Thursday, April 10, 2014

Recent Non-fiction Reads

I almost always have at least one actual book, one audio book on my iPod, and one book on CD in my car going at any one time.  I can read a good book in 2 days or linger over one for several weeks.  I currently have 16 items checked out on my library card, a combination of printed books, audio books, and DVDs.

Looking for a good non-fiction read?  Try these:

The Canals of Mars by Gary Fincke (a memoir)
Gary Fincke, a writer and poet, was the Flannery O'Conner Award winner for short fiction in 2004.

Disclosure: I knew the author when we attended the same high school, although we weren't close friends.

Although I'm sure I would have loved this well-written memoir anyway, what made it doubly enjoyable was that I am the same age as the author and grew up in the same suburb of Pittsburgh. Therefore, many of the locations, happenings, and people were familiar to me. Because I didn't recognize any names near the beginning of the book, I thought the author had changed them, but later I recognized a name I remembered from high school and soon I was reading about many of my high school classmates as elementary, junior, and senior high-school students. 
The memoir is not a continuous story of the author's life but individual episodes from his boyhood, that are related by place and time 
I'm sure many readers will recognize the activities and youthful pranks typical of an era before children were confined to supervised activities 24/7, a time when youngsters roamed the local woods, made up games, and resolved problems between themselves without adult interference. It was an era when parents set high standards that none of us could fully achieve. Although I never met the author's parents, I recognized them in my own mother and father who envisioned the same kind of perfection for me as his parents desired for their son and whose impossible expectations resulted in varying degrees of conformity and rebellion. 
Find this and other Gary Fincke books on the author's Amazon page.


Grant's Final Victory by Charles Bracelen Flood 
I high recommend this and the other books mentioned in this review.
I had recently read historian Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to Be Rich about the author's great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward, the man who swindled Ullysses Grant (as well as many others) of their wealth, bankrupting the Civil War general and former U.S. President in 1884. Ward, a charming con artist, ran what we now call a Ponzi Scheme, hoodwinking one and all into believing he was a financial genius. 
As a long-time Mark Twain aficionado, I was aware of Twain's part in publishing Grant's memoirs. Grant had been offered a 10% royalty on his proposed book, minus numerous expenses, but Twain offered him an advance and 20% of all sales. In addition, he promoted and sold the book by subscription with a choice of covers, which generated many more sales than would have been possible otherwise. 
It was recommended that everything be placed in his wife's name so that she would receive royalties after Grant's death. Eventually, Grant's wife was paid about $600,000 for Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, the largest amount ever paid (up to that time.) More about the friendship of two great men of the 19th century can be found in Grant and Twain by Mark Perry which covers the struggle of Grant to complete his memoirs and Twain's struggle to complete Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Grant's Final Victory summarizes Grant's early life and the events that led to his bankruptcy at the hands of Ferdinand Ward. However, the bulk of the book tells the moving story of Grant's decision to write his memories and his struggle to complete his life story, centered on his Civil War experiences, before dying of throat cancer, so that he could provide for his family. Grant had difficulty walking after a fall months earlier. He could barely swallow water, let alone eat. He could speak only in a whisper or not at all. Yet he battled on, completing his writing mere days before his death. 
The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant became an immediate best-seller and is still considered to be one of the best military memoirs ever written, sometimes compared to Caesar's The Gallic Wars.
 Find this and other Charles Bracelen Flood books on the author's Amazon page.

Jesus Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman 
Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of Religious Studies and a professor specializing in the New Testament at the U. of N. Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is a fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute graduate. He was warned against furthering his education at Wheaton College because that Christian school was not "Christian enough." Later those at Wheaton warned him that Princeton's theological program was full of professors who weren't "real" Christians either.
This book is subtitled: "Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them)"
For over a century, Biblical scholars at seminaries have known and been teaching about the contradictions in the Bible and how it was written, yet it seems that as soon as ministers are ordained, they are afraid of imparting this knowledge to their congregations. Are they afraid believers will rebel? Are they afraid congregants will begin to doubt? Are they afraid of losing their jobs?
Ehrman expands on Biblical problems discussed in his Misquoting Jesus which explains how Biblical stories were first transmitted orally, then later copied by individual scribes. There was no standardized spelling. Sometimes one person read from a page and several scribes wrote from the oral reading. Some words were written incorrectly resulting in misunderstanding the intention of the text. Some were misheard. Mistakes were made, some accidentally and some to promote a particular view of an early Christian sect. In addition, the literacy rate was extremely low, so almost no one was able to read religious papers or texts.
No one knows who actually wrote the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament.  The names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were given to the books to give them the aura of authenticity. Many people believe they are first-hand accounts of Jesus's life, but they were written decades after Jesus's death and most certainly were not eye-witness accounts. It is unlikely that any of the disciples could read or write.  They spoke Aramaic while the Gospels were written in Greek. None are written in the first person. 
Some of the books of the New Testament were forged (claimed to have been written by someone other than the original writer) or misattributed. Scholars believe that only some of the books attributed to Paul were written by him. Besides great differences in style and word usage, several books espouse views in direct opposition to the views in other books that are believed to have been written by Paul. Paul never met Jesus, so most of his writings are mere opinions of what he thought Jesus believed.  
The books that make up the New Testament were chosen and put together in 367 CE ---centuries after the death of Jesus. Many religious texts were rejected. And of course, those chosen or rejected, where decided upon by a very human committee. 
Ehrman suggests that one should read the Gospels horizontally instead of vertically. That is, one should read each Gospel's story of a particular event (the resurrection for example) side-by-side, instead of reading each complete Gospel from beginning to end, and from the first to the last Gospel. That way, one sees the contradictions and impossibilities in the stories. I would even suggest one try to write a time-line of the individual events of those Biblical stories to determine what happened when and where.  Each Gospel has some differences, some minor and some major. The stories we know as the nativity, crucifixion or resurrection stories are really a compilation of the various stories in the four Gospels ---or sometimes three ---as all four do not relate all of the same events. 
Erhman used to believe in the Bible's inerrancy, but has since come to believe it is a very human book. He understands that the authors lived at different times in different places and each had a different opinion of what may have happened.  
Ehrman writes in an easy manner, making his in-depth scholarship accessible to a wide audience. He is not interested in convincing anyone to give up on religious beliefs, but rather to impart the historical information that has been left out of most Biblical studies or church sermons. Although the author is critical of the withholding of that information to the general public, he is respectful of religion and those who choose to believe. He hopes readers will fully understand and think about how Christianity began and grew based on historical evidence.
 Find this and other Bart D. Ehrman books on the author's Amazon page.

No comments: