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    Gordon Book Review Blog

    The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jan 16, 2019 @ 08:11 AM

    The Bonnie Lea Book Club tackled a book about the world’s most influential religion, examining how it grew as an offshoot out of a minor ancient sect based in the far eastern reaches of the Roman Empire (Judaism) into the foundation of the West’s religion and philosophy for the next two millennia.

    The author, Ehrman credits Christianity with overturning a culture of dominance, spreading an ethic of love and service in which everyone is equal before God. I agree and believe Judeo-Christian morality was the philosophical underpinning for America’s founding documents and subsequent European democratic development, while Mal rejected that high level of influence. How the religion became so successful, and how it replaced the existing order, particularly in its first three centuries, was the focus of the book.

    In summary, the book examines three concepts: first, the existing pagan belief system was vulnerable to Christian spiritual and social arguments; second, its messengers, most influential, Paul; and finally the influence of Roman emperors, most consequentially Emperor Constantine.

    The members of our book club had the broadest overall spectrum of reviews that we’ve had in several books. Mal did not like the writing, clarity or organization at all, and couldn’t finish it; Bill thought it was Ehrman’s best of three he’s read, and excellent. Most of us agreed that the organization and logic was disjointed; the writing dense at times, and Rob commented that for a relatively short book (less than 300 pages), too many topics were redundant and repetitive. And yet the insight into pre-Christian paganism, the appeal of Christianity to the masses, its inexorable growth, one convert at a time, and the Roman leadership structure made for interesting historical insight.

    To be clear, for a highly respected New Testament scholar, Ehrman’s analysis was remarkably devoid of any theological depth or modern aspects of faith; this was a historical sociological study. To its credit, it provided a thorough examination of pre-Christian paganism that was the established philosophy of the day, where magic, mystery and a pantheon of gods brought answers to the difficult questions of why things happened. Paganism did not have a name; that is our retroactive label. It simply was.

    Ehrman refers to the Bible frequently, so a brief overview of its organization and authors may provide some perspective. The first part of the Bible, the Old Testament, is the Jewish ‘bible’ before Jesus. It is here that Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments (first in Exodus) and rejecting certain foods (pork), are introduced. The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written decades after his death by those authors about Jesus and his acts, words and teachings. Acts of the Apostles follows the Gospels, introducing us to Saul of Tarsus, an educated Jew (Pharisee) who dramatically converts to Christianity after leaving Jerusalem and on the road to Damascus, faced with a blinding light, and hearing a voice (from Jesus) asking “Why do you persecute Me?” Paul wrote the majority of the rest of the New Testament (Letters of Paul) to the new churches he systematically established throughout the eastern Mediterranean to Rome.

    The book began and ended with Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity upon his march into Rome to unseat the previous emperor, and arguably the most influential character in Christianity’s rise. His mother was a Christian and his father a henotheist (believing in one top god, in his case the Sun God, Sol Invictus). But above that, he was an astute survivor, and a successful emperor of Rome for thirty years. He oversaw the congregation of bishops in Nicea, resulting in the Nicene Creed, still recited today in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and which outlines the church’s core doctrines.  In addition he settled and developed Constantinople, (today’s Istanbul), on the Bosporus, easily defended and strategically located, where the Eastern Church was seated for over a thousand years until the Ottomans conquered the City in the 1400s.

    Another of Constantine’s signature edicts was the Edict of Milan, which established for the first time a governmental principle of freedom of religious belief under the law.

    The question of whether the inexorable growth of Christianity would have continued as swiftly without Constantine’s support tilted to no, it couldn’t have.  His support also had the effect of permitting Christianity to influence the educated, economic military and political policy makers,  While the trajectory would probably continue to rise, its ascendancy as the dominant religion of Europe and the Mediterranean was greatly influence by this Emperor.  Ever the astute leader, he may simply have decided to ride this religious wave to hold together an increasingly broad and disparate empire. The emperor waited until shortly before his death to be baptized (though this was not an uncommon practice at the time to ensure entry into heaven). 

    Julian, a few emperor’s later, re-instituted the persecution of Christians; but he lasted less than two years (killed by Persians in battle). We also surmised whether a thirty year survival of Julian might have changed history.

    Paul, formerly Saul, described above, was the great marketer. We discussed whether Paul’s interpretation of Christianity as we know it would have been approved by Jesus. James’ own words give us insight: he would NOT have, due primarily to Jesus’ intent to have his message become a natural extension of Judaism, rather than a religion most appealing to Gentiles or pagans.  The appeal to pagans might have been Paul’s greatest success. While we know Jesus said that Gentiles could accept the Jewish God, it was clearly Paul who took this message and spread it to the densely populated cities along the Mediterranean, chronicled in the books of the New Testament. 

    The message had remarkable consistency (marketers take note).    The main attractions were:

    • This God was bigger and better than the pagan gods;
    • the Jewish concept an ethical foundation; developed further where sinning could be washed away by this God, through Jesus;
    • immortality, heaven, was the eternal joy and reward for conversion, while hell was eternal torture, a concept too many were familiar with.
    • The message of Love thy Neighbor, Help the Poor, and establishment of communities of faith created social benefits

    These simple messages provide an attraction, and conversion seemed most effectively to be a one-way door.   Pax Romana also had created stability and fertile ground for a merchant class not solely concerned with survival to the next day, but time to contemplate bigger issues of the spirit.  Converts and their offspring rarely returned to paganism.

    Chuck’s notes were outstanding and made for a well organized discussions.

     Here's a link to the book


    Our next book is Educated by Tara Westover


    Tags: Christianity, book review, review

    “Our Man in Charleston” by Christopher Dickey

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Jan 20, 2017 @ 11:54 AM

    “Our Man in Charleston” is a story of Britain's consul in Charleston, South Carolina in the several years before, and into the War Between the States… The Civil War.

    Robert Bunch was 32 years old when he arrived in Charleston, an aspiring diplomat originally assigned to Philadelphia, a more agreeable and cultivated assignment. He had roots in America, born in New York to an American mother and gunrunning British father.  He did all he could to delay his assignment from Philadelphia, as Charleston was "sickly" in the summer: people did not understand that yellow fever, a form of encephalitis, was carried by mosquitoes. Plus it was oppressively hot.  They knew New York was a better summer residence for anyone who could move there.

    His first charge as consul was to amend or terminate the Negro Seamen Act 1822, whereby any black seaman landing in Charleston could be arrested. The Act had been passed after an insurrection, but was harsh and particularly offensive to black British seamen, who could not leave their ships when in port for fear of becoming slaves.  Bunch's predecessor George Matthew had taken an adversarial legal approach, but Bunch preferred to learn about the local society first.  This made him incredibly effective.

    Britain had been trying to limit slavery and particularly the 'middle passage' since the early 1800s. It took several years before Bunch saw the Act amended, but he learned much about Charleston, its economic and political leaders, and its soul, along the way.

    His ability to insert himself was more remarkable given his personal (and British) view toward slavery.  A mere 10 days after his arrival he wrote to The Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon "Even people who were on other issues sensible and well informed wanted to hear nothing about slavery is inconveniences its injustice or its atrocities."  That opinion on the depravity of slavery as an institution never wavered.  His effectiveness and his value to locals increased throughout the book as the importance of British recognition increased.   All this while he took ever greater chances of penning unencrypted correspondence to Washington or London by post and private courier.  He was always just a breath away from being caught.

    Bunch's insightful analyses undermined the Confederacy's desire to be recognized by European powers, while maintaining an air of sympathy locally.   We don't fully accept the idea that his efforts to undermine Confederate recognition by European powers changed the direction of history, but history is rife with 'what-if's'.   Some have argued that if Pickett's charge had succeeded and Lee had won at Gettysburg, the Union would have sued for peace, England would have recognized the Confederacy, and our country would now be two, or many.  

    Insurrections were on the minds, and arguments, of many whites, but the truth was, insurrections were rare.  John Brown's attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry Virginia was conceived to inspire a slave revolt, but was quickly suppressed.  More common were massacres of slaves, such as the massacre of freed slaves that followed Sherman's march across Georgia at Ebenezer Creek.

    We have all read enough history to avoid making moral or ethical judgments based on our contemporary mores.  And yet reading the accounts of the 'Middle Passage', the term for Africans shipped from Africa to Cuba, or illegally to the United States, involved such indecency, we had to ask, did supporters of slavery believe that God saw slavery as the natural order of humanity?  And did people really believe that Africans were better off working plantations in America than they would have been in Africa?  Bill posited that the better educated, upper levels of society had enough education and understanding of the world that they certainly should have recognized these as mere rationalizations.  For the less educated, less traveled parochial farmers, perhaps these arguments resonated. But the bigger picture, including exposure to the Middle Passage, treatment of so many with no legal protection, it is difficult to find any common ground with the Fire Eaters, the political protectors of slavery, even through the lens of history.    Descriptions of the conditions were horrifying.  The description of that 'unique human stench', emanating from the slaver Echo, brought to Charleston harbor after its interdiction by the U.S. Navy, was powerful prose.  Scenes of what other boarding parties found on slavers were equally disturbing.

    Our discussions took us across the economic, cultural, and political forces that were converging in the United States, often centered in Charleston.  By joining Robert Bunch, we caught a deeper glimpse into those forces.

    The economic forces are not complex.   In 1807 importation of slaves became illegal, as part of a compromise to get the Constitution ratified in 1787.  While the population of African slaves increased 150 percent from 1807 to 1850, cotton production increased 3,000 percent.  The price of human laborers – slaves - increased accordingly.   Thus much of a slave owner's wealth was measured in the number of slaves he owned.   On this topic, Chuck brought up our earlier discussion of Frederick Law Olmstead who reflected after his trip across the South how cheap labor left the South little incentive to innovate on labor costs.  It was a doomed economic system, but many fought its demise.

    Insight into politics was highlighted in the Democratic convention of 1860, which could not resolve a candidate after some 57 ballots, reflecting the divide between Pro-slavery Fire Eaters such as Rhett and Yancey, and the Douglas crowd that would have been content with territorial sovereignty.   The convention gave up and adjourned to Baltimore six weeks later.

    Secession was disorderly and took time.  The states were not unified after South Carolina seceded.  There was no plan, only a few states leading, others came in eventually, but nobody seemed to appreciate what it was all leading to.  Fire Eaters were not unified by anything other than an economic need and cultural desire to keep other humans in bondage, a shaky foundation for a new country.

    We also learned more about the many characters in Bunch's life, including: James Petigru, the lawyer who argued for amending the Negro Seaman Act, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, then Lord Clarendon when he became foreign secretary, Lyons, the consul in Washington, who, in spite of his initial dislike of Bunch for his overstepping British bounds, quickly recognized his diplomatic skills and insight into South Carolinian ethos.  Lawyer Judah Benjamin understood how South Carolina was so out gunned by the North, but his insight couldn't persuade others to see into the future so clearly.

    While the book rarely mentioned Lincoln, it did cast unfavorable depictions of James Buchanan, who saw conflict coming, and was relieved to have delayed it until the final days of his presidency, and of William Seward, a presidential aspirant whom we agreed may have simply lived ahead of his time.  He was after all the same Seward who bought Alaska.

    Finally, some insights into our contemporary lives that this examination of history prompted:

    there is a natural trend to social progression, pushed along by younger generations, but limited by people whose personal experiences influence their worldviews, neither of which are effectively accelerated by external admonishments.  We agreed that these forces move faster today facilitated by faster communication and greater migration, but these social trends still encounter broad resistance that only time dissipates.  Our parents' formative years were different from ours, as our children's world is different from ours.  Social progression has a natural evolution, with differing speeds in different places, as new generations grow and experience their respective worlds.   But progression is subject to the same forces of inertia as physics: when pushed by external forces, equal and opposite pushback occurs.  The recent ascendancy of the 'unenlightened', blue collar, less educated so-called 'deplorables', and a Trump presidency, is today's manifestation of that trend.  The Civil War was a far bloodier result in its day.

    All this aside, man's inhumanity continues; last week in Lynn MA, an arrest was made for human trafficking: the sex trade is alive and thrives today.  But today, most people are deeply offended, and no justification for today's slavery withstands scrutiny.

    Overall, while the prose was dense, and perhaps described more detail than was needed, this book gave a far deeper insight into slavery from its epicenter and the forces leading to our Civil war than most books do, by chronicling the work of an extraordinary diplomat.  



    Next Book:

    America's War for the Greater Middle East 

    by Andrew Bacevich

    Tags: book review, Our Man in Charleston

    Dynasty - Tom Holland

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Wed, Jul 20, 2016 @ 12:07 PM

    file0001776616142.jpgThis book was a slog, and only began to flow with the arrival of Caligula past the book's halfway mark.  Nero seemed to be Holland's favorite Caesar.   So began our book club review of Dynasty.

    The book chronicles, in detail that seemed difficult to believe in many passages, the lives of Rome's great line of Caesars, from Julius Caesar to the august Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.  The writing was dense, characterized early on by sesquipedalian (long winded, characterized by long words) prose.  And yet it was another book most of us were glad to have read.

    The early part of the book chronicled extensively the intrigues of family and political maneuvering of Rome, from the wolf's enduring influence beginning with Romulus and Remus, past the brutality of Tarquinius the Proud, the politics of the First Triumvirate, and into the second Triumvirate.  The second Triumvirate included Marc Antony, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus, and most of us know how Marc Antony's trysts with Cleopatra worked out (not well for him), better for Julius Caesar.  Until the Ides of March.

    With that background set, much of the early book was duly dedicated to the ascension of 'the young Caesar", Octavius.  When Octavius decided he wanted Nero's wife, Livia, whom we had met in an earlier chapter, we had an early sense of how raw power worked in Rome.   At least the young Caesar waited for Livia's child to be born before marrying her.  

    This was the Caesar who would take the name Imperator, Princeps, Pontifex Maximus, and ultimately “Augustus Caesar”.  His early brutality to his enemies and skillful consolidation of power with the Senate’s guarded blessing, was masterful.   Jeff reported that he is considered the richest man in the world, ever, having been assigned a current-day wealth of some $3-4 trillion.  He owned Egypt, after all.  Under his leadership, he expanded Roman control to Hispania, Germania, and Egypt, and the wealth transferred from those vanquished places, plus the continued taxes extracted annually, permitted lavish spending on his family, and of course, on Rome. He was by most accounts, the greatest of all the Caesars, and no doubt the most enduring.

    His moderated way had limits, however, as the exile of his daughter Julia to Pandateria demonstrated as well as Ovid’s exile to Tomis.

    In reflection of the building during Augustus' reign, we discussed the infrastructure, and particularly the vulnerability to famine Rome often faced, due to vast sourcing of grain, imported primarily from Africa.  Today Italy is a leader in farm-to-table food sourcing and culinary arts, but Rome was not so well developed, the Appian Way notwithstanding. 

    We also marveled at Roman engineering, particularly aqueducts, wishing that the book had explored Roman engineering further.  Pompeii, the novel by Richard Harris is one such source offered by Geoff.

    In a similar vein, and based on Ovid's observation that no art nor peace can exist without the art of war, we all would have liked to have known more about the Roman war machine.  We did learn the soldiers could not marry, but did have license to kill, unlike Roman citizens.  And learned a little about discipline: order a soldier to go, he goes.  Order a soldier to come, he comes.  Until discipline breaks down and centurions or other leaders are horribly killed by their troops.  But the discussion of the military was relatively superficial.

    We made comparisons between then and today, and talked about the predisposition to make judgments about mores of the past throughout own contemporary lenses.  Geoff offered that his long reading of history kept him from making judgments while simultaneously describing many Roman practices as brutal, depraved, or odd.  Such are our prejudices, based on our unique personal experiences.  Rick offered that his extensive travel has helped him appreciate different ways of behaving or thinking for what they are: different, and we all agreed.   That understood, the sexual activities of Caligula and Nero in particular, were hard to accept as anything but weird.  

    Comets, monsters, and myths presented as reality were also part of life in early Rome.

    The women, Livia and Agrippina in particular were noteworthy in their influence, particularly given the male dominated society on so many other ways.  We wondered how effective ordinary women were; not just the wives of Caesars.  This thought line brought up another sense, that the book could have been more readable if it had developed even slightly topics beyond the Caesars and the people directly within their sphere.  Again, Richard Harris’ novels, including Imperium and Lustrum do that job suitably. 

    Otherwise the treachery among people of power was noteworthy: At its extreme, consider Nero, who killed his brother Britannica, took his confidant, Otho's wife, then killed his own mother Agrippina, then kills his wife Octavia to marry Poppaea Sabina, whom he kills “accidentally” by kicking her in the stomach while pregnant. 

    Overall, the book read as an academic tome, and we all agreed that while it was interesting and full of facts, it felt like a professor’s imposition, and could have been better presented.  Online reviews, however, disagree with our take, and almost exclusively praised it.

    Next Book: Our next book is Five Easy Theses by Jim Stone, a Boston insurance executive and respected economist.  This should make for good discussion of our country’s direction when we meet next on the third Tuesday in October, October 18 at 7:00 PM at Bonnie Lea.

    Tags: book review, dynasty, tom holland, caesar

    Younger Next Year: Book Review

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Mon, Jun 03, 2013 @ 08:30 AM

    TennisIf you are a reasonably active 40 or 50-year-old person, then this is the book for you. But allow me to tell my personal story first.

    For several years I coached my sons' soccer teams. When I was about 50, I leaned into a ball, kicking it about as hard as I could.  Just before meeting the ball, my femur came out of my pelvis.  The feeling of my body's architecture breaking apart was one I will never forget.  Recovery was slow.  A year or two later, I found myself truly paralyzed in pain for three days from sciatica resulting from a bulging disc in my lower back.  Recovery was much longer than the dislocated hip.  More recently, I realized that normal weekend work in the yard or a competitve tennis game resulted in sore joints for the next few days of the week.  I was getting old.

    A friend of mine recommended this book Younger Next Year.  He told me the basic premise is that you can enjoy doing the activites of a healthy 50-year-old well into your 80s.  That really got my attention.  I have always stayed reasonably active, and the transition to the lifestyle proposed in this book is easier for reasonably active people, but the book is definitely a game changer for everyone.  

    The book combines a well balanced combination of anecdotal evidence from an active 70-year-old along with science from an internal medicine MD.  The combination of motivation from a true believer and science from a professional makes for a compelling read.

    Here's the short version of what they tell you.  It takes three things: vigorous exercise six days per week to break down and rebuild your body with better muscle; attend to good nutrition;  and make a commitment to those first two legs of the stool and then commit yourself to other activites that make you happy (social interaction).

    We are an incredibly adaptive species. For 30 to 50 years, most of us get up in the morning and go to work for 6, 8, or 10 hours per day. Then, we return home so that we can do the exact same thing the next day.  Thus, anyone who works can get up and go to the gym for an hour for three or four days per week; especially if you are retired - you have no excuses! Aerobic training makes your body repair itself to 'better than before', strength training improves balance and joint health, and the combination eliminates 70% of the maladies that are associated with death before your life expectancy.

    Here's my own testimonial: I started going to boot camp before work about two years ago.  In the past six months, I enjoyed all of the activities that I enjoyed years ago - a week of aggressive skiing in Colorado, enjoying two 7-hour powder days out of five days of hard skiing; a week on the Appalachian Trail with my son, at his pace, in the mountains of East Tennesse and Western North Carolina; I join him again for another hundred miles in Vermont shortly, and plan on climbing through the notorious Mahousic range in western Maine in July; I am currently building a new stone wall in front of my home; I surf, play lots of tennis, and do my own yardwork.  I also own a fast growing small business which demands time and lots of energy (which I have) to keep everything on track.  In short, I feel great and am able to do all the things that I could do in my 30s and 40s (including placing third in a 5K fun run at my college reunion with a time under twenty-one minutes... woo-hoo!).  And I expect to enjoy all these and new activities at least into my 80s.

    Although this book is for men and by men, the message is clear to anyone in his/her 40s and 50s.  Make a real commitment to getting healthy, and your life will blossom.  You will be able to enjoy the 'declining years' without decline.  Get the book.  Read it twice.  You won't believe how great you'll feel, and how long you'll continue to enjoy life.


    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: Hiking, younger next year, health, fitness, exericse, age, nutrition, sports, running, tennis, food, book review

    The Sirens of Titan: Book Review

    Posted by Gordon Atlantic Staff on Thu, May 16, 2013 @ 07:47 PM

    TitanFinally! I'm done with Vonnegut forever! Or at least for a long time.

    For my final Vonnegut book, I chose The Sirens of Titan, mostly because its one of the few Vonnegut books that my school library carries, but also because The Sirens of Titan has themes similar to the themes found in Slaughterhouse-Five and Player Piano.


    Although the writing of The Sirens of Titan focuses mostly on a man by the names of Malachi Constabt, Unk, or Space Wanderer (depending on his location), the story is truly about another man by the name of Winston Niles Rumfoord. Rumfoord finds himself in an unusual situation caused by space travels, and he develops the ability to see all of time at once. With his ability, he plans on doing something fantastic: uniting the people of Earth.

    Rumfoord manipulates his own wife, Beatrice, as well as Malachi is such a manner that Rumfoord essentially de-humanizes them. In all fairness, Rumfoord de-humanizes several other human beings by erasing their memories and having them prepare for war. Where do these soliders train for war? On Mars. What race do they consider themselves? Martians. Who will the Martians fight in the war? The Earthlings.

    Rumfoord creates his own church, known as The Church of the Utterly Indifferent. Malachi acts as a messenger, and travels from Mars, to Mercury, back to Earth, and then finally, to Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn. The content of book revolves mainly around Malachi and his struggles to win Beatrice's affection, his son's affection, and his life's purpose.

    Church of the Utterly IndifferentThemes

    The themes that shine primarily in this book include religion, fate, and family. The religion theme comes to life when Rumfoord develops his own church, Malachi acts as a holy messenger, and when people follow a specific set of ten commandments. The fate theme is much more prominent, and is shown with several examples. Because Rumfoord can see all of time at once, he makes predictions about people's fates. Even though these people try to resist their destinies, their resistance causes their fate to become reality. The family thing lies primarily with Malachi- ignored by his father, shunned by his mate, and unloved by his son. Even though Malachi has no true family connections, his loyalty to his family is one of the most moving ideas in the book.

    The Good

    This book, unlike some other Vonnegut works, is written in a mostly linear progression. This allows us to follow along better than with some of his other works. Since we already know Malachi's fate, we are able to follow along with the story even when his name changes.

    I also liked the concept of people trying to avoid their fate is what actually leads to them to their fate. It's a very clever interpretation of time, much unlike the popular time concept with which someone's resistance can change the future. With The Sirens of Titan, what is meant to be happens, regardless of any character's will to prevent it.

    The Bad

    Here's what I didn't like:

    1. Winston Niles Rumfoord. His character development is great, but there's just something about that guy that I hate. The way he manipulates people is cruel and intentional- he won't even assist his wife financially. His circumstance is one where rather than resisting his fate, he accepts it and won't even try to do anything else. If maybe Rumfoord went against what is meant to be, something exciting would have happened.

    2. Malachi's long journy. The ideas behind Malachi's journey were great, but it was sooooo loooonnnngggggg. I think the book was a little lengthy to tell the story that Vonnegut wanted to convey. And then there were paragraphs, pages even, that seemed unnecessary to the overall plot line.

    3. Some of the language used was not vile, but it wasn't pretty. It's just bland and boring.

    4. The ending!!! I can't even spoil the ending, because it felt as if the book didn't even have a true ending. Ugh.


    Hey, if you're into Vonnegut, go for it. If you like novels about fate, then maybe this book is for you. However, I can guarentee that there are more titles out there that you will like loads more than The Sirens of Titan.


    Julia Kirslis

    Tags: book review, vonnegut, sirens of titan, mars, fate, 147C Letter

    People Who Eat Darkness

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 @ 06:15 PM

    TokyoThis was a book that met one of our book club’s central tenets: it was a book we would never pick up and read on our own. This was the story of the murder of a young English woman, Luci Blackman, in Tokyo, the difficult and Byzantine police response following her disappearance, and the tearing apart of her family and friends.

    For the first third of the book, you don't even know if they will figure out who her killer was.  It turns out the crime rate is so low in Japan that the police were unprepared and inexperienced in crime investigations against a perpetrator as skilled and careful as this case. Were it not for Luci's father Tim Blackman, the investigation would have gone no further than investigations of previous murders by the story's monster, Obara. Tim Blackman, for all his failings, was the force behind the ultimate discovery and capture of his daughter’s killer.

    The book also examined the extensive personal fallout from Luci's disappearance/murder. One line toward the end of the book summed up: where after some tragedies,  people come together, in this case the centrifugal forces pushed people apart: Luci's' mother Jane, sister Sophie, brother Rupert, and friend Louise all ended up with their own sets of demons, and all suffered mostly alone.  The damage of the murder, the tedious and impersonal investigation, the battered relationships among people in Japan, all contributed to the depths of despair for all the affected characters.

    Some of the greatest insights into Japanese culture included examination of its xenophobia: separation of gaijin (foreigners) and particularly deep prejudice against Koreans, which may have been at the heart of Obara's sociopathy. The protocols within Japanese society toward criminality, including a 99+% confession rate, stifled the investigation and the conviction (there never was one) in a variety of ways; the expectation of "salarymen" to hang out and flirt with young women after work and before going home sustained a 'mistress for an evening' custom, where excesses were mostly reined in by unwritten rules of engagement; precisely where Obara inserted himself. Obara operated cleverly within his society, understanding its vulnerabilities, and leveraging these to satisfy his personal brand of depravity. 

    The trip into such degradation in the underbelly of an urban Japanese society was distressing.  We all agreed it was worth reading, but to peer into the heart of evil is not a place to visit deeply, or often. 

    Some questions we explored:

    • Was Tom wrong to take the money?  Jeff argued (and I agreed) that we should pause before being too judgmental.  How we think we might react in a given situation may be different when faced with such opportunities.   We are all the products of our own experiences, and these are different for every soul.
    • Could he have operated as effectively within American culture? Hard to know.

    The other gross characters:

    • How about the con man Mike Hills? Predator of people in desperate circumstances. 
    • The S&M sickos, Matsuda, and Takamoto. 'Nuf said.

    And the outlier of human personality (the effective sociopath) intersecting the outlier very rich and very smart (the evil genius) trust fund operator: together enabled his continuous two decade long sex crime spree. The combination of evil with its effect on all the people it touched was beyond disturbing, particularly as these characteristics collided badly with an otherwise normal, adventurous yet inexperienced girl. 

    Our conversation led into a broader discussion of institutions (or in this case an entire culture) lacking adequate degrees of accountability, and how such institutions leave room for evil to sprout quietly up from within, ultimately challenging the very foundations of the affected institutions. Would the case change Japanese police procedures? Even that question remains unanswered.


    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: book review, japan, book club norwell, people who eat darkness, richard lloyd parry

    The Hunger Games Trilogy: Book Review

    Posted by Gordon Atlantic Staff on Mon, Apr 15, 2013 @ 08:18 AM

    If you haven't heard of The Hunger Games, then there is a large chance that you have been living under a rock.

    Suzanne Collins's highly praised series has gained a lot of attention over the past few years. Just over a year ago, I attended the midnight premiere of The Hunger Games, and that movie absolutely rocked! (Check it out, AFTER you read the book.) The rest of the movies for the trilogy are in production, and here are some quick spiels from me about the series.

    *Warning: Spoiler alert*

    CamoflaugeThe Hunger Games

    Katniss Everdeen lives in District Twelve, and offers herself as tribute in order to save her sister Prim, from competing in the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which children from each district must compete to the death. Katniss and Peeta, the other competitor from her district, journey to the Capitol, flirt with the media, and eventually take part in the slaughter that are the Games. Using trickery and strategy, Katniss and Peeta live to the end. There's only one problem: there can only be once victor. Instead of murdering the other, the two plan a joined suicide, forcing the Game Makers to allow two victors for the first time. However, the battle for Katniss and Peeta has only just begun.

    Catching FireCatching Fire

    The girl on fire returns once again in the sequel. Selected to compete in the Quarter Quell, Katniss must once again live the nightmare that is survival of the fittest. The Games in the second book differ from those in the first, but Katniss essentially does the same thing she did before: make friends, use strategy, and lie to earn the sympathy of the audience. Faking a pregnancy, Katniss competes as the world watches her fate. The most alarming thing is the ending. Katniss does not win. Rather, she is busted out by refugees from District Thirteen, along with other competitors. Peeta is not saved, but captured by the government and held hostage. The book ends with a cliffhanger, which can only be satiated by reading Mockingjay.


    To be honest, I don't know if I have the credibility to write about Mockingjay. The Hunger Games was brilliant, Catching Fire was alright, but Mockingjay was downright horrible. I couldn't even bring myself to finish the book, and that NEVER happens. What's the point of starting a story if I'm never going to finish it? But I couldn't. I simply couldn't. The plot line went from being clever and exciting to boring and slow. I literally had read more than half the book and absolutely nothing had happened. It's a shame that Mockingjay turned out so horribly, but I believe it to be the horrible end of what was a great idea for a trilogy.


    The Hunger Games is definitely worth a read. (The movie is fantastic too.) If you like the first book, then give the second book a chance. If you want to read the whole trilogy, then go for it. However, if you don't want the fantastic idea of The Hunger Games ruined for you, then I recommend reading the first book and then stopping. The second book was highly repetitive with ideas from the first, and the third was unbearable.


    Julia Kirslis

    Tags: hunger games, katniss, catching fire, mockingjay, trilogy, best selling books, peeta, suzanne collins, book review

    Player Piano: Book Review

    Posted by Gordon Atlantic Staff on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 @ 05:44 PM

    Vonnegut round two.

    If you didn't see my first blog about Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, then you might not understand why I have two books by the same author on the blog, especially within such a short time period. No, I am not a Vonnegut fanatic; however, he is the author for my literature enrichment project. Here we go!


    The novel takes place post-World War II America, and our main character is a man by the name of Paul Proteus. Paul is an engineer, and he wants to break free from the restraints that society has placed onto him. He searches for a better meaning of life. In order to do so, Paul purchases a farm, attends the annual engineering retreat, and joins the Ghost Shirt Society. The ending of the book is somewhat abrupt, but nonetheless, the ending is appropiate with the entirety of the novel.


    The novel shows a clear anti-technology theme. Although Vonnegut wrote this novel in the 1950s, and things such as vacuum tubes seem very archaic and outdated to us, the idea of advancing technology still resonates within the work. Other themes include topics like self-discovery and government/society.


    I enjoyed Player Piano much more than Slaughterhouse-Five. As a piece of literature, this novel expresses themes subliminally and it does so wonderfully. Compared to Slaughterhouse-Five, this book actually has a linear plot. Although this may take away from some of Vonnegut's creativity, the story is easier to follow. Player Piano manages to use the classical Vonnegut language that is used in Slaughterhouse-Five, but I found Player Piano to be much more enjoyable.


    Player Piano reminds me a lot of George Orwell's 1984. The same overarching theme encompasses both novels: a society from which it is impossible to break away. If you are a fan of Orwell, or dystopian novels in general, Player Piano is the book for you. Even though Vonnegut's claim to fame is that his novels are science fiction, Player Piano embodies the dystopian genre much better than the science fiction genre. I'm hoping to truly find Vonnegut's oh-so famous science fiction in The Sirens of Titan, which is the novel I plan on reading next for my project.


    Julia Kirslis

    Tags: book review, vonnegut, kurt, player piano, science fiction, orwell, dystopia

    The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree on Politics and Religion (Book Review)

    Posted by Geoffrey Gordon on Fri, Mar 15, 2013 @ 08:05 AM

    ThinkingWe had most members of the book club join us for this topical and timely discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind:Why Good People Disagree on Politics and Religion. The book had so many provocative features we jumped around in our discussions, and still covered a lot of ground.

    The book is broken into three logical sections, each building on the previous. The first section introduces the elephant and rider metaphor: the rider can influence the direction of the elephant of our emotions, but can’t control them.

    The next discussed how political proclivities can be reflected by a combination of measuring personal interest on 6 spectra: Care–Harm; Liberty–Oppression; Fairness–Cheating; Loyalty–Betrayal; Authority–Subversion; and Sanctity–Degradation. Conservatives find all six metrics important; liberals are more influenced by the first three, to the exclusion of the latter three.

    Some members were skeptical of the characterizations that make up a "righteous mind", putting human thinking and behavior into these six silos reduces the incredibly complex and infinitely more variable human being onto a chart. But this is the nature of science: you have to measure what you want to quantify.

    The final section discussed human groupishness. We are mostly chimps, pursuing self-interests first, but partly bees, a part of a community greater than we can be on our own. These communities can be national (affecting ‘loyalty’ and ‘authority’), as well as groups closer to home. We talked about our own “hives”. All found family to be primary, but other hives included local social hives, professional, and church.

    At our book club meeting, one person argued against the Dawkins view that sanctity and religion are mere evolutionary coping mechanisms for establishing a moral order within human society with degradation and suppression often the result. The early Christian church behaved in ways that severely reduced their chance of survival as an institution, based on faith, not to establish a moral order. Another posed the question, "to what degree must you believe the supernatural of the ‘sacred’ in order to have faith as guide in life?" I offered the explanation that it’s the struggle in pondering this question that matters.

    Most members agreed that this book helped to understand why different people think differently about the same set of facts. We also talked about the distinction between evolving political positions and 'flip flopping'. Evolution is defensible, but switching based on polls alone deserves the scorn usually heaped on anyone whose political position changes.

    We concluded our discussion early to allow all to get home in time for the second presidential debate back in October. Definitely worth a read if you're into politics and/or psychology.


    Geoff Gordon

    Tags: psychology, politics, the righteous mind, righteous mind book review, jonathan haidt book review, book review

    Slaughterhouse-Five: Book Review

    Posted by Gordon Atlantic Staff on Fri, Feb 22, 2013 @ 09:08 AM

    Just like every senior taking the AP Literature class at my high school, I have to pick an author and analyze his/her writing using literary criticism in order to write three papers. Sounds fun, right?

    Well, I thought I would go ahead and be different. So many of the authors, such as Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway, are already so appreciated in the literary world that I thought, "Hmmm... Maybe I should do an author that isn't as well known. Maybe I should break away from the typical story, the typical genre, and be my own person with my own unique author!" So I did. So it goes.

    If you didn't guess from last sentence, I chose Kurt Vonnegut, most famous for his war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. (If you are a Vonnegut fan, and you realized I used that sentence incorrectly, I assure you that I KNOW.) I read Slaughterhouse-Five first and oh man, I certainly do have some things to say about THAT.


    First of all, Slaughterhouse-Five isn't written in a linear progression. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a man with the ability to travel through time. As a result, we see different parts of Billy's life as we read through the novel. Some of the events we witness out of order are his experiences in the war, his kidnapping to the alien planet Tralfamadore, and even Billy's own death.

    Although the concept of a nonlinear story is intriguing, the story was somewhat difficult to follow. However, the ideas and events in Billy's life come full circle and make complete sense only after finishing/ approaching the finish of the novel.


    Slaughterhouse-Five explores many different literary themes. I focused on the ever-present anti-war theme in my paper, but many other topics could be explored. For example, Christianity and religion play a role in the tale of Billy's life. Also, fate and free will are considered, and a new perspective of the world is put into play.

    Recommended? Well...

    I'm not going to lie to you; it wasn't the best book I've ever read. It also wasn't the worst. The book covers a lot of darker themes and is somewhat depressing. If you aren't into darker humor and satire, Vonnegut and his works are not for you. If you are looking for a light read, without deeper analysis and more of a plot, then I recommend reading something else. Slaughterhouse-Five is not a novel that should be light-heartedly picked up and read over the course of a few days. In fact, it's the exact opposite. I feel as if people who are deeply into literature and deeper meanings are the perfect candidates for this book. Honestly, as I was reading it I thought to myself, "Why on Earth would I choose this? It's awful." I can now admit I was wrong; it's not awful, but it's not for everyone.

    It's safe to say that Vonnegut was good at what he did. He wrote about dark themes and ideas to impose them on his audience through his works. After I finished, I realized how truly brilliant his work was. However, I could have lived my life happily without ever touching the pages of Slaughterhouse-Five. So, if you aren't up to the task, I suggest picking up a different book on the shelves.


    Julia Kirslis

    Tags: war, slaughterhouse-five, kurt vonnegut, alien, book review, vonnegut

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