A Review of Diana Gabaldon’s Virgins

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One tidbit you might not know about me is that my right shoulder has earned dozens of five-star ratings on AirBnB among the under-two set. It’s not something I’ve cultivated; it’s just one hell of a comfortable shoulder. My left shoulder, on the other hand, is an adequate substitute in a pinch – think of it as a Holiday Inn Express while my right shoulder is that hotel in Dubai where all the walls are aquariums. And like all prime real estate, my right shoulder tends to find itself booked up – sometimes for four hours a day or more.

I’m generally ambivalent about reading on a Kindle, but this device does make reading while my shoulder is occupied somewhat easier. With a Kindle, I can hold the device with my left hand and turn pages by a quick swipe of my thumb, allowing my right arm to stay immobile. Earlier this year I read all of Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Lily King’s Euphoria with a baby asleep on my shoulder, plus portions of other books as well. Right now I am trying very hard only to read one book at a time, so when I found myself with spare time when my shoulder was occupied a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t want to start a new novel on my Kindle when I had a physical book in progress. I needed something I could read quickly. So what better time, I decided, for a novella about the teenaged Jamie Fraser NOT having sex in France in 1735, in spite of spending an inordinate amount of time in brothels?

These Diana Gabaldon novellas have a tendency to be, um, a little low in, um, quality. The last one I read had zombies in it. I thought I might like Virgins a bit more since Lord John is not in it – and it’s true that the absence of Lord John is a strike in any novella’s favor. But the bottom line is that the only time Gabaldon truly writes well is when she uses Claire (Beauchamp Randall) Fraser as her narrator. Virgins is written entirely in third person. On the one hand, this is an advantage in that we don’t have to deal with the narration being in Scottish Highland dialect. On the other hand, in the absence of a first-person narrator, Gabaldon never seems entirely sure who has protagonist is.

This novella takes place just after Jamie is flogged for the second time by Jack Randall and then smuggled out of Scotland by his godfather, Murtagh. Jamie also just learned that his father died of apoplexy while watching the flogging, and he has reason to believe that Randall has raped his sister Jenny. Murtagh brings Jamie to a vaguely defined location in France, where Jamie’s friend Ian Murray is vaguely working as a mercenary among an odd collection of Frenchmen and Scots. The opening scenes are told from Ian’s point of view, and at first I welcomed his perspective, since he is never a point-of-view character in the Outlander novels. But Gabaldon’s use of point of view is wobbly, and soon we’re sneaking into Jamie’s perspective – I honestly don’t think Gabaldon could help herself – and at times it almost seems as if Claire is present, the action filtered through her perspective, even though she is not going to be born for another 180-ish years and won’t travel through the stones for another decade.

The plot involves a “Jewess” and some ancient Torah scrolls, plus prostitutes and some 18th-century techniques for staving off sepsis and a bunch of people saying things like “Ye look like ye’ve got a cocklebur stuck betwixt your hurdies.” Ian and Jamie discuss the idea that Ian might marry Jamie’s sister Jenny – whether or not she was raped by Jack Randall (she wasn’t, but they don’t know that yet) – and Jamie tells Ian that if he really intends to marry Jenny, he has to promise not to have sex with any of the endless parade of prostitutes they are about to encounter.

Somehow or other, these two teenage boys – one nursing festering wounds up and down his back, the other dull as dishwater (though also creepily obsessed with circumcision) – get put in charge of escorting the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish man and her dowry to her future husband (the plots of Gabaldon’s novellas often involve revolve around escorting). I am not sure why this rather important task is assigned to two hapless Scottish teenagers, except possibly because they seem to be the only two people in all of France who are not virulently anti-Semitic. The woman, named Rebekah, has other plans for herself and manages to outwit her adolescent escorts and instead escort herself into the hands of the man she actually wants to marry. Jamie gets to show off his Hebrew (in between various pus-draining poultices), and Ian gets answers to some of his questions about circumcision, but not to others. And I think the priceless ancient Torah scrolls turn out okay, though to be honest I don’t remember.

I do want to point out one nicely-done moment in this novella. After a talk that veers back and forth between what it’s like to kill people and what it’s like to have sex (because what else would teenaged Highland mercenaries talk about), Ian asks Jamie some variation on “Well, you know, have you ever?” Jamie says something along the lines of “Have I ever what? Killed someone?”; Ian indicates that no, he was referring to sex, not murder. Jamie admits that no, he has never had sex – and he hasn’t killed anyone either. Ian admits his own inexperience in these areas as well. This is the moment that gives the novella its title. I really do like where Gabaldon went with this moment – with this establishment that in this milieu both killing and sex are comparable thresholds, so nearly equivalent concepts that they are discussed in similar shorthand. What happens next, of course, is that Jamie kills someone. He doesn’t commit cold-blooded murder, of course; he kills a man who is beating a prostitute so severely that Jamie has reason to think he might kill her. Gabaldon really does do a good job of structuring Jamie’s character arc here. He arrives in France near death himself from the wounds on his back and in despair over the death of his father. Displaying absolutely no sign of the so-called “missing piece of the adolescent brain” – and also prefiguring a moment later in the Outlander series, when Claire sums up Jamie’s character by saying “He was always, always right” – he manages to exercise appropriate caution when surrounded by dozen of French prostitutes while also taking the life of someone whose violent actions deserved to be stopped. And he possibly also saves some priceless ancient Torah scrolls. I honestly don’t remember. But it seems like the sort of thing he would do.

Posted in Authors, Diana Gabaldon, E-Readers vs. Hard Copies, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Short Stories, Glimpses into Real Life, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Yarn Along

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I admire the minimalist life, though I’ve never managed to practice it myself. I’m an accumulator, always surrounded by lots of books, lots of clothes, lots of yarn. I’ve just started renting a room in a city an hour south of my home, as a concession to the fact that most of the new clients I’ve been attracting live in the Silicon Valley area. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was spending 12-15 hours a week on a nasty congested highway, and that just wasn’t OK with me. So now I am settled into a room in a friend’s house, along with about a tenth of my wardrobe, some fraction of one percent of my book collection, three knitting projects, a hard copy of the novel I’m revising – and not much else. I almost feel as if I’m in hiding here. I haven’t even told Jill yet (hi, Jill – I moved to San Jose, sort of!). I still expect to spend 1-3 days per week at home, helping my dad with errands as needed and slowly organizing and culling the piles of stuff I have accumulated there. Don’t expect me to start “sparking joy” any time soon – but for now I’m enjoying this rather Spartan but well-lit desk surface, with my still-not-bound-off Game of Thrones cowl and with The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, which I promise I will finish by next Wednesday. Is it a coincidence that my move into Spartan quarters coincides with the fact that I am finally reading just one book at a time? I doubt it.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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Thoughts on Paul Kriwaczek’s In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World’s First Prophet

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I read this book because the protagonist of one of the many novels I want to write was born into Zoroastrian family. I am well aware that the previous sentence way well be the most interesting sentence in this review, but I’m not going to elaborate on it too much. But yes, this hypothetical novel is based on a historical figure who lived in the 8th century. If/when I reach a point when I am actually working on this novel, I will tell you more.

Anyway, Zarathustra is one of several “Z” names for Zoroaster, whom I remember from a couple of paragraphs in a world history textbook and from the occasional mention at Christmastime that the “three kings” of Jesus’s (fictional) birth story were Zoroastrians from Persia. I wanted to know more. This book seemed like the most interesting of the few that popped up on Amazon, and the first thing I learned is that there are very few recent books on Zoroastrianism for the general reader. I mean, there are at least 96 gajillion books about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy fighting over how to redecorate the east wing of Pemberley in the years after their (fictional) wedding, but the pickings are slim on Zoroastrianism.

Fortunately, though, this book is very interesting. It’s part history and part travelogue, following author and protagonist Paul Kriwaczek, whose qualifications include “a two-year stint as the only European dentist in Kabul,” as he travels the globe to sites important to the history of Zoroastrianism. One of the first puzzles he addresses is the question of why there are so few such sites and so little known about Zoroastrianism in general, and the answer to this question is that the two religions that have reigned aggressively supreme in Europe and Asia for the past 1500 years – Christianity and Islam – felt threatened by Zoroastrianism, often for silly reasons.

I’m not going to summarize the whole history of this religion that was once quite wide-spread, but the crux of the issue seems to be that Zarathustra was the first figure in world history to preach the idea that all of existence is a struggle between two opposing forces. Dualism, in other words. Zarathustra – of whose historical existence we know almost nothing – was born in the region we now call Uzbekistan. He came to believe that there is only one god (he called this god Ahura Mazda) but that there is also an opposing force called Ahriman, which represents darkness and evil. In theory, this idea shouldn’t contradict either Christian or Muslim theology, both of which acknowledge a loving God and an evil oppositional force – and it seems to me that the existence of Zoroastrianism throughout Central Asia may have paved the way for the other monotheistic traditions that later took root there, making it easier for people to accept Christianity and Islam – but Zoroastrianism adds an interesting twist: the world was created not by Ahura Mazda but by Ahriman. In addition, as far as we know, Zarathustra was the first to teach that the world was not cyclical and not eternal. As Zarathustra saw it, history was leading the way toward an apocalyptic battle between good and evil – a belief that paved the way for, among other things, the Book of Revelation, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, any number of Kirk Cameron movies, and the cuckoo-birds who hoarded toilet paper and propane in the Ozark town of Harrison, Arkansas awaiting the end of the world on January 1, 2000. But enough on my grad school years for now.

Already familiar with Central Asia after living and working there for some time, Paul Kriwaczek decided to personally track down the remaining traces of Zarathustra’s influence on earth. These traces were somewhat difficult to locate but generally fruitful, and the stories of Kriwaczek’s travels are fascinating. He begins in a German research library investigating Nietzsche, whose Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of the most accessible references to Zoroastrianism in the West. Nietzsche wrote that Zarathustra was “the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the essential wheel in the working of things” (31). Yet Kriwaczek is intrigued (as am I) by the fact that there is no evidence anywhere of how Nietzsche came to know enough about Zoroastrianism to write his book. Information about Zoroastrianism was not widely available in Nietzsche’s Germany, even in major university libraries.

Kriwaczek visited other sites in Europe, including the castle in the Pyrenees where an entire religious community – the Cathars – was destroyed in the attack known as “the Albigensian Crusade.” Dualist thinking was deeply threatening to medieval Christianity. I’ve read many books that use the word “Manicheanism” to describe dualist thinking, mostly in the Middle East and north African in the early years of Christianity, when the off-their-rocker Church fathers were always looking for new reasons to massacre one another over tiny matters of doctrine, but I did not know that this conflict lived on into the Middle Ages, when a world created by the Satan-like Ahriman must have seemed immensely plausible given the living conditions, disease, and violence that were daily realities. As always, Kriwaczek’s next step is to push further into the past. Where did the Cathars come from? If it’s true that the Cathars were actually Zoroastrians, how did a community of them end up in southwestern France in the 13th century? His next stop is the Bulgars – a religious and ethnic group in Bulgaria – but again, how did they get there? And so forth.

I really enjoyed this book, though it throws so many new ideas out there – several of them creepy – that sometimes I had to take a break and read something a little less intense. Many years ago I had terrible nightmares after I read a book about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I started feeling the same sort of shivers while I was reading Kriwaczek’s book. I put it aside often, but I always came back, and I really did find it fascinating in general. Pushing backward into the past, Kriwaczek traces evidence of Zoroastrianism all the way back through Medieval Europe to modern-day Iran and Central Asia, India, and western China, following the tiniest of threads and ending up at fire temples carved into mountainsides a day’s hike from the nearest road. Equally fascinating is the evidence Kriwaczik found suggesting that Zoroastrian practices and beliefs are not at all dead, but are in fact woven into mainstream Islamic culture, especially in Iran, where this heritage not only survives but thrives. I envy Kriwaczik his first-hand experience but very much enjoyed the chance to read along, and if you don’t mind being bombarded with detail and creepy fire rituals and obscure symbolism (this subject matter would make a great Dan Brown-style novel, by the way), I recommend this book highly.

Posted in Authors, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Religion, Nonfiction - Travel, Paul Kriwaczek, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yarn Along

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I’m currently binding off my Game of Thrones cowl, but there are ends to weave in and such, so I am taking this opportunity to brighten up your screen with this obnoxiously orange scarf (that’s not officially its name, but it may be time to bow to the inevitable). I’m still reading The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter and will probably doing so for some time. It’s good, but it’s the sort of book that’s hard to read if you don’t have time to become absorbed in it. If you only tend to visit our site on Wednesdays and are curious about the title, you can read this post from last week. I very much look forward to reading more of this book and telling you about it.

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

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Yes, Isabel Allende wrote a mystery novel. No, it’s not terrible. Thoughts on Ripper. (by Jill)

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When Ripper came out back in 2014 quick on the heels of Maya’s Notebook I asked myself if Isabel Allende had lost her damn mind. And then I remembered that Maya’s Notebook took quite literally forever to get published in English, so really they weren’t simultaneously written. I was also dubious enough about Ripper that I didn’t bring it to my boss to read—she usually likes Allende’s period stuff but a modern novel and a mystery novel to boot had me somewhat skeptical that Cathy would enjoy this one. I mean, I was skeptical that I would enjoy it, despite the setting in San Francisco and its environs. But in the end, it ended up being a fun book. Not quite typical Allende, but then I figured out that her husband Willie fancies himself a writer of mystery novels. So I think that they might have sort of worked on this one together, which is adorable.

This novel, much like all of Allende’s fiction, revolves around a family, both family by birth and the family we choose. At the center is the Jackson clan, Indiana, her daughter Amanda, and Indiana’s father Blake. Blake and Amanda are the sensible members of the family, and Indiana is the free spirited Reiki healer who in typical Allende heroine fashion is not that attractive but who has about a million men who are in love with her. Indiana’s gentlemen callers form the second circle of family in this novel. First is Bob Martín, Indiana’s first love and Amanda’s father. He is a homicide detective with the SFPD. Alan Keller is Indiana’s boyfriend, if you can count an unemployed heir to one of San Francisco’s largest fortunes who meets her at a fancy hotel once a month for sex but never takes her out to society events a boyfriend. I sort of hated him, if it wasn’t obvious. Ryan Miller is my favorite. He is one of Indiana’s patients, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD and a missing leg as well as a retired war dog named Atilla, he is the best of the bunch, and his love for Indiana is true, even though he has some skeletons in his closet (he does some “private security” work for maybe the CIA). There are additional colorful characters, such as Danny D’Angelo, the waiter at the café in North Beach that Indiana frequents, who would be in love with Indiana if his romantic leanings weren’t for other gentlemen. Celeste Roko is a television psychic, and Amanda’s grandmother. There are also the other denizens of the Holistic Clinic where Indiana practices her healing arts. The supporting characters have as much life in them as is expected of minor characters in Isabel Allende’s novels (that means a lot).

And then there’s the novel’s namesake: Ripper. Ripper is an online game that Amanda plays with her grandfather and several other people who live all across the world. It’s a murder mystery game, and at some point they switch from working on fake murders to investigating real life murders, and for some reason they focus in on a series of murders in San Francisco. They decide that the group of them is the work of a serial murderer long before the police catch on. Handily, Amanda’s father is in charge of investigating these murders, and she is able to get Bob to listen to her and her friends and they eventually catch the guy, but not before he kidnaps Indiana and tries to murder her. That’s hardly the point of Ripper, but it’s one of the points of it.

I really was pleasantly surprised by this novel. I think it was better than Maya’s Notebook, though nowhere near as good as Allende’s period novels, and nowhere near as good as The House of the Spirits, which will be one of the best books I’ve ever read, as well as one of my favorites. I wasn’t really surprised at who the murderer ended up being, because he seemed like a nutball from the very beginning, but the path Allende takes to get us there is a good one with enough twists and turns that I doubted my hunch quite often.

I can’t quite make up my mind how I feel about Allende including her husband’s detective character, Samuel Hamilton, from his novels as a minor supporting character in Ripper. Honestly, I think it’s kind of cute and sweet, but I feel like I should mock it a bit for the sake of mocking adorable things. Because that’s what blogging is all about, isn’t it?

Overall, I do recommend Ripper, for mystery fans and also for serious Allende fans. It is not like her usual work, but it has enough that is true to her unique voice (though very light on the magical realism except for the psychic who predicted a bloodbath in San Francisco right as the serial murders started) that it still seems like one of her books.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Mystery, fiction - thriller, Isabel Allende, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

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When I teach and tutor students in history, I often start each unit by advising students to “follow the money.” I didn’t coin that phrase, I know, but it’s a surprisingly simple and effective way to get one’s bearings in a time and place that one is trying to understand. Money leads to power, and power leads to attempts to subvert power, often by individuals who don’t have much power or, nearly always, much money.

In Judea during the early years of the Roman Empire, the money trail led directly to the Temple in Jerusalem. The first chapter of Reza Aslan’s Zealot immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of that temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Written in present tense and with great immediacy, this chapter leads the reader from the Court of the Gentiles, the part of the Temple that was open to anyone and also the part of the temple where Jesus famously overturned the tables of the money-changers shortly before he was arrested. Aslan devotes a few paragraphs to these money-changers, whose job it was to “exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities” (4). This transaction was important because everyone who visited the Temple was expected to pay a tax to help sustain the Temple. Another important expense incurred during a Temple visit was the cost of a sacrifice. According to Aslan, the sacrificing of animals – oxen, bulls, rams, sheep, chickens – was “the very reason for the Temple’s being” (4). The “blood libation” associated with sacrifice was believed to wipe away a person’s sins and also to cleanse and renew the earth – and, of course, people were taught that God preferred large (i.e. expensive) animals over small (i.e. cheap) ones.

Aslan’s narrative proceeds through from the Court of the Gentiles to the Court of Women, which was the last court in the Temple in which Jewish women were allowed. Jewish men could proceed further, to the Court of the Israelites, provided they were not a leper or a paralytic and had been purified by a ritual bath and paid their Temple tax. Only priests could proceed farther, but properly purified Jewish men could stand in the Court of the Israelites and watch the animal they had purchased be sacrificed on the altar. Past the Court of Priests lay the Holy of Holies, a small compartment protected by curtains that had once contained the Ark of the Covenant until it was lost. The Holy of Holies reminds me of another curtained compartment you might recall – the one from which the Wizard of Oz created the mighty persona he used to govern Oz. In Jerusalem, only one person was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies: the high priest. Like many other offices in the Roman Empire (and in its petulant child, the medieval Catholic Church), the office of high priest was something that one purchased, and the high priest was believed to be the only person alive who had direct access to God. Like a soothsayer, he rolled “sacred dice” (8) that he used to tell fortunes, and once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest tied a rope around his waist and stepped inside the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of all Jews. If God decided to forgive these sins, the high priest walked out of the Holy of Holies alive. If not, other priests were able to use the rope to pull his dead body out of the Holy of Holies so that no one else would have to defile the sanctuary by stepping inside to remove the corpse. There was totally an episode of Lost about this, by the way – the one where Ben goes into a little cabin and gets beaten up by Invisible Jacob. We have archetypes for a reason, people.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus; his focus is on the world in which Jesus lived and not on the notion that he was actually divine – an idea that didn’t exist until after Jesus’ death, when Paul and John and some others began retelling the story in their own way. Using his detailed understanding of the world Jesus was born into, Aslan describes ancient Galilee as a messiah-saturated world, in which various characters were always wandering around proclaiming the end of the world, talking of rebellion against Rome, and performing miracles. Nothing Jesus did was new. But all of the other messiah figures of the age – and everything that had been taught by Jewish scholars and by the Torah – were fundamentally earthly in nature. Jews believed that the messiah would be a great leader, enabling the Jews to defeat their enemies and establish a peaceful paradise right here on earth. When Jesus was executed, most Jews assumed that his mission was over, that he was yet another false messiah. Aslan’s book discusses both the historical Jesus and the divine creation of his later followers, but Aslan is rigorous in keeping these figures separate.

For one thing, Aslan writes, it is absolutely inconceivable that a thirty year-old man in early-first-century Galilee would not have a wife. He also reviews the two Biblical birth narratives, making clear that Jesus was not born in a manger, nor was there a census requiring everyone to return to his/her place of birth, nor did Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree that all male babies be killed (Aslan makes a good and very obvious point: surely if Herod, whose reign is well documented in non-Biblical sources, had actually set out to murder all baby boys in his kingdom, surely this act of terror would have been recorded somewhere other than in two theological documents written in Greek a hundred years later by a couple of guys named Matthew and Luke!). What almost certainly impacted Jesus’ early life, writes Aslan, is a clear sense of the gap between rich and poor. Nazareth was a village made entirely of mud huts, so Joseph and his sons, including Jesus, would likely have made a daily walk to the nearby city of Sepphoris, a city built by Herod the Great (the father of the non-infanticidal Herod Antipas, who was king when Jesus was born) and known for its opulence. As far as I can recall, I have never heard of Sepphoris (Seriously, Jesuits? You had me for four years and never managed to mention this apparently-very-important city? You couldn’t have fit it in somewhere between satyagraha and Fried Green Tomatoes, which for some reason we watched in religion class, twice? Or maybe we could have taken a day off that two-week unit on whether it’s murder if you think you’re shooting a moose but it turns out to be a person?), and what’s even more telling, Microsoft Word’s spell-check seems not to recognize it either. Maybe Word’s spell-check went to a Jesuit school too – that would sure explain a lot about that obnoxious little paper-clip man who thankfully no longer exists.

Joking aside, this book is great. Bible literalists won’t like it, of course, but anyone interested in the secular history of first-century Judea should find it very interesting. For me, one of the ideas I enjoyed most was Aslan’s explanation of how the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. impacted Christianity, which was still embryonic at that time. Before, during, and after Jesus’ life, Judea was full not only of people claiming to be messiahs but also of a band of home-grown terrorists known as sicarii. After the death of Herod the Great – a great administrator, builder, and job creator who managed to be true to his Roman superiors and to the common people as well – the Romans never found a Jewish king they trusted to rule Judea. Each person they sent to do the job was crueler than the next, and the sicarii were ordinary Jews who took on the mission of executing as many powerful people as they could. They usually conducted their murders in broad daylight, stabbing their victims in the back with daggers in crowded public streets and then using the mayhem that followed to run away. These killings, and other acts of insurgency against the Romans, did not stop in the decades after Jesus was crucified, and in 70 C.E. the Romans besieged Jerusalem, starving much of the population, and then sacked the city and destroyed the temple. The Romans did not usually do these sorts of things; they usually expected conquered nations to pay taxes and to worship the emperor as a god – an expectation that most ancient polytheists shrugged off. It was no big deal to add a god to one’s pantheon if one is already a polytheist – what’s one more god? But the Jews laid special claim to the land they believed had been given to them by God after their exodus from Egypt (hence the Romans’ determination to sack the city) and refused to worship the emperor because the existence of only one God was a central tenet of their faith (hence the Romans’ decision to destroy the temple). After the destruction of the Temple, Aslan writes, the few remaining Jews turned inward and made a decision to “distance themselves from the revolutionary idealism that had led to the war with Rome” (69). Instead of a religion centered around the Temple, they chose “to develop an interpretation of Judaism that eschewed nationalism. They would come to view the Holy Land in more transcendental terms, fostering a messianic theology that rejected overt political ambitions, as acts of piety and the study of the law took the place of Temple sacrifices in the life of the observant Jew” (69).

The destruction of the Temple gives context to the split that took place between Judaism and Christianity. Aslan makes clear that Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew – never once did he declare or even hint that he meant to found a new religion. But he was part of the revolutionary tradition in Judaism – along with the other messianic figures, along with the sicarii, and along with the countless other political groups that fomented rebellion against Rome in the first century C.E. – and in 70 C.E. the surviving followers of Jesus made the decision to distance themselves from revolutionary behavior. This is when, in a very deliberate, human-driven way, they started portraying Jesus as a pacifist. It was in these early years after 70 C.E., when the Jews were chastened and engaged in a profound questioning of their cultural and spiritual identity, that the first gospels were written. I’ll admit to a few chills down my spine when I read, “Meanwhile, in triumphant Rome, a short while after the Temple of the Lord had been desecrated, the Jewish nation scattered to the winds and the religion made a pariah, tradition says a Jew named John Mark took up his quill and composed the first words to the first gospel written about the messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth – not in Hebrew, the language of God, nor in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, but in Greek, the language of the heathens. The language of the impure. The language of the victors. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” (69-70). In other words, the Jews who followed Jesus made the deliberate choice to distance themselves from Judaism – and in order to do that, they had to make some posthumous changes to their messiah.

I want to go on – and I really want to tell you how this book made me hate Paul (as in “of Tarsus,” not McCartney) even more than I already do – but I think I’ll leave it here. Not everyone loves ancient history as much as I do. Some would dislike this book for the way it challenges their religious beliefs, and a legion of others would see the word Jesus on the cover and run like hell. If, like me, you fall in none of the above categories, I think you will enjoy this book a great deal. I was reading this book on vacation, and I did make sure to keep the cover hidden when I was reading in in the airport and in other public places. Four years in the Bible Belt during my impressionable young-adult years has made me forever fearful of conversations with strangers about religion. One waitress did notice the title and say, “Zee-lot? Is that what it’s called – Zee-lot?” I felt bad lying, but I said yes. Then she asked me what it was about, and I said “history.”

Posted in Authors, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Religion, Reviews by Bethany, Reza Aslan, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Early Thoughts on Kia Corthron’s The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

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The meaning of the title of this long, engrossing novel starts to come clear around page 138 – well ahead of the 200-page mark at which I planned to start complaining – so of course I wanted to share it with you. However, I’ll start with some dramatis personae.

This novel tells the story of two sets of brothers. The first section of the novel – roughly the first 100 pages – tells the story of Randall Evans and his brother, B.J. Randall is a precocious 8th grader living in Alabama in 1941. Randall’s life revolves around school, where he is part of his school’s first debate team and is named class valedictorian; his friend Henry Lee’s house, where Henry Lee has an elaborate train set and uses it primarily to stage various accidents and tragedies using the trains and some miniature people, and also where Randall meets Roger, the son of Henry Lee’s family’s African American maid; and home, where he begs to be allowed to go to high school instead of beginning work at a sawmill like most of the young men he knows and patiently and with great care uses a library book to teach his deaf brother B.J. sign language. My first thought was that B.J., who is nineteen and hulking and clueless, not because he is stupid but because before Randall’s library book no one ever thought to teach him anything, was meant as an allusion to Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, and I’m still not sure he’s not. The fact that B.J. (which stands for Benjamin Junior) and Randall also have a sister named Benja drives the point home perhaps too much. But this novel does tread on Faulkner’s territory – race relations, the south, class conflicts, the past being not dead and in fact not even past – and I am looking forward to rereading The Sound and the Fury sometime soon to dig for additional connections.

The second part of the novel is set in Humble, Maryland and concerns Dwight and Eliot. While Randall was the first-person narrator for most of Part 1, in Part 2 Dwight and Eliot alternate as narrators. Eliot is six, and his language is like fireworks exploding. He’s super-excited and super-confused about almost everything he encounters, and these extremes are present in every sentence. We learn that Eliot can’t see well because every so often his mother looks at him sadly and tells him that she and his father are saving their money and will get him glasses soon; Eliot, however, isn’t much concerned about his vision, probably because he has never seen the world in any other way. Eliot’s brother Dwight – who seems to be about ten, maybe; I don’t remember if we’ve been told his age – is a poor student but a talented artist, obsessed with cartoons and animation. Dwight’s chapters tend to revolve around his two friends: Rufus (called Roof), who is “white trash” and lives on the same street as Dwight and Eliot (who are black) and Carl, whose family of while liberal academics has recently moved to town. Dwight and Eliot’s father is a Pullman porter, and one night he brings home the labor organizer and Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who forges a connection with both Dwight and Eliot over the course of a memorable evening.

So far I have no idea how the two sets of brothers will eventually connect. World War II is imminent, so perhaps their lives will intersect due to the war. Both plot lines share a focus on the way children’s worldviews are entirely shaped by their families up to a certain point but then broaden as school, the homes of other families, and other outside forces encroach more and more on that original nucleus of the family. Racial conflicts also unify the two sections. One of the more memorable scenes early in the novel is the moment when Randall defeats his father at chess for the first time, and his father decides to celebrate Randall’s victory by bringing him to his very first KKK meeting. Randall himself is of mixed feelings about the KKK. On the one hand, he develops a sort-of friendship with Roger, the son of Henry Lee’s maid (a friendship that mostly revolves around Randall renting his schoolbooks to Roger, who is intellectually voracious and wants to read the up-to-date textbooks not available at the segregated school he attends), but on the other hand, the first section of the novel ends with Randall seeing Roger and a local white high school girl kissing and is deeply shocked. The section ends with his indecision about whether to report the tryst to his father and his KKK buddies, who are right inside the house and could be mobilized immediately. In Maryland in the meantime, Dwight and Eliot’s parents are ready to go to Washington, D.C. with A. Philip Randolph to protest the exclusion of blacks from the weapons manufacturing and other well-paid wartime enterprises that are just coming into being – so it could be within the context of the Civil Rights movement that the two sets of brothers will interact, and they could well be on opposite sides.

Also – The Merchant of Venice – and specifically the “I am a Jew” speech – appears in both plot lines.

And now for the title. “The Castle” comes from Dwight’s imaginative play with Roof, whose family’s backyard is nothing more than a mound of junk. Dwight and Roof start an “Architeck Club” in Roof’s yard, and one of their first constructions is a castle. “The Magnet Carter” is Eliot’s mishearing of “Magna Carta,” which he knows has something to do with justice – but like everything else in Eliot’s world, he misunderstands it. “The Cross” is less clear at this point, though it could refer to the burning cross Randall sees at the KKK meeting with his father. There is a brief reference to a burning cross, among other things, in this paragraph, a dream sequence of Dwight’s, which is the first place in the novel where the three components of the title all appear in one place: “I’m standin in the tower Roof an me made in the Architeck Club. It ain’t that I’m small, it’s that the tower got big, life-size, castle like Roof says. I’m way up at the top lookin out. And Carl’s lookin out from one floor below me all smug, he don’t notice I’m just above. It’s like ancient times, green fields, but over yonder there’s Eliot wavin at me from Colored Street, in my dream Colored Street’s down there even in the meadows a Medieval an there in the middle a Colored Street cross from Eliot’s this little church but Eliot’s lookin the other way, his back’s to the church. An I’m tryin to figure out how to get Eliot up in the tower but he seem content fine on Colored, Eliot grinnin wavin holdin a white book with white raised letters on the cover: THE MAGNET CARTER, I see him from my castle cross Colored, an down on the groun direckly below the castle there’s Roof, he wanna cross the moat to the castle but he can’t swim, and I’m rackin my brain how to get Eliot in the castle how to get Roof in the castle when suddenly there’s fire, the cross on the church grew huge and caught afire but Eliot don’t see it, Eliot smilin up at me then Carl from the floor below turn an glance up like he knew I was there all along, an speak: Badminton?” (138-9).

As you can tell, this novel utilizes dialect and stream-of-consciousness narration, both in and out of its dream sequences. In general I have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, though Corthron – an established screenwriter and playwright – writes excellent dialogue, and the dialect rings true to my ear much more than dialect usually does in fiction. Move over, Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Twain.

It didn’t occur to me until I was typing out the long passage above that the word “Cross” in the title does not necessarily have to be a noun. Of course the reference to the burning cross is clearly present, but elsewhere in the passage “cross” seems to mean “across,” so the title could suggest that the Castle is across from the Magnet Carter – which, OK, doesn’t really mean anything right now. But maybe it will later.

I’ve read less than a quarter of this novel, but I’m really enjoying it and recommend it highly. It’s long but it skips along at a rapid pace. Corthron uses almost no exposition – we’re immersed in these narrator’s stories, scene after well-crafted scene.

And one more thing: Randall’s mother doesn’t like the KKK, and Randall remembers that once she washed his father’s KKK robes with some red clothes and turned them pink. When I read this detail, I laughed, of course, and I also wracked my brain wondering whether this laundry-induced feminizing of KKK robes has ever been used to comic effect before, in literature, film, television, or wherever. Has it? If not, the whole mass of American writers working in the last 150 years should be very, very ashamed of themselves.

More soon.

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