Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

When it comes to nonfiction books, I’m a big fan of what I call “unofficial sequels.” These are books (usually in the field of history) that make great follow-up reading to an earlier published book dealing with the subject matter. Who cares if the two books are from different authors, it just feels like one book takes off where the earlier book ended. The first example that comes to mind is Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story. In my opinion it flows seamlessly from where Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World ends. Much in the same way,  Jeffery Toobin’s The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court is a great follow-up book to Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s 1979 expose The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. Taking it one step further, Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945, Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 when combined together form a rather nice trilogy, even though they’re the work of three different authors.

I’d like to add one more title to my little list of unofficial sequels. A few years ago as a present I received a copy of Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. It’s the perfect unofficial sequel to Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Beginning almost at the point where The Sister of Sinai leaves off, Sacred Trash tells an amazing story.

In Sisters of Sinai, we learned of the discovery of a long forgotten trove of ancient manuscripts that spent centuries gathering dust in the hidden storage room or geniza of a Cairo synagogue. Thanks to the hard work of a pair of intrepid Scottish sisters and Cambridge’s Romanian-born community Rabbi, this priceless cache of Jewish documents was finally brought to light for all to study. In Sacred Trash, we learn just what was found in that dusty and decrepit storage room and how, over the years scholars were able to study the documents and as a result gain a greater understanding of the history of Jewish life in the Levant and neighboring areas.

As far as discoveries go, the Cairo Geniza was a historian’s jackpot. Imagine a huge pile of manuscripts representing a timeframe from the 11th century to the 19th. In among the worn-out Hebrew Bibles and other religious texts were also more commonplace artifacts like marriage contracts, divorce writs, wills, business records and personal letters. Ironically, it’s because of these more profane items found among the sacred ones that scholars now know what Jewish life was like in the region over the past centuries. Because of the invaluable light they’ve shed, the treasures of the Cairo Geniza have been dubbed by modern scholars as the “Living Sea Scrolls.”

Sacred Trash is a lot of fun. It serves up a nice slice of overlooked Jewish history and is readable, interesting and at times even a bit quirky. (After reading a few of the marriage and divorce documents quoted in Sacred Trash you will first chuckle and then agree with the author of Ecclesiastes that there’s nothing new under the sun.) I have no problem recommending Sacred Trash.

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Filed under Arab World, History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

One of the many cool things one can find on the site Book Riot is Rachel Cordasco’s monthly column “In Translation.” Each month her brief but informative piece spotlights three or four newly-released works of translated fiction. Since I’m participating in more and more reading challenges designed to inspire participants to read books about or set in other countries, I’ve found her columns full of promising recommendations. Back in September Cordasco featured a novel by the Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro. In her column, Cordasco described Ribeiro’s novel His Own Man as the story of a Brazilian diplomat named Max who spends several decades serving his nation’s autocratic military rulers. According to Cordasco, “the price this man pays is the trust and love of his family and friends, for Max has been both an informer and a spy.” Calling His Own Man “a fascinating read” a took Cordasco’s recommendation to heart and added Ribeiro’s novel to my growing list of things I wanna read.

Not long ago I was poking around the shelves at my public library when I spotted a copy of His Own Man. Remembering Cordasco’s praise of the novel, and knowing that I could count it towards a number of my reading challenges I eagerly grabbed it. After letting it sit unread for a few days a cracked it open one nice afternoon and went to work on it. Almost immediately I found myself sucked in this great piece of sophisticated and entertaining fiction.

The novel begins with our young and impressionable narrator busy at his job with the Brazilian foreign ministry. It’s here he meets Max and is immediately taken in by his charming, culturally sophisticated and slightly Bohemian manner. Within no time he’s quickly introduced to Max’s inner circle of young urban sophisticates. But soon after that, things begin to change. A conservative Brazilian cardinal pays a visit to the ministry, and in an obvious show of fealty Max kisses his ring. With this message telegraphed to the nation’s new ruling junta Max has shown he’s ready and willing to do their bidding. He quickly and effortlessly sheds his former left-leaning beliefs and begins toting the new conservative party line. Favored and supported by members of the junta, the reinvented Max rises up the ranks of Brazilian diplomatic corp, with prestigious postings throughout southern South America (and playing no small part in the region’s bloody “dirty wars”). Along the way Max also secretly supplies secret information to both the American and British intelligence services, making him a spy in the pay of not just one but three different nations.

This is a very good book and highly recommended for any readers who might be interested in South American politics and history, especially that of the last 50 years. On a personal note, it’s also the first Brazilian novel I’ve read. After enjoying it, I’d love to read more fiction from that South America nation. Therefore, kudos to Rachel Cordasco and the good people at Book Riot for bringing this fine novel to my attention.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, History, Latin America/Caribbean

About Time I Read It: Forged by Bart Ehrman

I can’t believe it was just over 10 years ago that I discovered Bart Ehrman. Probably like most non-academics, my first introduction into Ehrman’s stuff was his 2003 book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. I must have enjoyed it because after that, I went on to read just about everything by Ehrman I could get my hands on including Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer and Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen his style evolve. Perhaps starting with God’s Problem, Ehrman’s approach has become more methodical, like he’s trying to make a powerful and convincing argument to  a reasonably intelligent, yet nevertheless nonacademic – and at the same time skeptical – audience. Therefore, I’ve admired his ability to take sophisticated and scholarly material and make it accessible and interesting to the rest of us.

Back in 2011, I’d read that Ehrman had written yet another book. As one might guess from the title,  Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are is Ehrman’s assertion that a surprising number of the books comprising the New Testament were not written by their purported authors. Of course, this assertion isn’t anything new or radical because most modern biblical scholars (not counting the more conservative ones) have been saying this for years. But I wanted to read Forged because I wanted to see how Ehrman approached the subject matter. Therefore, I made a mental note or two to read Ehrman’s book, should I ever come across a copy at the public library or second-hand book store. But then like so many other promising books I quickly forgot about it.

Funny thing is when you spend so many lazy weekends prowling the shelves at the public library  you come across all kinds of things, including books you’d forgotten that you once wanted to read. So when I spotted Forged, I thought to myself now’s a better time as any to finally read it. I grabbed Forged and added it to the small clutch of library books under my arm.

Just like with God’s Problem and Did Jesus Exist, Ehrman once again takes a methodical approach in making his claims, and in doing so, makes a compelling and easy to understand case that many of those New Testament books were not written by those we’ve always attributed them to. According to Ehrman, these disputed books break down into roughly two categories.

The first ones are books that judging by our earliest manuscripts were never explicitly attributed to an author. Even though they’re anonymous, the early Christians eventually associated them with authors in order to grant the books greater legitimacy. This list of books includes not just all four Gospels but also Acts and John’s three Epistles.

The second group of disputed New Testament books are those that have been attributed to an apostle or disciple, but in reality were not written by one of those venerable figures. This includes a number of Paul’s Epistles including Colossians and Ephesians. Included too are Epistles from James, Jude and Peter’s Second Epistle. According to Ehrman, these books were written years later by individuals within the early church who wanted to promote their particular religious agendas. By writing under the name of, say Paul or Peter they could grant authority to their writings and their words would be taken as scripture to be followed.

On top of this, in Forged Ehrman makes two additional claims that traditionalists will understandably dislike. One, in the Roman Empire literacy was restricted to minuscule minority. Chances are that a small group of Jewish fisherman and peasants could not only read and write Hebrew but also be fluent enough in Greek to compose sophisticated religious epistles and detailed histories are pretty slim. Therefore, it’s hard to believe men like Peter, John, Matthew and James wrote the stuff traditionally attributed to them. Second of all many conservative traditionalists say these misattributions should not disturb us because it was commonly accepted in the ancient world for one to “forge” his/her name to a document, as long as what was written still reflected the purported author’s ideas. However, according Ehrman a more careful examination of history shows otherwise. Forgery has always been forgery and it’s always been looked down on as being wrong.

I enjoyed Forged. With it, Ehrman continues to evolve as a writer and in all likelihood gain a wider audience. It is for this new audience of skeptical but nevertheless curious and engaged group of readers that I enthusiastically recommend his book Forged.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Christianity, History

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

Just a shade under 20 years ago I discovered the science and nature writing of David Quammen. Looking back, it seems like only yesterday when, after hearing him interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, I ran to the public library to procure a copy of his then-latest book Song of the Dodo. Impressed and entertained by his fascinating accounts of fragile island and island-like ecosystems, I made an effort to read his stuff whenever I came across it in places like National Geographic or Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately, even though I’d been reading his magazine articles from quite some time his books like Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind or Wild Thoughts from Wild Places still managed to escape me. But I figured it was just a matter of time before I read one of them. So, when my book group decided to read Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic an excellent opportunity presented itself. And after receiving a copy of Spillover as a Christmas present several years ago I could finally read one of Quammen’s books.

As one can guess by the book’s subtitle, Spillover describes Quammen’s travels around the globe in search of diseases that might have originally started in animals, but later spread or “jumped” to humans. His quest takes him across five continents, beginning with Australia where he investigate a fairly recent outbreak of Hendra virus. From there he visits China and Hong Kong in search of the origins of SARS, Bangladesh to trap bats (according to Quammen bats’ role as a huge viral reservoir is only now being understood), Holland for ill swine, back to US to look at Lyme’s disease and then to Africa. While in Africa, he looks for clues to explain the origins of AIDS and how it was able to circle the globe in what seemed like just a few years.

He ends his book on a somewhat disturbing note. As humans increasingly infringe upon the wilds of our planet through clearing rain forests and harvesting exotic animals (especially nonhuman primates or “bushmeat”), as well as engaging in industrial-scale farming we put our species at risk by not only reducing the diseases original hosts, but also by bringing those diseases closer to us in proximity. And if the past is any credible indicator, once a species population skyrockets, it’s only a matter of time before it’s cut-down by a killer epidemic. With our numbers exploding and our exposure to these diseases increasing, is the human species headed for disaster?

This is a great book. It never gets boring, nor overly dramatic or gross. Quammen does a great job writing about scientific and technical matters in a way that readers can not only understand but enjoy. Therefore, I highly recommend Spillover.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Science

Soviet Spotlight: Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland

Recently, I mentioned in my review of Jenny Smith’s first novel The Sultan’s Seal that even through I wasn’t overwhelming satisfied with her debut novel, I didn’t want to give up on Smith as a novelist. I’ve seen writers improve over time. In that same review, I gave the example of Alan Furst. In my opinion, the later novels of Furst’s Night Soldier series are superior to his earlier ones. Therefore, I’m more than willing to explore the later novels of Smith’s Kamil Pasha series since I have a feeling the quality of her work has improved as she’s learned from her experience as a writer. Just as the old cliché goes, practice makes perfect.

This belief of mine that novelists can, and do improve upon the quality if their work through practice and hard work was reinforced recently. In a round about way it once again has something to do with Alan Furst. Not long ago I praised a particular novelist as one Alan Furst fans could also embrace. That novelist is Sam Eastland

I found Eastland’s Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense the kind of novel Alan Furst fans could love. Set in the USSR during the first year of WWII, it’s the fast-paced story of a former Tsarist special investigator who’s been ordered by Stalin to find a long hidden supply of imperial gold. The novel’s main character Inspector Pekkala, a mature, intelligent and daring figure who’s also an ethic outsider, resembles many if not all of Furst’s protagonists. With the action taking place in the USSR of 1939, Furst fans would surely find favor with Eastland’s choice of time and place. After reading Archive 17, I’m thinking if you love Alan Furst, then Eastland is your man.

After enjoying Archive 17, I went in search of the more books from Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala series and I’m happy to report that my local public library has a number of them in stock. Upon discovering this, I selected the first novel in the series, Eye of the Red Tsar: A Novel of Suspense. Just like I did with Archive 17, I burned through Eye of the Red Tsar in what seemed like mere days. However, unlike Archive 17, I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. But just like with Jenny’s Smith’s Seal of the Sultan I was not left completely disappointed. Far from it. With Smith’s novel, I merely suspected that her later novels could be better. After reading Archive 17 prior to Eye of the Red Tsar seeing the difference in quality between the two novels I knew for sure that Eastland has improved over this career as a novelist.

Published in 2010, Eye of the Red Tsar begins in 1929, roughly 10 years before the events described in Archive 17. Pekkala has been freed from the Gulag on Stalin’s orders in hopes he can solve a trio of painful and lingering mysteries: exactly who ordered the execution of the Romanovs, where are the bodies hidden and is there any truth to the rumors that one member of the royal family escaped harm and his still alive. In search of answers Pekkala must dive not only into the wilds of Soviet Eurasia, but also that nation’s painfully guarded past.

Even though I didn’t like Eye of the Red Tsar as much as I did Archive 17, I’m wishing I would have started with this novel because it’s the first book in the series, and therefore contains a lot of Pekkala’s backstory. Just like Archive 17, I found it fast-paced and entertaining. But my major gripe with Eye of the Red Tsar is its ending. Unfortunately, I can’t give any details without throwing out a spoiler or two. Let’s just say I found the novel’s thrilling conclusion a tad flawed and leave it at that.

But please let us keep in mind the bigger and more important things. Writers can, and do improve as they hone their craft. I’ve seen this with Alan Furst, and now with Sam Eastland. In addition, I’m hoping to see it with Jenny Smith. And even with me being left a slightly disappointed with this one particular novel by Sam Eastland, he’s still a novelist Alan Furst fans can enjoy.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History

In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen

9781594633522_p0_v2_s260x420Before passing away last April at the ripe old age of 86, Peter Matthiessen had lived a life most writers could only dream of. After graduating from Yale, he moved to Paris and hung out with American literary icons William Styron and James Baldwin. While in Paris he co-founded with George Plimpton and a few others the esteemed literary journal The Paris Review. Over his lengthy career Matthiessen wrote over 30 books, with two of them adapted to film. He’s also probably the only writer to win the National Book Award three times, once for fiction and twice for nonfiction. He was also a notable environmentalist and proponent of Native American rights. On top of it, while living in Paris and writing for The Paris Review he was secretly a CIA agent. But I’m embarked to say I’d never heard of this guy until three weeks ago.

Yes, it was only three weeks ago at the public library when I came across a copy of his final book, In Paradise: A Novel. Seeing it was a novel about Auschwitz and knowing that the former Nazi death camp  was constructed in Poland, I figured I could read the book for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. So, even though I was sadly ignorant of the novel’s accomplished author, I took a chance and grabbed it. After starting In Paradise and succumbing to a few distractions which kept me from finishing it sooner than I should have I eventually finished it. While I didn’t end up liking In Paradise as much as I would have hoped, I still came away from Matthiessen’s last novel with a deep respect for late author’s ability to write. But more importantly, to write well.

In Paradise tells the story of a diverse group of international characters, who in 1996 have gathered at Auschwitz as a part of a spiritual retreat. While most have come in search of meaning and “closure” concerning one of the 20th century’s most horrific episodes, Polish-American academic Clements Olin has come to former death camp with his own, slightly more personal reasons. But because this is a diverse group of many nationalities, world views and religious convictions, quite quickly tensions arise and tempers flair.

I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second part, when Olin’s infatuation with a young Polish nun seems to overpower the storyline a bit. But still even with that, I found Matthiessen’s storytelling direct, while at the same time nuanced. In his world human beings are never simple and at best flawed. Speaking from my own personal experience, I couldn’t agree more with the late Peter Matthiessen.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

Soviet Spotlight: Archive 17 by Sam Eastland

After falling in love with the historical spy novels of Alan Furst I wondered if there was anything else out there I could read that would be in the same vein. It’d be great find thrilling a novel or two, preferable a series of them, set in Europe during the years leading up to or during the Second World War. According to Goodreads it looks like there’s some stuff that could fit the bill. But even with those helpful suggestions, I haven’t been actively looking for anything to supplement my passionate consumption of Alan Furst novels. Then, last Saturday afternoon while wandering the shelves at the public library I came across a copy of Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense by Sam Eastand. Intrigued by what I found, I proceeded to read the book’s jacket blurb. How could I resist a novel about a former Czarist special investigator who’s been “enlisted” by Stalin in 1939 to solve a twenty old mystery. Thinking that Archive 17 could be just the book I needed to satisfy my Alan Furst-like of craving I optimistically grabbed it. After whipping through it in mere days I knew I’d made the right decision.

From what I can tell, Archive 17 is the third book in the five book Inspector Pekkala series. In this particular book in the series, Pekkala has been ordered by Stalin to go undercover in a Soviet labor camp in hopes of finding the secret location of a long-lost supply of gold that vanished during the early days of the Russian Civil War. Returning to the infamous Gulag camp of Borodok where he was once a prisoner, Pekkala must gain the confidence of a small band of imprisoned diehard Czarists who he thinks will lead him to the gold. But to do so, he must first survive not only harshness of Siberia but also the camp’s brutal commander and its cut-throat inmates. Of course, with Stalin as your overlord, your safety and well-being are never assured.

Archive 17 is a lot of fun. I found it fast-paced, smart and entertaining. If you’re an Alan Furst fan like me, you’ll have an enjoyable time reading this second book in Eastland’s series. Those same fans will probably also agree that Inspector Pekkala makes a fine Furstian hero: early middle-aged, intelligent, an ethnic outsider (he’s a Finn in the Russian-dominated USSR), resourceful, heroic without being reckless and honorable. Therefore, with all that in mind look for more of Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala’s novels to be featured on my blog.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History