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Kurt Messick (London, SW1)

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What Is a Jew?
What Is a Jew?
by Morris Norman Kertzer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £24.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very useful, 6 Jan. 2013
This review is from: What Is a Jew? (Paperback)
Like another reviewer, I too use this book as part of an undergraduate course on Modern and Contemporary Judaism, which I teach primarily for military personnel as part of their distance education undergraduate degrees. I include a few other books in the syllabus, but this book is often one of the ones most frequently cited as helpful due to its question-and-answer format. When I was studying for a Jewish Studies certificate at Indiana University some time ago (nearing a quarter of a century ago), an earlier version of this book was one of my regular references for a quick and informative answer to questions as they arose. The more recent edition, revised carefully and thoroughly by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, preserves the style and utility of Rabbi Morris Kertzer's base text while adding material both for extension of questions and updating of information.

The book is broken into nine major sections, each one presenting within a series of questions. The first section looks at the different kinds of Judaism - Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc., and some other issues that come up with regard to basic identity - what is a Zionist? How does the Jewish community relate to the wider community?

The next few sections look specifically at religious questions, in terms of Bible and history, ritual and practice, and basic belief structures. Rabbis Kertzer and Hoffman address the differences in beliefs and practices largely for a Christian readership or for the Jewish person raised in a predominantly Christian culture.

Other sections include ideas of home and homeland, calendar issues (what is Chanukah and why does it fall at different times of year? etc.), and Jewish views on various issues in shared society such as divorce, children, and other topics.

The book also includes a useful glossary. `Like members of any culture, Jews describe what matters to them using a specialized vocabulary.' Throughout the book, specialised words are provided with pronunciation keys (although there are a few sounds in Hebrew that are difficult to transliterate into English). In addition to the glossary, there is a very handy index, so that if the particular question needing to be answered cannot be found easily in the table of contents, the topic should be able to be found in the index.

This book is very useful for anyone who is looking for basic answers and insights into Judaism in its different aspects.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 23, 2016 5:44 AM BST

Reading the New Testament for the First Time
Reading the New Testament for the First Time
by Ronald J Allen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beginning with the first steps..., 6 Jan. 2013
The title of this book would imply that it is not a book for me. The first time I read the New Testament was when I was eight years old - I think I understood about ten percent of what I was reading, and that was on the surface level. But I did read it. Since then, I've read it multiple times, including out loud, in Latin, in Greek, and for intensive classes at the graduate level. So, naturally, there's nothing in this book for me, right?


I am chaplain in a retirement community where the average age is over 80 - this is perhaps the last American generation where most people grew up with a regular knowledge of the Bible, and yet even in this group, as we go through our Bible studies, many confess at one point or another that what we've covered is new, or different, or in some way a challenge. As a perhaps overeducated person in this field, one of my tendencies is to go for the technical, the intensive, the deep, when perhaps the question is as simple as saying someone's name again. (As an aside, I had one man who once was complimenting my abilities to another, at how wonderful my Bible study sessions were; just as I was tempted toward pride, he then announced, `Yes, he can pronounce all those names!' So much for theology, literary analysis, and the like...)

Ron Allen referenced Dragnet in the introduction, in that he intentionally presents a `just the fact, ma'am' approach, and writes in a deliberately informal (and hence accessible) style. He gives historical background for the book and the people in the book. Understanding the world of Judaism and the world of antiquity helps the reader to put the New Testament in perspective - this was not originally a book written in King James English or in an Elizabethan setting, after all. He then gives two brief overviews of the New Testament, one chronological based on events contained in the narratives, and one chronological based on the authorship of the books (this latter is a bit more fuzzy in that there is greater debate on the order of several of the books, but Allen places them in their brief context here).

His succeeding chapters then give overviews of the life of Jesus, the time after Jesus but before Paul, the Pauline mission and letters, the Gospels (which is in fact a later set of writings than many pieces from Paul), and then later writings. One particularly interesting chapter is the one on famous passages from the New Testament - the `Love Chapter' of Corinthians, John 3:16, the Golden Rule, etc. Allen sets these in context as well as discusses the way they have been used (and potentially misused), and warns against prooftexting, the idea of dueling Bible verses to try to prove a point.

Allen's appendices give the reader guidance for further study, for ways in which to read the New Testament, and a brief discussion on terminology. On the whole, this is a good book, even for the more advanced scholar, who will be reminded of some basic truths and approaches useful for those outside the academic realm, but particularly for those who are looking for a gentle introduction without too much jargon or assumption of set theological or educational background. A willing spirit and open heart will find something useful here.

My one wish would be for an index. Apart from that, Allen's own writing at the end is useful instruction: `While we wait for final and complete knowledge, we should keep in mind that representatives from each end of the spectrum of interpretation all agree that God is love. The nature of God should determine what happens in the church. We should love one another.'

Understanding the Political World: A Comparative Introduction to Political Science
Understanding the Political World: A Comparative Introduction to Political Science
by James N. Danziger
Edition: Paperback
Price: £96.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Useful, accessible, and interesting, 6 Jan. 2013
Over the past decade, I have taught the Intro. to Political Science (201) course several times at my local community college - despite the name of the course, it is often the second course students take, after the Intro. to American Government (101) course. I look forward to teaching it again, perhaps in this coming year. I have always used an edition of Danziger's text, and this latest incarnation will continue to be my choice.

This book introduces the basic elements of political philosophy, political theory, political parties, world politics and international relations, and political institutions. The first chapter sets the stage for the study of political science as a field of inquiry, helping to determine what is and is not an appropriately political question (as opposed to a psychological question, or an historical question, etc.). Obviously there will be overlap in disciplines, but this chapter does a good job at setting out some basic elements in what we know and how we know it with regard to politics.

The book then proceeds to discuss the topic in four major headings: political behaviour, political systems, political processes, and politics among states. For my purposes, I start with the later sections of world politics and work back - I find that students relate to the theories better after we've discussed particulars; this book is good at bringing up important elements and parallels across national lines, political parties, and cultural norms. This latest edition includes updated information on the Iraqi processes toward democracy, Chilean situations with the Mapuche people, Ireland's shift from economic dynamo to struggling economy, and the changing face of both China and the European Union in the modern world. To this extent, I'm working backwards from the way the book is organized, but each chapter does work as a self-contained set of data.

The book is generously supplied with graphics, images, charts and figures, as well as sidebar and boxed information that adds anecdotes, debates and useful discussion points and questions for further thought.

Ultimately, as Danziger states, `The study of the political world is of crucial importance to the creation of humane social life. Ultimately it is up to you, as you read this book, to decide what can be known about politics and whether you think political "science" is feasible.'

Honey, I Bought an Airplane: Stories, Histories and Recollections of 597 Flights in the Midwest
Honey, I Bought an Airplane: Stories, Histories and Recollections of 597 Flights in the Midwest
by Bob Hechlinski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.18

4.0 out of 5 stars A bit of turbulence, but worth the trip..., 3 Jan. 2013
- The Good -
Bob Hechlenski has produced a very personal account with many interesting tidbits about small craft aviation - what it is like to have your own plane. Did you ever wonder why major airports don't have lots of small planes jetting around? Hechlinski tells you. Did you know that not all airports have paved runways? How is it to land a plane on a strip of grass that may have groundhog holes (a la `Caddyshack' minus the Bill Murray)? Just how many airports are there, anyway? Hechlinski takes you on a little experienced tour of a unique part of American byways. He also includes his own life and experiences, as well as the reasons why he gave up flying, in a touching manner.

- The Bad -
The book is advertised as one where you can open it at any point and read, because the stories aren't told in a way that requires one to flow into the other. This is not always a good point - details might be missed from prior stories. This is particularly apparent when geography gets in the way; Beliot has the world's prettiest airport, according to Hechlinski (and their own marketing material), but it took me a while to figure out where this was, since the state name isn't clearly identified.

- The Ugly -
Being a self-published text, this suffers from the same problems as most self-published texts. There are typos and grammar errors on most every page. Also, the book uses lots of jargon and acronyms that are not commonplace to people outside the flying field. Better editing both for style and mechanics would be helpful should this have another edition.

On the whole, this is a book that has much to recommend it, and some things that will make reading it a bumpy ride. But it is worthwhile, and as others have noted, can make a good gift for the right person.

Readings in Epistemology: From Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant
Readings in Epistemology: From Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant
by Vincent G. Potter
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars I know what I know..., 3 Jan. 2013
I use the book `Readings in Epistemology' by Fr. Vincent Potter (late of Fordham University) in the Epistemology (400-level course) I teach. Most of my students have had prior to the course on the most basic introduction to epistemological ideas; in the introductory course, they will have studied Descartes and Locke - although for Locke, they likely concentrated more on the Two Treatises on Civil Government rather than the epistemological writings.

The book includes in chronological arrangement excerpts from the following: Francis Bacon, Galileo, Rene Descartes, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. There is an appendix with some passages from Thomas Aquinas, and I usually have my students in the first week read these things first. As one can see, the pieces are heavily weighted toward the Empiricism side of things; also, ending with Kant, we certainly lose anything twentieth century on linguistic, philosophy of mind or other issues that have arisen to make Epistemology a key philosophical area of discussion. However, much of that gets so technical so fast that, for an introductory course in the subject, primary texts would be difficult for many students.

Potter's idea is to give a reading list that helps demonstrate `in a general way what the nature and scope of man's capacity to know are.' How do ideas come into play? What role do our senses have in giving us knowledge? Can we count on these? To what degree? How do we judge things true or false?

Potter gives a brief historical context for the book as a whole, and then a short essay for each of the philosophers presented. These essays serve to connect the thinkers to each other as well as others beyond the scope of the book (particularly strands of Plato and Aristotle that wind through the thinking). There are also study questions at the end of set of readings. These are open-ended questions that can serve students who are searching for the right angle for research papers and final essays.

This is a good basic collection of readings for an undergraduate introduction to the subject.

Audubon Engagement Diary 2013
Audubon Engagement Diary 2013
by Audubon Society
Edition: Calendar

5.0 out of 5 stars Stay organised, stay interested..., 2 Jan. 2013
This was a gift to my parents for Christmas. My mother likes to have calendar books that have wonderful pictures - Audubon certainly fills the bill here. My father likes to have enough room to write not just the engagement but also other details along for the day, and the calendar pages here allow for that in good fashion.

My parents retired to Florida - the wonderful picture of the Florida white egret on the cover makes this a perfect match for them. Both have always been interested in animals; I remember as a child watching `Wild Kingdom' with them, and we frequented zoos and other places with animals wherever we were in the world. The diversity reflected in this book makes each week (this book is done in a weekly format) a treat.

Get one for a friend, a family member, or other gift-worthy person, and get one for yourself.

At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job
At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job
Price: £12.34

5.0 out of 5 stars The rain will fall..., 2 Jan. 2013
I reviewed another commentary on Job written by Gerry Janzen, and in that review I mentioned that Janzen told me in conversation an interesting idea - that one might do a lot of research on something, and then throw away all the notes, and begin again. Janzen has to some extent been doing that with Job for much of his life - Job has been a special interest, a special (perhaps sacred) study, and this latest commentary has a particular meaning for him.

In the period between writing the basic manuscript here and its publication, Janzen was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and recounts part of what he went through, with reflection upon Job, as part of the epilogue. He includes his struggle to find meaning and connection in Teilhard and Job, as well as his work to craft in the midst of this a funeral homily for another person dying of cancer, who nonetheless had been an inspiration to him.

The story of Job is basically a familiar one - bad things happen to good people. How and why becomes a perennial question for humanity. The answer in Job, depending upon one's interpretation, is not always satisfying. Job has "a primal trust in the God who gave and gives him breath." Thus, Job can maintain his innocence and at the same time trust in God's judgement. However, as Janzen states, when we have God as both the accuser and the judge, the courtroom image that so often is used as a paradigm for Job breaks down, at least for the typical modern Westerner, accustomed to at least the idea if not the reality of an unbiased adjudication. There is a deeper connection between God and Job, one that permits the element of the law and logic on the surface, but one that also connects the two (and, by extension, all the rest of us as God's creation) that puts us in a family relation.

Janzen argues that there are two strands of relationship here - one is the political, and one is the familial. Both have communal aspects to them, and both serve different needs and purposes. It is the familial, however, that Job finds his greatest comfort. Job has friends who arrive, but their comfort is flawed - they are in fact better as being of aid to Job before they start talking, when they are present in silence, than when they begin to expand theologically upon why this might be happening to Job. Even God's own theological pronouncements fall short of giving the whole story to Job, who knows through his deeper connection, his whole physical being as connected to God and creation. The God of the whirlwind brings the scent of the water from the sea into the barren, dry land that renews more than any words could do, and sustains even in the event of difficult pronouncements.

God comes in many ways. Sometimes, blueberries. Sometimes, tufts of flowers. Janzen recounts near the end the tale of the man who is the sole surviving member of his family from the Holocaust. He marries a woman who similarly is the sole survivor of her family. He lives what in a typical Western sense would be considered happy and successful, building a professional life and happy family life. "Dare anyone speak of his life as enjoying a Hollywood ending?" Janzen asks. I am reminded here of the end of the film of Schindler's List, where the survivors and family members dramatically (in Hollywood form, now in colour, whereas the rest of the film was in black and white) present a picture of hope, that can be easily deceptive - remember that Schindler's list had hundreds, whereas Hitler's list had millions who did not make it. And yet both of these allow us to see the ending of Job with a new context. "If, despite all that has happened, life can resume itself and go on, and even, now and then, give rise to singing, it is to be embraced, though from now on life is even more unfathomable than Job and his friends could previously have imagined."

The Downing Street Years
The Downing Street Years
by Margaret Thatcher
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.79

18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No rust on the Iron Lady, 18 Jan. 2012
This book is one of the most interesting political autobiographies I have read (and I've read many of them). I must confess that interest was intensified due to the fact that I worked in the House of Commons during her tenure in office, and indeed worked during the 1987 General Election for two Conservative Members of Parliament (David Amess of Basildon and David Evennett of Erith & Crayford--yes, I know, you've never heard of either of them).
This is actually the first volume of Margaret Thatcher's books to be published; the prequel is 'The Path to Power' and there is a follow-up, 'The Collected Speeches', but for those interested, 'The Downing Street Years' is the book to have.

It begins with the 1979 General Election, and carries forward to her resignation as Prime Minister a decade later. In this volume are her perspectives on all the various Cabinet intrigues, shuffles and reshuffles; her attempts to find civil servants and other helpers who were not of the old guard but of a new mentality, often asking, 'Is he one of us?' by which she meant, not is he a Conservative, but rather, will he get something accomplished, is he a do-er?

Thatcher's perspectives on the various scandals and inter-Cabinet fighting makes for interesting reading -- she is candid in her likes and dislikes among her Cabinet colleagues. Her final row with Geoffrey Howe, who delivered a scathing speech in the HoC that mostly prompted the leadership crisis, is enlightening. (I've not seen his version, if one exists--it would be good to compare the two sides.) She was very disappointed at the end when she thought she had the continued support of the party, but each of her ministers and 'friends' told her in turn that while he supported her, others would not. She saw the writing on the wall, and after having won the first ballot for party leadership but not by a sufficient majority to avoid a second ballot, she resigned in favour of John Major (whose autobiography, recently issued, is also well worth reading, particularly for his comments about how Thatcher tried to maintain a controlling influence over him from behind the office).

You might be tempted, if you're not really into politics and not reading this for scholarly purposes, to skim over various minor issues that are gone into great detail. Historians are appreciative, but I seriously ask myself how many non-political scientists and historians will read through all the detail of what are now minor bits of history?

In all, a brilliant career, the first woman head of government in a major Western democracy, and well worth reading on the whole.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 17, 2012 10:05 AM BST

The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Terry Eagleton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars While standing on one foot..., 6 Jan. 2011
I recall in one of the Star Trek films that Kirk and Bones were singing the song, `Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' Spock was puzzled at the idea presented in the simple song. He concluded, quite logically, that the song was wrong - life is not a dream. But then, what is life? What is the meaning of life? Eagleton's small text doesn't purport to give a once-and-for-all definitive answer to this question (for the shortest answer to this, perhaps one must go to `The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe' or one-syllable meditative objects of some Eastern practices). This book is part of the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford University Press, but the copy of the book that I possess is actually under a different cover (the internal text is the same).

Eagleton begins with a preface that starts, `Anyone rash enough to write a book with a title like this had better brace themselves for a postbag crammed with letters in erratic handwriting enclosing complex symbolic diagrams.' One of the difficulties, of course, is that this is an area where philosophers and theologians overlap with every armchair (and pub stool) analyst. And there may be as much validity in the workings of the later as in the former. One of the advantages that the philosopher might have over the less academic is that the structure of the questions that follow from this are perhaps more apropos. The meaning of life proceeds quickly to the question of why there is anything at all, and this gets into the realm of understanding being vs. nothingness, but then it also gets into the linguistic areas that the twentieth century in particular is noted for - Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Sartre, Freud, and others whose thinking has had profound effect on the twentieth century (even if they themselves were not twentieth century figures) are discussed. Eagleton freely allows that `philosophers seem to have been reduced to no more than white-coated technicians of language.' Of course, language is how we make meaning and interpret meaning even a la many non-verbal communicative forms, but we then get into a chicken-and-egg dance about which comes first.

Eagleton states that we often have recourse to the question of the meaning of life when things that we take for granted break down - it has been common through history that in times of crisis, religious sentiment and practice increases, as people look for something stable. And yet our very way of trying to make meaning in the modern to postmodern world is unstable. Looking at works like those of Samuel Beckett, Eagleton describes `the evaporation of stable meaning', but then goes on to look at literature, art, music, and other aspects of culture as well as philosophy to try to construct something back into existence. Love and Happiness, in the end, are key components to Eagleton's prescription for making an answer to the question of the meaning of life, and this is something that is done both individually and communally, in tension with each other.

This book is a short one - the pages are small format (large index-card sized) and there are fewer than 200 pages at that, and thus the book could be read in one or two sittings quite easily. However, this is just to take in the text; for real analysis of the questions, one will want to ponder it for a longer time. Eagleton comments in a footnote that he saw a film entitled `The Meaning of Life' (not the Monty Python one; however, he did see that one, too) at Salt Lake City, as a production by the Mormon Church, but noted that he only really remembered that the duration of the film was a mere four minutes long. In the world of philosophy texts, Eagleton's brief text might be the literary equivalent of such a brief encounter with the question, and yet if one takes the time to ponder the question, one can realise that this is but one step along the way toward understanding life in the deepest way.

This book will not have all the answers, but it can help one to formulate the questions.

A Writer's House in Wales (National Geographic Directions)
A Writer's House in Wales (National Geographic Directions)
by Jan Morris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.06

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Welcome home..., 6 Jan. 2011
When I lived in London, I used to escape a few weekends a month; one of my most frequent travels was to Wales. I grew to love the Wye Valley Walk, Tintern Abbey, Chepstow, St. David's, and points south. Unfortunately, I didn't make it north nearly as much, but those times I did gave me an even deeper experience of the country, almost as if the further one got from the center of the English, the more the Celtic spirit came alive. Jan Morris' small book (small in format and in actual word-count, not in impact) gives me a greater appreciation for the places where I've been, and a deep longing to return now with fresh insights and new intentions of what to see, and what to sense.

Jan Morris is a well-known writer on various topics to do with travel, literature, culture and history. Her eloquence is brought to a high pitch in this slim volume meant perhaps to whet the appetite for those who would travel, as the text is part of a National Geographic series. However, one travels not just to a place and not just to a time, but to a new venue of the spirits. Morris describes the spirits that live in the wood of the house, along the path, in the river, and in the hills. `I like to think of Trefan woods as a haven for all wild and lonely creatures.... Because of course there are ghosts around Trefan Morys - ghosts of uchelwyr, ghosts of farmhands, ghosts of poets, of poachers, of birds and wild beasts and cattle hauled from the mire. I often see figures walking down my back lane who are not there at all, like mirages, and who gradually resolve themselves into no more than shadows.'

The country and countryside is featured, but the highlight is the house itself, and perhaps primary to the old creaking house full of spirits and character is the kitchen. Quoting G.M. Hopkins, Jan Morris discusses the centrality of the kitchen in the Welsh household --

That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as of a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring...

Of course, this is something that many around the world can relate to in that so many people live in the kitchen even though it is rare that it is also a sleeping room (it used to be the central fire for the house in days prior to central heating, and thus all would bundle together in the cozy atmosphere). Around the kitchen the rest of the house revolves in stages, loaded with books and memories that bring to the front many stories that Morris shares - and in doing this, she keeps faith with the Welsh tradition of storytelling as history making and culture preserving.

The Welsh language, too, gets a nod here. Morris admits to being of small Welsh, enough to appreciate but not enough to plumb the depths of the folk-brilliance, as she describes it, but obviously has a real feel for the language in both its meaning and its spoken form - there is something about the spirit of the language that can be felt as it is spoken even when one doesn't know the words: `Far from being a jabber, it is a poetical language par excellence, as lovely to listen to as it is to read - and as irresistible too, at least to romantics like me, in its intimations of defiance, rootedness and immemorial age.'

The identity and pride of the Welsh is unquenchable, according to Morris, and nonetheless threatened by modernity in ways that no foreign dominance could ever achieve; the subtle ways in which culture is lost are addressed here in many indirect ways, perhaps the best way to fight the subtle slide into a homogenised Euro-culture. There is a melancholy about it, but there is glory to it, and there is an eternality to it. All of this is captured by Morris. The book could be easily read in one or two sittings, and while I found myself wanting to drink deep and swift of the words, I would put it down, realising it was a rare treasure soon lost. This is a book to be savoured.

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