Sunday, May 21, 2017

A HISTORY OF GOD by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is what it says it is--a detailed historical survey of the various shades of belief in three of the world’s major monotheistic religions.

Armstrong discusses at least four ways of coming at God--theophany, philosophy, science, and mysticism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had shades of all four.

Theophany is God’s decision to intrude into the world in ways like the burning bush.

All three religions have a God who makes Godself visible in signs, actions, a savior (in the case of Christianity), the scriptures, or in other ways.

For me, Armstrong’s book was heavy reading, especially when it came to Islam with which I am unfamiliar.
She spends a long time on the Mystics in all three faiths.

So what interested me? I was struck by how quickly religious thought drifts from what the founder teaches. To give one example, Armstrong writes about Basil, Bishop of Caesarea’s comments on the Trinity. Basil lived ca. 329-79.

Armstrong writes, “Basil also warned us against imagining that we could work out the way in which the Trinity operated, so to speak: it was no good, for example, attempting to puzzle out how the three hypostases of the Godhead were at one and the same time identical and distinct. This lay beyond words, concepts and human powers of analysis.”

So within just a few hundred years Christianity had gone from teachings like the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Jesus’ parables to esoteric discussions about the nature of the Trinity.

As I see it, starting with Paul, Christianity moved away from the teachings of Jesus to speculation about Jesus.  And similar moves away from what the founders taught occurred in the other two religions.

Armstrong taught me a lot. She helped me understand why I like the Old Testament prophets so much. They relate to God in a concrete way, seeing God speaking to them and believing they can see God acting in the world. To me, that makes more sense than seeing Christianity (or any of the three religions) from a Platonic point of view.

A History of God discusses whether God exists, and, if so, all the many ways we try to perceive God. It left me thinking what I thought before. If I choose to believe in God, all I can do is trust in God’s goodness, and leave the rest to God. As a follower of Jesus, to the small extent that I can know what Jesus teaches, he guides me as to how to live today.

One warning. This book is heavy reading.

Hopefully, for me A History of God was a stop along the way to learning more, especially about Islam.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

BOUNDARY WATERS by William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters describes the evolution of an Anishinaabe hero story.

The book opens with a psychopathic killer torturing and murdering Wendell Two Knives. Two Knives refuses to reveal where he hid Shiloh, a famous singer running from an enemy who wants to kill her.

Already two people, Shiloh’s mother and Shiloh’s psychiatrist, have been murdered. As a child, Shiloh saw her mother’s murder. Her psychiatrist may have helped her remember the episode and name the murderer.

A search party sets off into the Boundary Waters wilderness to find Shiloh. Along the way, they find out about Wendell’s murder.

Wendell’s ten-year-old grand nephew Louis guides the party. The party includes Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor; two supposed FBI agents; Shiloh’s stepfather; and Wendell’s nephew (Louis' father) Stormy Two Knives.

Two men claim to be Shiloh’s father, a dying mobster and a well-known politician who is on his way to becoming governor.

All nature gathers to help save Shiloh. Amidst a series of brutal killings (including the murder of two innocent fishermen who cross paths with Shiloh), a gray timber wolf shadows Shiloh and protects her.

Cork O’Connor’s estranged wife Jo plays a crucial part in the story. She is the first one to figure out who is paying for the killing.

But at the heart of the story is the wolf and the idea of Wendell’s walk on The Path of Souls. The book portrays the evolution of Wendell’s hero story. It tells how heroes touch lives and save people in ways some cultures remember forever.

Boundary Waters ends with a moving scene where the youngest member of the search party, Louis Two Knives, tells Wendell’s hero story.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake is a violent, powerfully written novel with a Native American religious subtheme.

Anishinaabe legend says that when the Windigo calls your name, you are bound to die.

Disgraced Aurora, Minnesota, former sheriff Cork O'Connor investigates the apparent suicide of a corrupt local judge. The judge was a powerful figure. His son has been elected to the U.S. Senate. O’Conner believes someone murdered the judge.

At the same time, O’Connor looks for a teenager who has disappeared. The former sheriff believes his disappearance ties in to the judge’s murder.

And all of this happens as O’Conner tries to put his shattered family back together. He struggles with his love for a woman other than his wife.

These details only hint at the power and tragedy in the story. But for me, one of the major interests was in the Anishinabee legends themselves. Cork, who is half Irish and half Anishinaabe has two Native American mentors. One is Sam Winter Moon with whom he hunted “the big bear.”

Sam Winter Moon and the big bear changed the fourteen-year-old hunter’s life.

Cork’s other mentor is Henry Meloux.

Meloux tells Cork about the Windigo, “... you got to be careful, because even if you kill the Windigo, you’re still in danger.” And when Cork asks, “What danger?” Henry replies, “Of staying a Windigo forever. Of being the ogre you killed.”

The Windigo calls several other names including Cork’s.

As each of those people dies or is murdered, the question remains if Cork will be next. But Cork’s destruction is not physical. It is much more terrible than that.

So this book does more than keep you reading. It reminds you that often in life, we cannot separate the terrible and the beautiful.

Iron Lake is the well known first novel in what is now an extensive series. I hardly need to write about it for you to have heard of it. I am glad I ran across a mention of it in Friday’s Forgotten Books, and I’m glad I read Iron Lake

Friday, April 21, 2017

Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging (1935) is a cozy locked room mystery.
The story involves three “locked rooms.” Someone kills the president of St. Anthony’s College in his locked apartment in a locked orchard compound in the walled and locked college.

The doors to all the locked areas have the same key. Ten keys exist, nine accounted for. The president changed all the locks the day before.

Scotland Yard Inspector John Appleby identifies seven suspects (accounting for the alternative title of the book, Seven Suspects).

Most of the suspects lie, either to protect themselves or to try to throw suspicion on another colleague. (So much for collegiality at St. Anthony’s.)

To say that Death at the President’s Lodging is complex makes it sound too simple.

Innes writes the book in a humorous, but academic, style. One short sample sentence--“I would remind you, Mr. Appleby, that the horror of these events was exacerbated by the inspissated gloom in which they were enveloped.” And Innes’ descriptions are longer and more complex.

So Death at the President’s Lodging is a particular kind of book. If you like complex, “where were the suspects at 9:30 p.m. and 22 and one-half seconds”-type cozy, clue-driven stories, you should love this book.

I learned about this author from the listing of another of his books in Patricia Abbott’s weekly “Friday’s Forgotten Books” listing. I find a lot of interesting books in the “Friday’s Forgotten Books” weekly lists. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness is a testament to the power of literature and poetry.

This second volume of Armstrong’s spiritual autobiography takes its central conceit and title from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.”  Armstrong compares her climb out of darkness to hesitantly climbing a spiral staircase, moving up and dropping back.

Along the way, Armstrong quotes Coleridge, Pope, Tennyson (with whom she has a strong affinity), Wordsworth, and others. She takes the words, “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind,” as her mantra.  Those words come from Wordsworth’s “Ode to Immortality.”

At one point, Armstrong writes  “...the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘the meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human....”

Later she writes: "Here again, the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion."

And later yet,  "Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry..."

And finally, she comes back to the role of literature in her salvation. “Indeed, studying English literature at university may have been a fruitful preparation, because increasingly I was coming to see theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. In every tradition, I was discovering, people turned to art when they tried to express or evoke a religious experience: to painting, music, architecture, dance, or poetry. They rarely attempted to define their apprehension of the divine in logical discourse or in the scientific language of hard fact. Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.”

So, after she left the convent, Karen Armstrong's love of literature helped her deal with her mental depression and physical illness. It brought her to a place where she could write The New York Times’ bestseller A History of God and many other books.

I came to know Karen Armstrong from her writings about Islam, some of which I read following 9-11. I wanted to know more about the Muslim faith. The jingoistic slogans I heard everywhere back then (and still hear now) seemed inane to me.  

I plan to read more. Right now, I have Armstrong’s Buddha on my reading list, and her most well-known book, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Also, I plan to read her Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. The City of Jerusalem and her visits to the Holy Land played a large part in Armstrong’s healing.

Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase is a moving book. If you are interested in spiritual biographies and in how one woman worked through her darkness to find light, you might want to read this book.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A TEST OF WILLS by Charles Todd

A quotation from the book--

“Ye’ll not triumph over me!” Hamish said. “I’m a scar on your bludy soul.”

“That may be,” Rutledge told him harshly. “But I’ll find out before It’s finished what we’re both made of.”

Charles Todd fills A Test of Wills with tragic (and maybe sometimes hopeful) stories.

Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge remembers his bitter decision that caused Hamish MacLeod to be forever in Rutledge’s mind.

A little girl loses her doll and witnesses a murder.

Some people remember a tragic automobile accident years ago.

A well-known artist continues to mourn the death of her German prisoner of war lover.

A young woman lives with a tragic hidden love.

Several characters struggle with terrible shell shock from the recent war, WWI.

 And the final climax of the book reveals a violent on-going tragedy which almost takes another life.

Inspector Rutledge’s superior Superintendent Bowles sends Rutledge to Warwickshire knowing Rutledge will fail. Bowles hates Rutledge because Rutledge is upper class. Bowles is from the working class.

And Rutledge does almost fail. Hamish’s inner voice and Rutledge’s shellshock rob Rutledge of his intuition, the insight which made him a brilliant detective before the war.

But Rutledge is as persistent as always. He continues to pursue thread after thread of all the tragic stories, not knowing where any of them are leading him. And when he succeeds, Bowles gets the credit.

This is the first-written book in a wonderfully written and well-known series. For me, the joy is that I have so many left to read.

I very much enjoy reading the history and police procedure in the Ian Rutledge books.  

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A FINE SUMMER'S DAY by Charles Todd

Charles Todd’s A Fine Summer’s Day opens on Sunday, June 28, 1914. This was the same day terrorists assassinated Austrian archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the event which set off World War I.

On that day, Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge proposed to Jean Gordon. Another man, far away, proposed to his beloved. And still a third man made plans to bury his mother and start off on a cross-country murder rampage.

Most of the murderer's victims would drink a glass of milk laced with a deadly dose of Laudanum. Coroners would rule several of the deaths suicides. In at least two cases local police would accuse innocent people of murder even going so far as to take one to trial.

But Ian Rutledge would think all the deaths were murders. He would believe another seemingly unrelated case is connected to the murders. He would believe the presently accused are innocent. And he would work against time to prove their innocence.

What did the victims have in common? 

Rutledge uses his intuition and his penchant to see things others overlook. He plods along, struggles with a hardheaded superior who wants a quick solution, follows the facts, and tries desperately to find the thread to break the case.

At one point Rutledge says, “Even though I myself don’t know what the man looks like, I’ve got only a general description to be going on with. But I think it can be done with time and perseverance.”

And that is one key to Inspector Ian Rutledge--perseverance. Following up on every detail until he finds the thread that breaks the case.

This time he is almost too late. The war is closing in, and he will end up going.

Rutledge’s fiancĂ© Jean becomes impatient with him. At first she is taken with the pageant of war. Her father is a decorated soldier. She wants a pageant-filled wedding with all the trappings of military service. But then the war turns ugly. Many come home in coffins or badly maimed, and many don’t come home at all. All of a sudden, reality sets in.

It is hard for me to overstate how much I like the Ian Rutledge books. (Believe it or not, I’ve just run across them.) Charles Todd’s writing is clear and interesting. The characters fascinate. And the history resonates with what is happening in the story.

When I first read about this book, I thought this was the first book in the series, and in a way, it is. It is a “prequel” written later to tell about Rutledge’s early history.

So now, my task is to keep reading. 

Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books have caught my fancy.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Sometimes good books are like pebbles thrown in the water. They send ripples outward.

I have not read many of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morris books, but I loved watching Inspector Lewis on PBS. Lewis, of course, came out of the Morris books. 

My wife and I streamed the Inspector Lewis episodes and have seen almost all of them.

Colin Dexter died March 21, 2017, at the age of 86. May he rest in peace. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Judith Flanders’ A Cast of Vultures has interesting characters and a complicated plot.

Samantha Clair lets a friend talk her into looking for a missing neighbor. They even break into the neighbor’s house to find clues.

The neighbor turns up dead, caught in an arson fire in an abandoned building filled with squatters. Sam and her friend Vi set out to prove that someone murdered him.

The squatters turn out to be Sam’s allies in her search.

Sam’s live-in Scotland Yard boyfriend struggles with Sam’s detective propensities making for some humorous scenes.

Both Sam and her boyfriend come close to being murdered thesmselves.

Sam is a book editor. A Cast of Vultures gives considerable detail about her job and the pitfalls that go with it. 

For me, reading A Cast of Vultures was like watching one episode of a TV comedy-mystery. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


“[Holmes] had let go all doubt, and was telling me in crystal-clear terms that he was prepared to treat me as his complete, full, and unequivocal equal, if that was what I wished.”

Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice adds strong women to the Sherlock Homes saga.

In 1915, fifteen-year-old Mary Russell runs into the retired Sherlock Holmes keeping his bees on Sussex Downs.

Russell lives with her obnoxious aunt. She still grieves the heartbreaking death of both her parents.

Impressed by Russell’s brilliance, Holmes teaches her his methods of detection. They solve an espionage case, the burglary of a local pub, and the terrifying kidnapping of an American child.

Then someone tries to kill them both with bombs. The bombs are constructed in a way used by a former Sherlock Holmes antagonist. 

Holmes’ and Russell’s lives are so at risk that, for a while, they run away to Palestine and Jerusalem where Russell gets in touch with her Jewish heritage.

Along the way, King brings in all the familiar characters--Mycroft Holmes, Watson, Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and others.

Fairly early in the book, Holmes tells Russell, “You cannot help being a female, and I should be something of a fool as well were I to discount your talents merely because of their housing.”

At a later point, Holmes admits it is hard for him to believe a woman can be as smart as he is.

So Holmes and Russell grow closer. They come to trust each other in an affectionate way. By the end of the story, their relationship helps to save both their lives.
Last year, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its publication. 

I skipped the congratulatory stuff at the first of the book and went right to the story. And the story quickly took me in.  

I hope to read more of the books in this well-known series.

I checked out the Kindle edition of The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice from our local library.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A NOTE FROM JOE--Just a reminder

This blog is a record of my reading. Sometimes I read recently-published books. Sometimes I read books published years ago. And sometimes I read books other than mysteries, especially religious books. 

I use the blog to keep track of what I have read and to jog my memory about the books. I'm not as young as I used to be. 

I welcome comments, but I do moderate because of spam. 

Again, I give my statement of purpose (also printed at the right)--

"All the books I write about here are books I've either bought or borrowed from a library. This blog is a record of my weekly reading. I don't accept ARCs for review, though I appreciate those who do because their blogs clue me in to new books. I sometimes write about non-fiction books or non-mystery fiction books because I stumbled onto them and they interested me."

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Sometimes you strike gold in the library.

In Charles Todd’s No Shred of Evidence, Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge tries to prove four women innocent.

It is autumn 1920 in Cornwall.  The four women are on a short boat ride when they try to rescue Harry Saunders whose boat is sinking. He dies, and a witness who helped in the attempted rescue accuses the women of murder. He says Saunders was in their boat, and they pushed him out.

Everyone involved (including Rutledge) has a personal connection with the victim or with one or more of the women. Many of them have reasons to lie or murder.

The only clues Rutledge has are the boat itself and some scraps of well-embroidered cloth.  He finds the first scrap at the boat’s mooring spot. Then he finds later pieces of cloth at the scene of subsequent attacks and murders.

Rutledge’s dogged pursuit of every lead finally leads him to the murderer, someone completely unexpected. Only his police procedural approach could have solved the crime.

Well-meaning people withholding information, made things worse. And the whole story ends in an imperfect way.

So, I found this to be just the kind of book I like. It is a strong police procedural in which not everything works out.

I ran across this book in our local library as a Kindle edition. As soon as I finished the book, I went back and checked out the first book in the series A Fine Summer’s Day. 

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: “ 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. 

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017


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

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.

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.”
“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.”