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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Review: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

Another fine audiobook featuring Harry Bosch. I really like them in spite of disliking the main character. He's arrogant and can be a real SOB, almost impossible to work with. As an example, he refuses to call his partner Iggy, even though asked often to do so by Ignasio, who much prefers Iggy. Now why would you not call someone by the name they prefer?

This one is relatively short involving the theft of Cesium, ostensibly by terrorists to create a dirty bomb. The FBI and the LAPD's terrorism squad all get mixed up, but, as usual, only Bosch can see the truth.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Review: Bloody Mary: The Life of Mary Tudor by Carolly Erickson

It’s easy to see why Erickson’s books have become so popular. She clearly demonstrates the political dynamics in the context of the culture of the time, while being ultimately sympathetic to her subjects.

As the only early heir to the throne, Mary held a position of privilege and power during her childhood. Katherine,her mother, it seemed was unable to have a male issue, and was having difficulty delivering any live child. Henry, being King, could take any kind of mistress he wished, and had a bastard son by one of his ladies who was rewarded with a marriage to one of his nobles.

Her education was vigorous, if unenlightened. Her teacher Vives, the Spanish humanist designed a plan of study that included Greek, Latin, and for amusement, biographies of self-sacrificing women. Vives had written in his On the Instruction of a Christian Woman that girls needed to remember they were inherently “the devil’s instrument, and not Christ’s.” This idea that women were inherently sinful was to form the foundation of her training with protection of her virginity uppermost in their plans. (Erasmus at first believed educating women was a waste of time, then changed his mind to believe that education would provide them with the knowledge and importance of protecting such an “inestimable treasure.”)

One wonders if her training and preparation for betrothal to the Emperor Charles in all things Spanish, might have colored views and biased her so against Protestantism, but that’s merely speculative on my part. In the four first years of her betrothal (she was only seven and was to depart for marriage to Charles at twelve) she was schooled in everything necessary to make her a perfect Spanish lady. As with so many of these alliances, it didn’t last. Problem for Harry was that a woman’s property, titles, incomes, and dowry all passed to the husband with marriage. The ramifications became more than a little disconcerting. If Henry died without an heir and the crown passed to Mary, who had already been anointed the Princess of Wales, the first time that position had ever been given to a woman, would Charles also inherit the English title?

Given that Katherine would be unlikely to bear another child, and even though Henry was having his way with Thomas Boleyn’s married daughter, Mary Carey, it’s no wonder he began to scheme a way to dispense with Katherine. And who should join the picture but soon-to-be headless, Anne Boleyn.

But back to Mary after the execution of Anne, Mary was gradually restored to the good graces of the King (thanks also to Henry’s new wife, Jane Seymour, who was to bear him Edward. But Mary had to dissemble to worm her way back into court. She signed the certification of submission all the while writing elsewhere and to the Pope that her submission to the King with regard the church and succession was all balderdash. She constantly lied to Henry about it when asked claiming it was all for God, the end justifying the means.

The title is perhaps a bit misleading. The book really focuses little on her persecution of Protestants, although she did encourage their burning at the stake, often gruesomely. It all started to go badly following her marriage to Philip of Spain. The Spanish were generally despised by most of the English and even though Philip made every effort to be conciliatory and on his best behavior, following Mary's false pregnancy, he couldn't wait to move to Flanders where he was more at home as a King, something he wasn't really in England. 

I couldn't help but wonder, if Mary, with her obsessive religiosity, wasn't in a bit over her head.

A marvelous read.

Review: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman

There was no New Testament until the fourth century. Until that time assorted factions warred over all sorts of different beliefs about Jesus. Some thought he was all human, others he was all God. Some believed there were many gods, others there must be only a few. Their assorted beliefs were transcribed by the individual congregations themselves, obviously representing their own particular view of reality. What happened to those oral and written traditions and documents and how they evolved and were eventually codified is the subject of Ehrman's fascinating book.

Ehrman had a born-again experience in high school and was persuaded to go to Moody Bible Institute to further his understanding. He became interested in scriptural exegesis and transferred to Wheaton, another evangelical fortress, (although considered far too liberal by the Moody folks. Thinking it was impossible to learn the true meaning in translation he found himself soon at Princeton Theological Seminary, a downright bastion liberal thinking where he studied Greek and eventually Hebrew. Already at Moody he had become fascinated by scriptural differences and seeming contradictions. The details of the Crucifixion differ between Mark and John, for example. Could one of them have made a mistake. And when Jesus said the mustard seed was the smallest of all the seeds on earth in the parable, did he make a mistake as we know it's not the smallest seed. Was it incorrectly translated? Was information copied incorrectly? He learned that we have no originals and the copies we do have of Scripture are copies of copies and we lack even the copies closest to the originals. How can we know what the word of God means if we don't know what those words area? These are the puzzles that intrigued Ehrman and ultimately resulted in a shift from a literal and inerrant view of the Bible to a view of it as a very humanly created document. 

The problem of determining what was actually intended by the original writer was made difficult through a number of factors. The copyists were often illiterate; those who were not would often (there are numerous contemporary complaints of this) change words to suit their own purposes, sometimes to change the meaning, other times by mistake, or sometimes thinking they were correcting an earlier mistake. To make things worse, the manuscripts were often in scriptio continua where there are no capital letters, nor punctuation, nor spaces between the words, e.g. ΜΟΥΣΑΩΝΕΛΙΚΩΝΙΑΔΩΝΑΡΧΩΜΕΘΑΕΙΔΕΙΝΑΙΘΕΛΙΚΩΝΟΣΕΧΟΥΣΙΝΟΡΟΣΜΕΓΑΤΕΖΑΘΕΟΝΤΕΚΑΙΠΕΡΙΚΡΗΝΗΙΟΕΙΔΕΑΠΟΣΣΑΠΑΛΟΙΣΙΝΟΡΧΕΥΝΤΑΙΚΑΙΒΩΜΟΝΕΡΙΣΘΕΝΕΟΣΚΡΟΝΙΩΝΟΣ. In modern Greek that would be Μουσάων Ἑλικωνιάδων ἀρχώμεθ᾽ ἀείδειν, αἵ θ᾽ Ἑλικῶνος ἔχουσιν ὄρος μέγα τε ζάθεόν τε καί τε περὶ κρήνην ἰοειδέα πόσσ᾽ ἁπαλοῖσιν ὀρχεῦνται καὶ βωμὸν ἐρισθενέος Κρονίωνος. Often the earliest manuscripts we have date from centuries after they were originally written and many generations of copies later.

This led inevitably to entire lines being dropped as a copier, often illiterate, might skip a line, especially when two lines ended with the same or similar letters.

All of this uncertainty was an especial problem for Protestants whose faith relied on the "word" as delivered in the Bible, but if that "word" was uncertain then doesn't that weaken the foundations of that faith? Celsus and Origen in the 2nd century were already noting the substantial number of differences between the texts and a century later Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to examine the texts and see if he could determine the original version.  

In just one illustration of many of the effect this cold have on faith is the example of J.J. Wettstein, who, in the early 18th century, sought to find the original words and he given access to the Codex Alexandrinus where is was startled to note problems with Timothy 1 3:16, a passage that had been used to justify the belief that Jesus was God. 

  For the text, in most manuscripts, refers to Christ as "God made manifest in the flesh, and justified in the Spirit." Most manuscripts abbreviate sacred names (the so­-called nomina sacra), and that is the case here as well, where the Greek word God (theos)is abbreviated in two letters, theta and sigma, with a line drawn over the top to indicate that it is an abbreviation What Wettstein noticed in examining Codex Alexandri­nus was that the line over the top had been drawn in a different ink from the surrounding words, and so appeared to be from a later hand (i.e., written by a later scribe). Moreover, the horizontal line in the middle of the first letter, theta, was not actually a part of the letter but was a line that had bled through from the other side of the old vellum. In other words, rather than being the abbreviation (theta­ sigma) for "God", the word was actually an omicron and a sigma, a different word altogether, which simply means "who." The original reading of the manuscript thus did not speak of Christ as "God made manifest in the flesh" but of Christ "who was made manifest in the flesh." According to the ancient testimony of the Codex Alexandri­nus, Christ is no longer explicitly called God in this passage.
Well, this was a bit much for Wettstein who began to question his own faith and he remarked how rarely in the New Testament that Jesus is called God. Becoming rather vocal about the problem (shades of Arius v Athanasius -- see he aroused the ire of the orthodox. "Deacon Wettstein is preaching what is un­orthodox, is making statements in his lectures opposed to the teaching of the Reformed Church, and has in hand the printing of a Greek New Testament in which some dangerous innovations very suspect of Socinianism [a doctrine that denied the divinity of Christ] will appear." Called to account for his views before the university senate, he was found to have "rationalistic" views that denied the plenary inspiration of scripture and the existence of the devil and demons, and that focused attention on scriptural obscurities."

It's a thrilling book, really interesting as an example of how scholars work through textual history, but one that is perhaps a bit misleading. A review on an atheist website noted that something Ehrman doesn't emphasize is that because we have so many variants and texts available to us does not question the validity of what we now have, but rather helps in the determination of the actual original text from which they might be derived. (That review is worth reading:




Friday, May 18, 2018

Review: Bushmaster:Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper by Dan Eatherley

I'm terribly glad I was not a sibling nor especially a parent to someone like Ray who would bring home rattlesnakes and other little creatures until he had a veritable reptile house in his room. Did they ever escape. Yes. But he knew how to get the back. Eventually he made such a name for himself he was given charge of the new Bronx Zoo around the turn of the 20th century.

The attempt to keep a bushmaster in captivity for any length of time is an interesting story by itself. (BTW, it was not uncommon for venomous reptiles to be shipped to him from all over the world, not a box I would like to open inadvertently, and sometimes they did indeed escape in the terminals.) The common method of capturing venomous reptiles was to pin them with a forked stick behind the head or noosing them with a strong wire. Bushmasters are extremely fragile and this technique would damage their spines and neck. They then refused (or couldn't) eat and would wither away in captivity in spite of forced feedings. Their normal habitat in Trinidad was also being overrun and they were being decimated by the mongoose which had been introduced to the island in an attempt to control the rat population. Once the technique for capturing them was changed, the bushmaster was successful in captivity and they have since even been able to breed them.

Ditmars was instrumental in promoting and developing the use of antivenin (antivenom is also correct) here and in other countries. He recognized the importance of having treatment available for his workers in the Reptile House where "accidents" were a job hazard. The Bushmaster is no slouch when it comes to venom. Eatherley visited Dean Ripa who operates a serpentarium and has successfully bred bushmasters. He has been bitten several times, likening the experience to "being set on fire, stabbed with a dagger, and then beaten with a sharp, hard stick. You can't move after a few minutes and don't want to either." It took 15 vials of antivenin to "put him right." (Basically, he had "received enough venom to drop a cow.") Eatherley's trip to Trinidad in search of a bushmaster is but one highlight of many.

Some great lines, too. You'll learn new words like "hemepenes" (they don't call it the King Cobra for nothing.) Very informative and interesting book.

I also highly recommend Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Review: Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly

Another excellent Connelly featuring Mickey Haller, Bosch's half-brother, fifth in the series. 

Haller is contacted by a man accused of killing a woman. Turns out he had been recommended by a former client of Haller's, whom he assumed had gone to Hawaii to flee her life as a prostitute. Then things get complicated as Haller learns of connections between a DEA agent, the DA's investigator, and an incarcerated gang leader who wants out.

The best part, in my mind, was the courtroom scene. No point in going on. Fun read.