Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Best books of the Bible

My final post of Lent, a list of the top five books of the Bible!  Of course top favorites lists are kind of ridiculous.  Boiling down all the artistry and importance of, in this case, books of the Bible, to one dimension is an overly simplifying and even arrogant exercise.  So let's get to it!

#1) The Acts of the Apostles.  I find these tales of the spread of the early church to be endlessly fascinating.  The second half of the Apostles gives us the terrific story of Paul, from his conversion on the road to Damascus, through his spreading Christianity across Asia Minor, to his trip to Rome to appeal a prison sentence to Caesar himself, at which point the story abruptly ends.  I think my favorite part is his visit to Athens, when he tailors an intellectual argument to the philosophical Athenians, who have gathered to hear him speak as they might any other thinker presenting his theories.  Paul is immensely charismatic, a complicated character with an adventure-filled life.

#2) Ruth.  A gentle, touching recounting of Ruth's loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi, even after her husband has passed away, and her mother-in-law's compassionate response, finding her a new husband who will take care of her.

#3) The Gospel of John.  The weirdest of the Gospels, and also the only one written (or claimed to be written) by someone who was actually one of the Apostles.  Beatifully done and with a tight but well-chosen selection of miracles.  I know a lot of people like the Gospel of Luke because it explains so much, but I simply can't believe all that stuff.  John leaves out everything unnecessary, including all the nonsense about Jesus's birth.  Yet he also includes episodes not found in the other Gospels, such as Jesus raising his dead friend Lazarus, which I think is one of the most humanizing events in his life.  Yes, if you can read only one Gospel, I definitely feel that John is the way to go.

#4) The First Book of Samuel.  The second half tells of David as a young man, his rise to fame (killing Goliath, remember?), and his gathering together a sort of outlaw band that eventually topples Israel's cruel king Saul.  An interesting story, with lots of parts you never hear about in Sunday school.  His friendship with Saul's son, Jonathan, in particular, is strongly homoerotic.  The story is interesting and David himself a remarkable character.

#5) Micah.  Well, this one mainly because my son is named after him.  The book itself is kind of a downer, mostly a long prophecy about the coming downfall of Jerusalem.  Still, you can't top this quote: "What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."  Still trying to get my son to reflect his namesake!

So, what did I get wrong?  What are your favorites Bible books?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Job

My final reading for Lent: Job.  I'm sure everybody knows the basic story.  Satan comes to God, who asks him what he thinks of Job, an especially devoted man.  Satan responds that of course Job is devoted to God, for God has blessed him.  But take away Job's riches, family, and health, and he would curse God as anybody else.  God accepts the wager, and Job is made to suffer the loss of everything he holds dear as part of this divine contest.

I'm not sure I realized beforehand that much of Job is poetical.  After the brief prose introduction setting up the situation, there are a series of alternating poetic speeches between Job and his friends.  Job laments his situation, but never does curse God.  Meanwhile, his friends encourage him to repent, claiming he must have sinned in some way for God to punish him so.  Job knows he's done nothing wrong, however, and longs for a hearing or trial so he can hear God's charges against him and plead his case.

In the end, God comes in the shape of a great storm and does respond to Job, though it is not the response Job expected.  Rather, he demonstrates to Job that his wisdom and power are beyond human understanding, and that Job must simply put his trust and faith in God no matter the circumstances.  He never reveals the wager (which in any case he has won--for Job did remain faithful, despite all his complaining) or otherwise explain himself, essentially for the same reason you don't explain yourself when you tell your two-year old child not to run in the street or that he can't have a juicebox right now.

The language in Job is quite beautiful, full of metaphor and grandeur, if quite ornate by modern standards.  I wouldn't have minded it a bit shorter, though it's not difficult to read.  The arguments between the friends do seem to go in circles after awhile.  On the hand, I would have liked more on the relationship between Satan and God.  Oddly, they speak to each other almost as old friends--it would have been interesting to have this explicated at more length.

It occurred to me while reading it that the author (who is thought to have written this down around 600-400 BC) was himself writing ancient history, for the story is set in the time of the patriarchs (i.e. somewhere around 2000-1500 BC).  Not sure whether he considered himself to be recounting an actual historic episode, or if it's meant purely as a fable or parable.  Wikipedia suggests there are "Jobic" stories found in earlier Sumerian and Egyptian literature, although no direct antecedents.  Whether the author knew of these or not is an open question.

Interesting that in Job, riches consist of flocks of camels and goats, and Job, who is said to be the richest man in his area, lives in a tent.  I would guess even by the author's time this was considered a pretty rustic way of life.  I imagine some Jewish scholar in a town, perhaps Jerusalem itself, imagining how life had been 1,000 years earlier.  He does a good job of it!

For those interested in reading the Bible, I would probably not recommend you start here, unless you have a special interest in the question of how a just God can allow humans to suffer.  Ruth or Esther offer gentle, beautiful stories, while Exodus is full of action, and the Acts of the Apostles is a fascinating history of Christianity's early days.  But for those ready to tackle deeper questions, Job provides a thorough and tough examination of one of the thorniest theological issues.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Words to leave out

Keeping to the theme of the last post, today I'm going to list some words you should leave out of your writing.  After you finish a piece, go through with the word search function and see how many of the following you can remove.

Note: I will revisit this post from time to time as I think of new ones (i.e., come across them in my own writing).

very--A strange word in that it does the opposite of what you think it does.  You think it amplifies or emphasizes, but it actually diminishes.
Dr. Brown's new car was very shiny, very sleek, and very fast.
Dr. Brown's new car was shiny, sleek, and fast.
See?  All those verys slow the reader down.  Take the advice of Depeche Mode: Very is very unnecessary; it can only do harm.

begin to, start to--Normally, people don't begin to do something, they just do it.
The wolf approached me, drooling and snarling.  I turned and started to run ran.

just--This is a problematic one for me.  Nothing wrong with the word, I just seem to use it once or twice a page when I write.  I think I just don't realize I'm putting it in.  I just have to use the word search when I'm done and I can eliminate three-quarters of the justs.

saw, look--Nothing wrong with these words.  They're good, solid words that will appear many times in your writing.  However, they can be a little boring.  See if you can't replace a few of them with eye, focus, gape, gaze, glance, observe, ogle, regard, scan, spy, view, watch, etc.  Don't take this too far though--the goal isn't to bedeck your manuscript like a royal crown!  A little goes a long way.

actually--Thanks to Dana for a link to a similar post!  From that I got the idea for actually.  I checked my own WiP with this and found 8 actuallys.  Four could be crossed out without changing or harming the sentences; actually, improving them.  Two were in dialogue and could stay; two more were truly transitions between sentences.  Whether because she hadn’t heard or was ignoring him, Sully wasn’t sure.  Actually, it was all as new to him as to her.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What to Leave Out and What to Put In

Now that I'm working on my third novel, I find that I'm willing to leave out a lot more stuff.

How did a character get from one place to another?  Who cares?  We know they have legs, they probably walked.

How did a character learn a piece of information?  Unless it's a secret, it's probably general knowledge in their locale, or maybe they heard it through the rumor mill.

How did two characters become romantically involved?  Sometimes it's important to show this, other times it's enough to show they're interested in each other.  Then, when we rejoin them at a later time, it's natrual they should be a couple.

A lot of this boils down to this: Don't belabor the obvious.  Don't bore the reader with details she can easily assume.

On the other hand, I've read books where some important piece of business takes place off stage while the narrative follows some character at a dinner party or driving a car or something.  (This especially seems to afflict the soap opera strips on the newspaper comics page, where Judge Parker or Mary Worth are always arriving on the scene right after something interesting happened.)

Here are some general rules on when to leave it out or include a scene:

Leave in
- Important character development
- Fights, arguments, conflict
- Action that moves the story along
- Unusual, weird, don't see that every day

Leave out
- Spatial movement.  Just go to the scene where something is happening, and we'll assume the characters know how to get there.  The exception, of course, is where the travel itself is important to the plot.
- Logically necessary but obvious developments.  It may be important that a character, say, has a fully-stocked refrigerator, but you don't need to show us the shopping trip.
- Sex.  For some reason sex is usually pretty boring to read in books.  Maybe because it interrupts the plot action?  Just give us a hint that it's about to happen, and then move on.
- Boring things.  Even if they're necessary for the plot, try to find a way to cut a scene that feels boring.  Maybe have the next scene start right after the necessary but boring scene took place, and have characters mention that it happened.

Here's a rule of thumb: If it bores you when you're writing it, it will bore the reader when she reads it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What I'm Reading: Esther

Can you name the two books of the Bible named after women?  OK, you read the title of this blog post, so you got Esther.  The other is Ruth.  I read Esther as part of my Lenten reading this year and found it fairly delightful.  I'd say both of these are among my favorite Bible books.

Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews had been dispersed from the Holy Land and were living in various cities in the Babylonian, later Persian, Empire.  The Persian King Xerxes loses his wife and after a period of mourning, searches the empire for a new woman to become his queen.  The extraordinarily beautiful Esther attracts his eye.  On the advice of her cousin, Mordecai, who is a high official in Xerxes's court, she does not reveal her Jewish ethnicity.

Haman, a vain and cruel man, becomes chief advisor to Xerxes.  This gives him a lot of power, which he loves to lord over others, demanding they bow and scape to him.  Mordecai refuses to do so, however (the implication, I think, is that he only bows to the Lord).  Haman's ego is pricked, so he formulates revenge against Mordecai.  He tells Xerxes of a people in his empire who have different customs and do not follow the imperial laws.  Shouldn't the king pass a law to annihilate these people? he asks, without specifying who they might be.

Xerxes, who doesn't seem too actively involved in running his empire, agrees, and written proclamations are sent to cities across the land that on a certain date, Jews shall be killed and their property plundered.  So Mordecai has Esther arrange a banquet for King Xerxes and Haman, and at that banquet, she tells the king that she and her people have been slated for annihilation.

When the king hears this, he demands to know who is responsible, and Esther points out Haman and reveals that she is a Jew, and Haman has led the king to sign the order for the death of her people.  King Xerxes has Haman killed, and his order is relieved.  To commemorate this occasion, the Jews even still celebrate the holiday of Purim every year during the Jewish month of Adar (that is, late February or early March).

There's quite a bit more complication, but this is the essence of the story, and it's a joy to read.  It's one of the few books of the Bible with a real sense of humor--a subplot concerning Haman's assumption that the king wishes to honor him on a certain occasion, when really he wishes to honor Mordecai, is particularly funny.  If you are interested in reading the Bible, but you think it would be dry and boring, give the wry, ironic book of Esther or the gentle, wise book of Ruth a try.