The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman (March 2013) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (June 2009)

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If you are easily shocked by unorthodox portrayals of Jesus and all that is precious in the surrounding religious tradition, do not read this book. If you are offended by the suggestion that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition, do not read this book. If blasphemy is a word that even momentarily enters your general vocabulary, do not read this book. If you are now curious, and can soldier on through descriptions of creative Roman torture and heinous means of delivering slow death, and tend to be delighted when your assumptions are slaughtered . . . do, please, read this book. And to make the experience of revelation even more interesting, read The Liars’ Gospel in conjunction with The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or a book of its ilk (scholarly research into the historicity of religious belief). I have by day been listening to Wright’s audio book, and by night reading Alderman’s novel. Though Alderman’s work is fiction, it is based on dogged research, and much of how she portrayed Jesus is similar to how Wright described the historical man. I got the same feeling for who Jesus may have been, from both authors. And I must add here that the audio version of The Evolution of God is well worth the time spent on 15 discs. Wright starts with prehistoric religious belief and works his way through the historic origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their connections and conflicts, and concludes with a vision for how the Abrahamic faiths can foster tolerance and peace in place of what we have now in world affairs. His presentation of the historical record is frequently surprising and always engrossing. Pairing his book with The Liars’ Gospel was perfect serendipity (I didn’t actually plan it out). Alderman’s novel is written from four distinct perspectives, starting with Mary (mother of Jesus), then Judas, followed by Caiaphas (High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem), and concluding with Barrabas. I have used the Anglicized names here, but the book uses their Hebrew names, in keeping with a story that fully immerses the reader in the Jewish world to which Jesus (Yehoshuah) was born, and in which he functioned, under the thumb of Roman rule. This novel is actually more about the politics of Roman Jerusalem than about Jesus, especially in its second half. Nonetheless, if you are well acquainted with the Gospels, you come out of this reading experience thinking about familiar stories is quite a different light: you will question motives, incentives, and the political alignments of players and authors. Although Alderman’s novel was not a fast read — it is not dense, but it IS brutal, and that took some time to breathe and regroup — I highly recommend it, especially as an entre to a nonfiction work such as Wright’s.

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Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Oct. 2013)

hoffmanThis is a tiny book.  Like, you will finish it in a little over an hour.  At first I thought, no one who isn’t already terribly famous would be able to get away with this at a publishing house.  All the rest of us have to shoot for the 40,000 word minimum.  But after reading the book, I was no longer miffed.   There is purpose and effectiveness that would be impossible without brevity.  Hoffman — one of my favorite fiction writers — survived breast cancer 15 years ago.  This isn’t a breast cancer memoir, but rather a compilation of things Hoffman learned — about what is important in life, and how best to live it — through surviving cancer.  With its small size and few pages, this book might on first glance seem to fit into the market for aphorisms and devotionals, those little gift books on the sale tables at Barnes and Noble, the books that end up on our mother’s and grandmother’s night stands.  The ones filled with gag-worthy cliches that make you want to rip out the pages and shred them into itty bitty bits for presuming to reduce our pain into measurable portions that can be handily contained with truths too clever to be true.  But no.  No.  Hoffman’s book is NOT one of these.  You will read it and be surprised by the relief you feel.  You will give it as gifts.  These gifts will end up on night stands.  And there will be many people who sleep just a little bit better because a writer of beautiful words has understood their suffering: that pain, to be reduced, cannot be dismissed.  There are many self-help books out there that take hours and days to plod through for the small morsels we can take away and use. But in just an hour, you can read Survival Lessons and absorb every word, with no need to discard the tedious and superfluous.  Advance Reader’s Copy provided by BEA (and signed by Hoffman herself, who indeed was, upon meeting, the lovely person I had believed her to be from her writing).

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Sept., 2012)

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I listened to this audio book a month ago, so I’m less able now to recount accurately all of Tough’s arguments or his evidence. But I don’t feel so bad about that lapse of memory after seeing on Amazon a “cheat sheet” book you can buy that condenses his arguments and most important case studies into a 30-minute summary. Obviously, a) there is enough evidence presented in Tough’s book to warrant a summary; and b) the evidence he presents is compelling enough, and enough people want to know what he has to say, to justify the publication of a summary. Which is all to say: read this book. It’s important. It’s extremely interesting. And it will likely propel you to change not just your assumptions, but your actions, if you are in any way associated with the lives of children. I began treating my teenage daughter a bit differently after listening to this book. She is a smart, witty, compassionate girl with a whopping dollop of ADD thrown into her glorious mix of character traits. So being a parent who gracefully lets go of the supports I have provided since birth, now that she is growing up . . . that’s not really me. But after listening to Tough’s book, I’ve had to at least try to get a little “tough” on myself, and on my child, by allowing for more possibility of failure. Or, at least, natural consequences. It’s one of the most powerful ways we learn, if we have nurturing people around us who help us learn how to manage our failures. That’s the key: we don’t just fall on our faces, but we learn, in relative safety, how to cope with it all. It’s a cliché to say it builds character. But it’s true. And the evidence in favor of character being more important that IQ in determining life “success”, is the stuff of this book. The seven traits Tough zeroes in on are: Grit, Curiosity, Self-control, Social intelligence, Zest, Optimism, and Gratitude. To build these traits, Tough advocates warm, calm, nurturing parenting early on, especially where there is poverty or other trauma. And parenting that allows some risk taking and challenge as children grow (this all may sound obvious, but Tough makes us see that we quite often do just the opposite). And he gives many examples of school and social programs that are working to tease out character building in a real, not just rhetorical way, in young people. My only two criticisms are that the examples he gives from the world of chess clubs dragged on a bit long – at least to my non-chess-playing self. And the reader for the audio version, while easy on the ears and entertaining in general, has the annoying habit of using the same odd voice when reading dialog attributed to a wide variety of people, both male and female. They were all soft spoken with a slightly southern drawl. Weird. But don’t let this deter you. I consider Tough’s book one of the most important I’ve read (listened to) in a long time.

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