Before Jesus was the Christ (Savior), he was Jesus of Nazareth. This book does its best to set the scene in First Century Palestine. The Romans rule their far-flung, not-very-important outpost on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and do so with typical Roman efficiency and brutality. Only it isn’t working. The Jews of Palestine are having a difficult time living beneath authoritarian rule of an outside government that insists it’s ruler is a God. Complicating matters among Jews in the region is the Temple cult dominated by a handful of power-crazed Pharisees. Messiahs are a shekel a dozen, each promising some variation of escape from hunger, brutality, and corruption. By cross-referencing Roman documents from the period, archaeological evidence, and the Gospels, Reza Aslan takes his hand at reconstructing a historical Jesus who emerges from all the Messiahs in the Middle East as the one who makes it. Aslan’s contextualization of the geography and the era are extremely informative. His guesswork about who Jesus was and what he might have been really like as a man are superficial at best because so little documentation is available. He finishes the book, however, with the transformation of Jesus the man into Jesus the Son of God by analyzing the context in which the Gospels, especially Paul’s, were written. Naturally, for the deeply religious much of the book will be blasphemy.
Jun Do, a North Korean John Doe, lives many lives. He is an orphan in a camp for throw-away children, he undergoes pain training and learns to fight in abject darkness in the tunnels beneath the DMZ, he becomes a spy, a kidnapper, a prisoner, and an army commander. That is more than is possible for anyone in North Korea where life is too often a drudge from morning factory or field work until evening when the electricity is turned off. Yet, in Adam Johnson’s capable hands several clear images emerge. North Korea is awful. (For fuller and more accurate depictions, read Escape from Camp 14 or Nothing to Envy.) While reawakening us to the horrors of totalitarian rule, Johnson also gets us to consider whether a person is only the sum of his or her actions or, rather, actions might be dictated by circumstance and a person is somehow more intrinsic. Are we the sum of our stories, or as in North Korea, are stories too subject to stretch and warp? As Jun Do spends a lifetime navigating North Korea he also has heart and courage, enough of both to inspire others. Not to be overlooked, either, are jibes at America appearing in the guise of North Korean hyperbole. As the Dear Leader’s nightly broadcasts on loudspeakers make all too clear, the United States really is a place where one in six are hungry, the poor live in the streets, and neither justice nor access to health care are free. This one might be better to listen to as an audio book. The readers are terrific.
World War II came to an end in large measure because the Russian Army came to the aid of the Allied Forces. Irate at having lost twenty million citizens, Stalin’s troops raced into Germany to crush the Nazi Army. Their war prize was control over the countries of Eastern Europe: Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Initially welcomed as liberators, Stalin’s communists enforced brutal dictatorships across the bloc. Dissenters were shipped to Siberia, tortured, or disappeared. Economies fell under total state control. Freedoms of the press, dissent, religion, even thought were strictly and forcefully prohibited. Anne Applebaum’s book is a comprehensive survey of how these countries were crushed, by whom, for what purpose, and in what time frame. Divided by subject matter — religion, economy, industry, etc. — Applebaum provides myriad examples first from Poland, then Hungary, and then Germany. Repeat. The net result is a prize winning piece of research (National Book Award Finalist and a Pulitzer), but a book that is no more interesting to read than a communist manifesto orated during a May Day march.