Sunday, December 23, 2018

On "The Unnamable" by H. P. Lovecraft (2951 words) ***

This tale moves Lovecraft's work into the American everyday. Essentially a kind of ghost story, the piece revolves around a man trying to convince his inconvincible scientifically minded friend that a particular house is haunted by "the unnamable." Read the story here.

On "Daily Life in the New Testament" by James W. Ermatinger ****

This book covers exactly what its title says. What I found most interesting about it, however, was Ermatinger's point of view. Where as Martin Goodman, in his book on Rome and Jerusalem, perceives Roman-Jewish interactions as largely positive with a few trivial skirmishes, and the eventual destruction of the temple as an accidental "mistake," Ermatinger emphasizes the strife between the Romans and the Jews, with the temple's destruction as the fitting climax to this conflict.

Along the way, Ermatinger gives readers a tour of the various peoples living in the Holy Land: what their origins were, what they spoke, what they did for work. He also talks about the expectations for Messiah and how these played out in the eventual conflict. For a book that is part of a series that is generally fairly predefined in its scope and organization, this was actually a very interesting and informative read, more so than I was expecting.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

On "Dundun" by Denis Johnson (1206 words) ****

It is possible that some people might be more messed up than the character at the center of Denis Johnson's stories in Jesus' Son. Here, that man, looking to be useful to others, gives a ride to a man who is on his way toward death, who has been shot, by a mutual acquaintance. But what the narrator finds is that deep beneath all this trouble, there is kindness, somewhere, inside each of us, even when it never shows. Read the story here.

On "Sage, Saint, and Sophist" by Graham Anderson ***

Hoping for a bit more information about itinerant preachers in the first century, I picked up this book. Some information on this subject appeared here, but overall I was disappointed with regard to that. Anderson focuses more on the way in which holy men lived than on the ways in which they spread their message to people who otherwise would not have known of them (today we have TV preachers, but just how did people in the first century pass along their message?). Granted, there is much on spreading the message, but more in terms of how such men were perceived when they made predictions and how they taught disciples than on the situations, the streets, the academies, in which they would have spoken.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

On "The Nameless City" by H. P. Lovecraft (5032 words) ****

Here a man goes scaling into an ancient cavernous city whose history is described in other Lovecraft tales. As with so many of Lovecraft's stories, the man is eventually nearly torn apart by his encounter. But the descriptions of this odd civilization and the caverns along the way are wonderfully baroque. Read the story here.

On "At the Origins of Christian Worship" by Larry W. Hurtado ****

Based on a series of lectures, the short book is a very readable summary of many of the themes that extend throughout Hurtado's work. The main goal of the book is to explore what worship was like near the beginning of the Christian faith.

Hurtado starts his book by looking at paganism as it would have existed in the day and how that would have impacted Christian worship. The gist of it is that a Christian of Gentile extraction would have had a difficult time in society, because its social structure was largely based around pagan cults. Want to share a meal? You'll do that at the temple--or in rarer cases, at rich person's house (though in a crowd of ten at most)--generally in honor of a god. Being Christian involved breaking away from much of this social structure.

Next, Hurtado looks at how Christians actually worshipped, insofar as what they received in exchange for their conversion. Many churches met in homes and featured only a small number of congregants, so the experience was intimate--and it often featured food. Social distinctions were largely removed. There was also the promise of a coming utopian age of which Christians had a foretaste.

Hurtado turns next to the worship pattern insofar as the nature of God is concerned. He denotes that worship was largely binitarian--focused on Jesus and the Father as objects of veneration. The Spirit was certainly something of importance, but it was not an object of worship. Christians still believed themselves monotheists, as the Son was seen as the expression of the Father.

In the final chapter, Hurtado turns to contemporary worship and discusses how the early history/pattern of worship might instruct Christians today in their own practice.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

On "The End of the World and Karate" by Al Dixon (1947 words) ****

What I like so much about this strange little story is the seeming randomness of it and the attitude the characters convey to one another. Sure, it's a story in which nothing much seems to be happening, but then there's this whole talk of UFOs and of Kenny the foot stomper and of highjackers--one never knows where the story is going to go. Read it here at Hobart.

On "From Philo to Origen" by Robert M. Berchman **

This book is little more than a photostat of a dissertation. As such, it's double-spaced and shrunk down to fit a six-by-nine binding, which makes for difficult reading. That's too bad in some ways, as what Berchman has to say is important and useful. As the title suggests, Berchman traces through the influence of Plato from Philo to Origen, in the period known as Middle Platonism, one in which both the Jewish religion and the Christian were coming into being. Alas, it is not a book for casual readers or even mainstream readers; that one is still to be written. This is one for the scholars, preferably ones who know Greek and Latin, since Berchman often quotes from the vernacular without translation.

I would split the book into three main parts, with the first two being split into three parts each and the last part being split into two. The first section discusses conceptions of God, first in Philo, then in Clement of Alexandria, and finally in Origen. The gist of it is that all three, to some extent, apply Platonic ideas to Biblical concepts and to their beliefs about who God is and how his creation came about. Most pertinent here is Philo's dialogue Timaeus. God the Father, as First Principle, has no direct contact with the physical; his Logos, his reason and mind, is begotten and creates the things of physical substance. Or something like that. This was not easy reading.

The second section discusses ideas about knowledge--again in Philo, Clement, and Origen. The basic premise is that they write in Scripture as the ultimate form of knowledge, which goes beyond that which can be gained by physical senses to that which is the mind of God. Another short section discusses rhetoric--and how their use of it was Platonic.

Finally, the last section of the book provides a long excerpt from Origen's Periarchon, after which the author analyzes it to show how Origen is actually arguing against Stoic concepts of knowledge and of God in favor of Platonic concepts, as based within scripture.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

On "The Moon-Bog" by H. P. Lovecraft (3421 words) ****

This is what happens when a man named Denys Bary decides that the legends about an Irish bog are poppycock and in the name of progress and development decides to drain it. Campfire legends are made of this stuff. Read the story here.

On "Philo's Alexandria" by Dorothy Sly ****

This highly accessible book about Alexandria in the first century of the Common Era focuses on Philo's observations about the city and how those speak to both his thoughts and to the character of the city itself. It is, in equal ways, about each.

Philo was a Jewish philosopher/thinker of the time who was also heavily influenced by the Greek culture around him. In many ways, he was focused on proving Hebrew culture as every bit the equal of Greek culture if not superior to it, making such well-bandied (at the time) claims as that much of Greek philosophy stemmed from Mosaic law and custom or from a common divine source.

Sly is a feminist whose previous work focused on Philo's beliefs about women, and that finds a lot of emphasis here. Women don't fare well in Philo's texts, since he believes they are inferior to men and should largely be confined to the private arena. It is when they take a hand in politics or try to influence men that history goes awry, in Philo's view. He writes badly women like Cleopatra who have much to do with the social order.

Various chapters deal with Alexandria's marketplace, medicine, politics, and history.

About the only misstep in the book is that Sly chooses to end the book with the account of the Jewish pogrom of 38 and chooses to start it with a paraphrasing of Philo's thought, writing as if she were Philo. Ending the book as she does is not necessarily wrong, but it might have been a more compelling opening; the paraphrase, at least for me, seemed to drop us into the realm of fiction and made me at first rue choosing this book as one about these two subjects.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

On "Two Men" by Denis Johnson (3569 words) *****

Seemingly random, this story follows a set of druggies as they pick up a hitchhiker, try to get him home, realize that they do not know what they are doing, and then ends up somewhere more sinister than one could ever imagine at the start. And that's just the first man! Read the story here at the Short Story Project.

On "From Logos to Trinity" by Marian Hillar ***

Hillar traces the origins and history of the Christian concept of the Trinity. The work focuses first on Greek concepts of the term "Logos," then on Hebrew concepts of Wisdom and of the Messiah. The two ideas find unity in Philo, who was heavily influenced by both Hellenism and the Hebrew scriptures and who sought to claim that Hebrews actually anticipated and "taught" the Greeks philosophy. It is Philo, Hillar sees, as bringing Platonic ideas to the Jewish God. Justin Martyr builds on Philo, though he does not yet introduce the full-fledged trinity. That role belongs to Tertullian. In the appendix, Hillar summarizes the findings and then focuses on Egyptian concepts of God as being the first Mediterranean culture to come up with the idea of a uniplural god in three and likely the origin of later ideas in Christianity.

This work focuses much on philosophy and, as such, was difficult for me to follow at times. Hillar is interested in the evolution of religious ideas. Hillar seems to lean toward Biblical events regarding Jesus--indeed, Jesus himself--as being mythical.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On "The Shunned House" by H. P. Lovecraft (10,749 words) ****

Similar in some ways to "The Lurking Fear" this story revolves around a single house, one that holds fascination for the narrator growing up. It has a fungal problem, and occasionally, the narrator spies what he thinks is something lurking about inside. He gets the owner to agree to let him spend time in the house, and his uncle, who has an equal interest, comes along. Alas, the narrator loses his uncle to the house. I'm not giving away much, because readers learn this a third of the way into the story, though we don't discover how until the end. Lovecraft is at his best when trying to rationalize the irrational, and the most of this story is just that. But as with so many of Lovecraft's story's the final horror is a bit disappointing in its attempts to be horrifying. Sometimes the unknown is scarier. Read the story here.

On "Quiet" by Susan Cain ****

Long on my reading list, this book explores the world of introverts. Its first half contains some accounts of interesting studies, but its second half turns into a self-help book, which was not exactly what I was thinking this would be or what I was looking for. On the whole, this books reads as great mainstream commercial nonfiction, but as such it does feel like it lacks a certain amount of gravity, gravity that is hinted at in the first half of the book when it gets into its various discussions on culture.

Cain suggests in the first chapter that there was a shift in the early twentieth century away from a focus on character toward personality, a shift that is mirrored in a shift from a focus on introverts to extroverts (as such, she kind of links personality with extroversion and character with introversion, which isn't exactly a truism). Nevertheless, the point is that the American focus on extroverts, on being loud and friendly and "out there" with your desires and offerings, on sharing among large groups, means that the skills of introverts are often overlooked or ignored.

Cain backs up such assertions with finding and examples from the world of business and education, anecdotes such as that of an introverted man who had actual experience in survival skills but who in a class exercise in business school could not be heard over the voices of the many extroverts who knew much less about what they were talking about. She writes of how extrovert-centered idealism, which has resulted in concepts such as the open office and group work often result in less than intended results. Open office environments are actually less productive; group work often renders less creative solutions to problems than lone individuals often can. She writes of the financial world and how introverts tend to be more careful, less risk taking, and how the finance is dominated by the risk-taking extrovert class, which helps to forge a bubble and bust economy.

How did we get here? Dale Carnegie found confidence in public-speaking classes and went on to write classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People and taught others how to be successful, and that success was largely tailored around extrovert-type values.

From here, Cain moves toward self-help: how to deal with your opposite in relationships and at work; how to deal with an introvert kid. Much of this seems fairly self-evident or aimed at people who are at extreme ends of either spectrum.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

On "Mama" by Lucia Berlin (13 minutes) ***

In "Mama," Berlin returns to some recurring characters of hers. Carlotta here rehearses stories about Mom for her dying sister Sally, whose relationship with their mom was cut off when she married a Mexican--stories about alcoholism but also about love and sacrifice, some of them embellished. Carlotta may have stayed on Mom's good side, but Sally seems the more forgiving. Listen to Berlin read it here at Soundcloud.

On “The Getaway” by Jim Thompson ****

One of the more classic Thompson titles is almost entirely about an attempt to escape, or run away from, a crime that has been committed. The couple at the center of the narrative rob a bank. Then bodies start piling up as they flee, with the intent of retiring to a criminal paradise. Much has been made of the surreal ending, as the crooks go from hiding in a cave that barely fits their bodies, where they take sleeping pills to avoid pain, to hiding in a pile of manure, to crossing waters to get to El Rey, to finally landing in their supposed paradise, a place that proves to be less than ideal.

Unlike The Kill-Off, the characters here seem better drawn. But I think that after reading as much Thompson as I have, I've rather soured on the body count and the murders and the violence. Or maybe I just prefer stories about conmen. I loved The Grifters, and some of my favorite scenes in this book involved a similar con situation, wherein our couple loses their bag of riches to a guy swindling people out of keys to lockers at a train station. It's a gripping middle section that involves no so much violence as mental acrobatics between the characters involved.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

On "The Horror at Red Hook" by H. P. Lovecraft (8,323 words) ****

Here, detective takes to never again wanting to set foot in a certain kind of home. The story sets out to explain why, for the cause is more than the collapse and resulting psychological illness that is given as a reason. And thus we descend into a piece about a man named Robert Suydam who seems to get younger as the story proceeds, eventually marrying a young bride. How he finds this fountain of youth is the clincher on this one. Read the story here.

On “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth ****

Recently made into a Spike Lee movie, this memoir recounts the author's time as an undercover detective investigating the KKK. The twist: he's a black man. How does a black police officer become a member of the Klan? He does so on something of a whim.

One day, reading the classifieds, he finds an ad inviting people to join the Klan. He sends in a letter denoting his interest, not expecting anything back. Surely, this is a joke. But a few weeks later, he receives a response. From that comes a telephone conversation and a meeting. For the meeting, he has to have another cop pose as himself.

From there, several cops from the Colorado Springs Police Department become involved with the Klan in an effort to keep it from taking hold in their community. The black police officer also becomes involved in investigating anti-Klan groups who have violent tendencies (similar to today's Antifa). He also forges an interesting relationship (mostly on the phone) with David Duke, the Klan's grand wizard.

The tale is one that resonates with the current state of our country in terms of the viciousness of people at both far-out ends of the political spectrum—and how that can filter down to the mainstream, as racist and violent views are “cleaned up” for regular folks. It's also a very funny book, which is a good thing, because the investigation itself seems, by the end, something much less important than the fact that a book is devoted to it might make it seem to be. The investigation prevented some local disturbances, which is important, but one doesn't get the feeling that it reveals anything astounding about these groups that we don't already know or changes anything in our country.

Monday, October 8, 2018

On "Emergency" by Denis Johnson (3569 words) *****

Georgie, the narrator's friends in this piece, is one of those characters that sticks in one's head. He's a drughead who seems only semiconscious of things going on around him but who somehow manages to make good repeatedly--not necessarily out of some sense of love or goodness, just out of sheer luck. He stands in contrast to the narrator, who tends to think of his life as falling apart, of himself as one who constantly messes things up for others. I was curious to know how Georgie would be portrayed in the film version, and I wasn't disappointed, though in some ways, that portrait now sticks in my head more than the one that was in my mind before. Georgie was a bit more subdued in my mind, whereas now he is always over the top. The story can be read here at Narrative Magazine.

On “The Kill-Off” by Jim Thompson ***

As the back of this book denotes, this is not so much a who done it as a who will do it. The victim of the murder is alive for two-thirds of the book, though fearful of her impending murder. Through various points of view, Thompson shows that multiple people have reasons to kill the woman, a gossiper who has ruined many a reputation and life among those living in the town. Her younger husband might kill her to get her money (and also the money owed to him that she has confiscated from his work for herself), in part to run off with a new love interest. That love interest might kill her because she's not a very innocent gal and obviously wants to be able to marry her lover. The son of another local might kill her in order to steal money from her to be able to run away with a gal he has an interest in. And so on.

The conceit is an original one, but alas, the characters seem here prisoners to it and to the plot that Thompson has set out. As such, the book doesn't quite live up to its full potential.