August Reviews

I had some trouble committing to a blog post subject last week which resulted in no post at all. The blog is new and still lacks a certain focus. Hopefully, that will come with time. So, rather than wait any longer, I just decided to post my reviews of a few things readers might be interested in. 

Book Review: Zealot by Reza Aslan

Overall Grade: 4/5

Multiple people have been recommending this book to me ever since it came out a couple of years ago. I remembered the book generating something of a buzz after author Reza Aslan, a regular on political news programs, had a run-in with a host on Fox News in 2013.

I finally decided to buy it when I realized there were a number of interesting parallels between Aslan's book and my yet-to-be-published manuscript. Both of us are seeking to make novel, scholarly arguments about ancient historical figures about whose life few, if any, primary sources still exist. While Jesus has the four Gospels, Alexander the Great has the works of 5 Greek and Roman historians (Plutarch, Diodorus, Curtius, Justin, and Arrian). Considering Aslan's book was received well be critics and make it to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, I figured it was worth checking out. As you can see above, the cover design is also A+. 

The primary aim of Zealot - to put the figure of Jesus in context - is summarized in this passage from its introduction:

"Indeed, if we commit to placing Jesus firmly within the social, religious, and political context of the era in which he lived - an era marked by the slow burn of a revolt against Rome that would forever transform the faith and practice of Judaism - then, in some ways, his biography writes itself.
The Jesus that is uncovered in the process may not be the Jesus we expect; he certainly will not be the Jesus that many modern Christians would recognize. But in the end, he is the only Jesus we can access by historical means." (pg. xxxi)

Aslan follows the basic narrative of Jesus' life while arguing that he was more of a political rabble-rouser than a promoter of peace. While I don't know enough about the subject to weigh in on this claim one way or another, it is clear that Aslan has an expert's grasp on the material. 

Probably Aslan's biggest strength, however, is his ability to transition from narrative to scholarly analysis and back again without confusing or boring the reader. This particular style of writing -  the mix of popular scholarship with creative storytelling - is very appealing to me. It may be the only way one can communicate nuanced arguments to an audience who demands to be simultaneously entertained and informed. 99% of us don't have the time, nor the desire, to pick apart ancient sources or peer-reviewed articles. We want an expert to do that part for us and deliver a useful insight in the form of a compelling story. Aslan largely succeeds at this most difficult of tasks. 

I will admit, however, that my reading experience was affected by some of Aslan's public comments. He has been embroiled in a number of debates with other public intellectuals and, at times, made misleading statements. However hard one tries to separate the messenger from the message, the two cannot be completely decoupled. 

Yet despite any preconceived reservations I had about Aslan going in, the book itself was impressive. It wasn't something that completely engulfed me, but it was an interesting interpretation of ancient Palestine and the texts that contain clues about the historical Jesus.

I would strongly recommend this book to two groups of people: (1) anyone fascinated by the study of history. Aslan goes deep into the key sources and uses his own knowledge of the ancient languages to sharpen his argument, and (2) anyone looking to revisit the search for who Jesus actually was and why his life became the catalyst for the world's largest religion. The most fascinating aspect of the book to me was Aslan's account of the earliest branches of Christianity and their internal rivalries. 

If, however, the process of "doing" history (i.e. discussing primary, secondary sources, picking apart foreign languages, etc.) sounds incredibly boring to you, this book may not be for you. The same goes for people who aren't too interested in ancient Palestine or the study of early Christianity in general. There are faster-paced, less academic history books out there. 


Podcasts

Michael Hyatt - This is Your Life

I started listening to this podcast a few months ago and have been very impressed by Hyatt's clear delivery and insight on a variety of subjects. The downside is some episodes get a little bit "self-helpy" and vague, but the stuff about building a platform and publishing is great. Hyatt was a CEO of a major publishing house before going out on his own, which gives him a uniquely helpful perspective.

Start with this episode about the publishing industry and his advice for first-time authors

James Altucher - Ask Altucher

A friend told me about this about a month ago and I've been completely addicted ever since. James Altucher is a best-selling author, former hedge fund manager, serial entrepreneur, and all-around eccentric who answers a new question submitted by followers every day or two. His wife Claudia also joins him most of the time. The episodes tend to be pretty short and funny. He offers his two-cents on how to quit your desk job, why 401k's are a scam, and whether the stock market is crashing, among hundreds of other subjects. I've recently started following his advice to write down 10 ideas per day. 

Altucher's call with a woman who lives in airports is one of the most fascinating interviews I've ever heard. 

Alec Baldwin - Here's the Thing

Can't remember how I found this one but it is surprisingly good. Baldwin is on an even playing field with most of his celebrity guests, which makes it more of a casual, lively conversation than a formal interview. Baldwin is also much funnier than I expected (those who watched 30 Rock may have already known this...?).

Start with his episode with Jerry Seinfeld.

The Author Hangout

This may be the least known podcast on the list. Only going to appeal to authors and aspiring authors. Host R.J. Adams picks the brains of best-selling authors and top publishers on topics like how to build a platform, get a book deal, etc. I've listened to virtually every episode and feel like I have gotten a free Masters Degree in Book Marketing. 

Start at the beginning. 


Random other stuff:

I've really been enjoying Jerry Seinfeld's show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

This free e-book titled "279 Days to Overnight Success" by Chris Guillesbeau is probably the best giveaway I've found on any "lifestyle design" website/blog. Here's another one called "A Brief Guide to World Domination". I only discovered Chris' website today, but so far it looks promising. 

For any of you who consume a lot of information online, I highly recommend downloading an RSS reader so that you can keep track of your favorite websites and blogs. I got Feedly a few weeks ago and it has saved me many hours worth of time already. Very simple to set up and now I can check for interesting news, studies, op-eds in a matter of seconds, rather than manually surfing the web. 

Plus, if you like to share interesting stuff with your social media following, you can install Buffer which allows you to schedule posts throughout the day without having to constantly manage your accounts. 

Hope some of this was helpful. If you'd like me to continue reviewing nonfiction books, let me know in the comments section below or via direct message. Thanks.