Category Archives: Christianity

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a pretty good year for me since I read and reviewed 18 books. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t do as well with only 15. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like Croatia, Lithuania and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Unlike last year, this year’s selection is almost exclusively nonfiction with only The Hired Man, The Lady and the Unicorn and The Little Book being works of fiction. As for the nonfiction, a lion’s share of the books deal with World War II and the Holocaust or the Cold War or both. Lastly, The Little Book made my year-end Favorite Fiction list while The Book Smugglers and God’s Secretaries made the Favorite Nonfiction one. Overall, from top to bottom it’s a great assortment of quality books.

  1. The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman (Lithuania)
  2. The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country by Tobias Jones (Italy)
  3. The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen (Czech Republic)
  4. Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI by William E. Barrett (Vatican City)
  5. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia)
  6. In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi (Hungary)
  7. The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy (Ukraine)
  8. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Belgium)
  9. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy (Belarus)
  10. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (United Kingdom)
  11. The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer (Germany)
  12. The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones (Russia)
  13. The Little Book by Selden Edwards (Austria)
  14. The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond by Stephen O’ Shea (Switzerland)
  15. A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser (Poland)

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and encourage all you book bloggers to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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

Old Books Reading Project: Shepherd of Mankind by Willam E. Barrett

Like I mentioned in my previous post, when it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge it’s easy to find books representing large countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia. But what about the small ones? And the really small ones? How about the smallest one of all? By that I mean Vatican City. My solution over the last few years has been to read a biography of a pope. Both times I did they were short biographies of Pope John XXIII, one by Christian Feldman and the other by Thomas Cahill. Lucky for me, I happen to possess in my personal library a biography of Pope Paul VI. For good, bad or otherwise it’s been gathering dust for years. Not long ago I decided to finally crack it open and give it a read.

Published in 1964, William E. Barrett’s Shepherd of Mankind: A Biography of Pope Paul VI is definitely a product of its time. Written by a devout Catholic, Barrett’s biography is adorned with an official Vatican imprimatur. While I’m hesitant to deem it a hagiography, nevertheless I was hard pressed to find anything critical or highly unflattering in this book about Pope Paul VI or, before his election Giovanni Montini. But hey, I knew that going in so no big deal.

What I did like about Shepherd of Mankind, when compared to the two above-mentioned papal biographies is the portion of the biography that focuses on the workings of the Vatican. (This is of course to be expected, before he became Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli spent much of his career outside the Vatican, serving in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and France.) For years Montini was Pope Pius XII’s right hand man in charge of Vatican domestic affairs. In 1954, Pius appointed Montini Archbishop of Milan, in a move Barrett hints was to get him out of the Pope’s hair. (According to Barrett, Pius, plagued with escalating health issues and growing cranky with age began seeing Montini’s interruptions as bothersome. Employing the age-old tactic of Promoveatur ut amoveatur or promote him to remove him, he exiled him to Milan.)

But to Montini’s credit, during his four years in Milan he flourished. While serving as Archbishop he raised funds to build new churches, and actively engaged in dialog with artists, intellectuals and non-catholics like atheists, Protestants, Muslims and ex-Catholics. Despite seeing Communism as a false god and enemy of the Church, Montini was strongly pro-labor, regularly visiting the city’s factories and chatting with workers. He strove hard to bring dispirited ex-Catholics back to the fold and narrowly survived an attempt on his life when a would be assassin threw a bomb into his residence. (He had left the room only moments before it went off.)

Since it was published in 1964 the book pretty much ends when Montini becomes Pope. Sadly, much to my disappointment Barrett spends little time discussing the Second Vatican Council. Who knows, perhaps a book solely devoted to that episode of Church history I could end up read ing for the European Reading Challenge.

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Filed under Christianity, Europe, History

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Israel, Japan, Judaica, Latin America/Caribbean, Memoir, Science, Turkey

About Time I Read It: Seminary Boy by John Cornwell

A million years ago (OK, maybe not THAT long ago although it kinda feels like it) I read a memoir entitled Seminary: A Search in which the author Paul Hendrickson recalled the years his spent as a seminarian, following with a short stint as a Catholic priest and eventually his departure from the priesthood. Perhaps because I was an impressionable young man when I read Seminary: A Search it remains one of my favorite memoirs to this day. With that in mind, I found it hard to resist John Cornwell’s 2006 memoir Seminary Boy when I spotted a copy at my public library. As I took it to the check-out desk I wondered if I’d enjoy  Cornwell’s memoir as much as I did Hendrickson’s.

Growing up in England in the 1950s John Cornwell had a pretty rough childhood. Raised Catholic, his family was poor, his mom was abusive and ne’er-do-well father was never around. After being sexually abused by a random stranger, young John retreated inwardly to the religion of his upbringing. At the tender age of 13 he entered Cotton College, a junior seminary for teen boys desiring to enter the priesthood. Overwhelmed and struggling to keep up academically Cornwell chafed under the College’s strict monastic regimen. Making all of this worse, he and his fellow young seminarians had to navigate the potential relationship risks and pitfalls that frequently materialize when groups of young males and their elders are sequestered together while being told to avoid any “special friendships” with each other. Fortunately, one of the more avuncular and intellectual of the priests took Cornwell under his wing, exposing him to a wider world of high culture and sophisticated ideas. Unfortunately though in the end, as Norah Vincent wrote in her 2006 New York Times review of Seminary Boy “[t]here is nothing surprising or enlightening here — just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery.”

Looking back, I thought Seminary Boy was OK, but nothing exceptional. Because so much time has elapsed it seems unfair to measure it against Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search so I won’t. And it certainly won’t stop me from reading other seminary memoirs in the future.

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About Time I Read It: How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan

For years I’ve a had soft spot for Reza Aslan, ever since I read his 2005 book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Five years ago I read another of his books Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and while I didn’t enjoy it much as No God but God nevertheless I found it satisfying and thought-provoking. Not counting his recently published God: A Human History there was one more of his books out there I’d yet to read.  His 2009 book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror had eluded me for close to a decade. That is until I spotted a copy on the shelf at the library and decided to give it a try.

Aslan’s argues in How to Win a Cosmic War (when released in paperback the next year it was retitled Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization) that Jihadist groups, when attacking Western targets and other perceived enemies are not fighting a holy war but instead a cosmic war, one that’s like “a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” With no distinctions between sacred and profane or secular and spiritual the goals aren’t material like the conquest of territory or control of scarce resources. One could think of it as an earthy reflection of a greater metaphysical struggle, and with no middle ground or neutral parties making it Manichean in nature. (Which also makes negotiation impossible.) Like a verse lifted from the Lord’s Prayer, these holy warriors are killing and dying for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

How then should Western nations like America successfully respond to groups like these? According to Aslan, it’s not by using terms like “crusade” or religiously charged rhetoric since this just validates their cosmic world view. The best solution Aslan recommends is to encourage democratic reforms in Islamic world. “Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished.”

Understandably, since How to Win a Cosmic War was published almost a decade ago it doesn’t feel fresh. But that’s OK. Aslan writes well and makes many a compelling point. If nothing else, his book, no matter when it was published provides greater depth and commentary to the ongoing conflict between armed Islamic groups and the West.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: Banished by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

I’m sure all of you know by now I have a huge fondness for memoirs from authors who’ve left their religious communities, whether they be Catholic, Protestant evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jewish. (A good friend of mine pointed out just this morning it’s interesting with few exceptions they’re all by women. Why this is the case might make for a fascination future discussion.) I just can’t get enough of these kind of books and whenever I come across one at the public library it’s hard for me to pass them up. One such memoir I would see on the shelves was Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer. A few years back I borrowed a copy only to return it before I’d had a chance to begin reading it. However, it was always on my list to read someday, I just couldn’t exactly decide when that’d be. For whatever reason, last week I decided to download an e-book version through my public library. I’m pleased to say I burned through Banished in no time. And whenever that happens it’s never a bad thing.

I guess like anyone who’s been following the news for a while I already knew a few things about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) prior to reading Drain’s 2013 memoir. They’re rabidly homophobic, infamously known for picketing funerals, especially those for fallen servicemen, loudly proclaiming God is punishing America for its acceptance of homosexuality. WBC isn’t affiliated with any particular Baptist denomination, or for that matter any other church. Instead it’s a cult almost entirely populated by the Phelps family from Topeka, Kansas.

I learned from Banished even though the WBC acts like a bunch of hateful crazies, they ain’t stupid. For years the Phelps family has driven its children to perform academically. Instead of being homeschooled like in many ultra-religious households, the Phelps children attend public school where academically they outpace their non-coreligionists in all subjects. Drilled by their parents and mentors in the importance of closely following current events, as well as speaking confidently and with authority, the Phelps teens not only earn the grudging respect of teacher and student alike, their ability to answer tough questions and deftly handle counter-protesters make them an army of capable public relations officials. 11 out the 13 children of the late WBC founder Fred Phelps are attorneys, providing the cult with its own law firm, a handy thing if you’re partaking in unpopular civil disobedience on a grand scale. One of the Phelps is even a published author of several college textbooks. Lastly, far from being clan of backwoods technological Luddites the WBC boasts a content-rich website and actively engages in email correspondence, even with its strongest detractors.

Just how Lauren Drain got mixed up with the strange group is almost an unbelievable story in itself. It all began when her father, a secular-minded, rock and roll playing atheist and aspiring film-maker flew to Topeka to make a documentary about the WBC. After doing extensive interviews and filming their protests, he found himself admiring the cult. Before long he was acting like a misogynistic religious zealot, eventually forcing Lauren, her mom and young sister to move cross-country to take up residence in one of the WBC’s rental homes. (With few exceptions the WBC members live on the same street near the church building, in essence a kind of religious compound.) Despite this all of this, Lauren embraced the WBC, its theology and odd sense of mission. But no matter how deep she believed or how strongly she protested at venues across the nation, after the better part of a decade she was cast out of both the WBC and her own family.

Once again, this is yet another book that exceeded my modest expectations. The writing duo of Drain and Pulitzer has produced an excellent memoir that easily holds its own when compared to other fine memoirs by those who’ve left their long-time faith.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir