Sunday, February 26, 2017






We shouldn’t tear down Judaism to build up our concept of Jesus. That is one of the major points in Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.

At one point Levine writes: “...to understand the man from Nazareth, it is necessary to understand Judaism. More, it is necessary to see Jesus as firmly within Judaism rather than standing apart from it, and it is essential that the picture of Judaism not be distorted through the filter of centuries of Christian stereotypes; a distorted picture of first-century Judaism inevitably leads to a distorted picture of Jesus.”

She gives insightful analyses of things like The Lord’s Prayer, a number of Jesus’ parables, and the Old and the New Testaments. 

She discusses Paul’s writings and the four Gospels. She describes how they (in part) came to contribute to the misunderstanding. 

And she critically analyzes examples from historical and modern day preaching, scholarship, and church documents.

Levine is an equal opportunity critic. She takes in to liberal and conservative commentators. She is especially critical of some statements which come out of liberation theology.

But she does all this in an oddly gentle way. She always acknowledges the strengths of the faiths and documents she uses. And she argues that only honest discussion based on who Jesus was and on the unbridgeable differences between our beliefs will lead to understanding. Anything else, distorts both sides of the debate.

“To engage in interfaith conversation means to understand that what is dogma to one participant is danger to another, that what is profound may also be painful. Jews and Christians need to read the texts together.”

In another place, she says such discussion is crucial. She tells the story of a man who attended one of her lectures--

“...I noticed that he was wearing jackboots. Then I saw the swastika on his jacket. And then it occurred to me that he was not raising his hand; he was doing a Nazi salute. This young man is part of the new breed of the old hatred. Like many major German New Testament scholars of the Nazi era--including people whose works are still being read in New Testament studies--he believes Jesus was Aryan. It is the Aryan Christian who is heir to the biblical tradition, not the Jew (and heaven knows, certainly not anyone who is not white).”

When Levine called on the man, his question to her was, “You are not saying Jesus was Jew, are you?”

So we surely need to read what Levine writes today. In an era when even the American president failed to mention the Jews in his Holocaust memorial statement, we need to get back to an understanding that Jesus was a Jew.

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus is one of the most powerful religious books I’ve read in several years. I can not summarize this book or even give a full sense of it in these few words. But for those who are interested, there is a simple solution. Read the book for yourself. Make your own decisions about what Levine has to say. 

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One goal for my reading this year is to read one religious book each month.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

PRAYERS THE DEVIL ANSWERS by Sharyn McCrumb






Prayers the devil answers, they used to call it up home: when you asked for something and your wish was granted in such a way that it did you no good at all.” --from Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb
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During the depression in the mountains of Appalachia, Ellie Robbins prayed her husband Albert, the sheriff of Sycamore Shoals, Tennessee, would be safe in his job. Bootleggers had gunned down the previous sheriff.

Albert died of pneumonia. Ellie’s prayer was a prayer the devil answered.

Ellie asked the county commissioners to let her become sheriff. She needed some way to support their two young sons. The Commission granted her wish, and she ended up having to execute a murderer. Maybe (or maybe not) another prayer the devil answered.

Ellie discovered secrets about her husband. She learned about the man she executed. And she learned the background of the murdered woman.

Some thought it all went back to a Dumb Supper. 

The Dumb Supper was a mountain tradition brought from Scotland, Ireland, or the north of England, no one knew for sure.

Young marriage-eligible women served the supper in an abandoned mountain cabin hoping their future husbands or the spirits of their future husbands would show up.

If a young lady made a mistake serving the supper she was destined to stay single or to have her marriage cursed. The murdered woman, Celia Varden, had done the supper wrong.

Sharyn McCrumb tells Ellie Robbins’ story in a slowly unfolding way. Most of the time, we alternate between scenes involving Lonnie Varden and Ellie Robbins. We watch their lives slowly unfold until they come together in a public execution.

Like all the McCrumb Appalachian novels, this is a powerful story based on McCrumb’s knowledge of the folklore and traditions of the region.

I came upon this book as a Kindle offering from our local library.
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Quotes from Prayers the Devil Answers--

“Long ago the ancestors of the mountain quilt makers had put those same designs on their coverlets, and if you looked far enough back into the origin of the tradition, those colorful geometric patterns once meant something. The designs were symbols of protection derived from ancient magic, put there to guard a love one, perhaps a sleeping child, from whatever spirits walked abroad in the night.”
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“Albert had been quick to figure out that the most important laws in life are the unwritten ones.”
***

“Where we come from, people are known for being as economical with their emotions as if they thought they would be charged for them. Albert always said they acted like real life were a type of telegram costing two cents a word.”

Monday, February 6, 2017

THE ZIG ZAG GIRL by Elly Griffiths






When a favorite author starts a new series, I always wonder how I will respond.

I like Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. Will I like her Magic Men Mysteries as much?

Not quite as much, but still, I enjoyed Elly Griffiths’ The Zig Zag Girl.

In 1950, two Army friends Brighton, England Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto set out to solve a series of murders based on magic tricks.

More than that, the murders seem to be tied into their special unit in WWII. The Magic Men tried to deceive the Germans, make them think the allies were more prepared to fend off an invasion than they were. The Magic Men were into deception and illusion.

So when DI Stephens finds a woman murdered and cut into three parts, a replication of the famous Zig Zag Girl magic trick, he enlists his friend Max Mephisto to help him solve the murders.

The murders are personal. One part of the murdered woman ends up being shipped to Stephens in a suitcase sent to the police station. The murdered woman has performed variations of the Zig Zag Girl trick as one of Max’s assistants.

Something terrible is happening. It ties back to their WWII unit. As things progress, someone murders two more people in similarly gruesome ways.

Stephens and Max delve into the old group. They wonder what is happening.

What they find is that the motive for the murders goes back to the nature of The Magic Men Group itself. 

The Zig Zag Girl was more plot heavy and less character heavy that the Ruth Galloway books. That is both its strength and its weakness.

I enjoy Ruth’s personal involvements and the way her stories always delve into the characters’ histories. The Zig Zag Girl does some of that, but it is more based on plot than people.

So, now I have another good series to follow, a series by a favorite author. Maybe instead of carping, I should count my blessings.
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I ran across this book as a Kindle offering from our local library.

Monday, January 30, 2017

DEADLY BELOVED by Jane Haddam






Jane Haddam’s Deadly Beloved (1997) is a typical Gregor Demarkian mystery.

For me, these books are ways to pass time. I like the characters and I find the plots engaging but often hard to believe.

In Deadly Beloved, someone kills three people. Patsy MacLaren Willis murders her husband with no attempt to cover up what she has done. Then she disappears.

She blows up her car in a parking garage and later kills two others, all classmates at Vassar.

How does she plan to disappear? What makes her think she won’t be found?

 At the same time Donna Moradanyan is about to get married and all of Cavanaugh Street is abuzz. Will she marry her fiancée former cop Russell Donahue or will she back out at the last minute and marry the obnoxious father of her illegitimate child?

It is June. Everyone is looking at wedding magazines. Several of the couples in the Fox Run Hill suburb where the first murder occurred are fighting with each other or about to part. Most of them seem to be on the edge. Marriage seems a dicey proposition.

And into all this retired FBI profiler Gregor Demarkian comes with his quiet, rational way of solving murders.

These books are pure entertainment. If you like the characters and the Philadelphia ethnic neighborhood setting, you will like the books. Otherwise, they won’t seem to be much at all.

I like the books. Haddam wrote a bunch of them. It seems like I can always find a Jane Haddam Gregor Demarkian book to help me pass the time.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

CONVICTIONS: HOW I LEARNED WHAT MATTERS MOST by Marcus J. Borg






Marcus J. Borg’s Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most is a well-written, concise summary of the tenants of one form of Progressive Christianity.

Borg wrote the book for his seventieth birthday.

“The central conviction of this book are that God is real and that the Bible and Christianity are the Christian story of our relationship with God....”

Then later, he adds, “The Bible from beginning to end is a sustained protest against the domination systems of the ancient world.”

Borg’s is not the traditional theology many of us grew up with. He sees the Bible as sacred literature written by human beings. Its books have all the errors and disagreements any human documents would have.

Even Borg’s way of viewing God has changed. As he grew older, he came to a “nonverbal, nonlinguistic way of knowing [God] marked by a strong sense of seeing more clearly and certainly than one ever has.”

He cites William James’ analysis in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Borg’s experience of God is now more than rational. “What is known is ‘the way things are’ when all of our language falls away and we see ‘what is’ without the domestication created by our words and categories.”

To put it in a way Borg doesn’t, we can feel God as Wordsworth felt a strong spiritual presence when he looked down on Tintern Abbey or when he stood on Westminster Bridge.

We do not command these experiences, Borg says. They come to us unbidden in their own way, time, and place.

One other aspect of the book impressed me greatly. In his chapter entitled “God Is Passionate About Justice and the Poor,” Borg does a fairly extensive analysis of The Book of Amos. Then in a later chapter, “The Bible Is Political,” he concludes, “The kingdom of God was about the end of the exploitation and violence of the domination system.”

For Borg, much of the point of the Bible is summed up in Micha’s words, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (6.8)”

Borg’s book says the Bible contains a strong condemnation of much of the way we live today.

I chose Marcus Borg’s book because when he wrote it he was at the same stage of life as I am. I have had a similar growth in faith, though his is much better articulated and fully understood than mine is.

I see a lot to like in Marcus Borg.

I hope to read one religious book each month this year. We’ll see if I can make it.

Sunday, January 22, 2017






Mark Douglas-Home’s The Woman Who Walked into the Sea is a beautifully unfolding novel.

That might seem like a strange thing to say, but anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows that middles are hard. You might have an exciting beginning and a wonderful conclusion, but often it is the middles which separate the excellent writers from the rest of us.

Mark Douglas-Home does middles well. His story unfolds a piece at a time so that the middle of the story holds up. To me, that is a great accomplishment.

When Cal McGill, The Sea Detective, meets Violet Wells, his life changes. Violet is trying to find her mother.

Twenty-six years ago, someone abandoned Violet as a newborn at the front door of a hospital in Scotland’s West Highlands near the small town of Poltown.

As Violet investigates, she concludes her mother is the woman who walked into the sea. She gave birth to Violet, abandoned her, and then committed suicide.

At least, that’s how the local police saw it.

Violet enlists Cal, a PhD oceanographer who studies tides and currents to find the bodies of people missing at sea. He has come to this stretch of shoreline to get away. The emotional toll of his job has devastated him.

But Cal is attracted to Violet. They work together to find what happen.

Much of the community is part of the murder and cover up. Everyone from a mentally ill collector of ocean debris to a wealthy long term family is involved.

A disaffected former servant, a sheep farmer who delivers groceries on the side, and the head of the gang which controls Poltown--they all play intricate parts in the story. 

Right now, the town is undergoing a bitter fight about a new wind farm with its windmills. Cal and Violet become enmeshed in that.

Small town conspiracies can be deadly, and that’s what happens here. Several people are villains. The police covered up what happened.

The Woman Who Walked into the Sea is a brooding story, much like a classic Victorian novel. Many of the main characters are unpleasant or dangerous.

And the story unfolds smoothly to the end.

If you can’t tell, I liked this story. I struggled with it some. It was so dark in places. But there is no denying it was well worth reading. 

The Woman Who Walked into the Sea is the second book in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective series. The first was The Sea Detective.

Monday, January 16, 2017

FADE AWAY by Harlan Coben






Harlan Coben’s Fade Away (1996) reminds me of how much I’ve changed.

When I was reading these back in the 1990s, the sexism and shallow values of many of the characters didn’t bother me. Now it does.

But still, I liked the book.

At first, the book seemed dated to me. Then it occurred to me that it is me who changed.

One of the characters nails it. “Folks always talking about the price of fame, but you wanna know the real price? Forget that privacy shit. So I don’t go out to the movies as much. Big fucking deal--where I came from you can’t afford to go anyway. The real price is you ain’t a person anymore. You’re just a thing, a shiny thing like one of those Benzes out there.” (T.C. Collins, New Jersey Dragons’ basketball superstar.)

The New Jersey Dragons part owner Clip Arnstein hires Myron Bolitar to find a missing star player Greg Downing. To cover up what is happening, Bolitar signs to play with the team.

Bolitar finds the body of a murdered woman, a 1960s left wing radical, who was blackmailing Downing. So now the question becomes who committed the murder? What is Greg’s part in all this?

Along the way, Bolitar learns about himself. He gets the full story of the devastating injury that ended his career. He learns a terrible secret. And he starts to face up to a truth he has avoided for years.

I still remember Esperanza, Big Cyndi, and Win, three defining characters in these books. And I still admire the way Coben keeps me reading (and guessing) to the end.

I checked out this book as a Kindle book from our local library. Also, I found out there are new Myron Bolitar books. (I thought the series ended years ago.)

So I will probably be checking in with Myron Bolitar again.

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE RETURN OF THE RAVEN MOCKER by Donis Casey






“That’s the thing [Mama] finds most blameworthy in the world, to not try, even if you know you’ll likely fail.” --Martha McCoy talking about her mother Alafair Tucker.
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Strong women.

In Donis Casey’s The Return of the Raven Mocker, the women of Boynton, Oklahoma, work together to fight the 1918 flu epidemic. Many of the men (including both of the town’s doctors) are away fighting the war.

The Raven Mocker is the Cherokee witch who searches out the sick and old and causes them to have painful, tormented deaths. Alafair Tucker learned of the Raven Mocker from her grandmother in Arkansas.

In 1918, it seemed that the Raven Mocker had come to Boynton.

The women worked together to fight the epidemic. They formed a Red Cross chapter to tend the sick. They did as Alafair Tucker did. They tended to family and protected the children.

They used all their folk remedies to try to save their loved ones and the others around them. And they even sometimes listened to the college-professor doctor sent to help them.

The battle between folk medicine and science raged until, finally, at least for Alafair, there came to be a kind of truce between the two.

The women’s courage flowed through generations. Alafair and Shaw Tucker’s twelve-year-old daughter Sophronia ran from the safety of the isolated farm to come to town to be with a school friend whose mother died. 

Alafair was furious though she herself had come into the epidemic-filled town to tend her flu-ravaged daughter and her husband.

Into all of this, there comes a murder. A poisoning.

Alafair’s testimony causes her cousin Scott, the town constable, to arrest the wrong man. The book opens with Alafair telling the prosecutor the mistake she made. Then she explains. We hear the story.

What a strong book. 

I think Donis Casey’s Alafair Tucker novels are underappreciated. They seem to be regional mysteries, stories of one large family in a fairly isolated place, but they are so much more. 

Boynton ‘s men help fight the nation’s wars. Boynton’s men, women and children fight an epidemic which spreads to many places in the nation. Boynton’s citizens are like people everywhere--strong and weak, courageous and corrupted, honest and sometimes murderous.

If you have not done so before, you might want to give Donis Casey’s Alafair Tucker novels a try.

Monday, January 9, 2017

AN OWL TOO MANY by Charlotte MacLeod






Sometimes it amazes me how much I like Charlotte MacLeod’s Peter Shandy books. They are so way out and unbelievable.

In MacLeod’s An Owl Too Many, the owl too many is a decoy meant to lead Thorkjeld Svenson’s owl counting group into a murder trap. Svenson is president of Balaclava Agricultural College. His group is part of the traditional annual Balaclava County owl count.

As it happens, the wrong person gets swooped up in a net and murdered. And the whole thing goes back to Associate Professor Winifred Binks’ inheriting millions from her now-deceased, certifiably crazy grandfather.

Along the way, our hero Peter Shandy and his friend Professor Binks end up in a life threatening situation. (You'll have to read about it to appreciate it.) Only President Svenson’s mastery of an ancient Swedish art can save them.

No matter that when you think about it logically, the motivation for the crime in this story seems convoluted at the least. All the good people of Balaclava County are on hand, and that in itself, is enough to make An Owl Too Many funny, mostly straight-through-readable, and good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

POSTING COMMENTS

I appreciate your comments.
 
Blogger has changed the way it tells me there are pending comments. I missed posting several comments the last two weeks. I now know what I am doing and will check for comments every day. There is so much spam that I have no choice but to moderate. 


Monday, January 2, 2017

Peter Shandy Mysteries by Charlotte MacLeod

The Curse of the Giant Hogweed (1985)
Something in the Water (1994)
Exit the Milkman (1996)

VANE PURSUIT by Charlotte MacLeod






Charlotte MacLeod’s cozy stories are unique.

In her Vane Pursuit, a gang is stealing Balaclava County, Massachusetts' Praxiteles Lumpkin-created antique weather vanes. Then the culprits burn the now-historic buildings to which the weather vanes are attached.

One weather vane has sold at auction for six figures.

Balaclava County  librarian Helen Shandy is photographing and documenting the weather vanes. She has come to think each theft/arson occurred right after she took her pictures. Someone may be following her and using her to locate the weather vanes.

Helen and her husband, Balaclava Agricultural College Professor Peter Shandy, investigate.

Helen and two friends end up having a life-threatening adventure. I'll not describe it. You need to enjoy it for yourself.

Peter Shandy and Cronkite Swope, intrepid young reporter for the Balaclava County Fane and Pennon, do likewise in a different, but still life-threatening, way.

Peter and Cronkite meet a sane, self-sufficient woman who lives down a rabbit hole.

The wife of one of Peter’s long-term friends is clearly involved in the thefts.

And the whole thing comes back to a local perpetrator.

If the book sounds interesting but silly, it is. Charlotte MacLeod’s books always are. And almost always, they are funny.

As I said at the first, Charlotte MacLeod’s cozy stories are unique. I am glad a fellow blogger led me to start reading Charlotte MacLeod.
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P.S. One little side note. More than with any other writer, I have to have a dictionary handy when I read MacLeod. She revels in using unusual words.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

THE WOMAN IN BLUE by Elly Griffiths






I found Elly Griffiths’ The Woman in Blue flawed and chilling.

It was flawed because the plot was too complicated for me. But it was chilling because it contained the kind of religious fanaticism which causes me to see fundamentalist religion as dangerous.

Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson and his team investigate the murder of a mysterious woman in a white gown and blue cloak. Late at night, Cathbad, Ruth Galloway’s druid friend, had seen the woman visiting an eerie white gravestone in the cemetery of St. Simeon’s Church.

According to the legend, the Virgin Mary visits the cemetery. At first, Cathbad wonders if he has seen the Virgin.

At the same time, Ruth’s friend Hillary Smithson asks Ruth to look at some threatening letters. Hillary left her PhD position in anthropology to become a priest in the Church of England.

To quote one letter: “. . . I will never accept your right to call yourself a priest. ‘Man and Woman Created He Them’ (Genesis 1:27). Men and women are different, Doctor Smithson. Not better or worse. Different. I am not a misogynist, as you women academics would have me. I simply believe that men and women have different tasks in the world. Women have the privilege of bearing children. Men are the appointed protectors of the family. And Jesus appointed men to be the protectors of his church.”

Further letters threaten Hillary’s life. Is there a connection between the murder of the woman in blue and the threatening letters to Hillary? 

Then, someone murders a woman priest.

Suspects abound. The story involves The Sanctuary, a “private hospital specialising in drug rehabilitation.” It takes us back into the personal histories of several of the characters. The assailant attacks beautiful blond women.

The book climaxes during the annual Good Friday passion play in the small village of Walsingham.

The relationship between Ruth, Harry, and Harry’s wife Michelle becomes even more complicated.

So there’s a lot of story here.

As always, I see much to recommend this and all the Ruth Galloway books.

The Woman in Blue takes place in the small village of Walsingham about which Elly Griffiths writes in her Acknowledgements, “. . . I have made the real Walsingham into my own fictional version of the place. . . .”

I checked out this book as a Kindle book from our local library.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

THE LABOURS OF HERCULES by Agatha Christie






“In the period before his final retirement [Hercule Poirot] would accept twelve cases, no more, no less. And those twelve cases would be selected with special reference to the twelve Labors of ancient Hercules. Yes, that would not only be amusing, it would be spiritual.”   --From the Foreword of Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules
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Twelve short stories, twelve labors. 

Agatha Christie’s The Labours of Hercules chronicles twelve cases of Hercule Poirot. They range from finding out who kidnapped a dog the kidnapper has already returned to saving the reputation of a friend.

My favorite story was a clever con story.

In each of the stories Christie somehow ties Poirot’s case to a mythical labor. For example, as Poirot tracks down rumors, Poirot comments, “Rumor is indeed the nine-headed Hydra of Lernea which cannot be exterminated because as fast as one head is chopped off two grow in its place.”

I checked out this book from our local library in a Kindle edition. I thought it would be fun to read because I had not read it before. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

AN AUTHOR BITES THE DUST by Arthur W. Upfield






Arthur W. Upfield’s An Author Bites the Dust (1948) is a wonderfully crafted story.

The motive for murder is literary, and Upfield himself surely had a lot invested in what he wrote.

At one point in the story, Australia’s Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) asks an intelligent friend about a popular novel. She says of the author, “He can paint word pictures and tell a story, but he lacks the gift of taking pains.”

She says a gift with language, the ability to tell a story, and enough dedication to take the pains to write a good story are three things needed for great literature.

In this book, Bony investigates the murder of a critic who failed as a novelist. His death appears to have come about because of natural causes. He is a man who spent his life attempting to destroy commercial writing, well-written popular writing.

In the end, his snobbery was his undoing. In exposing the murderer, Bony reveals the victim’s hypocrisy.

All this has to do with literature. What is great literature? Can commercially successful books also be great literature? And is there a band of snobbish critics who promote poorly written non-selling books over best sellers? (Surely the popular author Arthur W. Upfield had strong feelings about all this!)

The murderer in An Author Bites the Dust has a literary motive. The murderer’s method is unusual, but Upfield assures us that such a method does exist.

As the story unfolds, the murderer kills a second man. Then the murderer attempts to murder Bony.

Bony uses his tracking skills, even in this mostly non-rural setting in Victoria near Mt. Donna Buang.

An Author Bites the Dust has Upfield’s usual detailed descriptions of nature and of inside settings.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. I always enjoy reading about Bony.