Book review: Colossus: Stone & Steel by David Blixt

Set in Judea in 66 AD, Colossus details the Judean uprising against Nero’s Rome through the eyes of two brothers – Judah and Asher.

Judea has been suffering under the greed of its Roman Consular General, but when their temple is desecrated, an angry mob rises up against and defeats the Roman legion. They know that this act of rebellion will set the stage swift and merciless action by Emperor Nero, and must prepare to defend themselves against the Roman invasion. Almost unwillingly caught up in the middle of all this turmoil is Judah, a stone mason and hero of the uprising at Beth Horon. Since he is unable to win approval to marry the woman of his dreams, he and his brother Asher devote all their energies to defending the besieged city of Jotapata.

This is the second book by David Blixt that I tried to read. The first, Her Majesty’s Will, left me cold – I couldn’t get past 50 pages. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this book. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The story drew me in, painting the cities and the people and the setting vividly in my imagination. The plot is taunt – it’s not a fast-paced book, but it will keep you engaged and eager to turn the page. When the book came to an end, I was a little sad to be leaving the brothers in Jotapata and coming back to my everyday life! He’s built up the characters and the time period very well. The story is set around the time when Christianity was still starting – it had few takers, and most followers of Christ had to be careful about when and where they would meet as the clergy at the time was not convinced that Jesus was The Christ that was spoken of in prophesy. Blixt brings to life the city of Judea and Emperor Nero and his court, as well as the customs and daily life of people during that time period through his vivid descriptions. The characters, especially the key players (but even the smaller cast) are well crafted – you know their motivations and their fears and hopes and dreams.

Interior of the Basilica di San Clemente, Rome...
Interior of the Basilica di San Clemente, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is supposed to be the first in a series of books on Rome and the rise of Christianity, but it starts “small, almost intimately, with two Judean brothers at the siege of Jotapata.” Author David Blixt hit upon the idea for this novel after a visit to St Clement’s in Rome, where they have excavated and created a tour through the history of the city.

“As a city that’s always building up upon it self, it’s often hard to see ancient Rome in anything but the famous edifices and the shapes of the streets. But here is Rome encapsulated. You start in an 17th century church, then descend into an early 12th century church, then to a 4th century church, a 3rd century Mithraeum (temple to the god Mithras), then finally to a 1st century Roman street and insula (apartment). You can hear the Tiber running just under your feet through the ancient sewer system.
I never got past that 1st century street. Because I started looking into Saint Clement himself, and what was going on when he was living there – the fall of Jerusalem, the building of the Colosseum, the rise of Christianity in Rome. That was how the Colossus series was born.” – David Blixt, on the inspiration for the novel.

Blixt will widen the scope out in the next several book, keeping Judah and Asher as the central points, exploring how drastically the world changed in a short period of time.

I have to say that I’m looking forward to the rest of this series, though the book does excellently as a stand-alone novel as well.

A strike against women: pro-life bills could muzzle women’s right to choose

Cover of "The Blind Assassin"
The Blind Assassin

Recently, I’ve been reading books and watching movies related to women’s rights (or lack thereof) and their suppression by the men in their family. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it’s just something that happened by chance. It started with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, in which she devotes almost an entire chapter to marriages of convenience in the 1930s. Such marriages were very prevalent in India even until a decade ago – and still are in a number of communities. These are marriages between families, where oftentimes the woman isn’t really given much choice in the matter. The men, of course, can choose – and that choice was almost always based on something as transient as looks. In Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, the main protagonist, Iris, was married off to industrialist Richard Griffin to save her family’s factories. The novel follows her disastrous marriage and the sexual abuse her sister suffered at the hands of her husband. Both of these books present the plight of the woman as a thing of the past, but not Bol. This is a bold movie to have come out of Pakistan recently, and highlights the plight of women, who are subjected to the tyranny of the male head of the house, in the present day. The movie deals with a number of important issues in that country – birth control, discrimination against gays, and the lack of choice for women. Some would think these issues are currently faced mainly by developing countries. They would be wrong.

As I read The Men Behind The War on Women on Huffington Post recently, I was shocked and enraged at the blatant disregard displayed by The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to women’s reproductive health.

“Over the past two years the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has launched one of the most extreme assaults on women’s choice the U.S. has seen in decades. Republicans voted twice to slash federal family planning funds for low-income women, moved to prevent women from using their own money to buy insurance plans that cover abortion, introduced legislation that would force women to have ultrasounds before receiving an abortion and, most recently, passed a bill that will allow hospitals to refuse to perform emergency abortions for women with life-threatening pregnancy complications. But the erosion of women’s rights didn’t begin with the GOP takeover…Lift the curtain, and behind the assault was the conference of bishops.”

Abortion Stops a Beating Heart Sign
Abortion stops a beating heart (Image by wht_wolf9653 via Flickr)

As if this weren’t enough, the Catholic Bishops have now launched a high-intensity campaign against birth control. Yes. Against.

I thought it was only the poor and uneducated lot who still thought that birth control was a direct affront to the heavens and that once married, women were supposed to set up a baby production factory. Apparently, I was wrong. The church, of course, has always been anti-abortion, but to take away choice from women, even in the case of rape, incest or complications and potential danger to the mother’s life, is barbaric.

The bishops are now lobbying against The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) insurance coverage guidelines stating that all health plans under the Affordable Care Act cover birth control at no cost for women. Although the rules offer religious exemption to churches, Catholic-affiliated organizations such as charities and hospitals would still have to cover birth control for their employees.

Arguing that the exemption is too narrow, the bishops want the Obama administration to either entirely remove the coverage of birth control or to offer an exemption to all Catholic organizations. This would mean that thousands of women who work for these organizations, even if they are not themselves Catholic, would be denied the preventative health coverage options available to most other women in the US.

The Department of Health and Human Services he...
HQ of the HHS

If you thought the bishops were lobbying for these measures only on religious grounds, you would be wrong. They’re fighting because of the large sums of money at stake. The HHS recently dropped the bishops from a five-year, $19 million contract to help victims of sexual trafficking. The bishops think they were dropped because they do not offer victims the full range of contraceptive and gynecological services, such as abortion referrals, birth control pills and condoms, provided by other agencies.

At the end of the day, then, it is the lure of money that is going to strip women of their rights and choice when it comes to their personal reproductive health and even their life.

Bishop William Lori defends the bishops’ actions thus: “We recognize that not everybody shares that teaching; nevertheless, it is a fundamental right for the church to stand by their convictions.” Doesn’t this reek of duplicity? By forcing legislation that will deny birth control and abortion to millions of women, the bishops are effectively imposing their views on the fundamental rights of individuals.

The Anti-Abortionists
An anti-abortion rally (Image by K. Praslowicz)

What’s probably worse, though, is that this isn’t the only legislation in question. Women across US states have lost major ground this year. Already, about 80 measures have been enacted to restrict access to abortion, all of which violate international human rights standards. These include Ohio’s ban on abortion once a heartbeat can be detected (6–10 weeks’ gestation); and a state ballot initiative in Mississippi, which if passed, would mandate personhood from the moment of fertilization. This could potentially outlaw the most popular forms of contraception; would treat destroyed eggs as murder victims, essentially making abortion illegal; and would prohibit scientists from destroying embryos created in laboratories, a process that is often required during in vitro fertilization and scientific research.

No matter what your individual stand on abortion might be, most of these measures go against a number of commonly accepted reproductive and human rights. Indeed, as the world moves towards decriminalizing abortion, one of the most developed nations is effectively muzzling women’s right to choice.

Book review: Delivered with Love – Sherry Kyle

Delivered with Love by Sherry Kyle
Image courtesy Abingdon Press

When I requested the book from NetGalley, I didn’t realize that it was a Novel (fiction) approach to Faith. I thought the religious bits would overpower the narrative, but I was wrong.

There was some faith and belief in Jesus interwoven into the story, but it didn’t detract from the plot flow or the enjoyment of the book.

An old love letter found in the glove compartment of a young woman’s inherited 1972 Volkswagen propels her to leave her life in Los Angeles and go to the small town of Capitola, California. There her dream of finding the writer of the letter leads her on an unexpected journey that changes her life forever.

This was the blurb on NetGalley that drew me to the book – I thought it would be an interesting romantic story, and it was!

Claire James, age twenty-three, is ready to make it on her own. When she’s fired from her job as a waitress and subsequently kicked out of her sister’s home, she sees it as an opportunity to start over. But even before moving, a thirty-five-year-old love letter written to her mother keeps Claire stuck in the past.

That bit is what kicks the story in motion. As Claire makes her way to California, she gets into a minor accident with Pearl and Harry’s RV. The old couple are making their way to their daughter’s house as she is about to give birth to their grandchild. Since Claire’s car is totaled, they offer to hitch it to the back of their RV and then tow her to somewhere near Capitola.

Their generosity makes Claire a little nervous, since she’s quite a timid and shy young thing, and isn’t used to being around good, caring people. During the night, they meet Pearl and Harry’s friends, and Claire makes friends with their daughter Samantha. However, in the middle of the night, Pearl and Harry get a call telling them their daughter’s gone into labor, and they offer to take Claire along. She refuses, saying she’ll spend the night at the camp and then figure out a way in the morning. They leave her  a bit reluctantly, but are eager to make their way to their daughter.

She then realizes that she can call a tow truck, which she does. Once again, she bumps into a kind man who offers to take her home as it is the middle of night and the repair shop is closed. Since he stays in Capitola and is married, she decides to take him up on his offer.

Since she is in Capitola, she goes over to the return address on the letter and finds that the property is for rent, and by a series of fortunate coincidences, she manages to rent the place and get a job as a caregiver to an old lady, Micheal’s mother…

Michael Thompson, a middle-aged real estate agent, wants to keep the past where it belongs–at least until his grown daughter is married. But, then a young woman comes to town . . .

There begins her quest to find the author of the letter.

The plot flows smoothly, with a lot of nice coincidences that weave in a message of faith. There’s love and friendship, extra-marital affairs and forgiveness. And a gently flowing sense of grace throughout.

Overall, it’s quite an interesting read.

The minefields of an inter-religion marriage

Recently, one of the the husband’s relatives invited us over for dinner – it was a small birthday celebration for their four year old daughter. Since it was Muharram (the Muslim period of mourning), they weren’t doing anything fancy, but it was the first time we would be going to their house, and it was a child’s birthday, so we had to take her a gift. The only problem was, it was a weekday, and getting back from work, going to a gift shop and then for dinner would have been tricky.

The (supposed) solution: We thought we’d give her a story book I had picked up for another friend’s four year old daughter (we never ended up visiting them, so the book was still with us).

The problem: I got home from work, found said book, looked at the list of stories, and thought uh-uh! You see, it was a beautifully illustrated Book of Classic Indian Stories for Children. The problem? The huge number of stories from Hindu mythology. Sample this:

The Brahmin Who Ate Up A God
Bhishma’s Sacrifice
Krishna and Kalia
The Kidnapping of Sita
Shiva and Sati
How Ganesha Got His Elephant Head

Almost the entire Hindu pantheon was in there! Of course, there were other stories too, but the Hindu mythology stores outnumbered them by a huge margin.

Here’s where the minefield comes in:

1) It would be the first time I was going to their house, and they lived with parents, who are likely to be a lot a bit more conservative than youngsters.

2) It was Muharram, so a gift like this would be hugely inappropriate.

3) Since I am a Hindu, it would look like I’m trying to force sell my culture on to their daughter.

4) It would might spoil relationships.

Ridiculous, I know. But given the whole Hindu-Muslim divide and how difficult it has been for some of the older people in the husband’s family to accept that he married out of religion, and a Hindu to boot, the book was completely inappropriate.

One of the husband’s aunts finally accepted me and said she “realizes that I am a girl who has been brought up with excellent values” and admits that she “treated her very unfairly” after eight years of marriage – yes, eight!

So, the only solution was to make a mad dash to the market before the shops shut down, which we managed – barely. We bought her coloring books and crayons. Said gift was a HUGE hit with the young girl – she finished coloring two pictures while we were there! – and the dinner went off very well.

What can I say? It’s all in a day’s work!😉

Bomb blast rocks Pune

German Bakery in happier times
A bomb blast destroyed one of Pune’s famous landmark’s on 13 February 2010 — The German Bakery at Koregaon Park, which is just about a kilometer away from my home. Luckily, my family is safe, though my mom gave me a huge scare since she wouldn’t pick up either her mobile or land line. Turns out she was enjoying a ghazal recital at The Residency Club when the blast happened, but I was shit scared and panicking, even though I knew that the chances of her being around that area were very slim.

This is really a sad day for Pune, which has always been a peaceful and peace loving city that has never been affected by communal tensions or riots.

My prayers are with the families of those who were killed and injured in the blast.