Monday, January 13, 2020

On "Monkey Park" by Madison Smartt Bell (about 7,000 words) ****

This one involves a night of randomness. It centers on a woman and her male friend and her husband. She spends more time with the former than the latter, and there's a feeling of sadness insofar as we know that there's something going on between them that they won't quite acknowledge and can't. There's putting on clown faces, drinking too much, going to a park to play and to look at monkeys involved. Read the story from Hudson Review here at Jstor (you can sign up for a free account and read it online).

On "Zero db and Other Stories" by Madison Smartt Bell *****

I read this book nearly twenty-five years ago, back when I was in grad school. I went on to read another book of Bell's stories, which was about as good as this one. At the time, however, I don't know that I was necessarily that impressed. Rather, this was a book that stayed with me, the way a movie called The Conversation stayed with me, kept me thinking about it for weeks afterward.

The two stories that are my favorite in this collection fall at the start of the second section, which is my favorite section of the book. The book as a whole is set into three sections, with "three" being something of a motif in this work, as designated by the first and last stories of the first section. Those stories are called Tryptichs--they are stories in three parts.

Triptych I is about a little girl at a hog killing. Where Bell excels throughout the collection is in his somber attention to detail, and that's what makes this otherwise less interesting story impressive. It's set in the South, among black folk and white, and burning and accidents are something of a theme throughout the three disparate parts.

"The Naked Lady" is a powerful piece of wit and writing skill and was the one that most impressed me when I first read the collection. It's about the friend of an artist, their horrific home, the sculptures the artist creates, and the rats they kill.

"Monkey Park" is another sort of hopelessness--this one involving a couple that isn't.

"Triptych II" focuses on different ways of dying, one among peacocks, one an old man, and one a bull. The idea here seems to be that people are little more than animals in the end, facing their final hours. And it mirrors the final story in the collection.

The middle section includes six stories about young men (or a young man, as many of the stories seem to be about the same person and arguably all of them could be) fighting--or perhaps, more so, giving into--depression. "The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services" involves a young man who goes off to college, does well for a few months, and then sinks into a morass wherein he stops bothering to attend classes and spends most of his days on the "sad" side of the university cafeteria. Here, a blind man is sat down by him each day, but the blindness is really the narrator's own, as he is lost without knowing how to escape his own lethargy.

"Irene" finds a young man living in a Hispanic neighborhood with cheap rent. The man knows little of his neighbors and few of them, but he forges a kind of fascination with a twelve-year-old girl that is at some level a bit creepy but at the same time a kind of cry for connection--with someone, anyone.

"The Lie Detector" involves a young man who loses his apartment and has to go find a new one. Thing is, his old landlord seems to be trying to stiff him on the deposit; his new landlord seems to be trying to ask for extra kickbacks in order for him to move in; and true to form, the narrator himself begins to apply similar sorts of dishonesty to grift a bit more cash for his needs.

"I Heart NY" involves a young man trying to do just the opposite--that is, to be a responsible and good citizen. He takes real interest in those around, but the city doesn't seem to care much for or about him, and when he tries to help others, it rarely works out. Police don't come to assist. Muggers he catches turn out to be the wrong person, and so on.

"The Forgotten Bridge" focuses on the same young man as in "Lie Detector" after he is in the new apartment--and on the relationships he forges with his Hispanic neighbors. There's a kind of sadness to the tale insofar as it's told from a distant time with a certain amount of nostalgia, though it's nostalgia for a time that was rough on all of the people involved.

"Zero db" is about a man who works on sound for motion pictures and other productions. Here, he's recording people in a bar after a particularly bad day at work.

The final section/story is "Today Is a Good Day to Die" and focuses on an officer in Custer's army out west who is rescued from a snow storm by the Indians Custer has tried to and will try again to kill. This leads to some uncertainty in the officer regarding his role and purpose in life.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

On "Full Circle" by Edith Wharton (8349 words) *****

Betton is an author who finds fan mail tiresome, so he hires a man named Vyse to respond to the mail for him. Vyse is a former classmate--and also an author himself, an unsuccessful author who once asked Betton for help getting his novel published, a novel that Betton found riveting, much better than anything he could write himself. Betton, however, did not help--let other matters get in the way. Now, with Vyse as his needy and poor assistant, Betton feels guilty--but also uncertain of Vyse's motives. Does Vyse recognize that Betton is not as good a writer? Does he realize that this second novel is not as good as the first? How can Betton keep up his reputation for Vyse or keep needy Vyse in his employee? In one sense, this is a story of revenge--but of revenge that a person perpetrates on himself for a life badly lived. Read the story here.

On "Herod" by Peter Richardson ***

Richardson's book focuses on the first Herod. It's a biography based largely around the work of Josephus, and it is focused primarily on the political rise and fortune of the king, recounting much in the way of his war exploits and quarrels within his family.

I came to this book not so much wanting to read about Herod as wanting to read more about the culture from which he derived--the Idumeans. The Edomites, of course, have a long history, but I wanted one that focuse specifically on the culture of the people at this time, the time of the Herods. There was no such book that I could find, so I figured a book about Herod might give me some of that. Indeed, this book did.

But because the focus was, as it should have been, being a biography, on Herod's political career, it was something of a disappointment for me.

Richardson uses fiction techniques to start and end his work. He begins with Herod's death, describing it from the point of view of various peoples who would have known him--radical zealots, Romans, Pharisees, and so on. Indeed, how he was remembered would have depended in many ways on what your own political and religious views were. He was, on some level, very religious, and another, just the opposite. He was an opportunist. He was one who did well for his adopted Jewish people. He was one who sold them out to Rome for his own gain. He was one who did the best he could to support Judah at a time of Roman hegemony. The conclusion reaches for similar points, documenting his various accomplishments.

In between, we get the actual biography, which is, as many histories can be, a bit overwhelming with its accounts of battles. Such rarely keeps me wanting to read, even in books that are outright about wars. After so many, they begin to seem similar, like so much maneuvering to attain specific ends. I tend to prefer to know those ends and in general how they were obtained--not so much the specifics.

The parts that spoke most to me, thus, were those that focused more on Herod's building program, which was impressive. Also of interest--though this too got bogged down in details--was his growing paranoia and the destruction of his family largely by himself. Finally, a mere chapter--but an interesting one--is devoted to his descendents, the tetrarchs that followed him and the final kings.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

On "Flight" by John Steinbeck (7661 words) *****

One of my favorite stories of all time, this one reminds me of what I found so engrossing about John Steinbeck when I was a teenager. It's a bit overwrought and melodramatic toward the beginning, but the slow, deliberative descriptions of a young boy--er, man--on the run fits with the inevitable end. Read the story here.

On "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez *****

It's been a long while since I read Garcia Marquez, and this reread was well worth the time, suiting my mood precisely. In the cannon of Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez has generally ranked behing Borges and Cortazar for me, but were it not for those two great writers, I'd probably think much more about the Colombian author.

This tale is wonderful for its various details but also for its tone. Garcia Marquez builds the story as if a man were really conducting research on an incident from earlier in his life. We read of interviews he's conducted, his own memories, written accounts. In that sense, the Chronicle is like reading an investigative report.

The story revolves around the killing of Santiago Nasar for the apparent deflowering of Angelica Vicario, whose new husband returns her as such. As we read further, we learn not just how the killing went down but how Nasar was implicated--even as his actual guilt is called into question. By the end, I found myself saddened by the course of events, which is as good as one could hope from such a story. The novella can be read here.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

On "The Last Asset" by Edith Wharton (12,119 words) *****

A journalist befriends an American woman who is at the center of the social world from which he draws his stories. She in turn wants a favor--she wants him to get in touch with her husband, from whom she has been separated for years. The husband is needed for the daughter's wedding, or else no wedding can take place. Why the husband is separated, how he lives, and why he has no interest in helping is at the center of this story, a center which comes to encompass even the journalist. The story is told in the third-person limited perspective of the journalist, and yet, it's one of those tales that fits in with The Great Gatsby or On the Road insofar as the story isn't really about the main character but about someone whom the main character is obsessed with (although actually, this story is about the main character insofar as he is the one transformed in it, even if he's not the main spring for the events). Those two novels are first person, and I wonder to some degree why, given that the story is still told from a limited perspective, why Wharton didn't settle on first person for this one. Read the story here.

On "Early Biblical Interpretation" by James M. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer ***

Book 3 in the Library of Early Christianity, this one focuses on how Bible readers interpreted the scripture up through about the third century CE. The main thing that I got out of the book was something very obvious, something I just hadn't given much thought to: namely, even the later Old Testament scriptures are even interpretations of the earlier ones. Thus, Chronicles, written after Kings and the Torah, in many ways reads the events recounted in those books in a new way, "making past events bear on present reality" (38).

Much of the book--though not as much as I feared, since that wasn't something I was particularly interested in reading about at present--is given over to the rise of and cannonization of scripture. Much is also given over to different genres of the scripture, at least in the Old Testament, and of interpretation--wisdom writing, apocalyptic writing, interpretations among the Qumran sect, interpretations among the rabbis, the hellenistic allegorical approach.

While the first half of the book focuses on the Old Testament, the second half focuses on the New. The author of this half is particularly interested in Iraneaus's view of the scripture, as he is the first to reference most of the books in the New Testament in his own work. The author delves into the various ways early Christian writers put Old Testament scripture to work within the new Christian framework (Jesus in the Old Testament, the church as the new Israel, etc.). He also looks at the differences between the Alexandrian allegorical school and the Antiochan typological school, showing that actually the two schools are not perhaps as different as one might initially claim, as their main interest was in making theological points.

The book's final line is perhaps most telling of the two religious traditions that come out of interpreting Old Testament scripture: "It is instructive that the figure of Wisdom, portrayed in Prov. 8:22ff, as God's agent of creation and revelation, was equated in Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira) with the Torah but was identified by Christians as early as Paul with Christ. From the same point of departure we thus find two paths, strikingly similar in many of their presuppositions and methods, but finally divergent" (203).

Sunday, November 24, 2019

On "Pointing East, Where Things Happen" by Donna Baier Stein (3770 words) ***

Is he or isn't he? When a man has an affair, it's hard to trust him ever again--that's the angle in this story, centered on a revival meeting and a mysterious bracelet too small for his wife. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

On "From Sabbath to Sunday" by Samuele Bacchiocchi *****

This was a reread for me. The last time I read the book was back in 1995, when some doctrinal changes in the church I was attending were going on. Back then, I thought the book useful, but I'm not sure how interesting I found it. It seemed quite scholarly, perhaps even a bit difficult.

Having now worked with scholarly books for more than twenty years and having read more extensively among the works Bacchiocchi examines, this book now seems like a fairly easy read. The more interesting parts for me are those that focus on the historical shift to Sunday and those that discuss specific scriptures used to justify the shift. Much of the early portion of the work focuses more on other scholars' claims regarding the shift, showing how those claims don't pass muster. In  that sense, those early sections are where the book seems most scholarly and most tied to the dissertation from which it derives. When Bacchiocchi is dealing with primary sources, as the later chapters do, the work is much more interesting, indeed, for me, gripping.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

On "The House of the Dead Hand" by Edith Wharton (10,201 words) *****

Wharton had a knack for mysteries. This one reads like a gothic tale ala Poe and Borges. A man is asked to get a copy of a newly discovered painting by Leonardo, which has been purchased for a private collection. The purchaser, however, is a man who will not allow others to photograph the image and, save for the young visitor (who has some special connections), even look or describe the painting, which was purchased by the daughter of the current owner. The painting, however, is also the daughter's prison sentence, for the father is not just possessive of it but insanely attached to it such that no one else in the family can live a normal life. Read the story here at the Atlantic.

On "The Divinity of the Roman Emperor" by Lily Ross Taylor ****

This book proved to be quite gripping in its middle section wherein Octavian and Alexander were competing for power--and it was really in the midst of that that the move toward making the Roman emperor into a god happened, which emphasizes the extent to which that move was largely for political ends.

As Taylor notes, the real irony is that while Caesar was killed to keep him from amassing too much power and becoming a "god," his very death is what led to him gaining divinity and thus the emperors that would follow him.

The idea that an emperor would be a god was really something that derived from eastern kingdoms in the Roman empire--most specifically Egypt. People in that portion of the empire were thus more inclined to think of an emperor as a god to begin with. The trickier part was getting Roman people to go along with such an idea. In that sense, a dead emperor was more easily proclaimed such than a living one. Rather, it was the "Genius" (similar to a metaphysical soul) of an emperor that was godlike and that was worshiped. This Genius, within the emperor, lived on beyond his body, ascending to the godly realm after the body's death.

That nations like Judah were allowed not to worship an emperor, while still showing deference to him through sacrifices for him rather than to him, shows also the degree to which emperor worship was largely for political ends--whatever works to subject people to the rulership is what was most important.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

On "Deafness" by James Chapin (2276 words) ****

This lightly science fiction story revolves around a mysterious phenomenon wherein vast swaths of people lose their hearing. It's told in the form of a letter from one relative to another, about the "old days"--the days when one could hear. The other day I was on the phone with my mother; dad couldn't come to the phone. His hearing's not so good these days, and on this day, it was no good at all. What is there to say to a silent world? What is there to say to the silence? Chapin has some ideas. Read the story here at New World Writing.

On "The Moral World of the First Christians" by Wayne A. Meeks ****

This text is a basic introduction to the ways in which people in the first-century Roman empire discussed and determined what moral action is. Meeks devotes individual chapters to Greco-Roman philosophical thinking, Jewish thinking, and Christian thinking on the subject.

Because these are such large subjects, he chooses to focus on various philosophical schools and within those various philosophical schools individual philosophers. As such, Plutarch's writing stands in for Platonic philosophy; Musonius Rufus for the Stoics. In the end, he looks for what they have in common: the desire to lead a happy life is the choice to live in conformity to nature, which is made possible by reason.

For Jewish moral thinking, Meeks focuses on sages, like Yeshua ben Sira, the sect at Qumran, Philo, and the Mishnah. All, of course, stress the importance of the biblical law, though they differ to a great degree in terms of how much they integrated those ideas into Greek thinking.

Meeks then looks at various types of (or emphases among) Christian sects (Gentile, Jewish, Apocalyptic) and closes with a discussion of where such sects met: synagogue, house, school, and church.

Finally, in the last chapter, Meeks examines what specific New Testament passages tell us about the moral foundation of Christians in the first century, how the writings were related to common literary practice, and how the moral standards developed into standardized forms of expression.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

On "The Reckoning" by Edith Wharton (8233 words) *****

This story looks at the emotional toll that divorce takes on a person, most especially the person not expecting/wanting the divorce. Unattached love is all fine and glorious if you're the one who gets out first. The story renders a bit too little of the pain that is usually experienced on the part of the party ending the relationship, but it does so to make a point about how love cannot be all about one's own self and feelings at a given time. Read the story here.

On "Moral Exhortation, a Greco-Roman Sourcebook" by Abraham J. Malherbe ***

This book is essentially a collection of short abstracts of various Greco-Roman philosophers' writings, arranged around themes that have some relation to the social environment in which the New Testament was written. Reading these extracts in conjunction with the biblical passages to which Malherbe refers can be somewhat illuminating, especially when it comes to seeing how Paul and other writers used rhetorical devices similar to thinkers of their day. At the same time, one wonders to what extent said devices are used by just about anyone. 

A few things become evident in reading the extracts. One is that, contrary to what I've read elsewhere, the selections Malherbe has chosen seem to show a set of philosophers very much concerned with morality--including, most notably, sexual morality. Romans come across as quite conservative per the selections chosen--adultery is discouraged and even fornication, as are homosexual relations. I end up wondering, however, to what extent these selections speak to the actual environment of the day. Mahlerbe, in fact, may be drawing largely from Stoic philosophy for those passages, and as such, a more conservative view certainly makes sense, since the Stoics were all about "denying the self" in a sense. In fact, it's easy to see how (gnostic) religion inevitably seems to advocate either aestheticism or its opposite when under the influence of such ideas, because both in essence argue that the physical should not be our focus.

Another major thing that becomes obvious, I have already denoted--that the structures of writing often are similar between Christians and philosophers. In this regard, one of the more interesting sets of extracts have to do with extended metaphors. As Paul uses metaphors to racing (sports), war, and the body (for unity), so too do the philosophers. One could say that such shared metaphorical ideas show that the concepts were common in the society at the time, but I also ended up thinking about how such ideas likely aren't unique to just the time period, that even without such metaphors in scripture or other ancient writings, writers today would likely come up with similar ideas.

Although the extracts are interesting and the summaries useful, this is indeed a sourcebook--Malherbe largely stays in the background, and the book doesn't build to any kind of crescendo in terms of its contents.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

On "Spring 1933" by Donna Baier Stein (4952 words) ***

What happens when a woman falls in love and then loses everything she thinks she might have. Not good things, apparently. Amber settles for something close to what she wanted and finds instead much worse the heartbreak. Read the story here at VQR.

On "The New Testament in Its Social Environment" by John E. Stambaugh and David L. Balch *****

This is one of the best reference books on the social world of the New Testament that I've read. It does a great job of summarizing Jewish history leading up to the Roman period. It discusses family dynamics, religious ones, financial ones, governmental ones, and so on. In its final chapter, it covers the social dynamics apparent in individual cities. It's a short book and easy to read, but it isn't easily summarized, especially given the fact that I did not have opportunity to take notes on it right after completing it. But I will be coming back to this book, as I bought a copy to keep.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

On "The Touchstone" by Edith Wharton (26,849 words) *****

Essentially a novella, this work ruminates on the subject of loyalty, love, and literary acumen. A man befriends a woman writer whose husband soon dies; she falls for him, writes to him for years, but the love is unrequited. Years later, after her death and needing money to be able to marry, the man arranges for the publication of the letters, which are a huge literary hit, but at what price to his personal soul? What do we owe to the dead? Do we keep their secrets forever? Read the story here at Project Gutenberg.

On "The Search for the Twelve Apostles" by William Steuart McBirnie ***

This book seems a useful reference, but on the whole it was a disappointment, especially in comparison to the more recent Fate of the Apostles by Sean McDowell. The latter suffered from a kind of formulaicness, but this work suffers in some sense from a seeming lack of method.

McBirnie quotes extensively from various sources, many of them late in history such that one wonders to what extent the later sources are reliable. Further, at least in the edition I read, it was difficult to tell what was a quote and what wasn't--in other words, the design was not well suited to McBirnie's text (a problem likely resolved in more recent reprint editions).

Finally, McBirnie focuses heavily on burial sights of the apostles for his information. This seems somewhat dubious. Granted, in tracking the bodily remains of the apostles, he may at times hit on how true a given myth is, but given how many churches like to claim an apostle for their own and the relative proliferation of relics during the Middle Ages, burial sights seem a difficult way to go about finding the supposed path of the apostles.