When Christians Were Jews

When Christians Were JewsWhen Christians Were Jews: The First Generation
Paula Fredriksen
Yale University Press (October 23, 2018)
272 pages
Kindle edition $9.62, Amazon Hardcover $19.02

Although this book is published by Yale University Press, it is definitely a popular book. It wasn’t written for the scholarly community. It is, however, very heavily annotated. Nearly half the book is footnotes, bibliography, and other end matter.

Fredriksen discusses the first generation of the followers of Jesus. She talks about the Essenes and how their notion of the end time varied from and was similar to that of the followers of Jesus. She discusses the discrepancies between Paul as he is portrayed in the book of Acts and how he writes about himself in his letters. She explains how it was not Jesus who had the Romans upset, but the crowds he incited. The Romans were always nervous about angry crowds.

I have a couple of problems with Fredriksen’s approach. She places the books of Luke and Acts (written by the same author) in the early second century, when most scholars place it at the end of the first century. She uses the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for her English translation, which is odd. The RSV was published in 1949, while the New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989. The latter is regarded as a solid, reliable translation, so why she uses an earlier one baffles me.

There is one oddity with the footnotes in this Kindle edition. Clicking the footnotes takes you to the footnote section in the back of the book. In all other Kindle books that contain footnotes which I have read in the last couple of years the footnote appears as a pop-up. Very odd.

The book had some interesting insights, but there wasn’t really anything in it that I hadn’t picked up elsewhere.

Trick Mirror

Trick Mirror coverTrick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jia Tolentino
Narrated by the author
Random House Audio, August 6, 2019
$22.05 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

There is a perception that for many woman of the Generation X era feminism was not a compelling or urgent cause, as they felt comfortable being able to create the lives and careers that they wanted without any significant barriers or obstructions. This may or may not be true, but the perception exists.

Things seem to be different for the Millennials  If Jia Tolentino speaks for her generation then feminism is front and center for Millennial women. Tolentino, a culture critic for The New Yorker, is sharp and insightful in this collection of essays. The author is literate and perceptive, never holding back in expressing her own opinion. The book is timely, including multiple discussions of the repercussions of the 2016 election along with mentions of public figures such as Kate Middleton and Megan Markle. Tolentino knows her literature, nineteenth century, twentieth century, and contemporary. She is well versed in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. She writes about appearing in a reality television show while in high school and about how Queen Victoria’s wedding had a profound effect on how weddings have been performed since.

Throughout her essays Tolentino describes how women have not made the gains that society perceives them to have made, and how their rights and autonomy continue to be under attack. The final essay makes clear that Tolentino has no use for marriage. She argues that historically marriage  has benefitted men and has been detrimental to women.

The fact that Tolentino reads her own essays in this audio version made the book all the more engaging for me, but I believe it would be just as effective in print, either paper or electronic. If you want to know what one segment of the Millennial generation is thinking this book is the ideal place to start.

The Grammarians

The Grammarians coverThe Grammarians: A Novel
Cathleen Schine
Sarah Crichton Books (September 3, 2019)
272 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.99

This novel received some excellent reviews, and those reviews are well-deserved.

The book is about a pair of identical twins, Laurel and Daphne, who share a love for language and words. Their connection is made clear in their names. In Greek mythology the nymph Daphne is turned into a laurel tree.

When the two were very young they had their own secret language, which was unnerving to their parents and their psychologist uncle. All were relieved when they were old enough to begin speaking English. The two shared pretty much everything as children, and as high school graduates attended three years of college together after spending their freshman year apart. (It was Pomona College, in fact, one of the Claremont Colleges, as is Pitzer College from which I graduated. This gets all of a one-line mention.)

The novel is only one-fourth complete when the girls, now women, are college graduates and have begun seeking careers, or at least work. The two both meet their future husbands at about the same time and have a double wedding. They both live in New York City as they start their working lives, Laurel teaching kindergarten and Daphne working at an alternative weekly newspaper (something I myself have done). Over time they grow apart and eventually stop speaking.

The final ten percent of the novel covers a period of several years and is somewhat of a jumble. It is almost as if the author was only allowed a certain number of pages for her book and had a lot she wanted to cram into those final pages. In the end things come full circle and loose ends are tied up, if not in a totally satisfying manner.

This is not the perfect novel, but if you enjoy language and words you’ll likely find it worth your time and money.


Vida coverVida
Marge Piercy
PM Press, 433 pages
Kindle edition $9.99
purchased on sale for $3.51

It had been many decades since I had read a Marge Piercy novel, and I thought I was due. Piercy is not a literary novelist by any means, but she has her niche and her following. While she has written historical fiction and speculative fiction she is best known and most appreciated by her followers for her contemporary fiction about feminism and political activism in the sixties and seventies.

Vida, originally published in 1980, is classic Piercy. The title character is an activist from the sixties who has had to go underground due to her bombing attacks on military-related targets. The novel moves back and forth between her activist years in the sixties and her fugitive years in the seventies. While the book describes her actions as a leader of an anti-war organization and chronicles her constant travels, requests for money, and pleas for shelter, the novel deftly portrays her many relationships. And she does have many: her ex-husband, her current lover, the many members of the Movement (always with a capital M), and especially her sister. The relationships resonate as real and believable and the plot is an effective page-turner.

In the end Piercy leaves one hanging. Loose ends are not tied up and much is left unresolved. But the journey to get there makes for engaging and entertaining reading.

Hippie Food

Hippie Food coverHippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat
Jonathan Kauffman
Narrated by George Newbern
HarperAudio, January 23, 2018
$20.27 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I started college in 1971 and was surrounded by people who were into natural foods and vegetarian eating. At Pitzer College it was written into the food service contract that each dinner meal had to have one vegetarian entrée. My senior year, when I lived off campus, I had a copy of the first edition of Diet for a Small Planet, and I was very much in tune with Frances Moore Lappé’s philosophy that we should get our protein from plants rather than animals.

Hippie Food, then, addressed a subject in which I was very interested. Kauffman really covers the waterfront on the topic. He writes about the early Seventh Day Adventists in the nineteenth century who believed in a vegetarian diet. He discusses the natural food and vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles in the 1940’s that attracted the elite in Hollywood. He talks about Stephen Gaskin and The Farm commune. Kauffman accurately describes how vegetarian cookbooks evolved, from Lappé’ to Mollie Katzen and her Moosewood Cookbook as well as those between and beyond. Near the end of the book he chronicles the food co-op wars of the seventies and eighties, describing the debate over healthy for the few versus affordable for the working class. He explains how Whole Foods arose out of all that.

It’s all fascinating stuff and narrator George Newbern delivers the material in an extraordinarily pleasant and engaging manner. I found it a most enjoyable listening experience.

The Sun Is a Compass

The Sun is a Compass coverThe Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
Caroline Van Hemert
Narrated by Xe Sands
Hachette Audio, March 19, 2019
$20.76 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

The author is a biologist who specializes in the study of birds, particularly species found in Alaska. She married a former college roommate of her sister, a man who loves the outdoors and who would build cabins in the wilderness with his two hands. Caroline was becoming bored with academia, research, and dissertation writing, so the two of them decided to trek across the Alaskan and Canadian arctic.

This was no small excursion. They planned a four thousand mile, six month journey across lands that were not mapped or perhaps barely mapped. Some of the of the segments on their trip many have been most recently mapped decades earlier. Everything had to be carefully planned: how much they would carry with them, where they could pick up pre-arranged re-supply packages, and all sorts of logistical details.

Van Hemert’s writing is flowing, precise, and descriptive. Much of the book reads like a novel as she describes those times when their lives were in real danger. I knew that they would make it through each perilous incident since this is a memoir, not a novel, and she survived to write the account. Nonetheless, I really felt the tension in those precarious moments.

The narrator, Xe Sands, is a skilled voice actor. You hear Caroline’s emotions in her voice and I felt as if I was actually listening to the author herself.

If you enjoy this genre, do not overlook The Sun Is a Compass.

We Wanted to Be Writers

We Wanted to Be Writers coverWe Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer
Skyhorse (August 16, 2011), 345 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, paperback $11.58
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $1.99

When I came across this book I wanted to read it for two reasons. The first was my love of writing. The second was that this book consists of  interviews with participants in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the mid-1970’s. If you read this blog you know that I am a seventies kind of guy.

The authors interview a handful of participants in the program. They begin with the participants’ earliest love of writing, go on to the application process, spend a lot of time discussing their participation in the program, and talk about life after Iowa. Many stayed in writing and teaching; others moved on to other fields.

We hear from writers with whom you may be familiar: John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Sandra Cisneros, Joe Haldeman, and others. Some participated in the program and then came back to tech. All have a lot to offer with respect to their perspective on Iowa.

This was interesting stuff, but at over 300 pages it was a little too much interesting stuff. There was some repetition, and the book could have stood some trimming. Still, it was a lot of fun to read,