The Grammar of God

“The Grammar of God” by Aviya Kushner is Ms. Kushner’s experience reading the Bible in English for the first time. Ms. Kushner isn’t an immigrant, in face she’s from New York, but until she began graduate school she had never read the Bible in a language other than Hebrew. When she begins her class on the English Bible, she learns, from the very first verse in Genesis, that the experience of reading the Bible in English is not the same as she has experienced the Bible in Hebrew.God

She embarks on a journey to explore some of the subtle and not so subtle differences between the Hebrew and English Bibles. Throughout her journey she weaves in some of the personal moments that are related to some of the texts she is exploring.

When I read non-fiction, I do so with one of two mindsets. Either I’m looking to learn about someone’s life and relate/experience what life is like through their eyes or I’m looking to be taught by the author about the subject upon the book is based. While reading this book I couldn’t figure out which mindset I should use to approach the book, nor which one Ms. Kushner was attempting to have her readers adopt.

On the one hand, she’s explicating texts in both Hebrew and English and discussing the nuances and sometimes shockingly different views of God that are revealed. Then, on the other hand, she’s writing powerful pieces about her family’s background in their neighborhood and the extended family’s experience with WWII.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I feel that juggling both of these objectives was too much and the book fell flat for me. Ms. Kushner is a talented writer and were she to have written two books, one about her family and one about the translations of the Bible, I would have read both. But to keep juggling between two different objectives that were not always conveyed harmoniously, it gives one a headache.

There were specific chapters of the book that resonated with me and it’s these that are my takeaway. In these chapters Ms. Kushner’s talent for writing and connecting with readers shines. In one, she describes how the plight of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is much more grim and violent than is depicted in the English translation. The other chapter is the history of her maternal grandfather and his journey from Nazi Germany to Israel and Ms. Kushner’s relationship with him.

While I appreciate the point the book is trying to communicate, I can’t say that I would recommend this book to just anyone. I think readers of this book need to be strong readers because they are going to have to wade through two different purposes for this book.


What is the Bible?

Have you ever respected someone for their method but disagreed with their conclusions? That’s how I felt toward Rob Bell in this book.Bible

As a practicing Christian, and one who’s interested in the Bible as a book and a source of inspiration, I’m interested to learn more about it. Too many times the Bible has been hijacked by fundamentalists who ignore literary, historical, and social contexts in order to prove a point. Personally, I don’t believe this is how it should be used, nor was intended to be used.

Mr. Bell begins by taking a random verse about Moses and applying several questions, almost like a socratic method. Then, he applies historical and social contexts to the verse as well as relating the verse to the story arch, i.e. literary context. Using all of these contexts, the verse comes to life and what was once odd/obscure takes on meaning and we, modern readers, can understand why an ancient writer is including this information.

The problem I had with Mr. Bell’s conclusions is that he takes his method too the extreme boiling down the Bible into “stories” (his words). He forwards the ideas that what is found in the Bible is a library of books and stories that are written by writers that share their experiences based on their current world and interpretations of their view of God. What’s not clear is whether this is Mr. Bell’s ACTUAL philosophy or whether he’s using unspecific language in order to avoid taking a side.

While I believe some of the books of the Bible are/can be just stories, I do not think this is the entire story. I believe that human writers did record the Bible, and because they are human they do not write in a vacuum; history, society, style, and errors exist in their writings. If their writings are to be more than just fables, there has to be divine inspiration. Genesis through Deuteronomy, the historical books, major and minor prophets, as well as the epistles of the New Testament are foundation upon which Christianity is built. To say they are just stories calls into question our origin story, salvation, sanctification, Jesus as the son of God, and hope that God is returning. I’m conflicted on how to respond to Mr. Bell’s ideas. I don’t want to come across as dogmatic or fundamentalist, but there comes a point where what I believe is based on what I consider to divinely communicated ideas. To consider these ideas man-made would make me wonder why I’m even believing what I do. I believe God is a god of love and he used the Bible to talk to me to show me how I can live a sincere and fulfilled life and how I can live with him for eternity.

On the literary side of things, I was annoyed by Mr. Bell’s constant asides. They became obnoxious and obtrusive. I don’t mind and sometimes like informal writing styles and he in general captures this tone. But there were too many tongue-in-cheek comments and parenthetical look-at-me-I’m-clever moments for me to be patient with. Everything in moderation, Mr. Bell.

There was also a lack of organization. By the end of the book I don’t remember feeling as how what I was reading was anything different than what I read at the beginning. Frankly, I think the book could have been half as long as it was and it would’ve been a much improved read.

I don’t recommend this book because if you’re an atheist he’s not going to tell you anything you haven’t heard before. If you’re a practicing Christian, you may have problems with his theology. If you’re just an interested reader, his style and organization are going to leave you in the wilderness.

Before the Fall

I had a conflicted reading of this book. Part of it was that the book was billed as a mystery/thriller and that’s not what was delivered.Fall

The book starts with some New York elites preparing to leave their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard on their private jet. We quickly meet the characters who will become the crux of the story: the media mogul and his family, banking scheister and his wife, the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant, and the struggling artist.

The plane crashes (not a spoiler, it’s given away on the book jacket) and only the artist and the media mogul’s son survive. From there an investigation is launched into why and how the plane crashed.

While the plot moves forward regarding the investigation we get flashbacks of each of the individuals’ lives and how they came to be on the plane.

Mixed in the plane crash investigation plot line is a sub-plot about how the media, specifically a Fox News-like cable news channel and how a Bill O’Reilly/Alex Jones type character spins the story to find “the truth”.

The big takeaway from this book is the danger of toxic, privileged masculinity. In each layer of the plot, the men who feel they are “deserved” of the things they deem theirs cause the most damage. The author subtlety works this message in and it allows the reader to come to this conclusion on his or her own.

An enjoyable read, with important social critique, better editing and organization could’ve improved this read, but I’d still recommend it.

The Lose Your Belly Diet

If you’re suspicious of books trying to convince you to eat better, I’d invite you to direct your attention this way. Dr. Travis Stork explains how what we eats affects the microbiome that lives within us and that a healthy microbiome leads to a healthy weight and less illness. Seems simple right?Belly

Well it is. He first begins by breaking down what our microbiomes are and how they relate to our overall health. Then, he explains how different foods affect these microbiomes. He rounds out the book by showing how to put healthy eating habits into practice which will result in a healthy microbiome.

I first noticed that the tone of this book was a lot less preachy than some of the diet books I’ve read have been. He doesn’t make me feel guilty for not already eating how he suggests nor does he present his own triumphs as examples for why we should eat this way. Instead, he uses science and nutrition facts to explain the what, hows, and whys.

I also feel there’s a lot of common sense in this book. He’s not asking readers to cut out specific food groups. He’s not asking readers to eat massive amounts of a certain food group. And he’s not asking readers to do anything other than what a lot of health professionals have been saying lately.

The most valuable part of this book is his guidelines for healthy eating and the suggestions for what these guidelines look like in real life. He helps me take the theory and put it into practice. There’s also a lot of ways I can adjust these guidelines to individualize my diet. To me, this means I have a higher chance at eating healthier and maintaining healthy eating habits.

The Bulletproof Diet

I first heard of The Bulletproof Diet on a podcast. Supposedly, it works with your body’s chemistry to help you think clearer and to jump start your metabolism.  It’s key foundation is to eat more fat. What intrigued me is that it was an actor (of course) who said he followed this diet and it seemed to help him think better and look good without having to spend hours in the gym.  I’ve not heard of a lot of actors talk about how eating fat can help them, and if I can avoid hours at the gym (which I already seem pretty good at avoiding) and still look good, then I’m intrigued.Bulletproof

Sadly, after reading The Bulletproof Diet, I’m not too impressed by Dave Asprey’s outline for a healthy diet. He advocates for more healthy fats, no nuts, limited fruits, certain veggies, lots of proteins, and no carbs. On the whole, I don’t disagree with him. I believe that everything in moderation is good. However, he cuts out a lot of foods making the diet very restrictive.  There’s just no way that I can actually make this a daily habit.  It’s so restrictive that you’d have to scrap all of your recipes and basically buy his cookbook.  I just don’t see how people sustain this type of diet.  Oh wait, I guess if you’re wealthy enough I supposed you could hire someone to cook these restrictive meals for you (I’m looking at you podcast actor).

The other piece that bothered me is that he’s not a big proponent of cooking things,
i.e. raw food. Sure, somethings may be better raw and eating raw from time to time is good, but it’s expensive to buy the organic foods Asprey advocates.  And frankly, an Illinois winter is not a great time to be eating cold soups.  It’s just not going to happen.

All in all, there’s nothing too crazy about what Asprey proposes. There’s several healthy principles he incorporates into his plan, but I just didn’t find it was anything new, revealing, or sustainable.

The Journal of Best Practices

David Finch embarks on a project to understand himself and his wife after realizing he has Asperger’s and needs to make some changes to save his marriage.  It’s a brave task to tackle getting to know yourself as an adult after you feel you knew who you were.  Using his skills to analyze people, Mr. Finch reflects on why his wife reacts the way she does and how he can better support her and communicate what he needs.Journal

He begins analyzing the behaviors and mindsets that are causing setbacks and using this analysis to form strategies for positive changes.

Mr. Finch does a great job sharing the honest, gritty details of his project and makes it seem like the writer is right there alongside he and his wife, Kristen.

While I don’t have Asperger’s, I related to this book in that a lot what Mr. Finch realizes is that being who you are, putting others first, and being present in the moment are the foundation for improving all sorts of relationships. The idea that we need to be perfect to be loved and to love gets in the way of too many of our relationships.

What is hard to believe is that no one noticed that something was different about Mr. Finch.  On one hand, he was born before Aspberger’s was even a diagnosis, but still, it seems his parents just thought he was a unique kid.  Even when he went through the school system, you’d think some of his very Aspberger’s behaviors would’ve flagged something in the educational system.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that he needed to be fixed or that he wasn’t able to cope on his own.  It just seems that life would’ve been easier for him if he could’ve seen an occupational therapist who could’ve helped him with social issues as well as learning how to lead a productive life and still be who he is.  I still think a visit to an O.T. would serve he and his wife well.  That’s just my humble opinion.

This was an enjoyable read and whether you have Asperger’s or are neurotypical, there are pieces of this experience to which we can all relate.

The Cider House Rules

Have you ever read a book and were looking for how the title relates to the story? then when you found the connection you thought it was pointless and then wondered why you’re still reading the book? That’s pretty much my experience with The Cider House Rules. cider

There’s an interesting story at the heart of this book but it gets lost in the mire of random character musings and odd plot spin-offs. We start with Homer Wells and how he can’t find a permanent adopted home away from St. Cloud’s Orphanage. Then suddenly we’re given a complete background on the man who runs the orphanage, Dr. Wilbur Larch. Who finds himself both delivering babies and giving abortions. Then we go back to Homer Wells who clearly becomes the main focus of the book. Homer’s story focuses on him finding a home and making a family and struggling with the idea that he belongs at St. Cloud’s; as if he owes them something.

I liked Homer but I don’t think the author knew what to do with him sometimes. As a reader, I sympathized with him, was weirded out by him, admired him, and cheered for him. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do? Several of the other characters were
entertaining if not obnoxious at some points. There were also a lot very odd sexual things happening in the book.  More time was spent talking about, and saving, pubic hair than I cared for.  And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Several good ethical points were brought up in this book regarding birth control, abortion, the medical field, race relations in the North pre-, during, and post-WWII, but again, they all mire together and by the end you just want the book to stop.

Mortal Engines

Steampunk interests me.  I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I’ve enjoyed several steampunk films I’ve seen.  Mortal Engines was the first steampunk novel I’ve read. When I first picked it up I had no idea that it was a steampunk motif.  Halfway through it suddenly dawned on me that this is what a lot of people talk about when they say a steampunk novel.  Mortal

Mortal Engines is set in the post-apocalyptic future where cities are movable and travel around devouring one another in order to gain citizens and the parts of the cities they “eat”. They call it city Darwinism. Their only competition is the Anti-traction league who stay put and live lives like we currently do. The problem is that they are in danger from cities like London who have developed weapons that can obliterate any competition.

I liked the Steampunk aspects. The airships (dirigibles) and the iron bodied cities and the goggles and hoods many people wear. The idea of cities moving around devouring each other for resources is quite clever. The short-comings in the book revolve around the characters.

Tom is the first protagonist we meet and he’s ok. He’s just very immature emotionally and doesn’t seem to act the way a teenage boy would for his age. The same goes for Katherine. She’s a strong character except for her childish emotional maturity. The only one who seems to be emotionally matched to her age is Hester.

This is an entertaining read, the the problems with the characters aren’t too distracting just more of a nuisance. The actions of Tom, Kate, and Hester are all admirable although sometimes waaaay too dramatic. It’s a fun read and if I was a teenager I’d probably really like this book.

It Can’t Happen Here

There’s a good story in here somewhere. The premise is intriguing. What would’ve happened had a populist presidential candidate, who campaigned on the promise that he would give the lower classes exactly what they wanted, had won the 1936 presidential election? The result is a watered-down version of Nazi Germany in Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here. Happen

This book has seen a boon in sales recently, seeing as how we have elected a populist president who’s given the lower-classes (i.e. blue-collar Whites) what they wanted. The difference is that so far the checks on power have not failed and we have not devolved into tyranny. While the political consequences of the book have no come true, I understand why some would want to read about a book that warned against this type of political upheaval; it’s a good cautionary tale. What doesn’t work is the vehicle Lewis uses to carry his idea in.

We bounce around from Doremus Jessup, a rural Vermont newspaper editor, and the cadre of despots in Washington. The plot of the book reads like a movie you may have seen on TCM or the like. It’s set in the 1930’s and the actors can’t decide whether they are going to stick with melodrama or devolve into stand-up comedy. It wasn’t clear to me whether Lewis was trying to keep the book from becoming to heavy by adding in the random comedic attempts or whether he just didn’t know how to write characters that are complex.

The protagonist, Jessup, reminded me a lot of “1984”‘s Winston accept that Jessup is not as misogynistic, nor as poor-me as Winston. At the same time, my eyes are still sore from the many eye-rolls when Jessup complains that he just wishes he could spend more time with mistress in order to escape all of his wife’s flippant comments about American politics.

I’m also not convinced that Lewis wasn’t a hermit. A lot of the dialogue seems flat as if everyone is reading the script some seventh grade wrote about mobsters. The worst offenses occured whenever Shad Ledue would try and make a pass at Sissy. If men really talked like that, and women really responded as she did, I’m shocked that humanity has been able to survive.

Ok, enough savagery. Read this book if you dare, but maybe read it in installments with something more exciting in between to cleanse your literary palate.

The Sisters Brothers

Carl and Eli Sisters are two hired guns on the West Coast during the California Gold Rush era. We follow them from their hometown of Oregon City to San Francisco to the foothills of the Sierra. They are hired gunmen and their target this time is a prospector who may have found a way to discover gold using science. Along the way, we learn the complexities of being a gunslinger that is often times overlooked in many of our Westerns as well as the fact that these brothers share many of the same qualities and complexities that modern brothers exhibit. Sisters

Patrick DeWitt unravels some of the myth around Western gunslingers.  He makes them in seem more complex and less heroic, more relatable yet more detestable.  I appreciated this more “human” look at this American archetype.  Too often I feel we tend to romanticize the West and the people who settled it.  With nostalgia has come a gloss of denial. Ultimately, The Sisters Brothers are no John Waynes.

DeWitt’s honest portrayal of the West and life in the West made me appreciate it.  While I’m not from that era, clearly, having lived in California, Washington, and Nevada, I appreicated the way in which nature is portrayed not just as a setting but as a character unto itself.  I think that the West tends to be seen today as some hippie-leftist bastion, while we forget that it was. It’s neither villainized nor romanticized.

There’s also a surprising character, Eli’s horse Tug, who represents the relationship between man and nature and how man tends to destroy the latter. Trigger warning: animals are harmed in the plot of this book. Again though, it’s not maudlin. It’s honest and, what I believe, contributed to the sometimes aloof vibe that many Nor Cal folks give off.