Wednesday, June 17, 2009

This Week at the Library (17/6)

Books this Update
  • Third Degree, Greg Iles
  • Turning Angel, Greg Iles
  • God's Problem, Brad Ehrman
  • The Third Jesus, Deepak Chopra
  • Further Along the Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck
  • Sleep No More, Greg Iles
  • Boss of Bosses, Joseph O'Brien and Andris Kurins

Given that Greg Iles' books make up half of this week's reading -- more if you consider page numbers -- I'm going to break from format and deal with them all at once. I didn't intend to read three of his thrillers in a single week, but circumstances made it possible and a little inevitable. The three Iles books are alike in that each are southern gothic thrillers -- genuine page-turners. There's a reason I was able to go through them so quickly, and that is that they are so damned readable. When I begin reading Iles, I can't really put the book down even when I'm growing tired of him -- as was the case at the ends of books two and three when I realized I was reading too much of Iles at once. Two of the books -- Turning Angel and Sleep No More -- are both set in the same setting as The Quiet Game, in the town of Natchez, Mississippi. They all have fairly unique plots, although my chief problem with both of the mentioned books is that they seem to have more sex in them than Playboy. The focus tends to shift away from the story and to fanfiction-style depictions of intimacy. Even so, each of the three plots fascinated me: in one, a suburban housewife is held a terrorized hostage in her own home , in another the death of a promising high schooler leads to the invasion of her town by Biloxi-based gangsters, and in the third a man is haunted by a woman who claims to be possessed by the spirit of his dead lover. Interesting stuff.

After the first two Iles thrillers, I read Bart Ehrman's God's Problem, in which he examines biblical attitudes toward suffering. He identifies four general attitudes, three of which are explanations and one of which is "don't bother, it's all a mystery". Ehrman is thorough, interesting, and fair. His focus on one of the explanations helped the whole of the New Testament make sense to me, as he explains in part how Judaism changed through its exposure to Babylonian and later Persian thinking.

Next I read a book by Deepak Chopra called The Third Jesus. I am trying to understand various approaches to interpreting the life of Jesus, as he has never formerly been a personality that particularly interested me -- despite growing up in a fundamentalist home. Chopra's book was of little help. His interpretation of Jesus is of a "Transcendental Teacher" who teaches God-consciousnesses. Chopra does not explain his terms, apparently leaving them to be understand on some mystical level. Despite dealing with scientific and historical topics, he footnotes nothing and his rebuttals of various arguments for and against traditional interpretations of Jesus (Jesus as enlightened rabbi and Jesus as God-in-flesh-come-to-save-all-humankind) are almost nonexistent. The book was confusing, sloppy, and uninteresting to me.

Returning to Scott Peck was an enjoyable change from trying to read Chopra. Peck was a retired psychiatrist who attempted in his books to approach spirituality from that angle, seeing spirituality and psychiatry as interrelated disciplines. My own approach to spirituality is naturalistic, which is why I appreciate the psychological angle -- even though Peck views psychiatry and psychology as supernatural disciplines, given that their object of study is in his view a supernatural thing. What I like about Peck is that he looks at mental problems like depression, guilt, and anxiety from a "That doesn't have to be the case" perspective. Although he is most concerned with fixing these problems by examining their source and dealing with it, theoretically you could nip problems in the bud before they start overtaking your life. He deals with a lot of topics, and even though I don't agree with him on a lot of things, I find him provocative.

Lastly, I read Boss of Bosses, a memoir written by two FBI agents detailing the rise and fall of Paul Castellano, who is referred to by his men as both "The Godfather" and "The Pope". The book, written in the third person, tries to tell two stories at the same time: while its authors tell us of their initial investigations against Castellano, they often take breaks to inform us of his rise to power. Once this secondary story is finished, it renews itself in tracking his political fall. While the police investigation continues and a case is built up -- using a planted microphone to give the agents an ear inside Castellano's home -- the kingpin himself is becoming increasingly isolated from the world which he once dominated, infatuated by his Hispanic maid-turned-mistress and his "performance problems". When his career ends, it is not at the hands of the FBI agents who have come to respect his genteelness and who have sympathy for him, but at the hands of an ambitious young capo who sees Castellano as being a liability to the five families. The book tells an interesting story and offers a look into the thinking of the mob.

Pick of the Week: Third Degree, Greg Iles. The whole of its plot takes place in one day and the book is not marred by either excessive violence or sex. (There are both, but they don't dominate the book like they did the two other Iles books.)

Quotation of the Week: "We're not children here. The law is --how should I put it? A convenience. Or, a convenience for some people, and an inconvenience for other people. Like, take the law that says you can't go into a guy's house. I got a house, so hey -- I like that law. But the guy without a house, what's he think of it? 'Stay out in the rain, schnook!' That's what the law means to him." - Paul Castellano. This was one of my favorite quotations before reading the book, but its original source is apparently this book: Castellano utters those words to the authorial agents in their car after his arrest.

Next Week:
  • Jesus, Deepak Chopra. Given that I just read a book about Jesus by Deepak Chopra and disliked it, why am I reading another? Because this one is a novel.
  • Black Holes, Baby Universes, and Other Essays; Stephen Hawking
  • Medical Firsts, Robert Adler
  • Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller
  • Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut

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