It seems appropriate to have another edition of “First Lines” as the Jewish New Year rolls around. During the next ten days, Jews metaphorically request to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year. I have never seen the Book of Life, but I am very fortunate to have a life with books.
Here are the first lines of the seven books I completed reading in September.
Standing on the battlements in his pajamas, Balthazar Jones looked out across the Thames where Henry III’s polar bear had once fished for salmon while tied to a rope.
In the Law and the Prophets, God reaches out to man. The initiative is His. The message is His. He communicates, we receive. Our God-given free will allows us to be receptive, to be accepting, to turn a deaf ear, to reject. In the Psalms, human beings reach out to God. The initiative is human. The language is human. We make an effort to communicate.
As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.
A Spectacle in the Hotel de Bourgogne
1640. The great hall of the hotel, an indoor tennis court redecorated as a theatre.
In February 1896, Mark Twain – pilot of the Mississippi River, whitewasher of American fences – was just about to board a tiny six-seat open railroad car in the Himalayan mountains in India. He was circling the world with his wife and daughter, entertaining English-speaking audiences because he needed to make a lot of money in a hurry to pay off debts from bad investments.
Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.
I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.
I am ninety-one years old, and almost everyone who was once in my life is now a ghost.
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Here are the titles and authors.
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, by Julia Stuart
This was an enjoyable book, with some funny and outrageously ridiculous spots. There is an undercurrent of sadness which keeps the book from descending into utter silliness. Part of the book takes place in that tourist attraction known as The Tower of London. My favorite scenes took place in the London Underground’s Lost Property Office. Look for a cameo appearance of Dustin Hoffman.
On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel, by Nahum M. Sarna
This book gets into some interesting (to me) exegesis of some of the Psalms.
A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by Karen Armstrong
This book seemed to be about a thousand pages long, which I guess is appropriate for a history of an eternal dude. The gist of the book was that monotheistic religions operate like a pendulum, with the primary religious thinkers swinging from mysticism to rationalism and back again. I could have learned a lot from this book – it seems to contain enough material for an entire college course – but I was reading it for book club (we have a very special book club) and I had to read it too quickly. Normally I would enjoy a book on this topic, but not this one. The main impression I was left with is that while some of us might seek the approval of a Divine Being, it is impossible to gain the approval of Karen Armstrong.
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand (read out loud with Younger Daughter).
Translated by Lowell Bair (I think).
This was our second time reading this play. A guy with a long nose and proficiency with words and swords falls in love with a ditsy girl who is in turn in love with a regular guy soldier who has no skill with words. Many puns, exclamations about French lit, and sword fights ensue.
Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, by Richard Zacks
Massive debts force Mark Twain to undertake a world speaking tour to earn money. Twain was a curmudgeon of the first order, and his views on travel and the cultures he encountered are fascinating. He also experienced deep heartache during this time of his life.
Twain named his dogs “I Know”, “You Know” and “Don’t Know”. The book has photos, including this one of Twain being a pest. I enjoyed this book a lot.
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
Terrifyingly reminds me of this year’s presidential election. Read it.
A style warning: One Roth sentence can encompass several hundred years, forcing the reader to go back to the start of the sentence to remember what was going on at the beginning.
Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline
This is the story of two orphans, one an Irish immigrant to the US who is sent on the ‘orphan train’ to Minnesota in 1929. The other orphan is a teen in foster care in 2011. The writing is unremarkable, but it’s a good story, if predictable. Except for one scene, it could be a Young Adult novel. I really liked the characters.
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This post was brought to you by Manischewitz Concord Grape wine, of which I downed an entire glass before I wrote the post. Happy new year, indeed.