Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

What if the Jesus portrayed in the Bible were actually twins? That’s the basic premise behind Philip Pullman’s book. Jesus and his brother (known only as Christ in the book, although he was given a common name as well) sort of trade off being the Jesus of the Bible – Christ gets the incidents in childhood and post-Resurrection, while Jesus is the adult preacher who is crucified.

As alternate Jesus portrayals go, I prefer Lamb, by Christopher Moore, but this one’s really good too. It’s not a criticism of Christianity as a religion – in fact, in many ways it promotes the ideals of Christianity: love God, believe, and love your neighbour. It’s more an unsubtle skewering of what Christianity became: the power and corruption of the church in particular, but one that acknowledges that without the organization of the church, Christianity would never have survived, spread, and thrived.

I found the character of Christ the most interesting (not surprisingly, since he’s the main POV character). He’s always in the shadow of his more outgoing brother, to the point where people forget that Jesus even had a twin. He’s the one who argues with the priests in the temple when they are twelve, and the one who hears the voice from the dove at Jesus’s baptism. But Jesus is the one who performs miracles and goes into the wilderness and preaches to the crowds, even when he’d rather be left alone. Christ stays in the shadows, not even among the disciples, faithfully recording (and “improving” for posterity) his brother’s words and deeds.

The main theme of this book – as with many debates on Biblical scholarship and theology – is the difference between truth and history. Simply telling the bare facts of what happened may be historical, but it’s not necessarily truthful. Truth is always a subjective judgement, based on interpretation of the history/facts.  This is one thing that I’ve nearly always believed about the Bible: it may not be literally true and historically accurate, but it has a deeper truth that is essentially unconnected with its accuracy. This is also the basic message that I’ve taken from this book (whether it was Pullman’s intent or not): Christianity, at its core, has truth; the organized church may not.

I was a bit disappointed that Pullman included some of the more troubling (to me) statements of Jesus without any other explanation or interpretation (“I come not in peace but with a sword”; “You must hate your father and mother”; et c.) – I suppose it would have been too obvious to have double characters be responsible for these apparent contradictions. As it was, Christ fulfils several of the alternate roles: he is the tempter in the wilderness and Judas at the garden, to name just two, as well as being the resurrected Jesus.

It’s so interesting to me how Pullman has created a book that denies a core belief of Christianity (the resurrected Jesus) while still upholding the main tenets of the faith (worship God, love one another, etc.). That’s incredibly tricky to do, and takes incredible skill. (Lamb is funnier, though.)

This book is, apparently, one of a series of retold myths. I read The Penelopiad , another entry, shortly after it came out, and to be honest thought it was one of Atwood’s weaker books. This book doesn’t quite live up to His Dark Materials, but it’s still quite good (and a quick read, as well – I read it in just a few hours). I may have to seek out the rest of the books in the series as well; I do love good retellings.


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Literary lists, and reading news

I love literary lists. I love looking at them and planning out what I should read next (or in the future at least). I have a spreadsheet going of the various lists and which books from them I’ve read, and which ones I will never read (Hello, Ulysses!).  I think that reading is wonderful, and that everyone should read as much as they want. I think that reading should be encouraged at every stage of life, especially children.

I also know that forcing people to read, placing arbitrary minimums and external goals on reading instead of letting people read what interests them at their own pace, can ruin books and reading for people, especially children.

Which is why, when I heard of the UK Education Secretary’s latest call, for every school child to read 50 books a year, I had two reactions: How admirable, and how stupid. It’s admirable because of course reading should be encouraged. Children should be encouraged to read as many books as possible, and not just in school. Everyone should be encouraged to read as many books as possible. Thousands of books are published every year. Everyone should be able to find something they enjoy – if they care to look for it.

However, this “plan” is incredibly stupid. From what I could gather (from this article), Gove visited a few charter schools in the US, saw that their students were high achievers (even those from low-income families) who usually read at least 50 books a year. Therefore, obviously, in order to raise the achievement of UK schools, UK students should also read at least 50 books a year.

There are so many things wrong with this argument that I don’t even know where to start. Charter schools in the US are not bound by government regulations and curriculums (not that the US has a national curriculum in the same way that the UK does). Gove also seems to have picked one high-performing example and taken that as his model rather than as the outlier that it is. State schools and other alternative schools are not going to have a majority of students who read more than 50 books a year. They will have some (I was one!) but most students, even the ones who care, are not going to read 50 books a year. They’re not going to read much more than is assigned for school. They’re not going to have time.

Also, kids need  to be exposed to books if you expect them to read what is essentially a book a week. If they don’t know what books are out there, how can they be expected to access them? The easiest way for kids to be exposed to books is from their parents. However, quite a lot of adults don’t read that much, so how can kids be expected to read 50 books a year when it’s not modelled for them? Another good way for kids to be exposed to books is through libraries. But the current UK government is in the middle of massive public service cuts, and libraries are on the chopping block. So where are kids supposed to get these 50 books a year? They could get them from schools, but the schools are already stretched thin trying to prepare kids for the various standardized tests that determine everything from their post-11 and post-16 education to what jobs they can apply for (seriously, several graduate schemes that I’ve applied for require minimum GCSE grades, A-levels, and UCAS scores).

So, yes, it’s an admirable goal, but it’s also incredibly naïve and stupid.

Oh, and the connection to literary lists? The blog post where I first heard about this idea had a list of books that everyone “should” have read by the time they’re 18. My boyfriend and I had a good time going through that list, sharing which ones we’ve read, which ones made us say “OMG YOU HAVE NEVER READ THIS??” and which ones we’d never heard of.


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Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan, by Giles Milton

This is another book which ultimately (kind of like The Age of Wonder) wasn’t really about the title. The title (and the back-cover summary) say that it’s about William Adams, a 17th century Englishman who wound up in Japan and became a trusted advisor to the shogun. But while Adams is a character, and not a minor one, really it’s more about the East India Company’s attempts to trade in Japan (as an extension of the rest of their Asian trading).

I found it interesting to read about 17th century Japan. It’s not a period and place that I know a lot about, and some of the cultural insights were interesting to me. And I think that William Adams could be an incredibly interesting character: he was the only one of the Dutch and English adventurers/businessmen who adapted to Japan. Unfortunately, this book skips over the process of assimilation, and jumps right to the problems that the East India Company’s agents had in setting up a factory and store.

In fact, for a book that’s nominally about William Adams, he’s not the most well-defined character. I certainly felt like I knew Richard Cocks, the senior merchant, much better than I knew Adams. I understood his issues and his motivations a lot more than I understood Adams’s. The other sad thing/relatively misleading thing about the title is that, even though the subtitle is “The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan”, the English economic base in Japan ultimately failed – didn’t even last a generation – and internal Japanese politics then led to the country being isolationist for quite a while afterwards. William Adams may have temporarily unlocked Japan, but as soon as he was gone it slammed shut again, with chains on the doors and everything (to belabor the metaphor).

I think I’ve also pinpointed one of the problems that I have with the 17th century. I really hate the Puritan mentality. There is one way to be moral; it is the same for everyone, regardless of situation, circumstance, or personal belief; if you do not live up to it at every moment, then you are inferior and must be punished. The directors of the East India Company seemed to have this belief. They’d never been to Japan, and yet they felt qualified to judge what would best succeed there in terms of both goods and behaviour. Ugh. (Not saying that the English merchants didn’t deserve chastisement, just not necessarily for the same things, and certainly not in the same way.)

Anyway, back to the book itself. It’s a quite readable book. Milton does seem to have the trick of making what is basically an economic history very personal and fairly compelling. My biggest problem with it is that it is more an economic history than a biography, so there was almost a sense of false advertising. (Not blaming Milton for this, I must add – I know from reading authors’ blogs how tricky the politics of publishing and book promotion/marketing are.) If you’re interested in Japanese history and English history and the 17th century in either England or Japan, it’s a good read.


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Wife of Charles II, by Hilda Lewis

For a while now, I’ve been meaning to get more grounded in 17th/18th century English history: the Stuarts and the Civil War, specifically. I freely confess that that period bores me. I don’t have a sense of the personalities, it takes effort to get into the literature (Milton is my particular bane: I’ve tried several times to read Paradise Lost and haven’t gotten more than about 200 lines in), and  Ionly have a general sense of the major events. (I should probably note that my “general sense” when it comes to English history is still more specific than many people’s.) I understand that – and why – people find this period so interesting, but I usually don’t. And I’ve felt bad about this: there’s an entire two-dynastic gap in my otherwise encyclopaedic knowledge.

So when I ran across this (ever-so-imaginatively titled) book, I couldn’t pass it up. Historical fiction is generally an accessible way into a time period, especially when you’re interested in the personalities of the time; I can always go back and pick up more objective facts later. And this book does a very good job. It almost makes me want to read up on the Civil War and the Stuarts (certainly more than I did before), and I’m definitely likely to pick up more by Hilda Lewis if I find it (sidenote: lived most of her life in Nottingham!)

Briefly, the book is about Catherine of Braganza, princess of Portugal and wife to the restored Charles II. It brings her to life fairly clearly (although, as she wasn’t overly political, there isn’t a lot to delve into) and easily moves through the various legal and Parliamentary issues of the time. It puts a very complicated time into a fairly clear chronological pattern, from a personal, slightly uninvolved perspective.

Catherine is an interesting character. Charles is most known for his mistresses and illegitimate children, so the perspective of his (childless) wife brings inherent conflict into the story. One of the interesting things about their relationship is that Charles could easily have divorced her – childlessness was a valid cause for divorce/annulment, especially for nobility – but he never did. He even went out of his way to proclaim her as his wife, even when they’d been married for years and he was under a lot of pressure to find someone new.

It was a good gateway into the Stuart era for me. It wasn’t quite enough yet to send me on a full-blown Stuart binge, but it’s certainly gotten me closer to understanding the period.

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Room, by Emma Donoghue

Room has an incredibly interesting concept. Jack has lived his entire life – five years – in one 12×12 room.  He and his mother are secluded and confined, but Jack is happy, because he’s never known anything different. But as you get more involved in the story, you realise just what is going on in Jack and Ma’s lives: Ma was kidnapped and is being held prisoner, and Jack is a product of that.

The book is divided into four sections. The first two sections are set (almost) entirely within Room – they’re a sweet but ultimately disturbing portrayal of Jack and Ma’s life: sweet because Jack and Ma clearly love each other, and Ma is doing everything she can to give Jack a “normal” upbringing, even given the constraints. Jack watches Dora the Explorer, and measures himself against the wall, and plays with his toys. Other than the fact that he doesn’t know that there is a world outside Room, he is a normal 5-year-old.

At the end of the first half, Jack and Ma escape, and it’s in the second half that things really start going off the rails. For all that Room was a dysfunctional situation, it was normal and functional within that situation.  Suddenly everything Jack has ever known is taken away and he is catapulted into a world that he thought was fictional until just a few weeks ago.

What interested me in the second half was not as much Jack and Ma’s reactions to being free – although I think they are incredibly believable. I was more interested in other people’s reactions: the reporters, implying that Ma was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome; Ma’s mother, who couldn’t believe that Jack didn’t have Legos, Jack’s aunt and uncle, who took Jack into a mall only a few weeks after the escape. It’s my old interest in assumptions: the things that we don’t realise that other people don’t know. It’s especially interesting with Jack, because he’s familiar with pop culture (they had a TV in Room)  but he’s not familiar with social conventions (like having to pay for things at a store).

It’s  a disturbing book, as any book about kidnapping, rape, etc., should be, but it’s definitely worth reading. Jack is a more reliable unreliable narrator than some: he doesn’t know what’s going on, but the reader usually does, with very little detective work. Ma is a good mother – one of the best in fiction – and incredibly sympathetic. By the end, you know that Ma and Jack are going to be fine (and the journey to fine is worth it).

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Filed under General Fiction