profit from foreign interests (emoluments) and sexual assault and harassment.

If that wasn’t enough, Trump could be charged with abuse of power based on his personal attacks on judges, political opponents and the media. If he’s if perceived as mentally ill (Lichtman thinks based on Trump’s track record he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder) he could be declared incapacitated and removed from office, as outlined in the 25 Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Lastly, in a bit of a stretch Lichtman speculates Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his adamant refusal to promote measures to lessen America’s carbon emissions could constitute a crime against humanity and thus an impeachable high crime.

The Case for Impeachment reads like an extended article one might find in a magazine like Time, the New Yorker or the Atlantic. And frankly there’s nothing wrong with that. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like a rush job that Lichtman cranked out just to make a quick buck or two. It’s a quick read and serves up a handy and relatively concise indictment of Trump’s many transgression and failings.  Who knows, it might make the perfect birthday gift for that special Trump supporter in your life.

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Old Books Reading Project: Toward Understanding Paul by Boyce W. Blackwelder

Last September in my review of Adam W. Miller’s 1946 edition of An Introduction to the New Testament I mentioned over the years I’d acquired several old books from book sales hosted by a small local religious college. One of those old books gathering dust in my personal library is Boyce W. Blackwelder’s Toward Understanding Paul. While not as old as Miller’s above mentioned book, nevertheless it was published in 1961, and to me that makes it an old book. With Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible sitting by my bed begging me to finally read it I figured now was as good a time as any to read an old book or two about the Bible. So one night I pulled Blackwelder’s book off the shelf and began reading it. After reading about half of it I grew bored set it aside. But a few weeks later I picked it back up and finished it in only a few sittings.

Toward Understanding Paul is short book, weighing in at just over 130 pages. I’m guessing it was written as college text, probably for introductory courses on the New Testament. Toward Understanding Paul at its heart is theologically conservative, probably evangelical. Therefore, Blackwelder stands firm on his belief Paul wrote all the epistles attributed to him, and was inspired by God as he wrote them. But it’s also important to note, according to Blackwelder Paul never considered his letters scripture. In the first century AD what Jews and early Christians called scripture was the Hebrew Bible. Only years later, would Paul’s letters, plus the Gospels, Acts and Revelation be treated as scripture by the early Church.

To those who are skeptical of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, preferring to believe that Paul experienced some sort of natural phenomenon like an epileptic seizure or fit of sunstroke, Blackwelder, firm in his faith points out it’s rare for such non supernatural experiences to bring out change that’s so permanent and profound.

He also believes Paul was eventually released from prison (more like house arrest) and embarked on yet another missionary journey, probably to Spain. Later, he was arrested and executed during the reign of Nero. Even though these events aren’t specifically mentioned in the New Testament.

With a number of these kind of old books in my personal library, you’ll probably see more books like Toward Understanding Paul featured on my blog. Plus, some of you might remember last year I posted a link to Tara Isabela Burton’s outstanding and thought-provoking Atlantic article “Study Theology Even If You Don’t Believe in God.” Inspired by her article I hope to read more books on religion and related subjects. And when I do, you’ll read about it here.

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About Time I Read It: Desire of the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill

Way back in 1995 I read a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization and it rocked my world. Cahill’s inspiring account of Irish monks in the Middle Ages working to preserve the West’s intellectual treasures against the ravages of barbarians easily made it one of my favorite books. As a writer and historian Cahill showed me history can be readable and therefore fun. From then on whenever I heard Cahill had written a new book I wanted to read it.

And I did. Over the years I’ve enjoyed his subsequent books The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter almost as much as How the Irish Saved Civilization. However, his 2006 book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me disappointed. Later, in my opinion he redeemed himself in 2013 with Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World.  I also enjoyed a pair of books that weren’t part of his above-mentioned Hinges of History series, namely A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green and the biography Pope John XXIII as part of the Penguin Lives. But one book eluded me. As big a Thomas Cahill junky as I am, I never got around to reading his Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. That is, until now.

Recently, during one of my Saturday trips to the public library I stumbled across a copy. Excited to find yet another one of those “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read” of course I borrowed it. Over the following days as I made my way through his 1999 book over my morning coffee I began to realize Desire of the Everlasting Hills, although not a bad book, didn’t blow me away like most of his others.

In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Cahill takes readers back to the birth of Christianity. Cahill begins by looking at ancient Palestine and environs. At the time of Jesus it was part of the Roman Empire and subject to its laws. Thanks to the conquests of Alexander, there was a great deal of Hellenic influence, with Greek being the widely spoken especially among Gentiles. Lastly, there were the Jews, heirs to hundreds of years of Jewish religious thought and culture. Out of this complex ancient environment Jesus arose and later, the Apostle Paul.  Paul, educated in Greek language, rhetoric and philosophy as well as Jewish thought and scriptures was the perfect man to bridge the gap between Gentile and Jew (or in his own words in I Corinthians “I am made All things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”) and taking what had been a local Jewish reform movement and putting it on a trajectory to become the world’s dominant religion. With, as Cahill makes a compelling case at the end of his book, Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on justice and compassion at its core.

By writing history book about Jesus, Paul and the birth of Christianity Cahill took on a thankless job. Theologically conservative Christians probably think he’s too liberal. On the other hand atheists, agnostics, skeptics and the like probably think he’s too Christian. I guess you can’t please everyone.

Like I said earlier, Desire of the Everlasting Hills isn’t my favorite Cahill book. Who knows, maybe after waiting so long to read it my expectations were too high. Not to sound like some expert some of the material he covered I’m already familiar with. But that’s OK. I’m still a huge fan of Cahill and considering his overall outstanding body of work, I’ll just live with it.

 

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About Time I Read It: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Years ago I was a member of the Quality Paperback Book Club (QPB). Looking back I think what I enjoyed the most about being a member was receiving the QPB’s monthly  catalog, happily thumbing through it and reading about all kinds promising books. A few books like Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University I ended up buying through QPB. But a number of books such as Ian Frazier’s Travels In SiberiaGuy Walters’ Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice, and Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners I didn’t buy but instead borrowed from my public library. 

One book I saw advertised in the QPB catalog was Jamie Ford’s 2009 novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Even though I never purchased or borrowed it nevertheless I loved its cover art. Perhaps because of its lovely cover art I’ve always had a soft spot for this novel I’ve never yet. So, when one of my book clubs opted to read it, I borrowed a copy from my public library and gave it a read. The bad news is even though I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I didn’t make it to that month’s meeting. The good news is despite my little soft spot for this novel I kinda had low expectations of it but in the end, still managed to enjoy it.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in one of those dual timeline novels. In this case, our story begins in the 1990s with the purchase and renovation of a long-shuttered hotel in what used to be the city’s Japanese section of town. Later, action shifts to World War II and bounces back and forth between the two eras. During the war years a young Chinese-American boy falls in love with Keiko, a Japanese-American teen girl. This angers the boy’s father, who bitterly hates all Japanese blaming them for Japan’s brutal occupation of China. To make matters worse, Keiko and her family find themselves imprisoned in internment camps along with other Japanese-Americans.

Like I mentioned, this novel ended up being a pleasant surprise. Another pleasant surprise was the Seattle jazz scene (of which I knew nothing about prior to reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) playing a central role in the novel. When it comes to Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I have no complaints. I can see why my book club, as well as others have chosen to read it.

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