Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Moment2Moment: Breathless in Kuala Lumpur, by Barbara Yen Yoke Wah

I recorded this book upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind.  Its author, retired medical social
worker Barbara Yen Yoke Wah, is a friend of many of KL's blind folks through her long-standing affiliation with Society for the Blind of Malaysia.

I have not had the privilege of meeting Barbara; I can sense from her writing that I (and pretty much anyone at all) would be drawn instantly to her. She has had a rich and varied life, and she has much wisdom and experience to share.

I rather desperately wish that someone in the person of a skilled editor had worked with her on this book. (She self-published, either because local publishers rejected the manuscript or by choice, I don't know.)

As I read Moment2Moment, I grieved for the enormous potential that was lost for want of an inspired editor. I practically howled in frustration as I read fragmentary snippets ("chapters" are often less than a page long) which only hinted at deeper stories but stopped dead in their tracks.

A one-paragraph chapter titled "HIV/AIDS Pandemic is here!" is one case in point.
When the HIV/AIDS pandemic surfaced in the world around 1989, I responded to it as a volunteer in my NGO work. We had no training. Fortunately, I was given some literature to read by a great friend and former MSW colleague, Assoc Prof Ismail Baba who encouraged me to take on this issue. Subsequently, he took up a job as a social work lecturer in University Science Malaysia.  
I would love to know more about how a Malaysian medical social worker responded to the arrival of this strange and alarming virus. How did she first learn of it? When did she begin to see positive HIV test results, and how did patients cope? What were the cultural implications of HIV infection here in KL? What did the literature provided by her friend add to her understanding?  A good editor could have extracted the substance from her experience. As it stands, this paragraph tells us nothing meaningful.

Ms. Yen is unstinting in her thanks to former colleagues, and gratitude is always a fine thing, but too many of the chapters turn into extensions of the acknowledgements, including thanks to the doctors, nurses, clerical staff, canteen staff, cleaning staff and drivers of every organisation with which she has ever worked or volunteered.  Again, I'm sure these people will be delighted to see their names in print and to be remembered by a cherished colleague, but a 165-page thank you letter is not of interest to someone who is curious to learn about the author's experiences, which are undoubtedly illuminating but never make it onto the page.

This book had (has?) such promise.  Its author has the material for a good book within her, if she could only find a congenial and skilled editor with whom to collaborate.

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

A Place of Greater Safety (1992) is Ms. Mantel's fifth novel and her first work of historical fiction, this one set in the French Revolution.  As regular followers of my blog know, I waxed ecstatic about Wolf Hall and resolved to work through her entire back-list before moving on to the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. Once again, one book further along in my Hilary Mantel project, I say it:  This woman just can't seem to put a foot wrong.

The print versions of the book ran to about 800 pages, and I would wager that Ms. Mantel read five times as many pages in the name of research. She clearly immersed herself in the subject to a degree that few of her contemporaries can match.

As I was reading Ford Madox Ford's The Fifth Queen last month, I couldn't stop myself comparing not only his treatment of Thomas Cromwell to Hilary Mantel's but also their general approaches to the historical novel. Ford invested great detail into the setting, especially lighting. Mantel is all about character. At the end of The Fifth Queen, I felt sure I'd been in Henry VIII's court. At the end of Wolf Hall, I'd been inside Thomas Cromwell's head.  I came to Wolf Hall with a hefty knowledge of that period, so Cromwell's passions, rages, frustrations and delights made contextual sense to me. I already knew why he and Thomas More were on a collision course. It occurred to me that a reader with no background in Tudor history might be somewhat at sea. Likewise, a reader on Goodreads wondered if readers with slim background in the French Revolution would appreciate A Place of Greater Safety.

In this case, I am squarely in the "does not meet the prerequisites" club. I have only superficial knowledge of the French Revolution. Could I follow the plot?  Yes, I could, but I expect I'd have had a much richer experience of the book armed with a deeper background. Hilary Mantel draws exquisitely detailed portraits of her characters, but her coverage of the larger scene tends to be in oblique references -- the events that directly touch her characters.  So more informed in the case of Wolf Hall, less so for A Place of Greater Safety, but in the end, I admired both books equally.

And now, the excerpts.  As the novel opens, a few years before the fall of the Bastille (1789), the future revolutionaries are young students, and certain aspects of their existence are looking up:  "Life expectancy in France has now increased to almost twenty-nine years."

The main characters in this novel are the revolutionaries -- Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat and cohorts -- Ms. Mantel spends scarce ink on the royals, but in a few paragraphs she makes plain why they are so irksome. Although Marie Antoinette's infamous "Let them eat cake" remark never finds its way into this book, her character is still patently clear.
The new King is nineteen years old; his consort, the Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette, is a year younger. The King is a large, pious, conscientious boy, phlegmatic, devoted to hunting and the pleasures of the table; he is said to be incapable, by reason of a painfully tight foreskin, of indulging the pleasures of the flesh. The Queen is a selfish little girl, strong-willed and ill-educated. She is fair, fresh-complexioned, pretty because at eighteen almost all girls are pretty; but her large-chinned Hapsburg hauteur is already beginning to battle with the advantages conferred by silk, diamonds and ignorance.
True, the Queen would like to break away from all this, institute an age of liberty: of the finest gauzes, the softest muslins, of simple ribbons and floating shifts. It is astonishing to find that simplicity, when conceived in exquisite taste, costs just as much as the velvets and satins ever did. The Queen adores, she says, all that is natural -- in dress, in etiquette. What she adores even more are diamonds...  "I am terrified of being bored," she says.
The Bastille fell on 14 July 1789.
On July 13 there were hailstorms; to say this is to give no idea of how the hail fell -- as if God's contempt had frozen.
Camille Desmoulins, a rather fragile, artistic type, becomes an unlikely leader of the revolution, penning incendiary leaflets that belie his diminutive physical presence. He is having an affair with Annette, a middle-aged married woman, whose teen-aged daughter, Lucile, has fallen head over heels in lust with Camille. Although this passage suggests it's a fleeting adolescent flame, the two do eventually marry and form a fascinating partnership, severed only, alas, by the guillotine, nearly a decade later.
For quite thirty seconds, Lucile had forgotten to look into the mirror. For the first time, she felt she had taken a hold upon her life; she had become embodied, she wasn't a spectator anymore. But how long would the feeling last? His actual physical presence, so much longed for, she now found too much to bear. She wished he would go away, so she could imagine him again, but she was unsure how to request this without appearing demented. Camille framed in his mind the first and last sentences of a political pamphlet, but his eyes did not shift from her face; as he was extremely shortsighted, his gaze gave the impression of an intensity of concentration that made her weak at the knees.
Again, in a tantalisingly short passage, Ms. Mantel captures both the common wonder at seeing the King (as he is removed in chains from Versailles), and the extent to which he is oblivious to his situation.
The delirious crowd pushes around him, jostling him and trying to touch him to see if he feels the same as other people. "Long live the King," they shout. (The Queen had not expected to see him again.) "Let them be," he says to the soldiers. "I believe they are truly fond of me."
Camille Desmoulins, via his newspapers, circulars and speeches, becomes the voice of the revolution. His childhood friends, Danton and Robespierre, are strong and polished by comparison, but Camille's passion flows through his pen, and Hilary Mantel's sympathy with him flows through hers.
When it was time to write, and he took his pen in his hand, he never thought of consequences; he thought of style. I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there's nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon. Once paper and ink were to hand, it was useless to appeal to his better nature, to tell him he was wrecking reputations and ruining people's lives. A kind of sweet venom flowed through his veins, smoother than the finest cognac, quicker to make the head spin. And, just as some people crave opium, he craves the opportunity to exercise his fine art of mockery, vituperation and abuse; laudanum might quieten the senses, but a good editorial puts a catch in the throat and a skip in the heartbeat. Writing's like running downhill; can't stop if you want to.
The 16 year-old Lucile, obsessed with Camille (her mother's lover), is all in favour of overturning the status quo.  Her father, a civil servant, realises to his horror that his children have a very keen vision of defying authority, and on a national scale. Teen-agers, it seems, have always known more than their elders.
He looked at his daughters to discern, if he could, the children they had once been. He felt impelled to plead with them. "But if you had not the King, or Lafayette, or Mirabeau, or the ministers -- and I have heard you speak against them all -- who would there be left to rule the nation?" They exchanged glances. "Our friends," the sisters said.
Meanwhile, cynical Camille speaks with his more idealistic friend, Robespierre, about the purpose of the Revolution. It's an eerie foreshadowing of the day when the two key figures will no longer agree (and likely never agreed) upon the Revolution's goal or justification -- only that it was necessary.
"I don't believe God listens to those sorts of prayers. They're selfserving, aren't they?"
"God accepts all kinds of prayers." They looked at each other, vaguely alarmed."We are here under Providence," Robespierre said. "I am sure of that."
"I couldn't say that I'm sure of it. Though I do find the idea consoling."
"But if we are not under Providence, what is everything for?" Robespierre now looked wildly alarmed. "What is the Revolution for?"
For Georges-Jacques [Danton] to make money out of, Camille thought. Robespierre answered himself. "Surely it is to bring us to the kind of society that God intends? To bring us to justice and equality, to full humanity?"
Oh good heavens, Camille thought. This Max, he believes every word he says. "I wouldn't presume to know what kind of society God intends. It sounds to me as if you've gone to a tailor to order your God. Or had him knitted, or something."

Camille Desmoulins, whose incendiary writing stoked the revolutionary flame, appears to have been emotionally fragile and more than a little melodramatic. It's often the bear-like lawyer, Georges-Jacques Danton who holds him together when things are tense, or alternately his childhood friend, Robespierre. Even Camille's wife, Lucile, who matured quickly into the sort of unflappable, strong woman he needs, grows immune to his histrionics. One of their friends and fellow revolutionaries, an actor named Fabre, seeks out Georges-Jacques in a moment of crisis.  Failing to find Danton at home, Fabre goes to Camille's house.

Lucile was sitting with her feet up, reading a novel and eating an orange. "Here you are," she said, offering him a segment.
"Where is he?" Fabre demanded.
"Georges-Jacques? Gone to Arcis."
"But why, why, why? Mother of God! Where's Camille?"
"He's lying on our bed. I think he's crying."
Fabre burst into the bedroom, stuffing the segment of orange into his mouth. He hurled himself at the bed and Camille. "No, please, don't, please," Camille said. He covered his head with his hands. "Don't beat me up, Fabre, I feel ill. I can't take this."
"What's Danton up to? Come on, you must know."
"He's gone to see his mother. His mother. I didn't know till this morning. No message, no letter, nothing. I can't cope."
"The fat bastard," Fabre said. "I bet he's planning to stay away."
"I'm going to kill myself," Camille said.
Fabre rolled from the bed. He propelled himself back into the drawing room. "I can't get any sense out of him. He says he's going to kill himself. What shall we do?" Lucile inserted her bookmark and laid her novel aside. It was clear that she would get no further with it.
"Georges told me he would be back, and I have no reason to disbelieve him -- but perhaps you'd like to sit down here and write him a letter? Tell him you can't manage the thing without him, which is true. Tell him Robespierre says he can't get along without him. And when you're done, you might go and find Robespierre and ask him to call. He is such a steadying influence when Camille is killing himself."
One of the classic images of the French Revolution in my own mind is that of Marat, bleeding to death in his bathtub after being stabbed by Charlotte Corday.  Evidently the artist who rendered the famous painting of this scene engaged in a bit of 18th-century Photoshopping, portraying the dying revolutionary as a powerful and handsome hero.  In fact, he was reportedly repulsive, spending much of his time in the bath to find relief from a chronic skin condition.  Although Marat makes few appearances in this novel, Mantel's descriptions make me smile -- they evoke for me the grubby little Peanuts character, Pigpen.  His fellow revolutionaries don't always treat him charitably, but then, revolution is a nasty business.
Marat came. He looked dirtier than ever. As if in sympathy with his work, his skin had taken on the color of poor-quality newsprint. "There are other places we could have met,"Danton said. "I didn't ask you here. I don't want my wife and child given nightmares."
"You will be pleased to invite me, afterwards. Besides, who knows -- I might clean myself up under the republic."
And so this revolution goes as so many others do -- out of control.  People are denounced for not being revolutionary enough, or for being too extreme. For being indifferent, or materialistic, or having the wrong ideals.  They are charged with having the wrong friends, and then after their execution, their former friends are charged with having associated with them.  A Place of Greater Safety?  There isn't one.
The executioner. His overheads have gone up shockingly since the Terror began. He has seven men to pay out of his own wages, and soon he will be hiring up to a dozen carts a day. Before, he managed with two assistants and one cart. The kind of money he can offer doesn't attract people to the work. He has to pay for his own cord for binding the clients, and for the big wicker baskets to take the corpses away afterwards. At first they'd thought the guillotine would be a sweet, clean business, but when you have twenty, perhaps thirty heads to take off in a day, there are problems of scale. Do the powers-that-be understand just how much blood comes out of even one decapitated person? The blood ruins everything, rots things away, especially his clothes. People down there don't realize, but he sometimes gets splashed right up to his knees. It's heavy work. If you get someone who's tried to do away with himself beforehand, he can be in a mess, maybe collapsed through poison or loss of blood, and you can strain your back trying to drag him into position under the blade. Recently Citizen Fouquier insisted they guillotine a corpse, which everybody thought was a lot of unnecessary work. Again, take someone who's crippled or deformed; they can't be tied to the plank without a lot of sweat and heaving, and then the crowds (who can't see much anyway) get bored and start hissing and catcalling. Meanwhile a queue builds up, and the people at the end of the queue get awkward and start screaming or passing out. If all the clients were young, male, stoical and fit, he'd have fewer problems, but it's surprising how few of them fall into all those categories. The citizens who live nearby complain that he doesn't put down enough sawdust to soak up the blood, and the smell becomes offensive. The machine itself is quiet, efficient, reliable; but of course he has to pay the man who sharpens the knife.
In a moment of clarity and despair, Robespierre reflects upon their lofty goals and what would likely be the final result.
What is our aim? The use of the constitution for the benefit of the people. Who are likely to oppose us? The rich and corrupt. What methods will they employ? Slander and hypocrisy. What factors will encourage the use of such means? The ignorance of ordinary people. When will the people be educated? When they have enough to eat, and when the rich and the government stop bribing treacherous tongues and pens to deceive them; when their interests are identified with those of the people. When will this be? Never.
As the Revolution begins to feed on its own, Robespierre is tasked with eliminating Danton, Fabre and Camille. This will be no easy job, as Danton is trained as a lawyer and renowned for his rousing oratory. Following one of Danton's speeches at their trial, the prosecutor, Fouquier, tells Robespierre that it's going badly -- if Danton continues, he may win over even the carefully selected jury (composed of those who are most certain to send the defendants to the guillotine).  Robespierre assures the prosecutor that the rule of law will be tailored as necessary to achieve the correct outcome. They will shut Danton up one way or another. One wonders, when things reach this stage, why even bother with the pretence of a trial? It does nothing to whitewash what is plainly murder.
"If things go no better tomorrow," Robespierre said, "send a note to us. We'll see what we can do to help."
"Well -- what could you do?"
"After Brissot's trial we brought in the three-day rule. But it was too late to be helpful. There is no reason why you shouldn't have new procedures when you need them, Fouquier. We don't want this to take much longer."
In her epilogue, Ms. Mantel closes with a note on her approach to historical fiction. A Place of Greater Safety achieves her goals brilliantly -- as with real life, the reader's opinions and sympathies are likely to shift throughout the book. My respect for her continues unabated.
I am not trying to persuade my reader to view events in a particular way, or to draw any particular lessons from them. I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Princess Play, by Barbara Ismail

Dancers (Study 1)
by Mohammad Yazid Kamal Baharin
Princess Play is the literal (too literal for my taste) translation of the Malay term, main puteri.  Not really a play at all in the western sense, the main puteri is a traditional healing ceremony practised in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Barbara Ismail is an American anthropologist who researched her PhD thesis in Kelantan in the 1970s.  Princess Play is the second novel in her Kain Songket Mysteries series, featuring the indefatigable Mak Cik Maryam, who, when not selling woven songket fabric in the Kota Bharu market, is solving murder cases. 

I recorded this book for the Malaysian Association for the Blind. The Inspector Singh mysteries by Shamini Flint have been very popular with the members, but it's lovely to find a sleuth from our own side of the causeway (Inspector Singh is Singaporean).  I think both Mak Cik Maryam and life in her 1970s Kelantanese kampong will resonate beautifully with these readers.

I found a reasonable description of the main puteri on (of all places!) the web site of the Library of the National Institute of Health in the US :
Main puteri: an indigenous Kelantanese form of psychotherapy
The permainan puteri (usually abbreviated to main puteri) is an indigenous Kelantanese healing ceremony in which the bomoh (traditional medicine-man), the sick individual and other participants become spirit-medium through whom puteri (spirits) are able to enact a permainan ('play'). It has been successfully used as a psychotherapy for depression. The bomoh assisted by his minduk (master of spirits) and a troupe of musicians, is able to provide a conceptual framework around which the sick individual can organize his vague, mysterious and chaotic symptoms so that they become comprehensible and orderly. At the same time the bomoh is able to draw the sick individual out of his state of morbid self-absorption and heighten his feelings of self-worth. The involvement of his family, relatives and friends tends to enhance group solidarity and reintegrate the sick individual into his immediate social group.

The story opens with the preparations for the main puteri to be held for Mak Cik Jamillah, who just hasn't been herself recently.  The ceremony is a stunning success: Deep in trance, Jamillah rises and dances with a supernatural passion, collapsing exhausted at the end.  Everyone in the kampong rejoices, knowing that her malaise is cured, and they all make their way home to bed.  Jamillah, however, fails to wake up in the morning.

The young, new Kota Bharu police chief, Osman, feels that his arrival at the victim's house would be so much more impressive if it involved high speed, screaming sirens and the screeching of tires as the cruiser skidded to a halt, but the rutted dirt road leading  into Kampong Penambang does not permit such theatrics. He himself has failed to impress the locals, as he is from Ipoh, Perak and cannot even understand the Kelantanese dialect.  So once again, he turns to the trusty and clever Mak Cik Maryam to help him sort matters out.

With her cousin Rubiah at her side, Maryam begins to pay not-entirely-social calls to various folks who may be able to shed light on Jamillah's death. In a delightful bit of detail, the two middle-aged sleuths discuss how much and what quality jewelry they should wear when visiting a matron in the neighbouring kampong so as to create the correct impression. Ms. Ismail also pays very keen attention -- as any Kelantanese would do -- to the types and quantities of cakes served whenever guests drop in for coffee.

Although she doesn't skimp on light-hearted whimsy and local colour, Ms. Ismail doesn't go overboard with it, either.  Princess Play is at bottom a book about murder, and even a sleepy, small village in Kelantan contains its share of passion, madness, jealousy and violence simmering away beneath the niceties and songkok. It's not long before Maryam and Rubiah are looking at a dismayingly long list of murder suspects, none less plausible than the others. The bomoh, Pak Nik Lah, is a wise man, and he knows his limits. There are some ill-natured spirits that a main puteri can address, but sometimes greed, vengeance and rage drive people to murder, and that, he's happy to concede, is a matter for the police.  And, of course, Mak Cik Maryam.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Geographical cures can do only so much...

... and Maugham was probably sitting in the Malayan jungle when he penned this line.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Hear Them Cry, by Shiho Kishimoto

I downloaded I Hear Them Cry on a whim, knowing nothing whatever about it. Unlike much contemporary Japanese fiction which toes the surrealist line, this book is painfully grounded in reality -- specifically, domestic violence and its impact upon children.

The narrator, Mayu, is a young Japanese painter living in France when the story begins, and the local parish priest, Father Jean, introduces her to Anna, the seven-year old sister of a troubled young man. When she realises that the girl, like her older brother before her, is being brutalised by her drug-addicted mother, Mayu takes a dramatic step to ensure that the court removes the child from her mother's care.

When Anna is safely resettled, Mayu returns to Japan as the wife of Shigeki Tachibana, a wealthy sake merchant whom she met in France. Despite an affluent childhood, Shigeki has his own demons which reveal themselves in sudden tantrums and slaps to Mayu's face.

Bewildered and hurt, Mayu learns some of the family history from her mother-in-law's maid.  Shigeki's mother, Kanako, had been a rebellious teen and, to the horror of her parents (the prominent Tachibana sake-brewing family) ran off with a rock star. She returned home pregnant, and her parents chose a young employee at the brewery, Taichi, to quietly marry her.  When the parents died, however, Taichi became a despot, making life miserable for Kanako and Shigeki.  Years of his abuse left Kanako a cold, distant woman and Shigeki an angry and violent young man. Finally, Taichi disappeared and was presumed lost as sea, though his remains were never found.  His domineering presence, however, still remains; neither Kanako nor Shigeki ever refer to him by his name.

One night, Kanako invites Mayu to join her for a drink.
I let the whiskey burn and numb my throat before saying, "What kind of a person was Father-in-Law?" Kanako met my eyes for the first time and said with a slightly ironic smile, "Well, let's see. He was arrogant, domineering, a womanizer, and above all else, he hated me. He would humiliate me by treating me like a whore, and by demonstrating total control he would reaffirm his place in the world and make a show of his authority and power. That's all he was capable of doing, really, that pathetic nonperson."
Kanako drank her whiskey in one gulp and went on. "That person used to be taciturn, very sincere, and hardworking back when my parents were still alive and well. They were sure fond of him, but I could never tell what was going on in that mind of his. Naturally, they liked him. That wasn't surprising, seeing that they were into anyone who would answer to their beck and call and toil away for them day in, day out, you see..."
Just when we've concluded that Taichi is the villain, Mayu stumbles upon a videotape that he made and left aboard the family yacht, from which he had disappeared.  In it, Taichi tells his side of the story, his report of the marriage into the esteemed Tachibana family. In many ways, he too had been victimised.

These wounds, inflicted by those in power against those under their control, are often hidden, rarely discussed, and in the long term, enormously toxic, breeding the next generation of abusers. I can imagine this novel rattled Japanese readers, where discussion of domestic abuse is only slowly coming into the open.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

And here is the final volume in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which we find Lyra and Will moving between worlds with the aid of his subtle knife, still dodging the evil Mrs. Coulter and an assortment of other foes.

Philip Pullman is clearly a spiritual man and just as obviously on hostile terms with the Catholic Church. In The Amber Spyglass, the battle for ultimate control of all worlds -- both those occupied by the living and the dead, by angels and witches and armor-clad polar bears -- is gearing up, and everyone is aligning with either the Church or with the forces of Lord Asriel.  In some strange way, Lyra and Will seem destined to play significant roles in the ultimate war, although they themselves are unsure what it is.  The Church, however, has declared Lyra a second Eve, whose temptation and downfall will envelop the world in eternal sin, and they are desperate to prevent that. And, as they have historically done, the Church authorities find a way to justify her murder. A specially qualified assassin volunteers for the task.
"I propose to send a man to find her and kill her before she can be tempted."
"Father President," said Father Gomez at once, "I have done preemptive penance every day of my adult life. I have studied, I have trained-- "
The President held up his hand. Preemptive penance and absolution were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed, intense and fervent penance accompanied by scourging and flagellation, so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit. When the penance had reached the appropriate level for a particular sin, the penitent was granted absolution in advance, though he might never be called on to commit the sin. It was sometimes necessary to kill people, for example; and it was so much less troubling for the assassin if he could do so in a state of grace.
Lyra is determined to enter the world of the dead to see if she can redeem her young friend, Tony, who perished in the first book, and Will is keen to see if he can make peace with his father, who died in the second. It is a Chiron-like boatman who agrees to ferry them to the land of the dead, warning them all the while that they will never return.  Most excruciating of all, he forces Lyra to leave Pantalaimon, her daemon, behind.
"Are we dead now?" Will said to the boatman.
"Makes no difference," he said. "There's some that came here never believing they were dead. They insisted all the way that they were alive, it was a mistake, someone would have to pay; made no difference. There's others who longed to be dead when they were alive, poor souls; lives full of pain or misery; killed themselves for a chance of a blessed rest, and found that nothing had changed except for the worse, and this time there was no escape; you can't make yourself alive again."
The world of the dead is a dreary, grey netherworld, guarded by harpies who pounce at the detection of any lies, where shades drift about without aim or hope. Lyra and Will vow to lead them all out of this world and back into the world of the living, where they will simply drift off into the atmosphere in a waft of atoms, just as their daemons did when they died. As they are making the trek out of the world of the dead, however, Will's late father, a shaman, tells them that their practice of moving between worlds will have to stop.  In the long run, he says, we can only live fully in the world that is ours.
"And this is the reason for all those things: your daemon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel's great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere."
In the end, of course, this means that Will and Lyra, now in love, must part ways and return to their own worlds, their own Oxfords, and all openings between worlds must be re-sealed, separating them permanently.  Lyra has mysteriously lost the ability to read the alethiometer (the "golden compass"), but her mentors at Jordan College tell her that she may now undergo the classical training to become an alethiometrist -- she will learn by study and practice what she had once done by intuition. And there is one final signal that her childhood has come to an end:  her daemon, Pantalaimon, begins to settle into his permanent form, and Lyra is at peace with his doing so. I think the question of Pan's final form had been lurking in the back of my mind from the earliest pages of Northern Lights. When Mr. Pullman finally revealed the daemon's permanent shape, I cheered.  I don't think God could have chosen any better.

I thank Mr. Pullman too for a new word in my lexicon.  His world of the dead is choked with mephitic vapors, from Latin mephiticus, or pestilential.

But I'll die trying...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh

I'm forever mixing up Maugham with Waugh, and I got the bright idea that I could cure myself of this by reading most or all of their works. Then, in theory, despite the phonetic similarity of their names, I would remind myself, "Oh, yes -- Maugham is The Razor's Edge, and Waugh is Brideshead Revisited.  Silly me..."  Of course I also confuse E. M. Forster with both of them, and this plan does nothing to address that, and instead of Brideshead, I reached for Waugh's A Handful of Dust. As it reminded me in many ways of The Razor's Edge, it only deepened the muddle.

Usually described as a satire of the British landed gentry, A Handful of Dust is a poignant reminder that satires can be heart-breaking.

The aptly named Tony Last is clinging to his family estate, Hetton Abbey. His wife Brenda, however, is less enamoured of life in the countryside than he is, and her chronic boredom leads her into a lackadaisical affair with a young nobody and social hanger-on, John Beaver. What ensues is the sort of marital farce that could only happen in England.

Brenda takes an apartment in London to carry on her absurd dalliance (she tells Tony she's studying economics), and Tony flounders about Hetton as best he can, pleading with her to come home more often. A friend, Jock, suggests that Tony also come up to London for a night, reasoning that a change of scenery would do him some good. They proceed to get drunk at one of the proper clubs and then make their way to a seedier place to carry on. Throughout the evening, Tony makes increasingly slurred telephone calls to Brenda's apartment on the assumption that she would most certainly expect him to drop in for a visit.  Her torpid and unenthusiastic responses convince him that he and Jock should instead carry on tippling at the Sixty-four.
...the Sixty-four has maintained a solid front against all adversity. It has not been immune from persecution; far from it. Times out of number, magistrates have struck it off, cancelled its licence, condemned its premises; the staff and until her death, the proprietress, have been constantly in and out of prison; there have been questions in the House and committees of enquiry, but whatever Home Secretaries and Commissioners of Police have risen into eminence and retired discredited, the doors of the Sixty-four have always been open from nine in the evening until four at night, and inside there has been an unimpeded flow of dubious, alcoholic preparations. A kindly young lady admitted Tony and Jock to the ramshackle building. "D'you mind signing in?" Tony and Jock inscribed fictitious names at the foot of a form which stated, I have been invited to a Bottle Party at 64 Sink Street given by Mr. Charles Weybridge. "That's five bob each please." It is not an expensive club to run, because none of the staff, except the band, receive any wages; they make what they can by going through the overcoat pockets and giving the wrong change to drunks...
"I like this, joint," said Jock. "What'll we drink?" "Brandy." They had to buy a whole bottle. They filled in an order form to the Montmorency Wine Company and paid two pounds. When it came it had a label saying Very Old Liquor Fine Champagne.
Meanwhile, Brenda admits to a friend that she's a bit worried about Tony's state of mind. They prattle on about finding a woman to interest him in the same vein they might discuss lawn tennis or lepidoptery as potential distractions.
"You know," Brenda confided next day, "I'm not absolutely happy about Tony."
"What's the old boy been up to?" asked Polly.
"Nothing much yet, but I do see it's pretty boring for him at Hetton all this time."
"I shouldn't worry."
"Oh, I'm not worrying. It's only, supposing he took to drink or something. It would make everything very difficult."
"I shouldn't have said that was his thing... We must get him interested in a girl."
"If only we could... Who is there?"
"There's always old Sybil."
"Darling, he's known her all his life."
"Or Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy."
"He isn't his best with Americans."
"Well we'll find him someone."
"The trouble is that I've become such a habit with him-he won't take easily to a new one... ought she to be like me, or quite different?"
"I'd say, different, but it's hard to tell." They discussed this problem in all its aspects.
When Brenda asks Tony for a divorce so she can marry the penniless Mr. Beaver, Tony graciously agrees to stage an adulterous liaison of his own, arranging for investigators to uncover it, so that Brenda will be the aggrieved party in the proceedings.  Alas, the bar-maid from the Sixty-four, who agrees to play the role of Tony's strumpet, brings her small daughter along on the trip. As it happens, this works out to be a blessing in disguise, because when Brenda demands the sale of Hetton to finance her life with Beaver, Tony calls the whole divorce off and relies upon the investigators to testify that his trip to Brighton was a perfectly chaste charade, citing the presence of the little girl.

Tony decides that absence may be the better part of valour, and he leaves the whole unpleasant mess behind. He goes off to Brazil "in search of a city", tagging along to assist Mr. Messinger, who is determined to find the ruins of an ancient fabled city in the thick of the jungle.  Messinger seems even less suited for such an expedition than Scott was for his Antarctic folly, and Tony is far from an intrepid explorer. Delirious with fever, he eventually falls into the hands of a Mr. Todd, a mixed-race Anglophile who has established his own small kingdom in the middle of nowhere.  Mr. Todd has a loyal community (many of whom are related to him by blood), an excellent knowledge of herbal medicine, and a complete collection of Dickens' novels, which he is unable to read. When Tony recovers from his fever, he discovers the depth of his host's passion for Dickens. Todd is happy to listen to Tony reading those novels aloud for... well, for the rest of his days. Or Tony's days, whichever might end first.

Poor Tony.  When their young son dies in a fox-hunting accident -- a young lady loses all control of her excitable horse, which kicks the boy in the head -- Tony repeats like a mantra, "It's no one's fault... No, it's really no one's fault."  Placing blame is simply not something one does in the Lasts' society, and finding fault with Brenda or Beaver would be most unsporting.  A Handful of Dust marks not only the end of a marriage but also the end of a more private and circumspect era. I expect watching Princess Diana discussing her husband's infidelity on the telly would have put Evelyn Waugh into his grave if he hadn't already got there in 1966.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Girl Missing, by Tess Gerritsen

The demand for more Tess Gerritsen at Malaysian Association for the Blind is still high, so I reached for the next in the stack -- Girl Missing. This was one of Dr. Gerritsen's earlier novels, predating the Rizzoli and Isles books. Her very first novels were romances, and she's been making the shift to medical thrillers -- Girl Missing sits in the middle of the two genres:  Attractive and feisty Medical Examiner meets dashing, handsome pharmaceutical company executive, and a string of corpses and nefarious plots throw them into each other's arms.

The ME in this case is Kat Novak, a young doctor who had a rough childhood in the inner-city projects. When corpses begin arrive in the city morgue having overdosed on some new drug that the labs have never seen before, Kat wants the mayor to issue a press release.  Since he's due for re-election, he is reluctant to do so, and besides -- they're only junkies from the projects. Is it really so important?

Enter Adam Quantrell, the flawless and wealthy director of Cygnus Pharmaceuticals.  Things get tangled when Kat discovers that the substance which put the bodies into her morgue is actually a new, experimental drug under development at Cygnus, and more tangled still when romance flares up between them.

The missing girl of the title is Maeve, Adam's troubled step-daughter, who is now living in the projects and has shadowy connections to the dead drug-users.  And, yes, who had worked in the Cygnus R&D lab for some months before disappearing.  Adam wants to find Maeve in an effort to redeem her, Kat wants to find Maeve to learn more about the overdoses, the police want to find Maeve in connection with the murder of her former boss, the research director at Cygnus, and Maeve does not want to be found.

I'm glad Dr. Gerritsen made the choice to move toward the medical thrillers. The Rizzoli and Isles novels show the fruits of more experience, more attention to detail and more emotional and intellectual involvement on her part. Girl Missing just has a few adolescent growing pains.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Fifth Queen, by Ford Madox Ford

My dear English bookworm friend, Mark, recommended this book to me when I paused to catch my breath during an effusive rave about Wolf Hall.  I think he felt that my new-found affection for Thomas Cromwell was in need of tempering.

 Ford Madox Ford is best known for his WWI-era novel The Good Soldier, which has been on my reading list for several years, but on Mark's recommendation, I went ahead with The Fifth Queen. The fifth queen is, of course, Kathryn Howard, who married the nearly 50 year old, obese, gout-ridden and foul-tempered King Henry VIII when she was 19, a mere three weeks after he divorced Anne of Cleves, whose Teutonic stoutness he couldn't abide.

Most historians concur that Kathryn was foolhardy and promiscuous. Unlike the dubious evidence cooked up against her cousin, Anne Boleyn, there seems to have been little question that Kathryn was carrying on an affair under Henry's nose. He was devastated -- he genuinely seemed to revel in her high-spirited company -- but he sent her to the executioner at age 21.

Thomas Cromwell was beheaded not long after the Cleves marriage ended, but he permeates every page of The Fifth Queen, a sinister omnipresence with eyes and ears in every dark corner of the kingdom. Hilary Mantel presents Cromwell as at least a more balanced and reasonable character; Ford joins the legions of authors who present him as evil personified -- a manipulative megalomaniac who, in his cunning power games, cost thousands their lives.  On the other hand, Ford paints Kathryn Howard less as a flighty, frivolous girl and more as a pawn in the ruthless politics of Henry's court.

The Fifth Queen is the first novel in a trilogy: The second is Privy Seal: His Last Venture, and The Fifth Queen Crowned is the third. (They are available for free download from www.gutenberg.org.)

Cromwell rose to the rank of Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1536, and he managed to stay in this post (one of the five highest in the Court) for four years.  In April 1540, Henry advanced him one step further, to Lord Great Chamberlain.  In June of the same year, he was executed, and Henry married Kathryn Howard in July.

Mantel and Ford share the same gift for finding a narrative voice that is just archaic enough to be consistent and credible without being onerous for the modern reader.  They are both talented story-tellers, but a reader with no background whatever in Tudor history will struggle. Mantel expends most of her energy on her characters; Ford invests a great deal in his setting.

Graham Greene, a faithful admirer, astutely observes Ford's attention to light:  "He tries out the impressionist method...The whole story of the struggle between Katharine and Cromwell for the King seems told in shadows – shadows which flicker with the flames of a log-fire, diminish suddenly as a torch recedes, stand calm awhile in the candlelight of a chapel: a cresset flares and all the shadows leap together. Has a novel ever before been lit as carefully as a stage production?"

And in the warmly lit chamber at Austin Friars, previously an Augustinian friary which fell into Cromwell's hands when the Crown seized all the Church's property, Ford gives us our first and very telling glimpse of the Lord Privy Seal.
His plump hands were behind his back, his long upper lip ceaselessly caressed its fellow, moving as one line of a snake's coil glides above another.
Much like his upper lip, Cromwell's mind is rarely still, even in repose. He is the consummate chessmaster, always plotting potential moves far into the future.  As the novel opens, things look relatively secure for him, no matter how they play out.
With the generosity of his wine and the warmth of his fire, his thoughts went many years ahead. He imagined the King either married to or having repudiated the Lady from Cleves, and then dead. Edward, the Seymour child, was his creature, and would be king or dead. Cleves children would be his creations too. Or if he married the Lady Mary he would still be next the throne.
And then Kathryn Howard appears one day, out of the blue, upon an exhausted mule led by her cousin Culpeper. They've been accosted by angry mobs outside the palace when Henry and Cromwell come upon them. The young and lovely damsel in distress catches the King's attention, and he orders that the weary pair and the mule be given lodgings.  

Kathryn is a niece of the Duke of Norfolk; she is from the north country -- a region that has been slow to give up the Old Faith and which has felt Cromwell's bloody wrath as a consequence.  Kathryn is far from a rustic innocent, however. Although unaccustomed to either the sophistication or the shenanigans at the royal Court, she is a polymath in her own right.  Culpeper, her adoring firebrand cousin, is clearly an albatross around her neck, but he had in many ways taught her to cope with men and their associated aggravations.
...to her all these things had seemed very far away. She had nothing to do but to read books in the learned tongues, to imagine herself holding disquisitions upon the spiritual republic of Plato, to ride, to shoot with the bow, to do needlework, or to chide the maids. Her cousin had loved her passionately; it was true that once, when she had had nothing to her back, he had sold a farm to buy her a gown. But he had menaced her with his knife till she was weary, and the ways of men were troublesome to her; nevertheless she submitted to them with a patient wisdom.
When Kathryn arrives at Henry's Court, Cromwell and one of his lackeys, Viridus, realise all too quickly how bright she is, and how useful that might be to them.  Particularly as Cromwell carries on that endless battle of wills with the Lady Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon -- as long as she is the figurehead to those of the Old Faith, plots are likely to be brewing which would present a threat to Henry's rule. 
[Kathryn's] fair and upright beauty made Viridus acknowledge how excellent a spy upon the Lady Mary she might make. Papistry and a loyal love for the Old Faith seemed to be as strong in her candid eyes as it was implicit in her name. The Lady Mary might trust her for that and talk with her because of her skill in the learned tongues. Then, if they held her in their hands, how splendid a spy she might make, being so trusted! She might well be won for their cause by the offer of liberal rewards, though Privy Seal's hand had been heavy upon all her kinsfolk. These men of Privy Seal's get from him a maxim which he got in turn from his master Macchiavelli: 'Advance therefore those whom it shall profit thee to make thy servants: for men forget sooner the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony' -- and either by threats or by rewards they might make her very useful.
Kathryn is savvy enough to see through many of these men, to see them as the lackeys that they are, but she's also savvy enough to grasp that she, too, is little more than a puppet.
She had been minded to mock him in the beginning of his speech, but his dangerous pale-blue eyes made her feel that if he were ridiculous he was also very powerful, and that she was in the hands of these men.
Bishop Gardiner of Winchester sneaks into Kathryn's quarters at night, well-disguised, to discern for himself how true is her bond to the Old Faith. If it's solid, she could prove a very useful tool to him in his own power struggles with Cromwell.  She convinces him of her Catholic devotion, but whether she will serve him or serve Cromwell is less certain.  
'Why, God keep you,' he moved his fingers in a negligent blessing. 'I believe you are true, though you are of little use.'  ...
He muttered: 'Think you Privy Seal knoweth not the King's taste? I tell you he hath seen an inclination in him towards you. This is a plot, but I have sounded it!' 
She let him talk, and asked, with a malice too fine for him to discern: 'I should not shun the King's presence for my soul's sake?'
'God forbid,' he answered. 'I may use thee to bring down Privy Seal.'
If, by the end of the book, we are horrified on Kathryn's behalf at the extent of the skullduggery, we also realise that Henry is exhausted by it.  He, of course, is unlikely to be the victim of his ministers' plots and schemes, but he is aware that they are jockeying for their own power and advancement and not solely for the good of the realm.  A sobbing Kathryn falls at his feet and pleads with him to let her leave the snake pit of his Court, but Henry looks down and sees a young woman who might provide him much solace.  

'Body of God, Body of God,' he muttered beneath his breath, as they went, 'very soon now I can rid me of these knaves,' and then, suddenly, he blared upon Katharine: 'Thou seest how I am plagued and would'st leave me. Before the Most High God, I swear thou shalt not.'
She fell upon her knees. 'With each that speaks, I find a new traitor to me,' she said. 'Let me begone.'
He threatened her with one hand. 'Wench,' he said, 'I have had better converse with thee than with man or child this several years. Thinkest thou I will let thee go?' She began to sob...
Whether the historical Kathryn was the frivolous young woman that most historians present or the more substantial and erudite character that Ford draws, the result is the same:  for a woman in the Tudor Court, life is never safe. Spies and opponents are everywhere, and the only question is with which party one casts one's lot.  He who is in the King's good graces today may be in the Tower tomorrow, and traitors rarely die alone.  True virtue is all but irrelevant.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Surgeon, by Tess Gerritsen

When I selected one of Tess Gerritsen's novels to record for MAB last month, I randomly settled on The Apprentice, learning later that it was a sequel to The Surgeon.  Small matter -- they were no less riveting in reverse order.

In this, the first novel, a suave young doctor in South Carolina, Andrew Capra, has a beef with his internship supervisor, Dr. Catherine Cordell, who has informed him that he failed his surgical rotation in her ward. He comes to her house at the end of the shift to discuss the matter, and she invites him in for a beer.  When she regains consciousness, she is bound to her bed, naked, and looking at a tray of surgical instruments on the bedside table.  She manages to wrest a pistol from under her mattress (this is the US, after all), and she shoots her assailant.  Once, or twice, she can't remember, her mind still being fuzzy from the drug he'd slipped into her beer.  At any rate, Andrew Capra is dead.

Fast forward a few years, and plucky Dr. Cordell is now practising at a Boston hospital, focusing intently on her work and trying to put the trauma of her assault behind her. This proves impossible when a string of women in the Boston area show up in the morgue having been surgically maimed in the same manner as Andrew Capra's victims.  It doesn't take long for the police, including the brash, often abrasive Jane Rizzoli, to find their way to Dr. Cordell to investigate possible connections.  Clearly Andrew Capra has not risen from the dead, so is there a copycat on the loose?  Well, it doesn't seem likely, because the Boston killer seems to know things that were never part of the public record.  He must, it seems, have known Andrew Capra personally.

Since Tess Gerritsen has written two novels about serial-killing psychopaths who work as partners, I would guess there must be some historical precedent for this. It's ghastly enough to contemplate one bloodthirsty sadist, but to imagine two of them finding each other and "hunting" as a team is even more chilling. 

As she did in The Apprentice, Dr. Gerritsen inserts several passages in Warren Hoyt's own voice throughout the novel.  We quickly learn that he is obsessed with blood.  His is a bloodlust in the truest sense -- he gets a sensual and sexual frisson just thinking about the stuff.  Although Hoyt was asked to withdraw from medical school by the irate anatomy professor who found him molesting a cadaver in the dissection lab, he is not overly troubled by this temporary obstacle. His late parents left him a hefty inheritance, and with the help of his friend and former med school classmate, Andrew Capra, Warren can find other ways to indulge his desire to perform surgery.

Capra and Hoyt socialise as well as "work" together, often travelling abroad on holiday junkets to Greece or Central America. As he contemplates the Mayan ruins in Mexico, Warren wonders about the technique the priests would have used to extract the hearts from their living sacrificial victims, given the absence of modern luxuries like bone saws. With a little research, he finds his answer. It really is a pity he flunked out of med school, Dr. Gerritsen seems to be suggesting. He's a diligent scholar, if nothing else.
Books are wonderful things; they can tell you anything, everything, even how to cut out a heart using a flint knife, with a minimum of fuss. I found my answer in a textbook with the title Human Sacrifice and Warfare, written by an academic (my, universities are interesting places these days!), a man named Sherwood Clarke, whom I would very much like to meet someday.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Mr. Hoyt's life is also the most banal:  He works as a lab technician -- in a hospital.  As the police are frantically searching for Hoyt, who has kidnapped Dr. Catherine Cordell and vanished with her, they stand in his lab and struggle to grasp the scope of the situation. Hoyt had access to all the vital details on those he stalked -- their names, addresses, medical histories, and diagnoses, and what he didn't discern from his computer screen, he found in the vials of their blood.  Cell counts, pathogens, requested tests to be performed.  It would be hard to imagine any other job which would provide a serial killer with all the necessary bits of data to ply his trade.  

I tell myself that I'm likelier to die from an undiagnosed disease by refusing a blood test than I am to be eviscerated by a lunatic who works in the blood lab. But I suppose that's the point of horror fiction, isn't it? Honestly, these books scare me, and I can see. I would think life for a blind person is already quite frightening enough without reading Tess Gerritsen novels.  But no, they love them, so I have my marching orders.  I'm not complaining!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

When I was in school, The Catcher in the Rye was still a banned book, or was at least controversial enough to be excised from academic reading lists.  Now, with a new biopic of J.D. Salinger about to be released, it seemed  high time to read his best-known novel.

That voice! In a 1962 article for Harper's Magazine, Mary McCarthy credited Salinger with "a ventriloquist’s knack of disguising his voice."  As the ventriloquist's dummy, Holden Caulfield is unforgettable -- jaded yet naive, aggravating but pitiful. I can only imagine the kerfuffle this book kicked off when it came out in 1952, not only because of Holden's chronic cursing, underaged drinking and dalliance with a prostitute but also because the literary world had never met a narrator quite like him.  And for those who voiced their disapproval, you just know how Holden himself would respond:  "Goddam hypocrites."

Shane Salerno is the writer of the new documentary, "Salinger".  In a recent interview (my apologies, but I don't remember where I read it), he commented that Salinger's life was indelibly touched by his combat experience in World War II, and all of his novels, including The Catcher in the Rye, show tell-tale signs of that psychological trauma. That bit of background makes Holden an even more sympathetic character -- unable to express the grief when his brother dies, Holden lets his pain drive him from one private school to the next, each peopled with ever more "phony" teachers and students. In fact, almost no one meets with Holden's trust or approval -- Thomas Hardy and his younger sister, Phoebe are among the few.  

I do empathise with Holden's parents and teachers who see his tremendous intelligence but worry that unless he settles down and develops some self-discipline, he will crash and burn, or worse, just land in the gutter and stay there.  Holden is driven by what he likes and admires, though, and he doesn't see the point of investing any time reading books by phonies. One of his former English teachers gently suggests that there might still be some value in reading assigned books that he doesn't exactly like, but Holden is having none of it. He has his own ideas about what constitutes a good book.
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though. I wouldn't want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don't know, He just isn't the kind of guy I'd want to call up, that's all. I'd rather call old Thomas Hardy up. I like that Eustacia Vye.
Nor does Holden have any use for his schoolmates, and it's a wonder he took only one beating from them in the course of the book. Just before he leaves his school at the end of the fall term -- he's been expelled and is not looking forward to sharing this news with his parents -- he wakes up the young man in the next room in the middle of the night.
"Listen. What's the routine on joining a monastery?" I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining one. "Do you have to be a Catholic and all?" "Certainly you have to be a Catholic. You bastard, did you wake me just to ask me a dumb ques--" "Aah, go back to sleep. I'm not gonna join one anyway. The kind of luck I have, I'd probably join one with all the wrong kind of monks in it. All stupid bastards. Or just bastards." When I said that, old Ackley sat way the hell up in bed. "Listen," he said, "I don't care what you say about me or anything, but if you start making cracks about my goddam religion, for Chrissake--" "Relax," I said. "Nobody's making any cracks about your goddam religion."
Even when well-intentioned people show Holden some kindness, they rarely get it right (by his standards), and the fact that he can't abide their failed efforts drives him into an even deeper funk.
Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.
On the train back home to New York, Holden finds himself sitting opposite the mother of one of his schoolmates who, to no one's surprise, Holden loathes. He proceeds to "confide" in the mother that her son is the greatest student to grace the school's dooryard. She seems a tad surprised to hear that he is so popular.
"Well. He's a very sensitive boy. He's really never been a terribly good mixer with other boys. Perhaps he takes things a little more seriously than he should at his age." Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat. I gave her a good look. She didn't look like any dope to me. She looked like she might have a pretty damn good idea what a bastard she was the mother of. But you can't always tell--with somebody's mother, I mean. Mothers are all slightly insane.
As he imagines his father's reaction to yet one more school expulsion, Holden decides that his only hope is to head out west and find work on a ranch, but he first wants to say good-bye to his little sister, Phoebe. He arranges to meet her at the Natural History Museum.  (To his horror, she arrives with her suitcase, having guessed his plan and determined to join him.)  While he's waiting for her, though, Holden muses about the passage of time, and about change.
I kept thinking about old Phoebe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to. I thought how she'd see the same stuff I used to see, and how she'd be different every time she saw it. It didn't exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn't make me feel gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway.
Poor old Holden. You want to hug him, and then you want to deck him.  And he just doesn't give a good goddam either way.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

As I was reading Veronica, I often compared it to some of Robert Mapplethorpe's erotic photographs,
especially those in his S&M series -- from a technical perspective, they are irreproachable, but the images are still disturbing. Likewise, Mary Gaitskill's prose is incongruously beautiful as she gives us a narrator who is, for the most part, spiritually vacuous, moving numbly through her decadent world.

Is it a case of style over substance?  Somewhat. I'm not a reader who requires likeable characters, high drama or happy endings, but apart from admiring Mary Gaitskill's talent with words, I struggled to make a connection with this book.

The eponymous Veronica plays a relatively minor role in the story, but then, no one seems to have a significant emotional impact on Alison, the narrator. Having run away from home as a teenager to work as a model, Alison is terminally jaded.  She meets Veronica, a middle-aged editor, in a temp agency, and they fall into a flimsy, insubstantial friendship.  As she narrates Veronica's decline and death from AIDS, which she had contracted from her bisexual boyfriend, Alison's tone becomes almost clinical. As someone whose own life is drifting downstream into oblivion, she -- seemingly without irony -- dispenses advice to Veronica, advice that she certainly doesn't apply to herself.
I snap open the umbrella and remember the last time I visited Veronica. She served me brownies in pink wrapping paper, fancy cheese, and sliced fruit she was too sick to eat. I remember the time I said, "I don't think you love yourself. You need to learn to love yourself." Veronica was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I think love is overrated. My parents loved me. And it didn't do any good."
I think I'd rather Veronica had narrated the book.
She was a plump thirty-seven-year-old with bleached-blond hair. She wore tailored suits in mannish plaids with matching bow ties, bright red lipstick, false red fingernails, and mascara that gathered in intense beads on the ends of her eyelashes. Her loud voice was sensual and rigid at once, like plastic baubles put together in rococo shapes. It was deep but could quickly become shrill. You could hear her from across the room, calling everyone, even people she hated, "hon": "Excuse me, hon, but I'm very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon." She proofread like a cop with a nightstick.
Alison had run away, not from an abusive or neglectful household, but from a stolid, middle-class one. After a bout of bumming around San Francisco in typical, seedy, unemployed teenager mode, she goes home to New Jersey for a while, until the boredom sets in again.
Van Cliburn played Tchaikovsky in the next room; in the dining room, the TV was on mute. The months in San Francisco were folded up into a bright tiny box and put down somewhere amid the notices and piles of coupons. I was blended into the electrical comfort of home.
When she needs another excitement fix, Alison talks her parents into letting her go to work for a modelling agency in Paris. Glamour? Sophistication? Hardly, and she's too naive to know the difference.
We met for champagne and omelettes in a sunny bistro with bright-colored cars honking outside. He talked about the Rolling Stones and his six-year-old daughter, after whom he had named the agency Celeste. He asked if I wanted children. I said, "No." He grabbed my nose between two knuckles and squeezed it. The omelettes came heaped on white plates with blanched asparagus. He hadn't kissed me yet. He spread his slim legs and tucked a cloth napkin into his shirt with an air of appetite. I wanted badly to touch him. Inside its daintiness, the asparagus was acrid and deep. He said, "The first thing we need to do is get you a Swiss bank account. All the smart girls have one. First, you don't have to pay taxes that way. Then they invest it for you. Your money will double, triple. You should see!" I loved him and he obviously loved me. Love like in the James Bond movies, where the beautiful sexy girl loves James but tries to kill him anyway.
The beautiful sexy girl never kills James Bond, of course, and the agent, when he dumps Alison, sends her off without the contents of that Swiss bank account, which he had opened in the agency's name.

Nor does the beautiful sexy girl intimidate Veronica, who, in a moment of brutal clarity, tells it like it is.
There was a wondering silence. Veronica smoked with her lips in a sideways purse so she could stare at me as she inhaled; her eyes flared with each tiny facial twist. "How did you get into modeling to begin with?"
"By fucking a nobody catalog agent who grabbed my crotch." I didn't have to be embarrassed or make up something nice, because Veronica was nobody. My disdain was so habitual, I didn't notice it. But she did. She said, "Every pretty girl has a story like that, hon. I had that prettiness. I have those stories. I don't have to do that anymore, though. It's my show now." And she turned into a movie star, strutting past me while I gawked.
Alison's superficiality seems to smack her in the face again and again, yet her assessments of other people never go beyond skin-deep and never take into account that beauty might exist in a woman who is not fit material for a magazine cover. After Veronica's death, David, the man who adopted her cat, relates a dream in which Veronica appeared, and in which "her poise and intellectual grace were visible".  Alison, moved by the image in this dream, phones her sister Sara to discuss it.
When I got off the phone with David, I called Sara to tell her about it. I don't know why. When I finished describing the dream, I said, "And that's what Veronica was really like, under all the ugliness and bad taste. It's so sad, I can't stand it. She'd gotten so stunted and twisted up, she came out looking like this ridiculous person with bad hair, when she was meant to be sophisticated and brilliant. Like in the dream."
Sara was silent, and in the silence I felt her furrow her brow. "I thoughts she was sophisticated and brilliant, Alison. I thought her hair was nice."
In the end, Alison sums it up like this:
I sank down into darkness and lived among the demons for a long, long time. I became one of them. But I was not saved by an innocent girl or an angel crying in heaven. I was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in turn, I was allowed to become human, too.  
By that time, though, I'd lost all trust in Alison. I don't believe she was saved by another demon, because I don't believe Veronica was one.  I question whether she was saved, human once more, at all.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

I began this book with some trepidation, thinking I'd read another of Stephen Kelman's books and disliked it.  (In fact I was confusing him with the Scottish author James Kelman, whose novel The Bus Conductor Hines was so peppered with Glaswegian slang and profanity that it was quite possibly more unpleasant to read than it would be to work as a bus conductor in Glasgow.)

But no, this is Englishman Stephen Kelman, and Pigeon English is his debut novel.  I loved it, as did the Man Booker Prize committee members, as they voted the book onto their short list in 2011.

The narrator is 11 year-old Harrison Opoku, who has come to urban England from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Lydia.  Asweh, but this boy is lovable!  He loves most people, especially his baby sister (still in Ghana with their father), and his pretty blonde schoolmate Poppy (which he indicated in his reply when she passed him a note saying, "Do you like me?" with Yes and No check-boxes for his convenience). He loves certain trees, and pigeons, most notably the one with whom he converses when he's sneaking food out onto the balcony for it. The pigeon reciprocates by keeping an eye on Harrison as he navigates the perils of his neighbourhood, which include gangs of toughs.  When another youngster is found stabbed to death, Harrison and his friend Jordan set to work as amateur detectives, gathering evidence to help solve the crime.

As I made my way into this novel, I felt the sort of trepidation one might feel watching a young gymnast on the balance beam, alternately wondering what she might do next and praying she doesn't fall on her face. I wondered, would Kelman try a double back-flip and lapse into a saccharine-sweet childhood memoir, or would he attempt an aerial walkover and write Harrison into a black bog of urban violence and hopelessness?  To my enormous relief, he pulled it off, staying well away from both twee and dismal.

I don't remember what it's like to be 11, but Stephen Kelman obviously does. Harrison is proud to be the "second fastest boy" in his school, and he's keenly aware of his footwear, drawing some Adidas stripes on his no-name athletic shoes with magic markers, to the derision of his mates. He quickly picks up on the cultural mores in his new land and rattles off a litany of facts he's acquired.
Some rules I have learned from my new school: No running on the stairs. No singing in class. Always put your hand up before you ask a question. Don't swallow the gum or it will get stuck in your guts and you'll die. Jumping in the puddle means you're a retard (I don't even agree with this one). Going around the puddle means you're a girl. The last one in close the door. The first one to answer the question loves the teacher. If a girl looks at you three times in a row it means she loves you. If you look at her back you love her. He who smelt it dealt it. He who denied it supplied it. He who sensed it dispensed it. He who knew it blew it. He who noted it floated it. He who declared it aired it. He who spoke it broke it. He who exposed it composed it. He who blamed it flamed it. (All these are just for farts.) If you look at the back of a mirror you'll see the devil. Don't eat the soup. The dinner ladies pissed in it. Don't lend Ross Kelly your pen. He picks his arse klinkers with it. Keep to the left (everywhere). The right is out of bounds. The library stairs are safe. If he wears a pinky ring he's a gay (a pinky ring is a ring on your little finger). If she wears a bracelet on her ankle she's a lesbian (shags it up with other ladies). There are more but my memory ran out.
Harrison struggles to make sense of his older sister's teen-aged friends, and through his eyes we see Lydia also trying to find her way in this strange new place. Their aunt is involved with a shady, violent man; she frequently bumps her face into cabinet doors or breaks her leg when stumbling. Harrison, however, keeps himself busy gathering evidence -- fingerprints on adhesive tape, for example -- to solve the murder, always confident that he can outsmart or outrun the evil.  The gangs, however, are omnipresent, and although Harrison tries to give them a wide berth, he can't always avoid them entirely. Calling him simply "Ghana", the older boys challenge him to join them in petty (and not so petty crimes), and they make it clear that he's failed a test by running away from the scene when they assault the pastor of his family's church.

Harrison is at a magical age: He is a good boy, still untainted by the ugliness around him. He has the whimsical imagination of a child, marvelling at the mysterious and stupid things that adults do as he pieces together his world view. In his science class, Harrison suggests that a volcano is Hell incarnate, which triggers a meditation on metaphysics for 11 year-olds.
Me: "But really it's Hell down there, isn't it sir." Mr Carroll: "That's an interesting theory. It's definitely as hot as hell, that's for sure." Everybody was laughing at me. They don't believe in Hell around here. Asweh, they're in for a nasty surprise! They're going to get burned up like human toast! In the early times they thought a fire god lived inside the volcano. He'd only stop throwing fire at them if they threw a virgin in the volcano for the god to eat. They thought there was a different god in everything. They thought there was a sky god and a tree god and a volcano god and a sea god. All their gods were angry all the time. They had to keep feeding them or they'd destroy them. The sea god would make a flood or the sky god would rain lightning on you or the tree god would fall on your house. They were always going to destroy you unless you fed them with virgins. Asweh, early-times people were very stupid. A virgin is a lady who isn't married yet. They'e prized because they're so rare. Only the gods can eat them. Married ladies gave them the shits. Everybody agreed.
Kelman so completely reverted to the mindset of an 11 year-old  that he gives no hint of typical adult reaction to events. Harrison looks at the violence around him with curiosity and perhaps only a slight tinge of fear. And his trusty pigeon consoles him: "Thank you. I like you too, I always did. There's nothing to be scared of."

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

A friend recently posted a link to an Al-Jazeera interview session with Reza Aslan, conducted following what was said to have been a hostile, vitriolic interview with a CNN "journalist" who repeatedly demanded to know how or why a Muslim could possibly write a book about Jesus. Obviously, the simple notion that he is a scholar didn't occur to her. The calibre of the panel on Al-Jazeera, I'm sad to say, wasn't much higher though more civil.  I was very impressed, however, with the author, who calmly explained that he is Muslim simply because the "language" of Islam is the one that happens to work for him -- he sees all religions as roads to the same destination, not as destinations in and of themselves. To which I reply, Hallelujah!

Probably driven by the media furor, Zealot has ascended (sorry, can't help myself) to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  Having now read it, I'm willing to bet that it's one of the most-bought-and-least-read books since Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.  Aslan is an academic. Though rich with drama and written for a broader audience, this book is a history text. Readers with faith-fuelled agendas or grudges will come away thwarted. Those who are in search of new information about the historical Jesus will also realise that there is none.  There is very little in the historical record about the man, and the gospels -- whether canonical or otherwise -- are documents of faith, not of fact. (More on that shortly.)  As for me, Zealot drove me to look at both Jesus and the gospels yet again in the context of 1st-century Palestine -- and both looked different in that historic setting.

The young Reza Aslan migrated with his family to the US from Iran. He opens the book with a very personal account of his relationships with religion. Still a boy, he passionately embraced Christianity and then, as so many of us did, angrily rejected it when too many aspects conflicted with reason. Eventually, he chose Islam as his own vehicle of faith, but he never lost his passion for Jesus of Nazareth -- Jesus the Zealot, the rebel, before he became known, posthumously, to his followers as Jesus the Christ.
Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable...
I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I'd just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face. Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world. The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history -- between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.
The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions -- just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years -- left me confused and spiritually unmoored. And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying... 
Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him. Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church...  Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.
The problem for any scholar of the historical Jesus is, of course, the paucity of documents.  The epistles and gospels, whether canonical or Gnostic, possibly relate a few actual events, but they were never intended as a record of  facts. In fact, Aslan notes, the idea would have struck the writers as foreign.
This is an extremely difficult matter for modern readers of the gospels to grasp, but Luke never meant for his story about Jesus's birth at Bethlehem to be understood as historical fact. Luke would have had no idea what we in the modern world even mean when we say the word "history." The notion of history as a critical analysis of observable and verifiable events in the past is a product of the modern age; it would have been an altogether foreign concept to the gospel writers for whom history was not a matter of uncovering facts, but of revealing truths...
...The first written testimony we have about Jesus of Nazareth comes from the epistles of Paul, an early follower of Jesus who died sometime around 66 C.E. (Paul's first epistle, 1 Thessalonians, can be dated between 48 and 50 C.E., some two decades after Jesus's death.) The trouble with Paul, however, is that he displays an extraordinary lack of interest in the historical Jesus... Paul may be an excellent source for those interested in the early formation of Christianity, but he is a poor guide for uncovering the historical Jesus.
...the gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a historical documentation of Jesus's life. These are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus's words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe. Simply put, the gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.
The earliest of the four canonical gospels, Mark, was written about 40 years after Jesus' crucifixion. It contains the least "supernatural" material, which evidently frustrated the earliest Christians.
Even the earliest Christians were left wanting by Mark's brusque account of Jesus's life and ministry, and so it was left to Mark's successors, Matthew and Luke, to improve upon the original text. Two decades after Mark, between 90 and 100 C.E., the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other and with Mark's manuscript as a template, updated the gospel story by adding their own unique traditions, including two different and conflicting infancy narratives as well as a series of elaborate resurrection stories to satisfy their Christian readers. Matthew and Luke also relied on what must have been an early and fairly well distributed collection of Jesus' sayings that scholars have termed Q (German Quelle, or "source"). Although we no longer have any physical copies of this document, we can infer its contents by compiling those verses that Matthew and Luke share in common but that do not appear in Mark.
 ...In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so.  
Essential to any understanding of Jesus is grasping the fact that he was a Jew living under Roman occupation. Words like zealot, revolutionary, rebel and seditious gadfly are unavoidable.
The notion that the leader of a popular messianic movement calling for the imposition of the"Kingdom of God" -- a term that would have been understood by Jew and gentile alike as implying revolt against Rome --could have remained uninvolved in the revolutionary fervor that had gripped nearly every Jew in Judea is simply ridiculous.
The gospel images of Jesus as a Gandhi-esque pacifist are either incomplete or completely inaccurate. Why this softened profile? The Romans retaliated for the Jewish rebellion (which finally came about decades after Jesus' crucifixion) with devastating violence. The few Jews who survived it were no longer inclined to think fondly of the zealots who had driven the revolt.
Why would the gospel writers go to such lengths to temper the revolutionary nature of Jesus's message and movement? To answer this question we must first recognize that almost every gospel story written about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. In that year, a band of Jewish rebels, spurred by their zeal for God, roused their fellow Jews in revolt. Miraculously, the rebels managed to liberate the Holy Land from the Roman occupation. For four glorious years, the city of God was once again under Jewish control. Then, in 70 C.E., the Romans returned. After a brief siege of Jerusalem, the soldiers breached the city walls and unleashed an orgy of violence upon its residents. They butchered everyone in their path, heaping corpses on the Temple Mount. A river of blood flowed down the cobblestone streets. When the massacre was complete, the soldiers set fire to the Temple of God. The fires spread beyond the Temple Mount, engulfing Jerusalem's meadows, the farms, the olive trees. Everything burned. So complete was the devastation wrought upon the holy city that Josephus writes there was nothing left to prove Jerusalem had ever been inhabited. Tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. The rest were marched out of the city in chains. The spiritual trauma faced by the Jews in the wake of that catastrophic event is hard to imagine. Exiled from the land promised them by God, forced to live as outcasts among the pagans of the Roman Empire, the rabbis of the second century gradually and deliberately divorced Judaism from the radical messianic nationalism that had launched the ill-fated war with Rome.
Moreover, the early Christians were now on missions to convert gentiles across the Roman world, and it was helpful to have a message (and a Jesus) who was more palatable to the Romans.
The Christians, too, felt the need to distance themselves from the revolutionary zeal that had led to the sacking of Jerusalem, not only because it allowed the early church to ward off the wrath of a deeply vengeful Rome, but also because, with the Jewish religion having become pariah, the Romans had become the primary target of the church's evangelism.  
...Thus began the long process of transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader with no interest in any earthly matter. That was a Jesus the Romans could accept, and in fact did accept three centuries later when the Roman emperor Flavius Theodosius (d. 395) made the itinerant Jewish preacher's movement the official religion of the state, and what we now recognize as orthodox Christianity was born.
... The common depiction of Jesus as an inveterate peacemaker who "loved his enemies" and "turned the other cheek" has been built mostly on his portrayal as an apolitical preacher with no interest in or, for that matter, knowledge of the politically turbulent world in which he lived. That picture of Jesus has already been shown to be a complete fabrication. The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence. There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions. But he was certainly no pacifist. 
Aslan repeatedly reminds us that Jesus was a Jew, and to grasp his mindset, we must examine the culture in which he lived, including the central place the Temple occupied in the society -- only then can we see the relevance of Jesus' rage when he wrought havoc there, in one of the final acts of defiance before his arrest.
Unlike their heathen neighbors, the Jews do not have a multiplicity of temples scattered across the land. There is only one cultic center, one unique source for the divine presence, one singular place and no other where a Jew can commune with the living God. Judea is, for all intents and purposes, a temple-state. The very term 'theocracy' was coined specifically to describe Jerusalem.
The Temple, and its exclusive (and often corrupt) clique of high priests, had become puppets of the Romans, which infuriated the Jews who felt that the sanctity of the Temple was compromised -- it was becoming something that belonged more to Caesar, less to God.
If the Romans wanted to control the Jews, they had to control the Temple. And if they wanted to control the Temple, they had to control the high priest, which is why, soon after taking control over Judea, Rome took upon itself the responsibility of appointing and deposing (either directly or indirectly) the high priest, essentially transforming him into a Roman employee. Rome even kept custody of the high priest's sacred garments, handing them out only on the sacred festivals and feast days and confiscating them immediately after the ceremonies were complete.
Looking at the atmosphere in Judea at the time of Jesus is illuminating. The gospels, all written at least 40 years after Jesus' death circa 33 CE, give us little historical fact about the life of Jesus, but I always find it interesting to learn more about why they contain what they do.  Mark, the earliest of the gospels, opens with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist -- there is no birth narrative. Matthew and Luke, the next two gospels, do include birth narratives, but they conflict in several regards. Each evangelist took different steps to make the point that this child was in fact the Messiah whose coming had been prophesied.
Matthew has Jesus flee to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre not because it happened, but because it fulfills the words of the prophet Hosea: "Out of Egypt I have called my son" (Hosea 11:1). The story is not meant to reveal any fact about Jesus; it is meant to reveal this truth: that Jesus is the new Moses, who survived Pharaoh's massacre of the Israelites'sons, and emerged from Egypt with a new law from God (Exodus 1:22).
...Luke places Jesus's birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there, but because of the words of the prophet Micah: "And you Bethlehem -- from you shall come to me a ruler in Israel" (Micah 5:2). Luke means that Jesus is the new David, the King of the Jews, placed on God's throne to rule over the Promised Land. Simply put, the infancy narratives in the gospels are not historical accounts, nor were they meant to be read as such. They are theological affirmations of Jesus's status as the anointed of God. The descendant of King David. The promised messiah.
One of the points that Aslan hammers repeatedly is that Jesus of Nazareth was a peasant from a small, backwater village, and almost certainly illiterate. That he had as much impact as he did is remarkable, but the gospels again inflate his status.
Whatever languages Jesus may have spoken, there is no reason to think he could read or write in any of them, not even Aramaic. Luke's account of the twelve-year-old Jesus standing in the Temple of Jerusalem debating the finer points of the Hebrew Scriptures with rabbis and scribes (Luke 2:42-52), or his narrative of Jesus at the (nonexistent) synagogue in Nazareth reading from the Isaiah scroll to the astonishment of the Pharisees (Luke 4:16-22), are both fabulous concoctions of the evangelist's own devising. Jesus would not have had access to the kind of formal education necessary to make Luke's account even remotely credible.
...After Jesus was declared messiah, the only aspects of his infancy and childhood that did matter were those that could be creatively imagined to buttress whatever theological claim one was trying to make about Jesus's identity as Christ.
Jesus isn't the only one to get a make-over in the gospels. Pilate is whitewashed to look like a reluctant participant in Jesus' crucifixion (this once again making the new sect more appealing to would-be Roman converts).  The historical record suggests that Pilate and Jewish high priest Caiaphas collaborated to keep the peace in Jerusalem and would have been equally motivated to dispose of seditious rabble-rousers.
The gospels present Pilate as a righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with doubt about putting Jesus of Nazareth to death that he does everything in his power to save his life, finally washing his hands of the entire episode when the Jews demand his blood. That is pure fiction. What Pilate was best known for was his extreme depravity, his total disregard for Jewish law and tradition, and his barely concealed aversion to the Jewish nation as a whole. During his tenure in Jerusalem he so eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross that the people of Jerusalem felt obliged to lodge a formal complaint with the Roman emperor.
...But whereas Gratus appointed and dismissed five different high priests in his time as governor, throughout Pilate's decade-long tenure in Jerusalem, he had only one high priest to contend with: Joseph Caiaphas. Part of the reason Caiaphas was able to hold the position of high priest for an unprecedented eighteen years was because of the close relationship he ended up forging with Pontius Pilate. The two men worked well together. The period of their combined rule, from 18 C.E. to 36 C.E., coincided with the most stable period in the entire first century. Together they managed to keep a lid on the revolutionary impulse of the Jews by dealing ruthlessly with any hint of political disturbance, no matter how small.
Thus, Jesus' tantrum in the temple -- raging against the money-lenders and other vendors within -- was an insufferable act of rebellion in the eyes of the Roman occupiers and the priests who were colluding with them.
After all, an attack on the business of the Temple is akin to an attack on the priestly nobility, which, considering the Temple's tangled relationship with Rome, is tantamount to an attack on Rome itself. ... But look closely at Jesus's words and actions at the Temple in Jerusalem -- the episode that undoubtedly precipitated his arrest and execution -- and this one fact becomes difficult to deny: Jesus was crucified by Rome because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealotry endangered the Temple authorities. That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth.
... Like his zealous predecessors, Jesus was less concerned with the pagan empire occupying Palestine than he was with the Jewish imposter occupying God's Temple. Both would come to view Jesus as a threat, and both would seek his death. But there can be no doubt that Jesus's main antagonist in the gospels is neither the distant emperor in Rome nor his heathen officials in Judea. It is the high priest Caiaphas, who will become the main instigator of the plot to execute Jesus precisely because of the threat he posed to the Temple's authority.  
And what of John the Baptist? Aslan concludes that he was a highly popular and respected preacher preceding Jesus, who probably indeed began as one of John's disciples. Their blood relationship as related in Luke's gospel is fictional, as is the tale of Salome demanding the Baptist's head. I write that with a pang, as Mary's visitation to her cousin Elizabeth -- prompting the Magnificat -- and Herod Antipas presenting the bloody prize to his wife and step-daughter on a platter are two of my most cherished New Testament scenes.  (I did, however, climb up to the ruins of Machaerus in Jordan in 2005, which is the fortress in which scholars believe John was in fact executed, with or without Salome's connivance. It's a haunting spot.)
John's warning of the coming wrath of God might not have been new or unique in first-century Palestine, but the hope he offered those who cleansed themselves, who made themselves anew and pursued the path of righteousness, had enormous appeal. John promised the Jews who came to him a new world order, the Kingdom of God. And while he never developed the concept beyond a vague notion of equality and justice, the promise itself was enough in those dark, turbulent times to draw to him a wave of Jews from all walks of life -- the rich and the poor, the mighty and the weak. Antipas was right to fear John; even his own soldiers were flocking to him. He therefore seized John, charged him with sedition, and sent him to the fortress of Machaerus, where the Baptist was quietly put to death sometime between 28 and 30 C.E.
Despite his fame, however, no one seems to have known then -- just as no one knows now -- who, exactly, John the Baptist was or where he had come from. ... If John's baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, as Mark claims, then Jesus's acceptance of it indicated a need to be cleansed of his sins by John. If John's baptism was an initiation rite, as Josephus suggests, then clearly Jesus was being admitted into John's movement as just another one of his disciples. This was precisely the claim made by John's followers, who, long after both men had been executed, refused to be absorbed into the Jesus movement because they argued that their master, John, was greater than Jesus. After all, who baptized whom?
Reza Aslan doesn't quail about referring to Jesus as a miracle-worker, as it was a well-recognised occupation at the time. He also makes plain that this was in direct contrast to the Temple priests, who would not touch the diseased or crippled for fear of contamination and who demanded fees for those they would attempt to heal. This, Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan suggests, is the ultimate hypocrisy, the supreme disregard for the law to love they neighbour as theyself.
In first-century Palestine, professional wonder worker was a vocation as well established as that of woodworker or mason, and far better paid. ... Yet from the perspective of the Galileans, what set Jesus apart from his fellow exorcists and healers is that he seemed to be providing his services free of charge.
How one in the modern world views Jesus's miraculous actions is irrelevant. All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was -- a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate? -- there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker.
The very purpose of designing the Temple of Jerusalem as a series of ever more restrictive ingressions was to maintain the priestly monopoly over who can and cannot come into the presence of God and to what degree. ... With every leper cleansed, every paralytic healed, every demon cast out, Jesus was not only challenging that priestly code, he was invalidating the very purpose of the priesthood.
Much as the gospels would have us believe that Jesus was preaching universal truths to all humanity, Aslan reminds us of the difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ -- the man cannot be removed from his historical context or social environment. The man was a Jewish revolutionary.
After the Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, the early Christian church tried desperately to distance Jesus from the zealous nationalism that had led to that awful war. As a result, statements such as "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" were deliberately cleansed of their Jewish context and transformed into abstract ethical principles that all peoples could abide regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or religious persuasions. Yet if one wants to uncover what Jesus himself truly believed, one must never lose sight of this fundamental fact: Jesus of Nazareth was first and finally a Jew.
He insisted that his mission was "solely to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24) and commanded his disciples to share the good news with none but their fellow Jews: "Go nowhere near the gentiles and do not enter the city of the Samaritans" (Matthew 10:5-6).
To the Israelites, as well as to Jesus's community in first-century Palestine, "neighbor" meant one's fellow Jews. With regard to the treatment of foreigners and outsiders, oppressors and occupiers, however, the Torah could not be clearer: "You shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not live in your land." (Exodus 23:31-33).
If Christ is divine, then he stands above any particular law or custom. But for those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls "a man of war" (Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the "blood-spattered God" of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3), the God who "shatters the heads of his enemies" bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68:21-23) -- that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped.
The Jews of 1st-century Palestine were waiting for a Messiah to liberate them from the occupation du jour. Jesus proved to be an illiterate peasant who was executed in the most disgraceful fashion for sedition. This hardly met anyone's idea of a saviour.
The problem for the early church is that Jesus did not fit any of the messianic paradigms offered in the Hebrew Bible, nor did he fulfill a single requirement expected of the messiah. Jesus spoke about the end of days, but it did not come to pass, not even after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and defiled God's Temple. He promised that God would liberate the Jews from bondage, but God did no such thing. He vowed that the twelve tribes of Israel would be reconstituted and the nation restored; instead, the Romans expropriated the Promised Land, slaughtered its inhabitants, and exiled the survivors. The Kingdom of God that Jesus predicted never arrived; the new world order he described never took shape. According to the standards of the Jewish cult and the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was as successful in his messianic aspirations as any of the other would-be messiahs.
...Regardless of how Jesus viewed himself, the fact remains that he was never able to establish the Kingdom of God. The choice for the early church was clear: either Jesus was just another failed messiah, or what the Jews of Jesus's time expected of the messiah was wrong and had to be adjusted. For those who fell into the latter camp, the apocalyptic imagery of 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, both written long after Jesus's death, paved a way forward, allowing the early church to replace Jesus's understanding of himself as king and messiah with a new, post-Jewish Revolt paradigm of the messiah as a preexistent, predetermined, heavenly, and divine Son of Man, one whose"kingdom" was not of this world.
As the early Christians began to spread the word, they found the few surviving Jews in Palestine (following the Roman siege which ended the Jewish rebellion)  rather more receptive to the message than they had been earlier.
With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome's enmity (Rome's enmity toward Christians would peak much later), or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.
As mentioned before, some pointed editing to shift blame away from Pilate made the gospel an easier sell in Rome.
...the Roman intellectual elite had become the primary target of Christian evangelism. Reaching out to this particular audience required a bit of creativity on the part of the evangelists. Not only did all traces of revolutionary zeal have to be removed from the life of Jesus, the Romans had to be completely absolved of any responsibility for Jesus's death. It was the Jews who killed the messiah. The Romans were unwitting pawns of the high priest Caiaphas, who desperately wanted to murder Jesus but who did not have the legal means to do so. The high priest duped the Roman governor Pontius Pilate into carrying out a tragic miscarriage of justice. Poor Pilate tried everything he could to save Jesus. But the Jews cried out for blood, leaving Pilate no choice but to give in to them, to hand Jesus over to be crucified. Indeed, the farther each gospel gets from 70 C.E. and the destruction of Jerusalem, the more detached and outlandish Pilate's role in Jesus's death becomes.
As with everything else in the gospels, the story of Jesus's arrest, trial, and execution was written for one reason and one reason only: to prove that he was the promised messiah. Factual accuracy was irrelevant. What mattered was Christology, not history. [italics mine]
It may be true that, centuries after Jesus's death, Christians would interpret these verses in such a way as to help make sense of their messiah's failure to accomplish any of the messianic tasks expected of him. But the Jews of Jesus's time had no conception whatsoever of a messiah who suffers and dies. They were awaiting a messiah who triumphs and lives.
One of the early Christians, Stephen, was stoned to death outside Jerusalem for his outrageous statement that Jesus was a divine being. This is a significant moment, says Aslan, in the history of Jesus -- it is perhaps the transitional instant between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ.
The Son of Man, in Stephen's vision, is a preexistent, heavenly being whose kingdom is not of this world; who stands at the right hand of God, equal in glory and honor; who is, in form and substance, God made flesh. That is all it takes for the stones to start flying. Understand that there can be no greater blasphemy for a Jew than what Stephen suggests. The claim that an individual died and rose again into eternal life may have been unprecedented in Judaism. But the presumption of a "god-man" was simply anathema.
One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is the last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
The story of the zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation comes to an abrupt end, not with his death on the cross, nor with the empty tomb, but at the first moment one of his followers dares suggest he is God. Stephen was martyred sometime between 33 and 35 C.E. Among those in the crowd who countenanced his stoning was a pious young Pharisee from a wealthy Roman city on the Mediterranean Sea called Tarsus. His name was Saul, and he was a true zealot...
A true zealot, who also, it must be said, reads like an obsessive megalomaniac, insisting that although others had known Jesus personally, he was in direct communication with Jesus spiritually. What followed -- sometimes played out in various epistles from the warring factions -- was a battle between Peter, James and the disciples and Paul, both sides claiming they were preaching as Jesus would have wished. Paul proved the more zealous in the long run.
Paul holds particular contempt for the Jerusalem-based triumvirate of James, Peter, and John, whom he derides as the "so-called pillars of the church". "Whatever they are makes no difference to me, " he writes. "those leaders contributed nothing to me." The apostles may have walked and talked with the living Jesus (or, as Paul dismissively calls him, "Jesus-in-the-flesh"). But Paul walks and talks with the divine Jesus: they have, according to Paul, conversations in which Jesus imparts secret instructions intended solely for his ears.
Those who did know Jesus -- those who followed him into Jerusalem as its king and helped him cleanse the Temple in God's name, who were there when he was arrested and who watched him die a lonely death -- played a surprisingly small role in defining the movement Jesus left behind. The members of Jesus's family, and especially his brother James, who would lead the community in Jesus's absence, were certainly influential in the decades after the crucifixion. But they were hampered by their decision to remain more or less ensconced in Jerusalem waiting for Jesus to return, until they and their community, like nearly everyone else in the holy city, were annihilated by Titus's army in 70 C.E. The apostles who were tasked by Jesus to spread his message did leave Jerusalem and fan out across the land bearing the good news. But they were severely limited by their inability to theologically expound on the new faith or compose instructive narratives about the life and death of Jesus. These were farmers and fishermen, after all; they could neither read nor write.
... [that] fell instead to a new crop of educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews who would become the primary vehicles for the expansion of the new faith. As these extraordinary men and women, many of them immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic thought, began to reinterpret Jesus's message so as to make it more palatable both to their fellow Greek-speaking Jews and to their gentile neighbors in the Diaspora, they gradually transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter.
The discord between the two groups resulted in the emergence of two distinct and competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion: one championed by Jesus's brother, James; the other promoted by the former Pharisee, Paul. As we shall see, it would be the contest between these two bitter and openly hostile adversaries that, more than anything else, would shape Christianity as the global religion we know today.
The issue of the resurrection is of course a challenging one, for the historian as well as many theologians. Aslan (and most other New Testament scholars) return to the problem of Jesus as a "failed" messiah, which his followers chose to address by proclaiming his resurrection.
The disciples faced a profound test of their faith after Jesus's death. The crucifixion marked the end of their dream of overturning the existing system, of reconstituting the twelve tribes of Israel and ruling over them in God's name. The Kingdom of God would not be established on earth, as Jesus had promised. The meek and the poor would not exchange places with the rich and the powerful. The Roman occupation would not be overthrown. As with the followers of every other messiah the empire had killed, there was nothing left for Jesus's disciples to do but abandon their cause, renounce their revolutionary activities, and return to their farms and villages. Then something extraordinary happened. What exactly that something was is impossible to know. Jesus's resurrection is an exceedingly difficult topic for the historian to discuss, not least because it falls beyond the scope of any examination of the historical Jesus.
People seized it fiercely as truth, whether or not a matter of historical fact.
However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony. That is not, in itself, unusual. Many zealous Jews died horribly for refusing to deny their beliefs. But these first followers of Jesus were not being asked to reject matters of faith based on events that took place centuries, if not millennia, before. They were being asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered.
They were beaten, whipped, stoned, and crucified, yet they would not cease proclaiming the risen Jesus. And it worked! Perhaps the most obvious reason not to dismiss the disciples' resurrection experiences out of hand is that, among all the other failed messiahs who came before and after him, Jesus alone is still called messiah. It was precisely the fervor with which the followers of Jesus believed in his resurrection that transformed this tiny Jewish sect into the largest religion in the world.
The gospels said the resurrection fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, but those prophecies seem to have disappeared.
"Thus it is written that the messiah would suffer and rise again on the third day," Jesus instructs his disciples (Luke 24:44-46). Except that nowhere is any such thing written: not in the Law of Moses, not in the prophets, not in the Psalms. In the entire history of Jewish thought there is not a single line of scripture that says the messiah is to suffer, die, and rise again on the third day, which may explain why Jesus does not bother to cite any scripture to back up his incredible claim.
Aslan returns to the rift between Paul and the Jerusalem-based apostles. Paul insists that Jesus marks a clear and necessary departure from Judaism; the others staunchly disagree, as the historical Jesus himself most likely would have.
[Paul] calls his fellow believers who continue to practice circumcision -- the quintessential mark of the nation of Israel -- "dogs and evildoers" who "mutilate the flesh" (Philippians 3:2). These are startling statements for a former Pharisee to make. But for Paul they reflect the truth about Jesus that he feels he alone recognizes, which is that "Christ is the end of the Torah" (Romans 10:4).
...That is not to say that James and the apostles were uninterested in reaching out to gentiles, or that they believed gentiles could not join their movement. As indicated by his decision at the Apostolic Council, James was willing to forgo the practice of circumcision and other "burdens of the law" for gentile converts. James did not want to force gentiles to first become Jews before they were allowed to become Christians. He merely insisted that they not divorce themselves entirely from Judaism, that they maintain a measure of fidelity to the beliefs and practices of the very man they claimed to be following (Acts 15:12-21). Otherwise, the movement risked becoming a wholly new religion, and that is something neither James nor his brother Jesus would have imagined. 
Jesus may have disagreed with the scribes and scholars over the correct interpretation of the law, particularly when it came to such matters as the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. But he never rejected the law. On the contrary, Jesus warned that "whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19).
...One would think that Jesus's admonishment not to teach others to break the Law of Moses would have had some impact on Paul. But Paul seems totally unconcerned with anything "Jesus-in-the-flesh" may or may not have said. In fact, Paul shows no interest at all in the historical Jesus.
...Why does Paul go to such lengths not only to break free from the authority of the leaders in Jerusalem, but to denigrate and dismiss them as irrelevant or worse? Because Paul's views about Jesus are so extreme, so beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish thought, that only by claiming that they come directly from Jesus himself could he possibly get away with preaching them.
There was a council in Jerusalem in which Paul met with James, Peter, et al to discuss matters, but both sides gave different accounts of the result. Ultimately, Paul remained unchastened and continued to preach his own Christology. Was he mad, egomaniacal, both, neither? The battle resumed.
...almost immediately after Paul left Jerusalem, James began sending his own missionaries to Paul's congregations in Galatia, Corinth, Philippi, and most other places where Paul had built a following, in order to correct Paul's unorthodox teachings about Jesus.
Nevertheless, James's delegations seem to have had an impact, for Paul repeatedly lambastes his congregations for abandoning him: "I am amazed at how quickly you have deserted the one who called you" (Galatians 1:6). He implores his followers not to listen to these delegations, or to anyone else for that matter, but only to him.
Even if that gospel comes "from an angel in heaven," Paul writes, his congregations should ignore it (Galatians 1:8). Instead, they should obey Paul and only Paul: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Making less headway than he might have wished with his campaign to convince Jews to renounce their customs and law -- especially the Hellenised diaspora Jews -- Paul turned his evangelical fervour toward the gentiles.
But according to Acts, the Hellenists in Rome reacted so negatively to Paul's preaching that he decided to cut himself off once and for all from his fellow Jews "who listen but never understand -- who look but never perceive." Paul vowed from that moment on to preach to none but the gentiles, "for they will listen" (Acts 28:26-29).
Jesus's brother, James, was identified by a number of texts including Josephus' histories and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, as being the man appointed by Jesus to lead the movement after his own death. Furthermore, James was known by the moniker James the Just. So what happened? Theological exigencies struck again.
Why then has James been almost wholly excised from the New Testament and his role in the early church displaced by Peter and Paul in the imaginations of most modern Christians?
James's identity as Jesus's brother became an obstacle to those who advocated the perpetual virginity of his mother Mary.
This has turned into what is possibly my longest post on Bookface, which reflects the thought and conflict Zealot provoked. It widened the gulf between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ, the latter being largely the product of human editing in response to the political and theological realities of the times. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, preaching to and for Jews -- the Kingdom of God that he promoted was a Judea free of gentile occupation, in which the Jews could finally be ruled by their God and live under His law. The message has since been modified, or generalised or extrapolated to have universal significance. That's not to say that the Christian message is a bad one, but it is certainly not what Jesus of Nazareth had in mind. When we exalt Jesus the Christ, are we venerating nothing more than a phantom, a construction of Paul's fervour? I'm likely to wrestle with these ideas for the rest of my life, but I'm thankful to Reza Aslan for his contributions to the process.