The Face of Water

The Face of Water coverThe Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
Sarah Ruden
Vintage (March 28, 2017), 232 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $17.00

I read a review of The Gospels: A New Translation and promptly bought the book. In it Sarah Ruden’s goal is to come as close to the original Greek as possible. In the process of buying the book I found her 2017 title, The Face of the Water. That looked interesting, so I bought the Kindle edition.

In The Face of Water Ruden discusses the problems in translating the Bible and analyzes a few passages in both the Old and New Testaments where she provides the King James version and then offers her own translation of the Hebrew or Greek.

Some of us at times get frustrated with Old Testament narratives because of the repetition. Ruden points out that Hebrew is an infected language (as is Greek). This means that verb and noun endings convey meaning that require additional words in English. So when translating a passage more words are required in English than in Hebrew, making the repetition more tedious.

Her own translations provide some insight. She points out that in the Lord’s Prayer, “daily bread” in the King James is a poor translation. There is no “daily” in the Greek and “bread” is better translated “loaf.” She states that the label “a Psalm of David” that appears on so many Psalms is misleading. She writes that the inscription is “To/for/regarding [here pretty much an impossible word to translate] David.” Ruden suggests that in the book of Ecclesiastes “vanity” is better translated as “evanescence.”

Ruden writes with a self-effacing humor that makes the book a pleasure to read. If you have an open-minded view about things Biblical you’ll find this book fascinating and enjoyable reading.


Nine Nasty Words

Nine Nasty Words coverNine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever
John McWhorter
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, May 04, 2021
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I can’t imagine anyone other than John McWhorter doing the narration for the audio version of a John McWhorter book. I am very familiar with McWhorter’s work, having read a couple of his books, having listened to his podcast, and having completed several of his lecture series from the Great Courses, both audio and video. He has a distinctive voice with a great deal of inflection and cadence. And when it comes to quoting works in Middle English most voice actors couldn’t match his skill.

In the tradition of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” McWhorter discusses the origin and history of nine “dirty” words. In fact, only one word is on both lists, though McWhorter discusses another of Carlin’s words in the epilogue. Of those nine words, I might occasionally use one or two of them in this blog, though there are more that I use in everyday speech, especially when I am angry or frustrated. Then there are words on McWhorter’s list that I would never use either in writing or in casual speech.

Though intended for a general audience, Nine Nasty Words takes the scientific approach of the linguist as McWhorter discusses the origins and evolution of those words. It’s fascinating stuff, all of it. A bonus is that you get the wit and humor throughout the book that are McWhorter trademarks.

If such things interest you, I highly recommend that you get McWhorter’s audio book version rather than the print or e-book edition. You will thoroughly enjoy having him talking with you in your living room or car.


Rock Me on the Water

Rock Me on the Water coverRock Me on the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics
Ronald Brownstein
Narrated by Will Damron
HarperAudio, March 23, 2021
$29.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I have never returned an audiobook before, but I had the occasion to do so recently. I had downloaded A Sound Mind by Paul Morley from Audible. I had read positive reviews about the reflections of a rock critic who turned to classical music. The work is longer than many, coming in at twenty-four hours and forty-four minutes (the print edition is 645 pages). I quickly became frustrated with the author’s pace. I switched it on as I left the house for a thirty-five minute drive to the Kaiser facility where I was to receive my first COVID vaccination. By the time I got to Kaiser the narrative had hardly progressed at all. It seemed as if Morley was being paid by the word, just as Charles Dickens was in the nineteenth century.

When I returned home I looked up how to return an Audible selection. It turns out that it is entirely doable; it’s simply a little tricky. You have to go to your purchase history, which is separate from your library. Once there, though, it’s easy to complete the transaction.

Having returned that book as my monthly Audible choice, I instead downloaded Rock Me on the Water. I am, as you may know, a sucker for anything about the 1970s. (Well, except for disco that is. I don’t know how disco made it into the decade.) If the book’s subtitle accurately represented its content I knew it would be right up my alley. It did and it was.

By necessity the author addresses more than simply 1974. He obviously has to in order to provide context. But he makes a strong case that 1974 was a pivotal year in the changing popular culture of America, and that the change in large part originated in Los Angeles.

Brownstein writes about Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and their shooting the films Chinatown and Shampoo. He describes the careers Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne along with the rise and squabbles of The Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He extensively discusses Norman Lear and the groundbreaking nature of All in The Family along with its spinoffs (Maude, The Jeffersons, etc.). He discusses other programs that were innovative at the time, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brownstein delves into the political scene, describing the career of Jerry Brown and how Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda teamed up and eventually married.

The book discusses how the television and movie industries were dominated by older white men and the struggles women had getting into writing and management positions. He recounts how Black Americans faced challenges in finding roles both in front of and behind the camera.

Will Damron provides a serviceable though not stellar narration. When quoting people who were interviewed for the book his voice sometimes takes on an annoying, breathy pitch, especially when quoting women. Overall, however, Damron delivers a very listenable book.

The bottom line: For a seventies-phile such as I am, Rock Me on the Water was informative and enjoyable listening.


The God Equation

God Equation coverThe God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything
by Michio Kaku
Doubleday (April 6, 2021), 215 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99

I am always interested in books on physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, so in reading a review of this title I decided it was worth my time. The author is a working physicist who teaches graduate students, but who also had written several books for the general reader. This is his most recent.

The purpose of the book is to discuss whether a “theory of everything” is possible, something that so far has eluded scientists. Kaku starts by reviewing the history of physics, starting with Newton, and moving on to quantum mechanics. I guess I’ve read more books (or listened to more audiobooks) on the subject than I’ve given myself credit for, because I noticed at least a couple of places where Kaku glossed over things where he could easily have provided a complete explanation. For example, he somewhat simplifies the (in)famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, when presenting it exactly the way Schrödinger did would have taken perhaps another half paragraph.

Kaku spends some space, appropriately, discussing the race for the atomic bomb during World War II. He describes how Werner Heisenberg was appointed to lead the German effort. Kaku says that the Germans under Heisenberg were well behind the Americans, who were pursuing their secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. However, other sources I have read state that Heisenberg knew the correct formula, but deliberately introduced subtle errors, too subtle for anyone but the sharpest physicist to notice, that were just sufficient to prevent the Germans from getting the bomb.

But back to the theory of everything. Kaku “has a dog in this fight,” as linguist John McWhorter likes to say, and Kaku admits it. He tells us he has been researching string theory since 1968 and believes that it offers the best candidate for a theory of everything.

Near the end of the book he also tells us that string theory continues to uncover new layers, and a final, definitive version of string theory has yet to emerge. Kaku hopes that a definitive version of string theory will provide us with a neat, mathematically complete theory of everything.

Somehow, though, as I finished the book I was left disappointed and unconvinced.


Kindred

Kindred coverKindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Bloomsbury Sigma (August 20, 2020), 409 pages
Kindle edition $9.02, Amazon hardcover $20.99

For a long time people used the word “Neanderthal” as a pejorative term, and I suppose they still use it that way sometimes. What we have learned in recent years, however, is that Neanderthals were a close relation to us Homo sapiens and that we coexisted for several millennia. The title of this book makes clear the author takes that perspective. Sykes is a scientist who actively works in the field, but she has made Kindred very much accessible to the general reader.

The author does an outstanding job of describing what we know and what we don’t know. Archaeology can tell us a lot about where Neanderthals lived, what kind of tools they made, and what sort of clothing they wore. It seems clear that they were nomadic, but that they returned to certain locations at about the same time each year. DNA research tells us which groups were related to other groups, something that is not always obvious based on archaeological evidence.

Sykes leaves unresolved as to whether Neanderthals buried their dead. There is a site called Shanidar in Kurdistan where researchers once believed a skeleton was surrounded with flowers and hence likely formally buried. That thinking has changed, and the consensus is now that the pollen accumulated naturally. The evidence is ambiguous, however, and Sykes in unwilling to say that Neanderthals didn’t bury their dead. She notes, “Although Shanidar isn’t exactly a Neanderthal necropolis, there’s absolutely more going on than the remains of those who perished by rockfalls.” The same chapter shows there is, sad to say, evidence of cannibalism at times.

The author opens each chapter with a short vignette, a sort of literary speculation about how Neanderthals might have perceived their world. It sets the tone for the scientific material that follows in the chapter.

The world of DNA evidence has been an enormous boon to many disciplines in science, as you’re no doubt aware. You likely know that there is between 1.8 and 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA in modern humans not of sub-Saharan Africa origin. You may remember from high school biology the fact that we define a species as two individuals who mate and produce fertile offspring. Since Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens are clearly different species the obvious question is: how is this possible? Sykes fortunately provides an answer: “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us: closely related species that vary in bodies and behaviors, yet can also reproduce.”

This is all interesting stuff, well written and easy to understand.


Growing Up Bank Street

Growing Up Bank Street coverGrowing Up Bank Street: A Greenwich Village Memoir
Donna Florio
NYU Press (March 9, 2021), 239 pages
Kindle edition $14.72, Amazon hardcover $16.99

This book appeared as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review and I thought that it would be exactly the sort of thing I would enjoy reading. I was correct.

Donna Florio grew up in an apartment at 63 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Her parents worked in the world of opera, so between that and the location of her home she had quite the eclectic upbringing. As an adult she returned to that building and lived in a different apartment, so she has had a lifelong familiarity with the building and the neighborhood.

She writes both about the people in her own building and about the people in the larger Bank Street district of Greenwich Village. Her own building housed people in show business, the mentally unbalanced, and even for a time a major figure in the United States Communist party. As an adult, one of her upstairs neighbors loved cooking gourmet meals for the tenants.

Bank Street residents in other buildings included CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, the novelist John Dos Passos, and Marion Tanner, the woman on whom Auntie Mame was allegedly based, Tanner’s nephew having written the original novel. He both assisted her financially with income from the book, the play, and the musical, and at the same time denied that she was the inspiration for Auntie Mame.

Florio writes:

quoteArcheologists, movie stars, trust-fund babies, and college professors did indeed live next to secretaries and sanitation workers.

Bank Street was a fascinating place filled with fascinating people and Florio brings it to life.


The Possessed

The Possessed coverThe Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif Batuman
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.

Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.

She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.

We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).

Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.


A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships coverA Thousand Ships
Natalie Haynes
Harper (January 26, 2021), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $19.28, Kindle edition $10.99

There have been some excellent retellings of classical mythology by women published in the last couple of years. Madeline Miller wrote both Circe and The Song of Achilles. Now Natalie Haynes has released A Thousand Ships, which tells of the events (mostly) after the Trojan War through the perspective of women. It was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019, but Harper just published it in the United States this year. Terry got to the book before I did, buying it at Barnes and Noble, so in this instance I read the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.

Haynes opens the novel with the sack of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans brought the famous wooden horse inside the city walls. This is interesting because the Iliad does not mention the Trojan Horse at all. The Odyssey mentions a “hollow horse” three times in passing, in such a way that Homer must have assumed that his audience knew the story. It is only later sources that provide us with any sort of full account.

Nonetheless, this approach works because Haynes tells the story mostly from the Trojan perspective, from the viewpoint of the losing side, and in particular by the women of the losing side. She does not, as you might guess, portray the Greeks in a positive light.

We encounter a lot of women in the book. Some women we meet only in a single chapter, and others intermittently throughout the book. Then there are the Trojan women as a group, drawn from the chorus in the Euripides play by that name, who sit on the seashore awaiting their fate by the conquering Greeks. We see them several times.

Helen, the cause of all the fuss, has no chapters of her own and plays a very small role in the novel. In Haynes’s world Helen had willingly headed off to Troy with the Trojan Paris, though the mythology we have is ambiguous as to whether she really was infatuated with Paris or whether he took her to Troy against her will.

The one Greek woman Haynes features prominently is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waiting for him at home in Ithaca. She becomes increasingly snarky as she writes him letters after hearing the stories from the bards of his long, circuitous journey home. She is neither understanding nor patient.

Also impatient is the muse Calliope, who wants the poet to pay more attention to the women and less to the men and the fighting. What Homer doesn’t do Haynes fulfills.

We are all the better for that.


Summer People

Summer People coverSummer People: A Novel
Marge Piercy
Open Road Media (April 12, 2016), 477 pages
originally published by Summit Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint (June 1, 1989)
Kindle edition $10.99

After finishing my previous nonfiction book I was looking for something countercultural. I knew I could find that by turning to Marge Piercy. I selected Summer People and was not disappointed. Now this was not sixties counterculture. The narrative in the novel takes place roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the book in 1989. Piercy mentions the amber screen of a computer. Many computer screens running the good old DOS operating system (yes, I know that’s redundant) in those days had black-and white or blue-and-white screens, but my computer at home in 1989 had an amber screen.

This counterculture existed (in the novel) on Cape Cod. Susan and Willie were married. Susan was a seamstress and fashion designer. Willie was a sculptor and carpenter. Dinah, a musician and composer, moves into the house next door, which shared the driveway with Willie and Susan’s house. They quickly ended up in a three-way relationship. All went well until Susan, with her misperceptions and inflated sense of self-importance, insisted that the arrangement end. That triggered a domino effect that drives much of the novel’s action.

I wouldn’t refer to Piercy’s work as literary fiction, but she knows how to develop a plot and create believable, three-dimensional characters. The women are strong and not dependent on men. Piercy’s novels have always had a strong feminist tone, and her women take ownership of their own sex lives and responsibility for birth control. (One male character, in fact, provides his own condom).

The title Summer People is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not about the people who arrive at Cape Cod in time for Memorial Day and leave right after Labor Day, although they do play a role. It’s the year-round residents, Willie, Susan, and Dina that are central to the novel.

So while not great literary fiction, Summer People is enjoyable reading with a serious message about how people treat each other, even if the conclusion ties things together just a little too neatly.


Dusk, Night, Dawn

Dusk, Night, DawnDusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books (March 2, 2021), 223 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $15.61

Reading an Anne Lamott book is like reading a book by an old friend. I have been reading her books for many years, and she was a regular guest on the late, lamented West Coast Live radio program in San Francisco.

She wrote this book before the change of administration in Washington, so perhaps there is a bit of a pall over it that wouldn’t have been there had she finished the book after January 20. Nonetheless, Lamott is not about negativity; she writes about hope and help.

If you’re familiar with Anne Lamott you know she is a recovering alcoholic, and she speaks honestly about addiction and recovery. She writes about how she has been helped, about she has helped others, and about how we can help each other. Lamott (who is less than a year younger than me) was married for the first time in 2019, and she worries her husband may discover that she’s not the person he thought he married. He seems to not be troubled by that.

Anne has a way of putting things in perspective, even when the world seems impossibly difficult:

quoteThe search for the holy grail has been called off. No grail to find, no code to break. All along, it turns out that there was only the imperfect love of a few trusted people and that in troubled times, like heat waves, epidemics, and blackouts, most people bring their best selves. No ultimate answers, only the blessings of friendship and service; silence and music, the beauty of the seasons and skies, creation, in art and life’s phases—birth, death, new life. Sigh.

Lamott tells us, “Maybe the poet was wrong when he said the center cannot hold. Maybe it can and does hold. Maybe the center paradoxically holds everything, like the gravity well in which our teeny galaxy is held.”

She writes, “Terrible losses befall those we love, and yet we are saved again and again by a cocoon of goodwill, evolution, and sweet milky tea. That is plenty of center for me.”

And for me too.