book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  […]  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  […]  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  […]  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  […]  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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faith, history, literature, personal

The Middle

A year ago I began thinking about modern scholarship of the Bible, and how I had never seriously considered it. Up until then, whenever I cracked open the Good Book, I took everything at face value. I accepted whatever my evangelical Christian tradition held regarding the authorship or historicity of any given passage. Although I knew Christians who disagreed on specific theological issues (e.g. the role of free will, how to interpret the book of Revelation, what type of baptism should be used, the role of women, etc.) all of us agreed on certain bedrock assumptions including the authorship of the Torah or the factual nature of the historical books of the Old Testament. God inspired a small collection of men to write down these books, and they were without error.

Though I grew up reading the Bible as literally and factually true in all points, I began this blog detailing how I changed my mind about the issue of creation and evolution. I learned what modern science had to say about origins and I adjusted my view of Genesis.  Mostly that was a matter of reconciling science and faith, seeing them as compatible rather than opposed, though it also concerned the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis (and other passages, too, but especially those ones). I first encountered scholars who explained that it was possible to interpret the days of Genesis as long periods of time. They allowed for an ancient universe, though they still rejected evolution, presumably because it meant that humans could not be sufficiently distinct from animals and thus couldn’t truly be in the image of God. Later I read Christians who accepted evolution and had synthesized views of science and the Bible.

Despite changing my views on Genesis and the creation account, I still never considered much of modern biblical scholarship.  All I had been exposed to were those who would defend against the attacks of modernism that had tried to debunk the traditional readings of scripture. So while at Bible college I had learned about the documentary hypothesis concerning the Torah—sometimes referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis for its originators or other times referred to as JEDP for the sources that comprise the Torah (i.e. Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly)—I basically learned that it was an evil theory aimed at undermining belief in the Bible. We never spent time actually trying to learn why anyone would have come up with the theory in the first place.

So in a post I wrote more than a year ago, I explained that I wanted to be a modern day David Lurie, a character in a Chaim Potok novel who wrestles with modern scholarship on the Bible even as it shakes his faith. I began reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible to get a sense of what modern scholarship has to say about the Bible. It’s been eye-opening. I’m now more than halfway through the book, taking it real slow. It’s overwhelming at times to have the rug pulled out from under me. I have to sit on the floor for a while and think about it, then get back up, only to have it happen again with each new chapter I read. What follows are some of my thoughts so far, with some examples. I wrote portions of this post immediately after reading passages in Kugel so some of this records my real-time reactions to the book in an almost live-blog format.

Kugel’s book is very unsettling. Each new chapter spends some time looking at a passage first from the ancient interpreters’ viewpoint, and it feels mostly familiar. Much of my evangelical fundamentalist understanding is roughly the same on these points. I can at least see the connection from what they thought to the way I was taught. But then comes the modern scholarship on the passage. And it’s rationalist, and makes the passage come apart and mean something different than I ever thought.

To illustrate how Kugel organizes his chapters, let me give an extended example from the book on a passage that I had never really thought much about before. In Genesis 34 we get the story of Dinah, the lone daughter of Jacob amidst the 12 sons. This is the story known as “the rape of Dinah.” It comes after Jacob flees his uncle Laban with his wives, children, and livestock. Jacob wrestles with God and has his name changed to Israel. Then he meets up with his brother Esau who he had swindled out of blessing and birthright years earlier. Now Jacob and his household settle in the land of Canaan, outside the city of Shechem. A man from the city who also is named Shechem (same as the city) sees Dinah and rapes her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob and his sons aren’t too happy about this, but they agree to the marriage on one condition: Shechem, his father Hamor, and all the other men must get circumcised. They undergo the knife, and while they are recovering, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the convalescing men with swords. It’s all pretty gruesome.

Kugel presents the various lines of thinking by the ancient interpreters on this passage. First, what is the moral of the story? At first glance, it doesn’t appear to have one. But looking closer, they were able to point to the statement in verse 7: “such a thing must not be done.” In context, it might be the implied response the brothers had upon hearing about what happened to Dinah. On the other hand, this might be the voice of the narrator of the story, which would in fact be God who divinely inspired the writing of the text. But if the point of the story is the retaliation for Dinah’s lost honor, why give the story a whole chapter? The ancients were bothered by the apparent lie that the brothers tell when agreeing to the marriage. Simeon and Levi kill the Shechemites even though they abided by their side of the agreement.

Some interpreters said the real reason for the story was the problem of intermarriage. Indeed, that was a problem for Israel’s sons for generations, including the troubling account in the book of Ezra where the men are commanded to divorce foreign wives, which they do. So the brothers did not lie when they said that the marriage was a disgrace and should not take place, and their scheme to slaughter the Shechemites was justified. Some other interpreters thought perhaps the brothers were divided on the idea of Dinah’s marriage to Shechem. Perhaps ten of them thought intermarriage would be okay if they were circumcised, but Simeon and Levi disagreed. So there was no lie because the offer was sincere if not unanimous.

When modern scholars approach the stories of Genesis, they often are looking for an etiological message (a just-so story that explains how something became the way it is). But there doesn’t appear to be anything that the Dinah story explains. For one thing, Dinah completely disappears from the biblical record. The entire incident is only referred to once more (apparently) when Jacob is dying and he gathers his sons together to give them blessings. Simeon and Levi get left out of the blessings because of their violent actions against the Shechemites.

It’s all rather strange for a few reasons. Though Simeon and Levi apparently slaughter all of the Shechemite men in Genesis 34, Jacob himself seems to refer to having conquered Shechem “with my sword and with my bow” (Genesis 48:22). The city of Shechem appears again in the book of Joshua and is apparently re-populated, but there is no reference to what had happened before. Then in Judges 9 there is another reference to a guy named Shechem who lives in the city of Shechem whose father’s name is Hamor, just like in the story back in Genesis 34. Quite the coincidence.

Kugel points out that perhaps there is something that the Dinah story might explain. Perhaps it makes sense of the blessing that Simeon and Levi do not get from their father Jacob in Genesis 49. But a careful reader will note that the curse the brothers receive does not in fact have much connection to the story of the rape and the subsequent slaughter of an entire city. Some modern interpreters conjecture that the story happened at some other time (perhaps the time of the Judges) and has been inserted and retrofitted into the Genesis account to make sense of the fate of Simeon and Levi. So by this theory, Jacob never even had a daughter named Dinah. She was added to the text later with a story of her lost honor in order to make sense of the two brothers who were cursed.

This chapter on Dinah kind of blew my mind.  The more I thought about the passage, the less it made sense with a straight forward traditional reading.  I no longer know what to do with it.  I’m not sure I accept all of the theories of the modern scholars, but I can’t completely trust the ancient interpreters either at this point.  It’s a quandary.

Kugel points out many other compelling reasons to take modern scholarship seriously on matters of authorship and sources when it comes to interpreting Genesis. Many of the stories in the primeval era are etiological (again, an explanatory story for why things are the way they are), so the story of Cain and Abel might be an explanation about the Kenites, nomadic neighbors of Israel or the story of the Tower of Babel might be an explanation about the spread of language and the evils of Babylon’s religion and culture.

So if things aren’t what I thought, like Adam and Eve are not literal people but types, or that the Flood story comes from ancient Mesopotamian sources, what am I left with? A belief that God still exists and reveals himself to humanity. The Biblical accounts are human attempts to chronicle those revelations. But will even this understanding stand up to scrutiny?

The primeval literature (Genesis chapters 1-11) seems less vital, somehow, that it be historically true. It’s mythic and explanatory, an attempt to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is. When it comes to Abraham, it seems more important that he be a real person with a real relationship with God. Scholarship has seesawed on the question of Abraham’s actual existence. But it seems plausible that he was a real man. As I was about to read about the covenant and I was almost scared. After I finished and read how cutting up animals was common practice for covenants, I was relieved that the Abraham story makes sense. Phew. It could be true.

The next chapter was very thought-provoking. Kugel pointed out that there are two very different portrayals of God in the OT. At times he is anthropomorphic, appearing as an angel or man, and does not seem omnipresent or omniscient. The people he appears to seem to “be in a fog” until they realize (if they do) and then they fall prostrate. It happens to Joshua, Samson’s parents, and even to Abraham. It’s hard to mesh this view of God with the more traditional view of an incorporeal, omniscient, etc. being. But the passages that portray God this way seem to be real experiences with the divine. Was it a matter of perception for these people in the OT?

Reading this book makes me feel like I’ve jumped off a cliff and I don’t know where I’ll land. Will it be a 2 foot drop or a 2,000 foot freefall? Will I get battered and bruised on the way down? Will I even land anywhere? There’s no going back. I want to know the truth and face modern scholarship squarely in the face and take it seriously. I don’t want to rest on what I was always taught and accept it blindly. I want the faith I retain to be my own. But I’m worried what this will do to my faith.

Is it possible for me to lose faith? Is there a point at which I could learn something that would make me give up on the Bible? I don’t know. I don’t think I would have been able to say that when I was younger. I was confident, even if I didn’t know everything. I had unshakeable faith. Now all I know is that I have more questions and doubts than ever. But that’s not to say that I’ve given up.

It’s quite a rollercoaster to think through all of these interpretations. While I feel most familiar with the ancient interpreters, even their suppositions are often about problems I never saw in the text. It reminds me of the Talmudic scholars in a Potok novel as they tease out a passage and look at it from all angles. But then the modern scholars come at it and it seems like they’re trying to debunk everything. Take God out of it. Make it entirely a human document. And I don’t know what to do with that. It’s so foreign to me to look at the Bible that way.

A few months into my reading of Kugel I started reading Robert Alter’s Ancient Israel, a translation of Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, with extensive commentary, especially on translation. I wanted to read this book after seeing the smaller version that focused solely on the life of David. Alter’s translations have been praised for their poetic plainness and fidelity to the original Hebrew. I read the first chapter of Joshua, which isn’t a book that holds a lot of interest for me. When I was younger the stories of the taking of the promised land seemed heroic and adventurous, but now they seem a bit more horrific.

What struck me was the literary composition of the first chapter. It’s basically four speeches with a few words in between as connective tissue. First God speaks to Joshua, then Joshua speaks to the overseers, then to the trans-Jordan tribes, and lastly those tribes reply to him. In their reply, they say the exact same phrase (“Be strong and stalwart”) to Joshua that God says to him twice earlier in the chapter. What are the odds? It seems clearly to be a literary element to repeat the same exhortation to the new leader, showing that he is in fact the new leader now that Moses is dead.

A little later, after the famous siege and capture of Jericho and the subsequent treaty with the scared Gibeonites, the king of Jerusalem organizes 5 other kings against those Gibeonites in chapter 10. Joshua and the Israelite army come to the rescue, as per the treaty agreement. They defeat the armies, kill the kings, and then proceed to take city after city. Curiously, they do not take Jerusalem, despite having killed its king and taken every other city of the instigators. Jerusalem, of course, was not conquered until the time of David two centuries later. Why is Jerusalem left out? Is it possible that the entire account is not exactly factual?

Based on his introduction and the notes, Alter is definitely in the modern scholars camp. I like reading his translation because it uses new rhythms and vocabulary to get me out of any ruts I get into when I read a familiar translation. Sometimes my eyes glaze over as I’m reading the NIV or ESV. I feel like I’m ten years old and back in Sunday School. Alter helps get me out of that and see it anew. But with the fresh eyes is a fresh perspective that pulls bricks out of my biblical foundation.

So a few days ago I started another book (someday I’ll finish one of these books) called Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns that gives me some hope that I won’t have to fall off a cliff, or at least not so far down. Maybe some of my biblical foundation can be salvaged. He takes modern scholarship seriously while still taking the Bible seriously. His model for the Bible is incarnational, so just as Jesus is fully God and fully human, the Bible also is fully divine and fully human. Many of my previous assumptions about the Bible made me overlook its human dimension, overriding it in fact. The Bible had to be without any error straight from God or else it was a book like any other. But the evidence doesn’t support such a view. Instead, Enns argues that God speaks to humanity where they are, in their own language and culture, and even in multiple voices that don’t always agree.

So I’ve got more to chew on and consider. For now I’m stuck in the middle.

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