Reading Notes

Some people are born with the inability to concentrate for a long period of time on one thing. Some people, for instance, have to explore different types of literature rather than concentrate on one type such as romances, mysteries, science fiction, nonfiction or biography. I’m one of those readers who must bounce around from one genre to another. Below are examples of what I have read recently and brief notes on each.

The Faith Club

The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew—Three Women Search for Understanding by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner – In this nonfiction book three women of different faiths meet and decide to write a children’s book with stories related to their faiths. They soon realize that the task won’t be as easy as they thought it would be. For instance, the Christian wanted to include the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, but the Jew was opposed to that because her people had long been called “Christ killers” because the Jews urged Herod to crucify Christ. They quickly learned that they had to explore some religious issues before they could write a book – and not the children’s book they initially envisioned. They learned a lot about each other’s religious beliefs and became close friends, but more importantly they learned even more about their own beliefs. Most importantly they became more tolerant of the idea that there might be more than one pathway to knowing and loving God. The extended quote below explains what they learned better than I can:

 A few days later, a friend brought me to a reading of the eighteenth-century play Nathan the Wise, whose main character had a beautiful answer to a question similar to the one I had addressed at St. James’.  In the play, Nathan, a Jew living in Jerusalem during the Crusades of the twelfth century, is asked by the Muslim sultan which of three religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is best.

Too wise to answer directly, Nathan replies with a story about a beautiful ring that made its wearer “agreeable to God and human beings.” For years, the ring remained in one family and was passed to each generation’s favorite son. But then an heir appeared who loved his three sons equally. At various times he promised the ring to each of his sons. So as he neared his death he was in a bind. As a solution, he ordered a jeweler to make two exact copies of the ring, and he distributed the three indistinguishable rings to his sons.

After the father died, the sons quarreled about whose ring was the original. When they appealed to a judge, the judge reminded the sons of their father’s equal love for them and that the father wouldn’t treat two of them unfairly for the pleasure of the third. Remembering that the ring should make its wearer “agreeable to God and human beings,” the judge ruled, “Let each of you strive to show the power of his ring’s stone. Come to the aid of this power in gentleness, with heartfelt tolerance, in charity, with sincerest submission to God. And should the powers of the stone express themselves in your children’s children’s children, then let them come again before this bench. At that time, a wiser man than I will sit before them and rule.”

The play was more than two hundred years old, yet its message resonated with modern significance.

 I urge you to read this book and to suggest it for book clubs and discussion groups that you are in. Faith is the cornerstone of every religious belief system, and “faith” is defined as “unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence.” These women came to sincerely respect the beliefs of each other as they explored and talked, and they became stronger in their own faiths.

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“Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale With a Moral” by Edgar Allan Poe – This short story, which my wife urged me to read, introduced me to a side of Poe that I didn’t know existed. I recently used a quote from the introduction in a Quotes of Note post that explains why Poe wrote it.

The narrator has a happy-go-lucky friend who often says, “I’ll bet the devil my head that I can . . .” The narrator warns the young man that he shouldn’t tempt the devil, but the young man laughs at him. As you might expect, one day the young man has to pay the piper (or rather, the devil). This Poe story, more like a tale by O. Henry, will make you laugh even though it has a somewhat macabre ending.

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“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald – This is another short story which seems out of character for its author. Can you imagine Fitzgerald penning a story about a “baby” who is 70 years old when he is born and who gets younger and younger as he “ages”? Everyone at the hospital is appalled when the newborn baby of Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button turns out to be an old man with a beard almost down to his waist. When Roger goes out to buy the “newborn” some clothes (so they can take him home) Benjamin tells his father to also buy him a walking cane! Each year Benjamin becomes younger and younger, and at age 50 he marries a beautiful young woman who is attracted to older men because they are so mature. As she gets older he gets younger, and each finds the other repulsive. You can probably imagine the ending.

This is one of many short stories in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age. He briefly discusses each story at the beginning of the book, and here is what he writes about this one:

 This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. By trying the experiment upon only one man in a perfectly normal world I have scarcely given his idea a fair trial. Several weeks after completing it, I discovered an almost identical plot in Samuel Butler’s “Note-books.

The story was published in “Collier’s” last summer and provoked this startling letter from an anonymous admirer in Cincinnati: “Sir—I have read the story Benjamin Button in Colliers and I wish to say that as a short story writer you would make a good lunatic. I have seen many pieces of cheese in my life but of all the pieces of cheese I have ever seen you are the biggest piece. I hate to waste a piece of stationary on you but I will.”

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Pet Sematary by Stephen King – “When I’m asked (as I frequently am) what I consider to be the most frightening book I’ve ever written,” King writes in the introduction, “the answer I give comes easily and with no hesitation: Pet Sematary. It may not be the one that scares readers the most—based on the mail, I’d guess the one that does that is probably The Shining—but the fearbone, like the funnybone, is located in different places on different people. All I know is that Pet Sematary is the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had finally gone too far. Time suggests that I had not, at least in terms of what the public would accept, but certainly I had gone too far in terms of my own personal feelings. Put simply, I was horrified by what I had written, and the conclusions I’d drawn.”

Yes, Mr. King went pretty far out on that one. In fact, I have to wonder about someone who can write such works as King has. Can he be totally sane? What is he like when you meet him at a book event or at a party? For years he played guitar in a rock band named Rock Bottom Remainders (which refers to books that are sold at a heavy discount in order for the publisher to get rid of them) with other authors including Dave Barry, Amy Tan, and Roy Blount, Jr., so he must be normal. I guess.

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Growth of the Soil

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun – This novel was published in Norway in 1917, and Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years later.  Hamsun’s works are better known in Europe (especially in Germany) than in the United States. The novel, which is in the public domain, is about a man who goes into the Norwegian wilderness and chooses a site that he feels is perfect for a farm. He starts out with almost nothing, but gradually, over many years, builds his farm into the finest farm in the area. Hamsun details the farmer’s trials and triumphs in a way that mirrors the human condition rather than solely the life of one solitary man. In many ways Growth of the Soil parallels Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. We Americans read too few novels in translation. Growth of the Soil is one you shouldn’t miss. (And thank you, Margit, for recommending it to our reading group.)

— — — — —

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells – Unlike the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater company that scared the hell out of many Americans and the 1953 and 2005 movies all of which take place in the United States, the 1898 novel takes place in England. Wells was very interested in science, and in a way his idea of the Martians destroying people with death rays foreshadows the use of modern-day lasers for the same purpose. The novel is a sort of David and Goliath story when you think about it.

— — — — —

The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton – Don’t confuse this 1922 novel with the two Alfred Hitchcock movies of the same name. All the book and the movies have in common is the title. Chesterton’s book is made up of eight short stories which feature a wealthy but bored British gentleman named Horne Fisher. (Actually, the book originally contained 12 short stories – eight about Fisher and four that were unrelated – but every copy I find these days only contains the eight Fisher stories.) Fisher is a man who, like Sherlock Holmes, effortlessly finds clues that everyone else misses. The first six stories are mysteries while the final two delve into Fisher’s life. I liked the final two stories best. Chesterton is best known for his Father Brown stories, but Horne Fisher is worth knowing.

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The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson – Lisbeth Salander, who we met in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is the main character in Larsson’s second book in the Millenium Series. The book focuses on Salander’s childhood and how it shaped her into the anti-social, occasionally violent person she is. There’s more than enough sex and violence to keep you turning the pages as fast as you can, and you definitely come away with the feeling that Larsson’s early death (he suffered a fatal heart attack while walking up the stairs to his office because the elevator was broken) has robbed the world of a gifted storyteller.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie – This 1926 novel which featured the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (who likes to brag that he uses his little gray cells) was written by Christie shortly before she disappeared for ten days. Many mystery aficionados claim that she broke one of the cardinal rules in mystery writing when she penned it, but that hasn’t kept it from becoming one of her best loved books.  Consider yourself a master detective if you solve the mystery before you reach the end of the book.

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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson – The six innovations are glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Johnson makes connections between these six innovations and common things that we deal with every day in amazing ways. For instance, he talks about the origin of glass, then tells us that glasses became common only after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Then someone who saw glasses lens side by side wondered what would happen if you put one lens on top of the other. That’s how microscopes and telescopes were invented.

While ice fishing in subzero weather in Labrador Clarence Birdseye saw the fish he pulled out of the water freeze solid in a few seconds. Later he noted that when they were defrosted and cooked they tasted much, much better than fish that had been frozen slowly back home. The difference, which he discovered when he looked at fish meat through a microscope (see above) was that the ice crystals that formed when a fish was frozen slowly were large and they damaged the cells of the fish. The ice crystals that formed when a fish was “flash frozen” were small and did only minor damage to the cells. Through experimentation he found the best way to freeze many other foods, and people around the world have benefited greatly from his discoveries ever since.

I could write more, but it’s time for me to heat my TV dinner.

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