Sunday, April 24, 2011

Author Interview: Kristin Swenson on ‘Bible Babel’ and Her New Research Project

Kristin M. Swenson has been teaching in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where she specializes in the history and literature of ancient Israel. On May 16, she takes up an appointment as visiting professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Kristin Swenson
Dr. Swenson is the author of Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked about Book of All Time, which was first published by HarperCollins in 2010 and came out as a Harper Perennial paperback in March of this year. She is also the author of Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness and co-author with Esther Nelson of What is Religious Studies?:  A Journey of Inquiry. Bible Babel is also scheduled to be published in translation in Brazil and South Korea in 2012.

I spoke to Swenson last month at the 2011 Virginia Festival of the Book, where she moderated a panel discussion entitled “Speaking of God” with authors David Baggett (Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality), Winn Collier (Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Fenelon), Alex Joyner (Hard Times Come Again No More:  Suffering and Hope), and Clare Aukofer and J. Anderson "Andy" Thomson, Jr. (Why We Believe in God[s]: A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith).

She was pleased with the way the discussion turned out, she said.

“It was a terrific discussion in that it was civil. We had folks who believe that the Bible is the word of God and God is very much a living part of the world,” she explained, “and we had people who believe that religion is a completely human construct and brain moderated beliefs of god are nothing more than biology. So it was a lively group.”

The conversation among the authors and the audience was so lively, she said, that not only could it have continued an hour beyond the allotted time, but “we could have gone on 24 hours.”

In an earlier interview (at the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book), Swenson described Bible Babel like this:

“The book is for general readers. It does not take a particular religious perspective. It’s also not dismissive of persons of faith but provides background information about the Bible: what is the Bible, where does it come from, [and] what’s in it, so that folks can make sense of the way the Bible shows up in contemporary culture.”

She said that the book has been well-received by reviewers and by readers.

“It’s gotten a nice reception so far, I’m happy to say. People both of faith perspectives and secular folks who feel they need to know more about the Bible are finding it very useful and fun reading, so I’m getting some nice responses.”

One such response was in a review by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post (February 18, 2010). Dirda wrote that “despite its sometimes overbright prose, this is a solid, readable work that doesn't shy away from the tough issues. For instance, Swenson lists and interprets the Bible texts that seem to comment on evolution and creation, homosexuality, abortion, whether God wants you to be rich, environmentalism and the care of the Earth, anti-Semitism, and the position of women.”

Similarly, Martin Sieff started off his review in The Washington Times (March 9, 2010) enthusiastically:

“Hats off to Kristin Swenson: She has done what I really thought was impossible. She has produced an accessible, freewheeling newcomers’ guide to the Bible aimed at attention-deficit-disordered teens, twenty-somethings and soccer moms that manages to avoid being lame.”

Swenson’s latest research project focuses on a more narrow, but no less interesting, topic.

She is looking into “a very fascinating man who is forgotten in history. I think of him as the “forgotten Messiah”: Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire.”

Cyrus, she said, was “instrumental in the development of the Bible and in the development of civilization, [yet] we know very little about him, especially in the West, though he is lionized in Iran today.”

In the Bible are “references to Cyrus as the anointed one that God chose to save the ancient Israelite people. He’s mentioned by name in the Book of Isaiah,” and those passages are often cited in the New Testament as references to Jesus as the Messiah (a word that means “anointed one.”)

Cyrus, Swenson noted is, “also sometimes referred to as the author of the first declaration of human rights,” based on “an inscription called the Cyrus Cylinder, in which he articulates some of what we think of as basic human rights.”

Asked if the admiration for Cyrus in modern-day Iran causes a conflict with that country’s Muslim theocracy, Swenson replied:

“That’s an interesting question. There does seem to be a distinction that some of the population make between Arab Islam and Iranian Persia.”

Many Muslim Iranians, she explained, “identify with Cyrus as a great leader who pre-dates Islam, someone [whom] they can all share and admire.”

She then added that “it’s interesting that we can admire Cyrus as well, so in Cyrus there is room for Americans to agree with Iranians.”

Swenson is unsure when her book on Cyrus of Persia will be published, since she is still in the research stage. Her agent, however, has a proposal in hand and the book will develop over “the next couple of years.”

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Review Blog Carnival #66: Doris Day Edition

Welcome to the April 3, 2011, edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival -- number 66 in the series! The 65th edition can still be viewed at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book! Two weeks from today, look for the next edition at Izgad.

Doris Day: The Illustrated BiographyToday is the 88th birthday of actress, singer, animal-rights activist, and America's sweetheart, Doris Day, who herself has been the subject of several books in recent years, including Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, by David Kaufman (2009); Doris Day: The Illustrated Biography, by Michael Freedland (2009); Doris Day: Sentimental Journey, by Garry McGee (2010); Doris Day: Reluctant Star, by David Bret (2009); and Considering Doris Day, by Tom Santopietro (2008). All in all, that's a lot of attention paid to a film star who hasn't made a movie since 1968.

And now, on to the carnival ...

children's and young adult books

Alexia presents Book Review: Darkness Becomes Her posted at Alexia's Books and Such..., saying, "A fun new entry into the Young Adult market!"

Jim Murdoch presents Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli posted at The Truth About Lies, saying, "Beginning as the Germans invade the city we follow an innocent and ignorant young boy who only knows himself as Stopthief because he survives by stealing. He is given the name Misha by another boy who befriends and protects him and his family becomes a group of homeless orphan boys scratching out a life on the streets and eventually get rounded up and locked inside the Warsaw Ghetto where they provide an essential service as smugglers."

Read Aloud ... Dad presents Incredible Illustrated Editions: Jonathan Swift`s Gulliver posted at Read Aloud Dad, saying, "I felt it would be a shame if I could not find a way to get my young twins acquainted with Swift's masterpiece and its principal motifs. So I found the best illustrated edition!"

fiction and literature

Alexia presents Book Review: Pale Demon posted at Alexia's Books and Such..., saying, "A 5/5 amazing read! Best Rachel Morgan story in the whole series!"

Angela England, Feature Writer presents Classic Tales by Irish Authors posted at Blissfully Domestic, saying, ""In fact, some of literary circles most poignant novels have been penned by Irish authors. ""

Marisa Wikramanayake presents Dead Man’s Chest (2010) posted at Jacket & Spine.

Mark Baker presents What's On My Nightstand March 2011 Edition posted at Random Ramblings from Sunny Southern CA, saying, "Here's a review of The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson. I enjoyed this debut mystery."

Mon presents Love, Again posted at ink + chai.

Thomas Burchfield presents Nabokov's Gift to a Midnight Reader posted at A Curious Man, saying, "My delightful experience reading The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov."

At Man of la Book, Zohar presents Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, as well as Book Review: The Stairway to Heaven by Therese Zrihen-Dvir, Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and Book Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan.


Marisa Wikramanayake presents Spinner (2010) posted at Jacket & Spine.

Scott presents Review: Gay New York posted at A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land, saying, "A book review of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940."

Clark Bjorke presents The World That Made New Orleans posted at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book!, saying, "World history from the point of view of the Big Easy."  Ned Sublette's book's subtitle is the intriguing "From Spanish Silver to Congo Square."

The Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner presents a two-part interview with political scientist Paul Kengor, who teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.  Kengor talks about his book, The Crusader:  Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, a historical analysis of the final years of the Cold War.

non fiction

D. J. McGuire reviews James A. Bacon's Boomergeddon: How Runaway Deficits and the Age Wave Will Bankrupt the Federal Government and Devastate Retirement for Baby Boomers Unless We Act Now in "Why the sky won't necessarily fall" at The Right-Wing Liberal.

Jim Murdoch presents Minding my Peas and Cucumbers by Kay Sexton posted at The Truth About Lies, saying, "If you’ve ever thought it might be nice to have an allotment then this is the book you should read first. It traces author Kay Sexton’s experiences from novice to finally getting her own allotment; it takes a looooong time to get an allotment. So while you’re waiting it might be a good idea to read this mix of memoir, mystery novel, gardening book, etiquette guide, cookbook and science textbook."

Marisa Wikramanayake presents Wardrobe 101: Creating your perfect core wardrobe posted at Jacket & Spine.

Mike Sprouse presents Second Review of The Greatness Gap posted at Open Mike.

Trevor Schmidt presents Book Review: Lone Survivor posted at Bookophile Reviews, saying, "Check out the rest of my book reviews @ Bookophile Reviews!" Written by Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 is "the story of four Navy SEALs who fought against a force of as many as 150 Taliban and the one SEAL who made it out alive."

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Melissa Batai presents Bookin’ It: Working Writer, Happy Writer posted at Mom's Plans, saying, "If you are looking to make money from home and would like to work as a writer, I highly recommend Working Writer, Happy Writer."

Penny Zang presents Best Book on Writing. Ever. posted at Miss Good on Paper. She writes: "There is one book I return to again and again, though. It is the book I recommend to all aspiring writers and the book from which I make copies for my students: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott."

shameless self-promotion

Last month was the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, and I had an opportunity to interview some of the participants, including the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach, and the president of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Robert Vaughan.

As I noted in the interview with Vaughan,
... the annual Virginia Festival of the Book brings about 25,000 visitors to the city to hear and engage with authors, publishers, book reviewers, and bibliophiles.

The 2010 festival hosted 160 events featuring 307 authors, drawing visitors from 35 states and at least six foreign countries.
For his part, NEH Chairman Leach (a former Republican congressman from Iowa), gave several illustrations to explain why it is important to study and support the humanities:
“If you read literature, you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. You learn from great figures in literature. You can learn lessons not to repeat from [those who] might be considered characters that you don’t identify with.

“History provides a sense of where we’ve been and lessons that can be taken forward.

“Philosophy gives one a barometer [of] ethics of how we could and should lead our life,” he continued, “so I think the humanities have never been more important, particularly as the world becomes so change-intensive.”
I also recently had the opportunity to interview (by telephone) playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Michael Slade about his new musical play, And the Curtain Rises, which had its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, on March 27. Slade has written children's theatre, scripts for several daytime soap operas, and a young adult novel, The Horses of Central Park.

In explaining how he wrote And the Curtain Rises, which tells the story of The Black Crook, arguably the first musical comedy produced on Broadway, Slade told me:
“I love the process of researching,” Slade said.

“I was not the best student in school, but afterwards I discovered how much fun research was. One can do almost everything on line these days but there’s something about going places and handling real books and articles.”
"Real books and articles" -- that's what we readers are all about, no?

With that, we close the 66th edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival. Submit your blog article to the next edition using the carnival submission form.  Past posts and future hosts can be found at the blog carnival index page.