Friday, September 21, 2012

Peace Book Club - September 2012

Our Peace Book Club met this past Tuesday evening for the first time since May to discuss the four books we tackled over the summer. We had a great discussion on each of those books, while enjoying the wonderful food and beverages prepared by my lovely wife (thanks, Lisa!), and a little Turkish Coffee Annie made for us. A few of our club members couldn't join us, but the six of us who were there had a great time.

What follows is a brief summary of our collective thoughts on the four books we discussed, as well as the rating we gave each (they are presented in the order we discussed them):

I think we spent the most time discussing this book, and rightly so. Of the four books we read this summer, this one was by far the meatiest and most substantive. It is genuine literature, reminiscent of classics like those penned by Twain. A tragic and earthy story of a young woman's attempt to figure out how to live after being abandoned by her mother and witnessing her father's death, Campbell's tale cannot help but grab readers by the heart as they follow Margo's journeys up and down the Stark River.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I think I read the first four or five pages four or five times over a week or two before finally buckling down and continuing on. It just seemed to start pretty slow for me. But, I'm ever so glad I got past that initial hesitancy and trudged through, for it turned out to be one of the most-thought provoking tales I've digested in some time. There were many nights after reading this book that I was lost in thought for hours, pondering the tragic circumstances that lead this little girl to experience many things no little girl should ever have to endure, and how those experiences informed the choices she made and the path she trod. It's been a couple of months since I've finished the book and I'm still thinking about it!

I heartily recommend this one. It's not a book you can pick up and blaze through. It's a book that requires an investment on the reader's part; a book that gives one furiously to think about how tragic life can be in this fallen world and how those who are less fortunate are forced to find a way to deal with the cards they've been dealt; a book that gives meaning to the saying, "Lo, but by the grace of God go I"; a book that cannot help but make you a little more cautious before passing judgment upon others, not knowing what circumstances may have led to their current lot in life. If you'll make the investment, you'll be the better for it.

After a lengthy and lively discussion, our book club voted and ended up giving this book a 4.5 on our 1-5 rating scale, 5 being the best. 

Written by former secret service agent Clint Hill, this is a book containing his memoirs of the years he spent assigned to First Lady Jackie Kennedy. This book surprised me as well. I was sure I wouldn't like it, since, to be perfectly blunt and honest, I really wasn't the least bit interested in reading about the goings on of Mrs. Kennedy and company. But, I was actually intrigued to read Mr. Hill's account of those years and learned a ton not only about what life was like guarding the First Lady, but also about the many sacrifices our country's secret service agents must make in performing their duties. Not only must they be willing to take a bullet for the people they guard, but they also must endure the "bullets" of being away from their families far more than they're with them, hectic and often sleepless schedules, and relative thanklessness and anonymity, not from the people they guard, but from virtually everyone else. Can you name any of the secret service agents guarding our current President or First Lady today? See what I mean?

I think that was the general consensus among us, that we learned a lot that we would have otherwise never known by reading this book, and that's always a good thing. Plus, there are some stunning revelations Mr. Hill springs on you as you travel with him through that time. You get to see a different side of Jackie Kennedy, as Mr. Hill's intimate memoirs reveal much about her that was previously unknown. Oh, and Mr. Hill grew up a Lutheran, so that's a bonus. :)

I'm still not all that interested in the topic itself, but I did enjoy it nonetheless. So did our group. We thought it was good, not great, and so we gave it a 3.

This is the third installment in Maier's fictional series featuring Professor Jonathan Weber, the first two being A Skeleton in God's Closet and More Than a Skeleton. Like the first two, this is a fun, quick read that invokes from the reader several "What If's."

The "What If's" in this one: What if we discovered an authentic manuscript that contained the full, original ending to the Gospel of Mark. What if that same ancient manuscript also contained a Second Acts? What would those texts say? How would Christians react to such a discovery? Would these newly discovered texts be added to the canon? Which Christians would be favorable to those additions and which would reject them? And so on.

The way we eventually get to all those "What If's" is a fun, adventurous ride, as Maier's talent to write a good tale comes to the surface again in this one. Having said that, as we discussed this book, the same criticisms were shared by all in our club, namely that there are some parts of the book that are just too far-fetched. Professor Weber gains worldwide fame after a mistranslation of his recently released book, Jesus of Nazareth, is discovered in the Arabic version. This angers many Muslims and a fatwah is placed upon Weber, requiring him to have around the clock CIA protection. Given what we've witnessed recently in the news, it's not all that unbelievable that such a thing could happen. The far-fetched part comes when, eventually, this leads to a debate between Weber, a Christian, and a Muslim leader named Abbas al-Rashid. Such a debate, in and of itself, is not far-fetched. What is far-fetched is that such a debate would get the attention of the whole world. It wouldn't. Few would care.

Also, there are many happenings in the book that are just a little overly convenient, and other things that are just a little too predictable and seem forced. However, the overall theme of the book, coupled with the adventurous nature of the tale itself, is able to overcome those things and make it a book worth the time. I think we all agreed that A Skeleton in God's Closet is by far the best of the three books in this series, with The Constantine Codex edging out More Than a Skeleton as second-best. We gave this one a 3 on our rating scale.

I was most interested in hearing what the others thought of this one, since I can't remember when I've enjoyed reading a book so much. I was thrilled to find that the others had the same reaction. That may seem odd, since Unholy Night is a fictional tale presenting revisionist history centered upon the Biblical account of the Three Wise Men, who visit the Baby Jesus (of course, as any serious student of the Bible knows, we are not told the number of the magi who followed the star and visited Jesus, but because they offer Him three gifts, the legend of Three Wise Men developed). Actually, it's really a story centering upon just one of these Wise Men, named Balthazar. He is an infamous thief and murderer, who has become widely known throughout the Roman Empire as "The Antioch Ghost." Balthazar meets the other two Wise Men in a prison cell when he is finally captured after years of wreaking havoc and, after the three thieves manage to escape, they wind up stumbling upon the stable in Bethlehem, where they meet Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus. From there, the epic adventure ensues.

It is all so totally ridiculous, and there are a plethora of things that do not even come close to matching the Biblical account, but none of that takes away from the genius of Grahame-Smith's ability to weave an adventurous tale around The Greatest Story Ever Told, while amazingly remaining respectful and avoiding blasphemy as he does it. I absolutely loved it!

We had a blast discussing this book, actually quoting out loud several of our favorite parts. What we all most enjoyed was the hilarious humor Grahame-Smith displays throughout. There are several times in the book when he sets you up for a laugh after letting you into a character's (most often, Balthazar) thinking and then springing the reality on you, which is the opposite of that thinking. To illustrate the way he does this, I'll use myself as an example:
I often find humor in books, but very rarely do I ever laugh out loud while reading. In fact, I can't remember ever doing so. And so, I'm not going to do that now. I don't care how funny I think this part of this book is, I will at most chuckle to myself, but I will definitely not laugh out loud. That's not going to happen. No way. To do so would be silly, and I'm not a silly person. No, there is no way, not a chance, not even a slight chance, that I'm going to laugh out loud.

I laughed out loud. 
Okay, so maybe that's not the best illustration, but hopefully you get the idea. And, it's true. I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. :)

Besides his engaging writing style, ability to make the reader laugh, and unbelievably imaginative story-telling, Grahame-Smith's genius also lies in turning a despicable, vile, selfish character into a genuine hero, but not in a predictable way that insults the reader's intelligence. Balthazar is a ruthless scoundrel, but even ruthless scoundrels have principles. He is a selfish man, hell-bent on revenge and self-preservation, but even selfish, self-preserving men, lustful for vengeance, have a heart. You just can't help but root for this Billy the Kid meets Indiana Jones character, even though he makes you sick at the same time.

I don't want to share any more details about the book, since I don't want to spoil too much for those who may give it a read, but, believe me, there is so much more I could share on this one. I first heard of Grahame-Smith when the film based on his book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, came out earlier this year. I thought it sounded totally absurd and had no desire to either see the movie or read the book. But, after reading Unholy Night, I will be ordering that book, as well as his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, soon. Consider me a huge fan; this guy can write! I'm sure his other books are as equally absurd as was this one, but I am intrigued to see how he turns that absurdity into a riveting, awesome tale, as he did with Unholy Night. As one reviewer opined, it is the "brilliant and twisted mind" of Grahame-Smith that enables him "to take a little mystery, bend a little history, and weave an epic tale." That is certainly an accurate description of what he did with Unholy Night, and I look forward to seeing how he does it in his other books.

Anyway, as I said above, we all had very similar reactions to this book and enjoyed it thoroughly. In fact, we gave this book a unanimous 5, which was the first time we have done so since our book club began. A couple of us gave Once Upon a River a 5, too, but most gave it a 4 or 4.5, so it didn't earn the privilege of getting the first 5 among us. But, Unholy Night was well deserving to earn that privilege. I give it my highest recommendation. This book brings to life the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Go and get it now; you won't be disappointed!

After discussing these four books, we ended up assigning two books to be read over the next couple of months: The Root of All Evil: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel by Ray Keating and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Having loved reading Warrior Monk last summer, we are all eager to see what adventures await us in the life of Pastor Stephen Grant, a truly unforgettable character. But, since we're sure that most of us will get through that one fairly quickly, we assigned Follet's large tome, so that we can begin reading it as soon as we finish The Root of All Evil. We will discuss The Root of All Evil in October and The Pillars of the Earth in November.

No comments: