I’ve been vaguely aware of Reza Aslan for a few years now, as he seems to do the news and talk show circuit fairly regularly, so I was glad that my Facebook book club brought Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to my attention. Aslan seemed just the person to provide a popular history of the life of Jesus Christ.
Author: Reza Aslan
My GoodReads rating: 5 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.83
Language scaling: C1+
Summary: The historical background and context for the birth of Christianity
Recommended audience: Anyone interested in history, politics, or sociology
In-depth thoughts: Whenever I rate a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads, it indicates a book that I think the general public should read. A nonfiction book needs to meet three requirements to get 5 stars from me:
The writing needs to be engaging and accessible. If it’s a not book that’s fun, or at least easy, to read, then I’ll be hard pressed to give it a full 5 stars. Since this requirement is a judgment call, it’s the one I’m most flexible about.
The topic matter needs to be presented clearly and logically, so that after finishing the book I feel like I understand something better than I did before, or that I know more than I did before. You can’t just list a bunch of dry facts, or a collection of charming anecdotes, and call your book done; there has to be a structure and logical sequence that scaffolds ideas and builds on them so that readers retain what they’ve learned long after the end of the chapter, or the book.
The topic matter needs to be something of extremely timely and relevant public interest. A solid resource for specialists in a field, no matter how excellent a resource, isn’t necessarily something the general public will find relevant or interesting, or even need to know.
Zealot hits all three of these sweet spots: it’s engaging reading, it’s chock-full of information that’s presented clearly and logically, and it’s on a topic that’s very much relevant today.
That said, as a book for English students, Zealot might be a reach. There’s a lot of specific and particular terms needed to discuss Roman history and Jewish history; if you’re not comfortable with the rest of the language in the book, it might feel too difficult or specialized to really get a grip on. On the other hand, if you’re already an ancient history buff, you’ll probably feel right at home.
It’s October and somehow I’m still not finished writing up all of the reading I did on my summer vacation (as well as what I did besides read on my summer vacation). This was a book I started and finished during my long weekend in Austin.
Author: Ted Chiang
My GoodReads rating: 4 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars
Language scaling: B2+
Plot summary: A short story collection including “Story of Your Life,” which was the basis for the movie Arrival
Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; anyone who enjoyed Arrival
In-depth thoughts: The problem with reviewing short story collections so long (months) after you’ve read them is that it’s harder to keep all of the stories in mind. I know that I liked what I read a lot, but I struggle to remember exactly what it was that I read — except the titular story, “Story of Your Life,” which is definitely the strongest of them all.
After a quick refresher (as in, reading someone else’s review on GoodReads), my memory came back to me. The other stories I remembered enjoying were “Hell is the Absence of God,” “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” and “Division by Zero.” Despite winning a Sideways award (whatever that is?), “Seventy-Two Letters” didn’t really appeal to me. Neither did “Tower of Babylon.” “Understand” was mildly interesting, in that it was probably the most “traditional” science fiction of the lot (what happens when people give themselves supergenius intellects?), but it didn’t have the same existentialist concerns or the same experimentation with form that characterized what I thought were the best stories. And, finally, “The Evolution of Human Science” is a clever and pithy little work and I enjoyed it in the moment I read it, but by the time I sat down to write this review I’d completely forgotten it.
“Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon” are steeped in Jewish lore (Kabbalah, golems) and Old Testament mythology, respectively, which might confuse readers coming from a different cultural milieu.
What I appreciate about this collection is one of the same things I appreciated about The Three-Body Problem:author commentary is included at the end. It’s interesting to take a peak behind the curtain and see the germ of an idea for a story (if I can mix my metaphors a little). Chiang has yet to produce a novel-length work, but I think many of the ideas in here have enough meat to become novels on their own. I look forward to any future work from Chiang, and I hope he tackles more long-form work in the future.
It took me a long to realize it, but I love organization. Specifically, I love record-keeping: diaries, lists, even some sad attempts at scrapbooking. One of my favorite record-keeping tools is GoodReads. Reading is important to me, and being able to keep track of what I read, when I read it, and what I thought about it is immensely satisfying for reasons I can’t really identify. Since 2007, everything I’ve read has been meticulously rated and catalogued. One unintended result of this records obsession is that I can effortlessly track my reading habits and trends. What were my favorite and least favorite books in a given year? What did I read the most of?
My Favorite Books of 2015
I gave only four 5-star reviews last year: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For the Time Being (quite recent), NoViolet Buluwayo’s We Need New Names (also quite recent), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not so recent), and Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas (also not so recent).
February 2015: Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
It’s been my goal for the last few years to read every novel on the TIME Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century list, which is how I stumbled across Under the Volcano. As a revered English classic, the book needs no selling, no praise, no recommendation.
What struck me was Lowry’s complex and intricate prose and the examination of expatriate life. Having lived for a few years in South Korea, the genre of “expats and tourists behaving badly” holds a special place in my heart: The Sun Also Rises, The Sheltering Sky, Tropic ofCancer, and Giovanni’s Room were some of my favorite reads in my tour of 20th century English literature. Under the Volcano is part of that genre, but also more. It’s a lyrical character study, a sympathetic, heart-wrenching exploration of alcoholism and interpersonal relationships, and a study of Mexican politics in the 1930s.
May 2015: A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
I think the only reason A Tale for the Time Being isn’t on the TIME Top 100 list is because it was published in 2013 and the TIME list was assembled in 2005. I hope so, anyway.
In brief, A Tale for the Time Being is about a woman in Canada, Ruth, who finds and reads a diary that washed up along the coast. It turns out to be written by a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, some years earlier.
Of course it’s also about much more than that. There’s prehistoric flora, quantum entanglement, philosophy, Zen monks, and insects (among others). But everything falls under that found diary and Ruth’s relationship to it.
Ozeki displays an incredible technical range. She ends up writing from the perspective of five different people (not all of them are equally prominent; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book focuses primarily on two of them, so the book is much more focused than it sounds like it would be with five different protagonists) and gives them all incredibly distinct and personal voices. There are other metatextual indications when the writing shifts perspective, like a different font or a chapter title or so on, but Ozeki gives each of them a strong enough voice that you would be able to tell anyway.
A Tale for the Time Being is not only a technical achievement, though. Ozeki also creates a compelling story. After rationing out portions of the book like literary chocolate, at maybe halfway through I just binged and read the whole thing. I might have cried. (As in: I cried.)
If you’re in the mood for experiments with narrative form, bildungsroman, or a sampling of Japanese history and philosophy, A Tale for the Time Being is for you.
December 4th, 2015: We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
This book was a mostly-random selection from the “world literature” shelf at the library. “Mostly-random” because I’d heard a little buzz about it beforehand; enough that I checked this book out when I couldn’t find anything from my TIME Top 100 list. (It seems Stockholm biblioteket’s copy of The Buddha of Suburbia is lost forever.) Like A Tale for the Time Being, I think We Need New Names would be a strong contender for an updated and more diverse TIME Top 100 list.
We Need New Names is about the Zimbabwean Darling, first as a child in Zimbabwe and later as a teenager in the United States. Bulawayo’s short story “Hitting Budapest” won the Caine prize, and she later expanded it into a novel. The book lends itself to comparisons with Adichie’s Americanah; I think readers who like one will like the other. The difference (aside from setting) is in focus: Bulawayo focuses on details and short episodes, leaving much implied or suggested, while Adichie went for a grand epic of everything. Bulawayo’s voice is also unique and clear. For a sample, you can read “Hitting Budapest” online.
December 27th, 2015: Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist
This one was a reread for me. You might recall my earlier lament that Lagerkvist English translations are few and far between. Barabbas is one of his works that has an English translation, and a good one at that. That’s how I originally read it in university. Last year I picked up a copy from the library to give it another go, this time in the original Swedish. Lagerkvist’s style is sparse and straightforward, and the novel itself is quite short, so it was good Swedish practice for me. Likewise the English translation would be good English practice.
Barabbas is the story of Barabbas, the criminal who walked free while Christ was crucified. Lagerkvist tells us the story of this marginal figure, exploring the issues of faith, doubt, and belief through Barabbas’s struggle to understand his fate and the nascent Christian faith.
Yesterday, Christians across the world celebrated Ascension, known here in Sweden as Kristi himmelsfärsdsdag: the date of Christ’s ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. Unlike in the United States, Ascension is observed as a national holiday. The religious nature of yesterday (well, not here; Swedes just love an excuse for a long weekend in spring!) got me thinking about all of the expressions we use in English courtesy of Christianity and the Bible, particularly related to the story of Easter.
You’ll find plenty of lists online of “Christian idioms” or “Biblical idioms,” but many of them are more like explanations of outdated language often encountered in the Bible rather than references or turns of phrase still used today. Here are a few, all related to the Easter story, that are still in contemporary use.
A cross to bear
The image of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha has remained in English as a metaphor for an unpleasant duty to fulfill, or a burden one has to carry. Most commonly misheard, in “kiss this guy” style, as “cross-eyed bear” in Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know.
And I’m here to remind you
of the mess you left when you went away.
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me.
You, you, you oughta know.
(“It’s not to fair to deny me of the cross I bear…” is a little awkward; it should be “It’s not fair to deny me the cross I bear…” but the extra “of” helps the rhythm so there it is.)
If we want to emphasize that the issue at hand is especially difficult, we might talk about a heavy or difficult cross to bear. Either way, it’s not a bear with eye problems.
When something is a cross to bear, the suggestion is that it’s a life-long issue, or at least for an extended period of time. Managing an addiction, dealing with trauma, getting over a past relationship (as is the case in You Oughta Know), or living with a chronic illness is someone’s cross to bear. A trip to the grocery store when it’s full of people is not a cross to bear. Nor are the heavy groceries you have to carry back home or to the car.
Speaking of crosses, we often use the verb crucify (to be hung from a cross in the Roman style) to describe being the object of public outrage and derision, or of persecution. Generally speaking, crucify is often used to describe the public’s desire to see a figure suffer.
Christ, you know it ain’t easy.
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
they’re going to crucify me.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko,” John Lennon
Why do we crucify ourselves
I crucify myself;
nothing I do is good enough for you.
and my heart is sick of being in chains.
“Crucify,” Tori Amos
A doubting Thomas
This is another expression from the story of Easter. Anyone who is skeptical or suspicious can be a doubting Thomas(even a woman!). Here is the story, from the gospel of John:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thomas’s skepticism earned him the eternal nickname (in English) of “doubting Thomas.” More specifically, a doubting Thomas is someone who requires physical evidence of a belief or assertion rather than just taking it on faith. To call someone a doubting Thomas isn’t necessarily rude, but it’s usually intended in a mildly disparaging manner—like the doubting Thomas is someone who has overly stringent standards, or someone who should learn to trust other people.
“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas! I tried this recipe before and it’s delicious, I promise.”
Now if being a doubting Thomas isn’t an entirely awful thing, being a Judas definitely is. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Easter, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Christ for 30 silver coins. He’s also anyone who betrays you.
Just like Julius Caesar
was betrayed by Brutus.
Who’d think an accountant
would turn out to be my Judas?
“Betrayed,” from The Producers (Mel Brooks)
To wash your hands of something
This is an image that came to English via the story of Pontius Pilate condemning Christ and has later been reinforced through Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the Easter story, Pontius Pilate offers the crowd a chance to spare Christ, but they refuse and insist he release Barabbas instead.
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.
They said, “Barabbas!”
Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!”
Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”
When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”
And over a thousand years later, Lady Macbeth attempts to wash her hands as a means of assuaging her guilt over the murder of Duncan.
Out, damned spot! Out, I say! … What, will these hands ne’er be clean?
If you wash your hands of something, it means that you no longer wish to be associated with it in any way, and that you no longer wish to have responsibility for it.
This typically happens when you’re completely and totally frustrated with something, or possibly tinged with guilt over it. Since we opened with a lyric from Alanis Morisette, let’s bookend things and close with one, too: Hands Clean.
We’ll fast forward to a few years later
and no one knows except the both of us.
And I have honored your request for silence
And you’ve washed your hands clean of this.