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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Interesting Lectures

The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History (Great Courses) (Teaching Company) (Course Number 6410 Audio CD) - Professor Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman is a prolific author and lecturer as well as one of my favorites. I've read four of his books and listened to at least four of his lecture series, but some of them were prior to my Goodreads.com days so there may be more. These lectures cover many of subjects covered in previous lectures, so I was doubtful he would be able to say anything I hadn't heard before. Well, I still learned plenty, and his lectures are always interesting.

The following is a list of the lecture titles of this collection of lectures, and since they are all in the form of questions I'll give my short answers based on my impressions from listening to these lectures. Don't consider my answers as spoilers. Trust me, you need to listen to the lectures to truly understand how the answers were reached. Ehrman doesn't give clear yes and no answers like I do below since historians can never be absolutely sure about what actually happened.

1. Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem? -- No


2. Was Jesus’ Mother a Virgin? -- No


3. Did Jesus Have a Twin Brother? -- No


4. Is Jesus in the Dead Sea Scrolls? -- No


5. Did Jesus Expect to See the World’s End? -- He expected God's Kingdom on this earth.


6. How Close Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene? -- No more close than others.


7. Was Jesus Married? -- No


8. What Secrets Did Judas Betray? -- That Jesus said he was king of the jews.


9. Did the Jews Kill Jesus? -- No


10. Was Pontius Pilate a Secret Christian? -- No


11. Was Jesus Raised from the Dead? -- No. Description given of how Christians probably came to think so.


12. Did the Jews Expect a Suffering Messiah? -- No


13. Is Paul the Real Founder of Christianity? -- Cofounder is more descriptive


14. Did the Disciples Write the Gospels? -- No


15. Does the New Testament Contain Forgeries? -- Yes


16. Is the Book of Revelation about Our Future? -- No


17. Who Were the Original Christians? -- They were more widely varied in their beliefs than Christians today.


18. Is the True Jesus in the Gnostic Gospels? -- No


19. What Happened to the Apostles? -- We don't know


20. Was Christianity an Illegal Religion? -- No. There was some sporadic and localized persecution.


21. Is the Old Testament a Christian Book? -- Yes, and for reasons that modern believers wouldn't think of.


22. Did Early Christians Accept the Trinity? -- Not at first, but it became necessary to differentiate orthodox group from Arians.


23. Do We Have the Original New Testament? -- Not exactly


24. Who Chose the Books of the New Testament? -- It was by consensus.

I doubt that the issues of whether Jesus was married or questions about his relationship with Mary Magdalene were significant issues in the early church despite the title of these lectures. Those seem to be the type of questions that began to be talked about since The Da Vinci Code and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Apparently there are many people who think that Jesus was made the son of God at the Council of Nicea of A.D.325 because Ehrman is emphatic that this was not the case. Both sides already agreed on that. The main issue discussed at the Council of Nicea was whether the characteristics of God the Father and Jesus were similar (homoiousios) or the same (homoousios). That one iota made all the difference.

It is scary to consider some of the books that almost got included in the canon of the New Testament. One of the worst is the Epistle of Barnabas which is even more anti Semitic than the canonical New Testament.

Ehrman says it makes no sense for Judas to have been paid 30 pieces of silver to betray the location of Jesus at night as described in the Gospels. Instead, Ehrman suggests that Judas was paid for his testimony that Jesus had said privately among the disciples that he was to be the King of the Jews and the disciples would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. All through the Gospel of Mark Jesus responds to people who say he's the son of God that they should tell no one. In other words, he did not publically make that claim. Thus in order to get that private testimony the Jewish authorities needed to bribe Judas. This would also help explain why the Romans put the sign on the cross that read "King of the Jews." The Romans weren't concerned about Jewish religious controversies, but when there was a hint of political insurrection they acted quickly and without mercy.

The Nonviolent God - J. Denny Weaver

This books restates the author’s nonviolent atonement motif that was proposed in his previous book, The Nonviolent Atonement, and then proceeds to (1) confirm that this understanding of the character of God is broadly supported by all parts of the Bible, and (2) suggest examples in daily life how this can be lived in typical daily life. In sum the book provides an approach to and understanding of Christian theology with which people from Anabaptist traditions can be comfortable.

This review isn't finished.
The following is the Table of Contents for this book which I've placed here to help me on writing more on this review.


1. Jesus in Acts and the Gospels
_a. The Earliest Statements: Acts
_b. Expanded Statements: The Gospels
_c. The Significance of the Resurrection
_d. Narrative Christus Victor: Round One
__(1) The Story as Atonement Motif
__(2) Characteristics of Narrative Christus Victor

2. Jesus in Revelation and Paul
_a. Revelation
__(1) Reading Revelation
__(2) The Message of Revelation
__(3) The Seven Seals
__(4) Beautiful Woman versus Dragon
__(5) Preliminary Conclusion
__(6) Wrath, Judgment, and Divine Violence
__(7) The Rider on the white Horse and Armageddon
__(8) Millennium and Great White Throne
_b. Narrative Christus Victor: Round Two
_c. Narrative Christus Victor: Round Three
__(1) The Writing of Paul
__(2) Jesus’ Death as a Sacrifice

3. Engaging Atonement Tradition
_a. Traditional Atonement Images
_b. From Narrative Christus Victor to Satisfaction Atonement
_c. Responding to Challenges
__(1) The Challenge of Paul
__(2) The Challenge of Newness
__(3) The Challenges of Threefold Synthesis and of Keeping One Version but Not Another
__(4) The Challenge of Guilt

4. Divine Violence: Bible versus Bible
_a. Biblical Violence and Divine Violence
__(1) Divine Violence: Old Testament
__(2) Divine Violence: The Gospels
__(3) Divine Violence: Today’s Version
_b. The Bible: Another Look
__(1) The Old Testament
__(2) Counters to Gospel Violence

5. The Conversation about God
_a. God versus God
_b. An Arbiter: The Narrative of Jesus
_c. The Authority of the bible
_d. Anger, Wrath, and Judgment
_e. Why It Matters


6. Christology and the Body of Christ
_a. Five New Testament Christologies
_b. Nicea-Constantinople, Cappadocian Trinity, Chalcedon
_c. Conversation of Christology
_d. Lived Christology Today
_e. The Church as the Lived Narrative of Jesus
__(1) Baptism: Creation of a New World
__(2) The Church: A Community
__(3) A Voluntary Church
__(4) A Peace Church

7. Violence and Nonviolence
_a. The Nonviolence of Lived Theology
__(1) God in the Image of Humankind
__(2) Jesus’ Nonviolence
__(3) Nonviolence Applied

8. Atonement, Violence, and Forgiveness
_a. Forgiveness in Narrative Christus Victor
_b. Forgiveness in Satisfaction Atonement
_c. The Practice of Forgiveness: Retributive Justice
_d. The Practice of Forgiveness: Psychology
_e. The Practice of Forgiveness: Restorative Justice

9. Race, Gender, Money
_a. Jesus and Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation
_b. Jesus and Women
_c. Jesus and Economics
__(1) A Warning: The Unholy Troika
__(2) The Lord’s Supper: An Economic Model
__(3) Baptism and Lord’s Supper as “Sacraments”

10. Nature and Suffering
_a. Jesus and Nature
_b. Two Kinds of Suffering

11. Conclusion
_a. The Reign of God Today
_b. Trinity
_c. The New Jerusalem
__(1) Version One
__(2) Version Two
_d. Works Cited
_e. Index

Beginning of WWI Explained

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 - Margaret MacMillan
This book describes the complex mosaic of history, politics, personalities, relationships, institutions, and ideas that developed and interacted with each other through the 19th century and into the 20th century that then lead to a set of circumstances in Europe that caused the nation’s leaders to see no alternative to war. Thus World War began 100 years ago in 1914.

The book contains parallel histories of the various European countries and tries to provide an understanding of those individuals who had to make the choices between war and peace. Their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases are all explored. The book describes the world they lived in and its assumptions including what people of the time had learned from previous crises.

Ironically, the long stretch of 100 years between the Napoleonic Wars to WWI of relative peace (Franco-Prussian War, Austro-Prussian War, 1st and 2nd Balkan Wars were all over within a couple months) and the fact the previous conflicts had been resolved through negotiations led to a complacent assumption that the next conflict would be solved without war. Hidden under this complacency were dissatisfactions regarding the compromises that had come from the negotiations that had settled previous crises.

"What was dangerous for the future was that each of Austria-Hungary and Russia was left thinking that threats might work again. Or, and this was equally dangerous, they decided that next time they would not back down." (p.499)

Thus when the assassination in Sarajevo occurred and Austria made impossible demands of Serbia in retaliation, nobody was inclined to back down. The multiple alliances that had developed over the years complicated matters.

"By 1914 the alliances, rather than acting as brakes on their members, were too often pushing the accelerators. (p. 531)"

The following are some of my observations about the history described by this book:

Kaiser Wilhelm II was not a pleasant person to be around. He was loud, impulsive and had a juvenile sense of humor. He selected his advisers and top government positions, and I believe they reflected his personality. I believe this partly explains why German foreign policies tended to be aggressive and confrontational.

All the European countries at the time seemed to think that the rest of the world was made for them to colonize. Since Germany was late to form as a united country they felt like they hadn't gotten their share. This also contributed to German aggressiveness in foreign affairs.

It is no coincidence that the war began in the same year that work on widening the Kiel Canal was finished. The widening of the canal allowed the passage of Dreadnought-sized battleships to travel from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea without having to go around Denmark. Prior to completion of the project Germany had the mind set that they weren't ready for war. Thus the completion in 1914 may have contributed to Germany giving Austria-Hungary the green light in their confrontation with Serbia. In earlier confrontations (i.e. First and Second Balkan Wars) Germany had encouraged Austria-Hungary to compromise.

Early in the mobilization Kaiser Wilhelm asked if Germany could mobilize for war against Russia only and not toward France. He was told by General Moltke that the Schlieffen Plan called for mobilization against both Russia and France and it couldn't be changed. He said mobilization against only Russia would cause widespread chaos. He was probably correct.

All the military schools prior to the war seemed to have stressed the doctrine of the offensive in the execution of war. It's ironic that the early 20th century is the one time in history when defensive weapons were relative superior to the offensive tools of war. Machine guns and repeating rifles were effective when used in defense of fixed positions whereas offensive weapons such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and attack airplanes were in their infancy. Industrialization had developed the railroads which enabled quick mobilization soldiers. But once they were near the front they needed to use their legs. The result was a defensive war where the trenches hardly moved during its four year duration.

This book does a good job of describing a time in history which is not widely understood today. This year we're observing the centennial of the war's beginning, so it deserves to be understood a little better. The following is what the book has to say about the cause of the war.

"The Great War was not produced by a single cause but by a combination and, in the end, human decisions."

In other words, it's complicated. This is a long book (32 hours in audio format) and once again shows that the more one learns about history the less clear cut become the reasons for directions taken.

Theory of Atonement that Anabaptists Can Feel Good About

The Nonviolent Atonement - J. Denny Weaver
Atonement is a word that theologians use to describe how humans can be "at one with" God. For the Christian religion it includes tying it to the death of Jesus and explaining how it can provide spiritual salvation. The various theories of atonement that have been developed over the past two thousand years have been human endeavors at providing a rationalization as to why the execution of Jesus as a criminal has significance for Christian believers.

In this book the author, J Denny Weaver, proposes an atonement theory to which he gives the name “narrative Christus Victor”. It is an approach more consistent with the narrative descriptions of the teachings of Jesus contained in the New Testament than is the theory that has prevailed since the year 1100 when Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement was published in his Cur Deus Homo.

Anselm developed his satisfaction atonement in order to replace the then prevailing view that Christ's death was a ransom payment that God owed to the devil. This ransom theory is the classic Christus Victor and most theologians didn't like the emphasis on the power of the devil to interact with God as an equal.

The problem with Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement is that it is based on the idea of retributive violence. Christians are not supposed to practice retributive violence so why must God? Isn’t it strange that a God who sent his Son to teach “love your enemies” is incapable (as described by Anselm) of simply forgiving sins without the use of retributive violence? However, the satisfaction theory of atonement was widely accepted by the Christian church during the medieval era because it was compatible with a state church that was part of the government that needed to use "the sword" to maintain social order.

Abelard came along a few years after Anselm with his moral influence theory of atonement in an effort to avoid the retributive aspects of the satisfaction theory. But the death of Jesus still has aspects of divine child abuse in the exercise of moral influence in Abelard's theory. With the devil missing from the equation it's hard to explain why the death of Jesus was needed. Also, narrative Christus Victor differs from the moral influence atonement by envisioning changes other than an impact on the mind of the sinner by envisioning a change in the spiritual universe symbolized by Christ's resurrection.

Narrative Christus Victor puts a devil or sorts back into the equation again as was the case for classic Christus Victor. But the devil in narrative Christus Victor is in the form of the very tangible and real principalities and powers of this world that are opposed to God's kingdom. The post-Constantine state church of the Medieval era could not recognize this definition of the devil because they themselves were the principalities and powers.

In Weaver’s narrative Christus Victor there is no need to explain why God required that Jesus die:

“In narrative Christus Victor, the cause of Jesus’ death is obviously not God. ... Rather, in narrative Christus Victor the Son is carrying out the father’s will by making the reign of God visible in the world — and that mission is so threatening to the world that sinful human beings and the accumulation of evil they represent conspire to kill Jesus. Jesus came not to die but to live, to witness to the reign of god in human history. While he may have known that carrying out that mission would provoke inevitably fatal opposition his purpose was not to get himself killed. ... Jesus depicted in narrative Christus Victor is no passive victim. He is an active participant in confronting evil. Salvation happens when or because Jesus carried out his mission to make the reign of God visible. His saving life shows how the reign of god confronts evil, and is thus our model for confronting injustice. While we do not save, we participate in salvation and in Jesus’ saving work when we join in the reign of God and live the way Jesus lived. ... It means actively confronting injustice, and in that confrontation we continue with Jesus to make the rule of God visible in a world where evil still has sway. “ (p.211-212)

Weaver deliberately builds his narrative Christus Victor model by careful examination of scriptures and history -- Revelation, the Gospels, letters of the apostle Paul, Old Testament sacrifice traditions, the book of Hebrews, and Israel's history. In summary Weaver says:

"Seeing narrative Christus Victor in this long historical context underscores how completely outside of history satisfaction atonement is. If fact, satisfaction atonement appears to reduce the life of Jesus to an elaborate scheme whose purpose was to produce his death. Narrative Christus Victor is a way of reading the entire history of God's people, with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the culminating revelation of the reign of God in history, whereas the various versions of satisfaction atonement concern a legal construct or an abstract formula that functions outside of and apart from history. Seeing the long historical context of narrative Christus Victor underscores the extent to which satisfaction atonement is separated from ethical involvements and allows oppression to continue without challenge." (p.69)

Narrative Christus Victor is compatible with much of René Girard's theory about mimetic violence and its implications for understanding the death of Jesus and atonement theology. Narrative Christus Victor also stands in continuity with, but differs significantly from, the classic view of Christus Victor described by Gustaf Aulén, and it bears little resemblance to the Christus Victor rejected by Feminist Theology.

Weaver includes chapters in his book explaining how narrative Christus Victor addresses the concerns of and is compatible with "Black Theology on atonement", "Feminist Theology on Atonement", and "Womanist Theology of Atonement." Much of Christian theology, classic atonement images, and christological terminology have accommodated violence of the sword, slavery, racism, and violence against women. Even though Weaver originally developed narrative Christus Victor model to reflect a nonviolent ethic for Christian living, he demonstrates that it fits well with the concerns of oppressed people.

This book has a chapter near its end titled,"Conversation with Anselm and His Defenders." A number of theologians have tried to respond to the criticisms of satisfaction atonement that have been expressed by feminist and womanist writers. The defenders have generally responded in one of three ways: (1) Rehabilitate the ideas of punishment and vicarious suffering, (2) Shift emphasis away from punishment by recovering additional themes and emphases within satisfaction that have been covered over by too much stress on punishment, and (3) Acknowledge the validity of the critique of punishment by blaming the excesses on Protestant reformers such as John Calvin. Weaver concludes that none of the defenses are adequate or convincing.

J. Denny Weaver has recently published a new book titled, The Nonviolent God , which I hope to read next. I presume it is sort of a sequel to this book.

It is interesting to note that the word “atonement“ is not in the King James version of the New Testament (however it is in the Old Testament, Leviticus 17:11).

A book has been published recently by Ted Grimsrud titled, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness. I’m under the impression that it may have some similarities to Weaver's book. But the title sounds more anti-atonement, whereas Weaver's book is more rehab-atonement. Frankly, I'm not all that excited about atonement theory, so anti-atonement sounds pretty good to me.

Fun Novel

Where'd You Go, Bernadette: A Novel - Maria Semple
This was a thoroughly enjoyable comedy/satire/mystery depiction of life inside a mixed up family of the nouveau techno riche. The father works for Microsoft, and the mother is a past recipient of a Macarthur Genius Grant.

The lesson here is that lack of communication can lead to lots of trouble which in the context of this book is funny. But if it happened in real life it would be considered a sad tragedy. The satire is spread generously with smart people behaving stupidly, private schools with problems, religious types not living up to their ideal, modern psychiatry making a fool of itself, self-help counseling groups being weird, and use of a virtual assistant to an absurd degree.

Even Seattle takes a hit:

"What other city has given birth to the jumbo jet, the Internet superstore, the personal computer, and cellular phone, online travel, grunge music, the big-box store, good coffee?" (p.146)

The story is told mostly in e-epistolary format (emails or blog postings) with some explanatory comments by the fourteen year old narrator who we learn by the end of the book is compiling this material into a book. The documents reveal the story leading up to and the subsequent mystery of the disappearance of the narrator’s mother. There is an ending, but I can't reveal whether it's happy or sad without being a spoiler.

I think the book could be considered as young adult literature, but some may question several adult themes as not appropriate for young readers. I can't argue specifics without being a spoiler, but I would argue that there are some good lessons in this story for young readers.

The movie rights to this book were sold about a year ago. I'm not sure how soon the movie will appear, but it has the potential to be a good movie.

Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science - David Lindley

This book is a history of the development of the uncertainty principle (a.k.a. Heisenberg principle). It explains the interaction of Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr (as well as the contributions of many others) in the development of this principle. The book makes the history clear, but I'm still trying to get my mind around the principle. The principle applies to atomic and subatomic particles, and basically says that it's impossible to know location and velocity (or momentum) at the same time.

It's not saying this as a limit of human intelligence or understanding nor as a statement on the limitation of current measuring technology. It's saying that at a fundamental theoretical level if a mathematical wave/quantum model is developed that targets a particle's location that an infinite number of possible velocities (or momentums) result, and that if the model zeros in on velocity (or momentum) an infinite number of locations become possible. The principle is saying that it's impossible to escape from this dilemma.

I want to make it clear here that we're not talking about the difficulty in measuring the length of something because the end of the measuring stick bumps into the object being measured (that's the level of my thinking). We're talking about particles at the atomic and subatomic level and their tendency to show wave characteristics and quantum levels of energy. Particles at this level do not behave like objects in our day-to-day world of Newtonian physics. The subatomic world seems to have its own rules which defy logic (i.e. Newtonian logic).

I don't feel too lonely in my confusion with regard to the uncertainty principle because Einstein insisted to his dying day that the uncertainty principle can't be the end to further understanding of the subject of elementary particles. I find it ironic that Einstein as a young man upset the scientific world with his theories of relativity, but as an old man refused to be budged by the new quantum mechanics.

The following quotation shows how Bohr and his new quantum mechanics was moving away from classical physics:

"…Bohr issued a paper calling for a new system of quantum mechanics, the first appearance of that term, a structure of quantum rules obeying their own logic and not necessarily following the time honored rules of classical Newtonian mechanics. …… The language of classical physics is the differential calculus devised by Newton and independently by Leibniz to deal with continuous variations and incremental change. But in trying to understand the workings of atoms physicists came up against phenomena that were abrupt spontaneous and discontinuous. First it was in one state and then in another. There was no smooth passage between the two. Traditional calculus could not cope with such discontinuities. So Bohr, making a virtue of necessity, proposed instead to substitute a calculus of differences, a mathematical system that would take for its basic elements the differences between states rather than the states themselves.


This Heisenberg could see bore some relation to what Kramers was doing with his virtual oscillators. Both approaches brought the transitions to center stage and pushed the underlying states into the wings . Digesting these ideas Heisenberg came up with an ingenious argument that justified theoretically one of the peculiar half-quantum formulas he and Landè had divined imperially some time ago. " (p107-8)

The following quotation describes the moment of Heisenberg's epiphany:

"Beginning with some quantum system of particles, for example, you could work out a classical picture in which the positions of the particles are the primary elements, or you could instead choose to speak in terms of particle velocities, or rather in terms of momentum (mass x velocity) which to physicists is the more fundamental quantity. Strangely though, these position and momentum portraits didn't match up as they should if they were simply alternative portrayals of a single underlying system. It was as if the position based account and the momentum based account were somehow depicting two different quantum systems not the same one in different ways. ... That was the conundrum that Heisenberg wrestled with. How could he find a way to force quantum mechanics to give up its secrets to let him see what was going on inside? He couldn't! That was the answer that flashed into his mind that evening ... " (p145)

Near the end of the book there is a discussion of the enthusiasm with which philosophers, theologians, and other fields of the humanities have claimed the uncertainty principle for their own fields of study. Of course these are at best metaphoric comparisons which may shed a bit of the cache of modern science onto their areas of study.

Selling Doubt

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming 1st (first) Edition by Oreskes, Naomi, Conway, Erik M. (2010) - Naomi,  Conway,  Erik M. Oreskes

I used to believe that selling one's soul to the devil was something that only happened in fictional stories. This book makes it clear that it's a real life option for credentialed scientists who accept salaries and research grants from businesses with interests in obfuscating the truth by covering it with questions.

The book provides a history of the battle between economic interests versus health and environmental interests. The topics covered by the book are well summarized by the seven chapter titles:

1. Doubt Is Our Product,

2. Strategic Defense, Phony Facts, and the Creation of the George C. Marshall Institute

3. Sowing the Seeds of Doubt: Acid Rain

4. Constructing a Counternarrative: The Fight over the Ozone Hole

5. What's Bad Science? Who Decides? The Fight over Secondhand Smoke

6. The Denial of Global Warming

7. Denial Rides Again: the Revisionist Attack on Rachel Carson

Science by its very nature is vulnerable to obfuscation by asking questions about uncertainty. But the word uncertainty in the context of science has a different meaning from the way it's used in common vernacular. In cases where the evidence would be judged "beyond a reasonable doubt" in a court of law, the news media interprets additional questioning as a sign that the no consensus has been reached.

Some of the histories covered by this book are pretty well resolved even though there are still fringe commentators who claim they weren't problems in the first place. However, global warming still remains the universal joke punch line in some circles (tag "it's caused by global warming" at the end of any story, and it's guaranteed to cause laughter by the deniers).

Ever wonder why the United States has failed to act on global warming?

"There are many reasons why the United States has failed to act on global warming, but at least one is the confusion raised by Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer."

All three of these individuals are physicists who have never done peer reviewed research in fields related to meteorology or climate modeling. Singer was a rocket scientist. Nierenberg and Seitz worked on the atomic bomb. The book indicates that small numbers of people such as these have had significant influence on popular perception of the issue of global warming. Consequently public opinion concludes that scientific consensus has not been reached leading to the stalling of policy making.

MIDDLESEX , by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002; Picador, 2007)

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

I listened to the audio version of this book in 2003 or 04 before my Goodreads.com days. I remember being surprised how interesting and well written the story was in spite of my squeamishness regarding the subject of sexual ambiguity. The following review is from PageADay's Book Lover's Calendar for 12-27-2013. 

This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel tells the baroque and utterly fascinating story of a girl who decides to become a boy only to find out that she was really a boy all along. Are you following? Jeffrey Eugenides’s wonderful book has such an engaging protagonist with such a big heart that any initial confusion will quickly fall away. Enjoy the ride. If you do, then pick up his long-awaited third novel, The Marriage Plot.
MIDDLESEX , by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002; Picador, 2007)


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

I read this book in about 2005 before my goodreads.com days. I was reminded of it by the following review on today's PageADay Book Lover's Calendar. I remember thinking that the book was pretty good, and that it may be a reasonably good effort at getting into the internal thinking of an autistic mind.

The autistic 15-year-old narrator of this novel, Christopher John Francis Boone, is so well imagined that you’ll keep hearing his voice in your head. Often misunderstood, he’s falsely accused of killing a neighbor’s dog and decides to find the killer himself. This is the journal of his investigation, and it’s absolutely unforgettable.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME , by Mark Haddon (2003; Vintage, 2004)

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by Lee Billings

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars - Lee Billings

This book reads much as if it was based on notes taken during an all night bull session with leading scientists. It's sort of a travelogue by a journalist reporting on his itinerant interviews with the leading minds in astrophysics and the earth sciences.  Along the way we learn about science and also a bit about the personalities of those doing the science. 

Beyond their personal stories and concerns about reduced funding for scientific research, the reader is exposed to “a portrait of our planet revealing how the earth came to life and how someday it will die. It is also a chronicle of an unfolding scientific revolution zooming in on the ardent search for other earths around other stars. Most of all however it is a meditation on humanity’s uncertain legacy.”

The "five billion" referred to by the title is the estimated length of time life can exist on earth (i.e. from first appearance of single cell life to final destruction by a dying sun).   We are currently at four and a half billion on that timeline, so we're closer to the end than the beginning. If we manage to survive the other threats to life on earth (e.g. asteroids and nuclear bombs), sometime in the next half billion years we'll need to decide whether to meekly accept our fate or search for other planets to colonize.

Topics covered in this book vary widely, some not related in obvious ways to astrophysics or life on earth. (Come to think of it, what's not related to life on earth?) 

The following is a rough log of some of the subjects addressed:

- The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

- The probabilities of extra-terrestrial life (longevity of intelligent life is most important variable, and difficult to estimate, in determining likelihood of intelligent life existing concurrently within the same galaxy.)

- Recent success in finding planets around other stars (exoplanets).

- Using radial-velocity spectroscopy (measuring the wobble) or the transit of planets in front of their stars to calculate number size and orbit size of exoplanets.

- Description of fierce competition between astronomers to find planets (even claims of stealing information).

- Stories told about past efforts to observe the transit of Venus.

- Calculation of the monetary value of a world (the reality of limited resources makes this analysis necessary to help in making decisions regarding where to invest research money)

- Description of the geologic history of the earth

- Description the the history of life on earth

- Description of what we know about history of earth’s atmosphere, temperatures and probable cause of future global warming

- Description of geologic history of Marcellus shale formation in northeastern USA.

- Story of the history of science from ancient Greeks to modern days.

- Explanation of the carbon/silicate interaction in the Archean atmosphere to prevent runaway greenhouse effect like that on Venus. 

- History of rocket science and the demise of NASA's future space exploration plans.

- Possible strategies of using technology to reduce expensive rocket launch costs.

- Biographic sketch of Sara Seager, MIT Professor of Physics and Planetary Science.

Wikipedia article with latest exoplanet count:

Exoplanet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extrasol...
(1056 planets in 802 planetary systems including 175 multiple planetary systems as of 20 December 2013).

The question is raised near the end of the book, "Just how many transiting Jupiters do we need?" This raises the possibility that once we confirm the existence of thousands of planets the whole field of exoplanet research may experience a dot-com bubble sort of collapse as people lose interest. Another suggestion is that we need to encourage the Chinese to begin discovering earthlike exoplanets (and naming them Chinese names) so we'll be motivated to not be outdone by them.

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World - Richard Holbrooke, Margaret MacMillan

According to Wikipedia.org, this book argues that the conditions imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles did not lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler. I read the book back in 2003 so my memory of its contents is a bit hazy, but I don’t remember that point being made by the book. What I do remember is that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires caused numerous cases of minority enclaves being surrounded by hostile neighbors. The resulting ethnic cleansing through migration (and otherwise) continued to the end of the twentieth century (e.g. breakup of Yugoslavia). 

Wikipedia.org also says that David Lloyd George is the author’s great grandfather. I wonder if that influenced the judgment of the author.

I was reminded of this book by the following short review that was on yesterday’s PageADay Book Lover’s Calendar. (Note that the 1st sentence below contradicts Wikipedia's comment regarding the rise of Hitler.)

A dramatic account of the World War I peace accord that planted the seeds for World War II. Woodrow Wilson emerges as a fascinating, broken figure, and the greedy, shortsighted angling of certain key negotiators will keep you turning the pages. Even readers who think they know the story will find Margaret MacMillan’s clear-eyed narrative both enlightening and hair-raising.
PARIS 1919: SIX MONTHS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD , by Margaret MacMillan (2001; Random House, 2003)

The Forgotten Man: A New History Of The Great Depression by Amity Shlaes

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression - Amity Shlaes

This book provides a critical review of actions taken during the Great Depression from 1929 to 1940, and it reflects of whether theses actions helped or hurt the prospects for economic recovery. Viewing that era from today’s perspective can provide plenty of things to criticize. However, we today are the beneficiaries of many of the actions taken then.

Shalaes portrays both Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt (and most other politicians of the time) as not understanding economics and taking actions are resulted in making conditions worse. Hoover signed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley tariff bill and raised taxes to balance the budget. Roosevelt vacillated between public works spending, anti-big-business rhetoric and raising taxes to balance the budget; all the which demonstrated a total “lack of faith in the marketplace.” “From 1929 to 1940, from Hoover to Roosevelt, government intervention helped to make the Depression Great.”

Obviously, the New Deal public works programs provided employment and infused money into a collapsing and deflationary economy. Also, many important foundations of our modern economy began during Roosevelt’s administration: Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the modern Federal Reserve and more. Roosevelt also pursued a more open trade policy and undid most of the protectionism begun under Hoover.

However, Shlaes indicates that the aggressive expansion of government run enterprises (e.g. T.V.A.) provided uncertainty and fear from government competition in the minds of business investors. This together with monetary policies that limited money supply crippled possible economic growth from the private sector and caused a recession within the depression from 1937 to 1940. 

Furthermore, the heavy hand of government bureaucrats began to tarnish the reputation of the New Deal programs. One of the most absurd (from today’s perspective) cases highlighted by this book was the Schechters “sick chicken” case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Schechters were kosher chicken merchants in New York City who had been found guilty of discounting the cost of their chickens which was a violation of federal rules that were intended to prevent deflation. The Supreme Court found for the Schechters and basically determined that the National Recovery Administration was unconstitutional. 

Other victims of Roosevelt’s centralization campaign included some wealthy individuals, many of whom were hounded by prosecutors for tax avoidance. Also, privately owned electrical utilities were subjected to alleged unfair competition from subsidized public utilities. 

Shalaes provides a sympathetic description of Wendell Willkie who was the 1940 Republican presidential nominee. I got the impression that Shalaes would have voted for him. Willkie promised to scale back the New Deal and allow the free market to fill the void. As it turned out, big government deficit spending for World War II is what ended the Great Depression. 

The term “forgotten man” in the book's title is given multiple meanings through the course of this book. Roosevelt referred to “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” But the phrase had a very different origin. In the late 19th century, the philosopher William Graham Sumner had used it to describe the average citizen “coerced,” as Shlaes writes, “into funding dubious social projects.” 

It occurred to me that the term “forgotten man” could also refer the the fact that this book also highlights the work of many different individuals who have been forgotten in people’s memories. One example is Bill Wilson who founded Alcoholics Anonymous and “taught Americans that the solution to their troubles lay not with a federal program but within a new sort of entity — the self-help community,” as Shlaes puts it. The book also features several of the early New Deal leaders who were self styled progressives who had expressed admiration for Communist rhetoric back in the 1920s. Their admiration was toned down by the 1930s when Stalin's ruthless rule became apparent. 

I am bothered by the fact that many of today’s political conservatives have claimed that this book supports their opposition to Obama’s policies. I read this book as an illustration of how an overblown emphasis on balancing the budget and limiting money to prevent inflation can cause economic disaster. It appears that lessons of history can support contrary positions.

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok

The Memory Palace: A Memoir - Mira Bartok

This is a memoir of life with a schizophrenic mother. This is not a situation one would wish for, and I as a reader was sufficiently uncomfortable with the story during the early pages that I considered bailing out and not finishing it. But when I pondered the decision it occurred to me that if I read the book perhaps I could learn a bit about schizophrenia, and maybe I would develop an appreciation for the trials endured by family members and loved ones when schizophrenia occurs.

This is also a memoir about the author striving to reclaim lost memories after traumatic brain injury in a car accident (which followed a previous concussion caused by slipping on a sidewalk). Her struggle for memories was tinged with pain since they included a troubled childhood with an ill mother and dysfunctional extended family. 

After escaping their home environment via college scholarships the author and her sister found it necessary to change their names and move to addresses unknown in order to avoid their mother's demented harassment. This drastic step which led to seventeen years of separation was made necessary when they were unable to have their mother legally institutionalized. 

The style of writing reveals a mind of an artist which at times enters into contemplative circles of thought. The book’s title and structure are built around a metaphor based on the story of the sixth-century B.C. Greek poet Simonides, who was attending a party at a palace and stepped outside just before the building collapsed. He was able to identify the mangled bodies recovered from the ruins based upon his memory of where the guests had been standing. 

The author in writing this book is thus rebuilding an imaginary palace in which she can place her memoires for safe keeping. It’s a beautiful metaphor for describing the author’s struggle to reconstruct a life on the rubble of a catastrophically ruined family and her striving against the cognitive limitations caused by her brain injury.

The seventeen year separation comes to an end when the author and her sister learn that their mother is terminally ill. They are present when she dies and thus are able to have a bit of closure to their estrangement. 

In the end the author asks the question that some readers are probably wondering, did she shirk her duty as a daughter by leaving her mother? Is it a daughter’s responsibility to forsake her own career to be her mother’s caretaker? The whole situation was made difficult by the fact that the legal system found that their mother was not sufficiently impaired to be involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. 

The book is filled with quotations written by their mother in her journal during the years of homelessness and separation from her daughters. The writing in the journals could be judged as curiously creative if a reader didn’t know about the schizophrenia. The book ends with the question of whether their mother would have been happier being institutionalized. 

It’s a complicated question. Their mother had sufficient grasp on reality to miraculously survive her homelessness into her 80s, but yet she was obviously incapable of properly taking care of herself. How would her journals have read if she had been institutionalized? Would she have had a journal? Or would she have been so drugged as to not feel the need to journal? 

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools - Diane Ravitch

This is the best defense of public schools I've come across. Americans who have not read this book are probably insufficiently informed to vote wisely in local and state elections.

Contrary to what one might conclude from media reports, levels of educational achievement and graduation rates in the United States have been consistently rising over the years. Surprise! Achievement scores are now “at their highest point ever recorded.” Achievement has been going up for all racial groups, but the gaps between the groups persist. (It is interesting to note that current age 9 average math score for blacks is now equal to what the age 9 math score was for whites in 1982, but the gap continues because scores for whites have gone up.) LINK to NAEP Report 

But supporters of charter and on-line schools point out that many other countries have higher levels of educational achievement, and their proposed solutions are needed to catch up. It’s interesting to note that these other countries achieve their educational success without the use of charter schools, virtual on-line schools, and punitive threats of firing teachers and closing schools. 

Ravitch provides a comparative look at Finland which consistently scores high on educational achievement tests. She shows that they obtain their success by respecting their teachers as professionals, and their students don’t take standardized tests until it's time to enter college. How does Finland do it? There is one very significant difference between Finland and the United States. Finland has a much smaller percentage of students living in poverty (3%) compared to the United States (20%). It just so happens that the family wealth/poverty level is a significant indicator of probable academic success. No charter or virtual on-line school has been able to overcome the effects of poverty and segregation for their average achievement scores when they’re required to accept the same students as public schools.

Some promoters of charter schools criticize public schools for using poverty is an excuse. But experience has shown that charters are quick to use it as an excuse when they fail to perform any better. In case you think on-line computer classes are the answer you need to read this article

Ravitch doesn't have much good to say about standarized tests, "No Child Left Behind" or "Race to the Top." She has plenty of criticism for both Democrats and Republicans. And she very critically lays into some of the well-known private-sector leaders and political officials — among them Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee. The scary thing about the private for-profit charter school chains is that they are now a formidable political lobby group with lots of campaign contributions for friendly politicians. They're not going away anytime soon.

Ravitch acknowledges that her previous books were criticized for being long on criticism and short on suggestions of ways to improve the American educational system. She says the solution is simple. Just look at what wealthy private schools and public schools in the wealthy suburbs are doing. Their test scores compare well with international comparisons. In order to duplicate in all schools what they are doing will require providing good prenatal care. Then there should be vastly expanded prekindergarten programs, more comprehensive medical and mental health provisions, smaller classes, and diagnostic testing that, unlike a standardized exam, show us where a child needs specific help. Ravitch says we should honor the teaching profession by strengthening the profession with higher entry standards. She doesn't think that answer is in recruiting "enthusiastic amateurs" who teach short term and move on to other professions. 

She describes stick-and-carrot incentives such as merit pay as "the idea that never works and never dies." She says such incentives undermine the spirit of collaboration by pitting teachers against each other. She also deplores humiliating practices such as publishing teachers' names beside students' test scores. She tells of one teacher publicly humiliated as the "worst teacher in New York" when all teacher scores were published. After news reporters circled her house hounding her for interviews it was revealed that she taught a class of English language learners who moved on to regular classes when they were able. It's obvious not all students are equally teachable. Tying pay to student performance will provide a strong disincentive for teaching disadvantaged students, or teaching students who are already at the high end of achievement levels with little room for improvement. 

This "Children as Blueberries" story is reference by this book. If you haven't heard the story it's worth reading.

I hope this book is a best seller and widely read. I hope it puts a nail into the coffin of the for profit privatization movement in education. I hope it also increases the willingness of voters to support spending on public schools, and providing the other services and changes that Ravitch recommends to equalize access to good education.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles -  Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a classic of the mystery book genre. I recall checking it out of the library while in grade school, but while listening to the audio of it this time I found no parts of the plot that conjured up any old memories. So I'm doubtful now that I ever finished reading it when I was a kid.

The mystery to be solved in this book is embedded within the lowland English moors filled with dangerous quicksand bogs, and local legend claims that the moors are also haunted by a mysterious and supernatural black hound. I guess that provides the “dark and stormy night” ambiance required to instill the spirit of mystery in the mind of the reader. 

The reader knows that detective Holmes isn’t going to accept the apparent supernatural cause in the murder mystery, and later when an escaped convict enters the plot it’s pretty clear that it is another red herring. 

Sure enough, Holmes figures it out with Watson reporting the wisdom of his detective friend. Their relationship reminds me of Socrates and Plato.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Schwalbe, Will (1st (first) Edition) [Hardcover(2012)] - Will Schwalbe

This is a memoir structured around a son's relationship with his mother during the last couple years of her life as she battled pancreatic cancer. They are both avid readers so many of their conversations revolved around the books they were reading. In the recounting of these conversations the author essentially provides mini-reviews of numerous books. There are at least 107 books mentioned. An alphabetical listing of the authors, books, plays, poems, and stories discussed or mentioned in the book is contained in the Appendix. Here's a LINK to a listing of the books. Wow, what a list!

This book touched me in two different ways. On the one hand I could identify with the issue of a death of a family member because I have experienced it myself. Additionally, I'm a fan of short book reviews that leave me wanting to read the book, and this book is filled with those. 

At first thought one might think these two themes are odd partners. But really, if you're dying what do you want to talk about? What better way of experiencing multiple life times before dying than to read books. 

Actually, it has occurred to me that reading books if carried to an extreme is equivalent to a drug addiction. I don't advocate that, but in moderate amounts reading books can be a way of providing thoughts and experiences that can be shared and discussed with friends and family. Thus, books can be a means of life enrichment by improving interpersonal conversations. This is why I believe book clubs and reading groups can be a marvelous enhancement to one’s life. Of course sharing with others on Goodreads.com is part of this as well.

Now, regarding the theme of dying that is contained within this book. The depiction of getting ready for death in this book is almost too good to be a reasonable example to hope for one’s self. The author's mother dies with the knowledge that she has many friends and family. Her husband, three children, their spouses, and her numerous grandchildren were all happy, healthy and loved by her. Furthermore, she has nearly two years of knowing about her fatal illness in which to say goodbye. She and her family have adequate financial means to access the best of health care and to travel as needed to visit each other. We can't all wish for such a picture perfect end.