Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, March 2013

33 Minor Books of the Bible

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, “Bring wine, let us drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: “Behold, the days shall come upon you when He shall take you away with fishhooks, and your posterity with fishhooks.”
--Amos 4:1-2

Let a woman learn in silence with all submission, and do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but let her be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
--I Timothy 2:11-14

Slaves, be submissive to your masters with fear, not only to the good and gentle masters, but also to the harsh. For it is commendable, if because of devotion to God one suffers grief, enduring it wrongfully. For what credit is there if, when you are beaten for your faults, you bear with it patiently? But if you do good and are still punished, this is commendable before God.
--I Peter 2: 18-20

There are 66 books in the Bible, and this month I read half of them. That puts me halfway through the whole work, right? The “minor books” are in three sections: Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther; Daniel through Malachi, and Galatians through Philemon and James through Jude.

Ezra and Nehemiah are dull, nearly identical accounts of Jews coming back from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the city on a mission from God. Some of the lesser prophets from the end of the Old Testament are referenced here. Several times, various Babylonians or Persians want to kill the Jews or prevent them from their pilgrimages, and God uses his omnipotence powers to cause the king to leave them alone. Also several times, the new arrivals to Jerusalem are shocked—shocked, do you hear!—to find that the peasants are turning from the old ways and doing such things as marrying outside of the Jewish people. Extravagant curses ensue. No such curse is laid on Esther, a Jew who marries the very non-Jewish King of Persia (whose first wife is in the doghouse for failure to be subservient enough), and who is not only blessed but manages to use her queenly influence to avert a holocaust planned by the king’s wicked chamberlains. God is large and contains multitudes; consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Of the “prophets” whose short works make up the final 13 sections of the Old Testament, Daniel and Jonah are the best known, because only their books tell interesting stories about them. Daniel not only survives the lions’ den but inspires the Jews of Persia to thrive on a vegetarian diet and interprets the “writing on the wall” (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharshim) that has King Nebuchadnezzar going on all fours and eating grass while the peasants call out “Lo, how the mighty have fallen!”. Also, three of his sidekick prophets get tossed into a white-hot furnace, where they bask in God’s protection and come out with not so much as a sunburn. Jonah, meanwhile, runs away to sea rather than preach, gets swallowed by a great fish, and later sits in the desert where God taunts him by causing a shade tree to grow and shade him for a day, and then makes it die later on.

DID YOU KNOW...the sailors on Jonah’s ship do not want to throw him overboard; Jonah has to urge them to do so, and they’re like WTF about it. All those later stories where the crew of a disaster-struck ship say “Arr, there be a Jonah aboard! We’ll have to kill him!” are as unclear on the concept as those who think the “mark of Cain” is a curse and not a protection.

The other eleven might as well be Joseph’s ignored brothers. Their books consist of long speeches of gibberish. I apologize to the devout among you who love them, but they look like gibberish to me. (See my take on Isaiah in this January’s Bookpost for why I think that one is gibberish too). Maybe it’s because I’m an unclean heathen whose mind has been stultified by God as punishment for my lack of piety, and only the truly pious can discern the beauty of the Emperor’s clothes the Word of The Lord. Look these guys up again and read what they have to, er, say, and explain to me if you can why it is not gibberish. They can’t even seem to decide whether the people they’re speaking to are to be received into glory or thrown into the eternal lake of excrement. Read them all at once like I did, and they all blend into a representation of the shaggy guy who would say “IT’S” at the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

No wonder Jonah shrieked and ran for the ocean when asked to join this crew! By the time you get to Zephaniah who greets you with a cheery I will utterly destroy everything from the face of the land, sayeth The Lord. I will destroy man and beast. I will destroy the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and the stumbling blocks along with the wicked. I will cut off all mankind from the face of the world (1:2-3), and Malachi who threatens in God’s name to smear dung on your faces (2:3. Go ahead, look it up), anyone not predisposed to listen with quivering fear is either roaring with laughter or just walking away, head shaking in consternation.

One religious friend I turned to for guidance, knowing my political leanings, urged me to think of these prophets (Amos especially) as the equivalent of “Occupy Wall Street” protesters, urging reform and accountability against the corrupt institutions of the day. I tried, really I did. Unfortunately, the minor prophets present as the worst kind of Occupy protesters. They’re the ones who would yell “Fuck You, Pig!” at the cops and cause everyone to get arrested and to “fall down in their cells and injure themselves”.

Finally, for this month, are what amount to 17 “Letters to the Editor” that I assume were included in the New Testament because they were short on “books’ compared with the Old Testament and because anything written by the actual Paul, Peter, John and other original Apostles would be considered sacred gold, even if they were only, “Dear Woogums: I am fine.. How are you? Thank you for the nice towels...”

As far as actual spiritual comfort and guidance for a good life, the pickings here are pretty thin. There are somber greetings and closings, admonitions to “be strong in The Lord”, and a lot of the kind of self-serving doctrine you’d expect from white male property owners, about how right it is for women and slaves to bow to temporal rulership, because they’ll get pie in the sky when they die. Which isn’t exactly inconsistent with what Jesus preached, but the tone and emphasis is quite different. Marcus Aurelius (see Bookpost, December 2012) is an inspirational philosopher when he writes in his own journal about the need to submit to fate and to things as they are; it would be another thing entirely if he, as Emperor of Rome, wrote “stoic” letters advising *others* to submit to fate and things as they are.

The single letter from James stands out as the only one that emphasizes God’s will that people aid and submit to those with less status or worldly goods than themselves, as opposed to bowing to the oppressors who have more. If you feel like grazing in the Bible, read that one. It’s not only more Jesus-ish, but it’s more comprehensible.

The Hexameron, by St. Basil
In fact there did exist something, as it seems, even before the world, which our mind can attain by contemplation, but which has been left uninvestigated because it is not adapted to those who are beginners and as yet infants in understanding. This was a condition older than the birth of the world and proper to the supermundane powers, one beyond time, everlasting, without beginning or end. In it the Creator and Producer of all things perfected the works of His art, a spiritual light befitting the blessedness of those who love the Lord, rational and invisible natures, and the whole orderly arrangement of spiritual creatures which surpass our understanding and of which it is impossible even to discover the names.

Every so often, I describe absolutely everything I do as either “empowerment” or “therapy”. I empower myself first thing in the morning with “getting up therapy”, during which I resonantly and meaningfully chant the word “AWAKENING” until The Redhead elbows me out of bed. Then I further empower myself in the bathroom with a CLEANSING ritual wherein I purify my body and purge it of toxins, get the idea.

I mention this because the 4th Century theologian Basil “The Great” does something similar when discussing the six days of creation in nine short sermons given here, which were recommended to me by a reader of this January’s Bookpost. Basil takes a sentence, even a word, from the first chapter in Genesis, and invests it with cosmic significance. Like the word “creation”. Omigosh, CREATION! The Lord doesn’t just make things, He CREATES them. One moment = nothing. The next = a whole lot of stuff! Gosharootie! He Created EVERYTHING! Are you feeling solemn and sublime yet? Me neither. And actually, as theology goes, the person who suggested I season my Medieval texts with a little Basil was right. It is an improvement.

More than anything, Basil reminds me of Lucretius (Bookpost, June 2012), even though Lucretius was an atheist and the church tried to destroy all of his, and Epicurius’s writings as blasphemous. Both of them turn their philosophy into poetry or near poetry. When it comes to the creation of the birds and the fishes and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, Basil gives his congregation a full pastoral lyric on the noble ox, the honey-producing bee, the companion animals that warm our hearth. Behold their feathers! Behold their fins! Look on the seed-bearing plants and rejoice in God’s limitless bounty! Basil may intend a proof of “Intelligent Design” on the grounds that so many distinct and perfect creatures could not possibly have evolved due to mere natural selection, but his similarity to Lucretius is a presentation of the world as a wonderful place to live, and of life as an experience to be savored with gratitude. And then he goes and ruins the effect with a bunch of misogyny, gratuitously admonishing wives to stay with their husbands even if they're abusive, because the bond of marriage is more important than not getting abused by your partner. Look at this species of turtle dove that is so faithful and monogamous! You women need to be like that! (see the Timothy letters, above)

I was also directed to an essay, “Advice to Young Men on the right Use of Greek Literature”, which again is refreshing in that Basil actually encourages people to read those pagan books. Most other theologians of the day, Christian and Talmudic, were big on studying only their respective holy texts, and destroying other works wherever they were found (Thus was Alexandria murdered). Basil quite sensibly suggests panning for gold nuggets in what might be considered chaff, and keeping the gold while rejecting the rest of it. Which is pretty much my approach to Basil’s most cherished scripture.

The Summer of the Danes, by Ellis Peters; The Crown in Darkness and A Spy in Chancery, by PC Doherty
Cadfael had made another step within, and all but stumbled as his foot tangled soundlessly with some shifting fold of soft material, as though a rumpled brychan had been swept from bed to floor. he stooped and felt forward into the rough weave of cloth, and found something of firmer texture within it. A fistful of sleeve rose to his grip, the warmth and odor of wool stirred in the air, and an articulated weight dangled and swung as he lifted it, solid within the cloth. He let it rest back again gently, and felt down the length of it to a thick hem, and beyond that, the smooth, lax touch of human flesh, cooling but not yet cold. A sleeve indeed, and an arm within it, and a large, sinewy hand at the end of the arm.
"Do that," he said over his shoulder. "Bring a light. We are going to need all the light we can get."
"What is it?" asked Mark, intent and still behind him.
"A dead man, by all the signs. a few hours dead. And unless he has grappled with someone who stood in the way of his flight, and left him here to tell the tale, who can this be but Bledri ap Rhys?"

--from The Summer of the Danes

Wishart thought back to what he had heard about that fateful night at the banquet. Bruce had been there, so had the English and French envoys. De Craon had looked upset. Benstede, impassive, had left early, while Bruce scarcely bothered to disguise the murder in his eyes whenever he caught the king’s glance/ The king had been so glum on his arrival and then suddenly, almost out of character even for him, his mood had changed to one of enjoyment, drinking deeply, boasting that he would be with the Queen before the night was out, then off riding into that terrible storm to his death on top of Kinghorn Cliff. Was someone there waiting for him, Wishart thought? No. No one at the banquet could possibly have crossed the Firth of Forth in such weather with such speed and he knew from his own spies that only the King had crossed the Forth that night. Deep in his heart Wishart believed the King had been murdered but he did not know how, or why, or by whom. The old bishop stirred restlessly as the wind howled in savage gusts against the castle and, although they had never met, he would have agreed with Corbett: Satan was abroad, his evil gathering like pus in an open wound.
--from The Crown in Darkness

”Is he daed?”, the rider asked, his voice dry, devoid of any emotion.
“No”, the beggar muttered. “Only unconscious. Is he to be questioned?” The leader shook his head and gathered the reins of his horse.
“No”, he replied. “Sew him in a sack and throw him into the seine!”
“It would be a mercy to cut his throat,” the beggar pointed out. The leader mounted and savagely jerked at the reins to turn his horse.
“Mercy.” He commented drily. “If you had failed or lost him, I would have shown you such a mercy. He is a spy! He deserves none. Do as I say!” He turned, and soon both horse and rider were hidden by the cloying mist.

Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael books are old friends to me. I read most of the way through the series in the mid 1990s before getting distracted by other things. They take place during a period of near anarchy in the 12th Century, but they still manage to be the definition of 'cozy' mystery, meant to be read by the fire on a winter's night. For tales of bloody murder, they warm the soul.

The secret is the language. Look at the passage above where Cadfael discovers a corpse in the dark. Now imagine the parts that are not about such gruesome plot elements, written like that. Passages about the English countryside, bonnie lasses and stouthearted yeomen falling in love while their aging parents look on and remember the stirrings of youthful fire from their past. For the Cadfael stories are about the best side of human nature. Even the murderer usually seems genuinely apologetic at having to play such a wet-blanket role to dampen what was supposed to be a love story. The mysteries are easily solved, and are almost an afterthought to the rest of the plot.

In The Summer of the Danes, for example, the crime to be solved is pretty much superfluous to the story of a priest's daughter whose father wants to get rid of her to retain favor with his new pro-celibacy bishop, and who travels with Cadfael towards an arranged marriage. Their party becomes embroiled in a conflict between two Welsh brothers, one of whom has brought in Danish mercenaries to stir things up. Issues of oaths and hospitality and honor and loyalty arise and, oh yes, someone gets killed, and they forget about it until the rest of the adventure is over. It works.

It's #18 in the series, and I don't think I'll be going back and reading the earlier ones again just for Bookposting. They're all good, though. Start with A Morbid Taste for Bones (which isn't really representative of the series), and definitely go on to One Corpse Too Many to really decide if Cadfael is right for you. Very high recommendations.

The Crown in Darkness is the second of PC Doherty’s Hugh Corbett novels, and I’m still in culture shock over it, as one who learned what he ‘knows’ about King Edward I from a movie made by Mel Gibson that has been famously panned for historical inaccuracy regardless of how exciting a story it tells. Even more so, as this book takes place mainly in Scotland and focuses on the death of the Scottish King Alexander (which leaves Scotland with no undisputed heir and brings the clans to the brink of civil war, ultimately resolved in Braveheart by the horrific incident young Wallace witnesses at the very beginning of the movie, which is not mentioned in Doherty’s book at all, even though foreshadowing all the way to Bannockburn permeates the story). Robert the Bruce appears as a wee laddie, grandson of the reigning Bruce of the novel, and Corbett investigates whether Alexander, who fell with his horse off a cliff on a dark and stormy night, might have been murdered by any of the Bruces, Comyns, French envoys, English envoys, scheming bishops or random bandits who were in the area the night he died. The killer is easy to intuit—I guessed it well ahead of the climax, but there is one actual clue proving guilt, that went right by me.

A Spy in Chancery is more of a history lesson than a real mystery, but it’s very enjoyable. This one takes Corbett to France and Wales, looking for clues to the French infiltrator who is learning King Edward’s most secret plans and killing his spies one by one. The real puzzle to be solved is the way the spy gets his information to the French so quickly, and Doherty pretty much tells you with the first clue. The worthiness of the story is what it tells you about the actual cat and mouse game that the French and English were playing with held territories both surrounding the French kingdom and on the British Isles outside England.

Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon
Science itself, the actual corpus of natural knowledge, had by now become so complex that only a tiny fraction of it could be mastered by one brain. Thus students of one branch of science knew practically nothing of the work of others in kindred branches. Especially was this the case with the huge science called subatomic physics. Within this were contained a dozen studies, any one of which was as complex as the whole of the physics of the Nineteenth Christian century. This growing complexity had rendered students in one field ever more reluctant to criticize, or even try to understand the principles of other fields. Each petty department, jealous of its own preserves, was meticulously respectful of the preserves of others. In an earlier period the sciences had been coordinated and criticized philosophically by their own leaders and by the technical philosophers. But, philosophy as a rigorous technical discipline no longer existed. There was, of course, a vague framework of ideas, or assumptions, based on science and common to all men, a popular pseudo-science, constructed by journalists from striking phrases current among scientists. But actual scientific workers prided themselves on the rejection of this ramshackle structure, even while they themselves were unwittingly assuming it. And each insisted that his own special subject must inevitably remain unintelligible, even to most of his brother scientists.

Heavy duty science fiction! Stapledon chronicles the future history of the human race over a period almost as long as the estimated (by scientists, not preachers) age of the Universe. We’re talking over two thousand million years here. Only the first few chapters contain actual individual characters; after that, the characters are the new and constantly evolving and devolving races of humans.

Stapledon begins with a massive Fail, but then picks himself up and soars to new heights. His preface informs you that Last and first Men is not a work of fiction, but that one of the “Last Men” has traveled thousands of millions of years into the past to influence the mind of a writer named Stapledon to set down all of history from that moment forward, disguised as a novel. Unfortunately, Stapledon wrote in 1933, and his first pronouncement is that, after the disaster that was the World War, everyone learned from the devastation and united themselves into the League of Nations for over a century of peace—with the Germans, who had borne the brunt of the damage in the war, taking the lead in making sure peace lasted. Um...oops.

It’s hard to take Stapledon’s version of history seriously after that, at least, not for quite a few chapters, but eventually you forget. After enough centuries, anyone might forget. After thousands of millions of years, the details are smaller than flyspecks.

The rise and fall of civilizations, human species and eventually planets after the first few chapters are a cornucopia/kaleidoscope of evolution and entropy. Details that would be entire novels in other hands—the endless wars with the Martians; the race of brain people; the race of Flying Men from Venus—they go by in just a couple of pages. The single chapter on Mankind on Neptune covers more time than the planet Earth has existed and eight distinct human species (we the readers are the “First Men”, and the consciousness allegedly speaking to us is one of the Sixteenth and “Last” Men). Sometimes a new species of Man arises after the previous race is all but obliterated in a global nuclear war or similar catastrophe. Other times, the race engineers a new and “superior” race in an effort to improve itself, and the new race decides to exterminate the old race as “inferior”. Humankind continually advances, falls back, and advances again, always striving to perfect itself, with the climax of the “Last Men” ultimately coming as a plot spoiler that you’ll have to read to discover. I urge you to do so. If you are at all a sci-fi fan, you will want to read this book at least once. It helped to define the genre.

Out of Sight, Out of Time, by Ally Carter
”You’ve got quite a bump there. I’m not surprised you’re hearing things. You’ve been saying things too, just so you know. But I wouldn’t worry about that. People hear and say all kinds of crazy things when they’re sick.”
“What did I say?” I asked, honestly terrified of the answer.
“It doesn’t matter now.” She tucked the covers in around me, just like Grandma Morgan used to do. “All you need to do is lie there and rest and—“
What did I say?
“Crazy things.” The girl’s voice was a whisper. “A lot of it we didn’t understand. The rest—between us all—we pieced together.”
“Like what?” I gripped her hand tightly, as if trying to squeeze the truth out.
“Like you go to a school for spies.”

OK, so apparently there was another Gallagher Girls book after all, and I had to read it because I’m CDO that way. Also because they’re short. Two sessions on the epilleptical and I was finished. Hopefully this time for good.

Gallagher Girls pretend to be spoiled teenage princesses while really going to a top secret James Bond school, except more like Jane Bond and in America. I adore the concept of mixing typical teenage problems and angst with lethal girlpower spy skills, but the execution wobbles between almost neat-o and Fail. The Harry Potter similarities are glaring enough to make comparisons inevitable, and Cammie, Macy, Bex and Liz just can’t measure up to Harry, Hermione, Neville and Ron. The situations they find themselves in defy security protocols in a way that makes the “I couldn’t tell you the whole truth earlier because it was only Book 2” trope hard to swallow. And the level of teenage angst displayed, especially toward the end, would either have been disciplined out of real spy-trainees by that point, or they’d never have been allowed on the mission, or they’d have been killed earlier. And you never get close enough to the characters to care about them the way you care about the Hogwarts gang.

The fifth book, if you’ve read the series so far, is for people who thought Deathly Hallows was the best of the Harry Potter books. I didn’t, and found the “let’s leave school and go on a macguffin hunt” trope a pain in the butt. Of course, as always, I’m not the target market. So not the target market that this was one of few books that I was embarrassed to be seen reading in public. If you’re a real YA fan, YMMV.

Roads to Santiago, by Cees Nooteboom
Apart from two nuns and an old lady, I am the only visitor in the Bellas Artes Museum, which has a section devoted to archaeology. The nuns overtake me at the rate of one century a minute and then I am truly alone in the prehistory of Spain. Stone arrowheads, clay pots, an exhumed grave containing a startled ancestor laying on his side, an anonymous skeleton of a member of some ancient tribe, whose peace was rudely disturbed after 3,000 years by someone who himself would never become the object of archaeological investigation, because everything we leave behind will be properly labeled.
What really appeals to me about the history from before history is the absence of a cutting ege. Names, dates, battles, disputes—all have been erased. It is as if the expulsion from Paradise did not come until later, as if prehistoric man led a peaceful, rural life of hunting, pot-making, fishing, a protracted existence bathed in all-enveloping silence. Nameless creatures of my own species lived a life on earth that was not recorded on paper nor registered in any way, and later generations have had to dig deep to recover their traces.

Serendipitously, I just happened to pick a book on my huge reading list that dovetails nicely with a Medieval-centric 2013 reading plan, and with the Durants’ survey history of Europe, although it is neither medieval nor overtly historical. It is about the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom’s interest in Spain, written in 1992, and his travel journal that seems to travel in time more than in geographical distance. In 1992, Nooteboom stands on the Iberian peninsula as far back as pre-Carthaginian times, and as recently as the 1960s.

Time stands still here. Nooteboom loves the roads less traveled, and so he often ends up, at the close of the 20th century, in peasant villages where farmers still plough the land using burros instead of tractors, and where the center of village life is still a tavern straight out of Don Quixote (a major character in Nooteboom’s remeniscences), except when it’s the church. Yes, except then. You almost expect Rod Serling to take over the narrative and Nooteboom—dreamer, philosopher, searching for the past in the present—is about to find himself actually in a Spain many centuries before his own time, as he slakes his thirst for meaning in—The Twilight Zocolo.

You almost expect this because Nooteboom’s fanciful take on things is contagious. When he’s not in remote peasant villages taking pictures of stately trees and whimsical road signs, he’s in cathedrals and museums, using the art and architecture to segue into lessons on art history, literary history or just plain history. He shares a laugh with the statue of someone who broke into a smile 800 years ago, and the joke is as riveting as ever. He psychoanalyzes every character depicted in Velasquez’s Las Meninas. And, of course, he devotes an entire chapter to Cervantes, visiting the windmills that still exist near La Mancha and imagining the view that led Cervantes/Quixote to imagine them as sinister giants. Recommended to anyone with a wandering mind and a steady imagination.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ursula would weep at the table as if she were reading the letters that had never arrived and in which Jose Arcadio told about his deeds and misadventures. “And there was so much of a home here for you, my son”, she would sob, “and so much food thrown to the hogs!” But underneath it all she could not conceive that the boy the gypsies had took away was the same lout who would eat half a suckling pig for lunch and whose flatulence withered the flowers.

Odds are, when people think of “magic realism” (the use of impossible or supernatural plot elements, described as if they were no more unusual than things that happen understandably in real life) in literature, this is the primary example that comes to mind. It’s certainly the most famous, though not the first, example of the genre ever written. For some reason, it thrives in Latin America more than anywhere else, and Garcia-Marquez got the Noble Prize mainly on the strength of this book.

It takes a family that settles in and becomes the primary family of a remote area surrounded by swamps and mountains and takes it to a place of epic meaning and futility, absorbing life, the universe and everything into a troy loosely based on the history of Colombia. It definitely covers more than 100 years, since one of the main characters lives to be well over a hundred years old and the story continues for a generation after her death. Also, with all the bustling, wars, labor disputes and family squabbles, there isn’t much solitude until the final chapters, when enough people have died that you can count the remaining few comfortably. You have to concentrate to keep track of the characters, since the male progeny of the original Jose Arcadio Buendia are all named Jose, or Arcadio, or Jose Arcadio, or Aureliano, or Jose Aureliano, or Aureliano Jose, and it’s easy to get them mixed up. Some do nothing, some do great things, and all die in magically real ways after spectacular successes and failures.

There’s something for everybody. My favorite part, of the whole, involves one of the Jose Aurelianos becoming involved with a strike against the United Fruit Company, which really existed, and whose predatory colonialism as described by Garcia Marquez makes the United States Government look like a bunch of wusses. First they bring the Colombian military to shoot thousands of trapped strikers in an enclosed space; then the Fruit Company apologizes and promises to make reparations “as soon as the rain stops”. And so, by order of the Untited Fruit Company, the rain doesn’t stop, like, ever. Years pass. Floods carry away most of the village. Everybody drowns except Jose Aureliano. The fruit company and the history books proclaim that the workers were happy and content and alive the whole time, and then the story moves on to something else.

Triggery for rape, incest and colonial oppression of the indigenous, but in new and different ways. Recommended as more good for you and thought provoking than actually fun, and part of that select canon of books that pretty much everybody would benefit from reading once.

Small Remedies, by Shashi Deshpande
When they’ve gone, I think of my question to Tony—why should I go on? I didn’t need to ask Tony that, I have the answer myself. I have to go on because I must find an explanation for what happened. I have to know why my seventeen year old son had to die such a horrible death, I must see whether I can make any sense of this freakish thing that happened to us, turning our lives, Som’s and mine, into this arid desert.

Moving from Colombia to India, we come to a more modern (2000) book that, while not magic realism, has a lot in common with Garcia Marquez. It’s a book written in the first person by a female Indian writer, in which the narrator is a female Indian writer, which leads to dissonance about how much of it is fictional. It also goes back and forth in time to an extent that confused me. The quoted paragraph above is the first time we learn that the narrator had a son to begin with, and we don’t get to actually meet the son for a long time afterwards. Instead, we join the narrator as she interviews the mother of a childhood friend who became a musician in a culture where there are many muslims who believe female musicians who perform in public must be killed, and another woman who became a communist. And this is supposed to help her find the truth about her son’s death, in ways that don’t become clear until—sort of—the end. The “Small Remedies” of the title is the name of a book of child-rearing challenges and solutions, alluded to only once within Small Remedies, and possibly a vital clue to the theme of the story. I needed it.

It didn’t do much for me, but that may be due to a fault in the translation, or to me not being the target market, or, most likely, because when reading for pleasure I’m just too lazy to do the kind of work required for a Caucasian-American to understand and appreciate the literature of India, where vocabulary words from India are used without explanation. To be reminded from time to time that one’s own literary needs and settings are not the center of the universe is good for the soul.

On Christian Doctrine, by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Does not this pattern of behavior befit the action of us who are united in the brotherhood of the love of god, to enjoy whom is to live the blessed life, and to whom all who love him owe not only the fact that they exist at all but also the fact that they love Him? We have no fear that anyone who knows Him could be displeased. And He wishes to be loved, not for selfish ends, but so that He may confer an eternal reward on those who love Him, which is the very object of their love. Thus it is that we also love our enemies. For we do not fear them, since they cannot take away that which we love. Rather, we are sorry for them, for the more they hate us, the further removed are they from that which we love. If they were to turn to Him and love Him as the source of blessedness, they would necessarily love us also as companions in a great good.

Before moving on from Augustine (see City of God, January 2013 and Confessions, February 2013), I decided to try On Christian Doctrine, the other work of Augustine that is included in the Great Books of the Western World series. I was glad I did. I’m in the minority here, but it seems to me that Christian Doctrine is the better work of the three.

For one thing, it’s short enough to read quickly, having four brief chapters. Even this, however, is not enough to stop Augustine’s pattern of changing subjects in midstream so that the end of any given book is nothing like the beginning; chapter four is a tract on rhetoric, while the rest is about scripture interpretation.

Amazingly, this is one of very few ‘scripture interpretation’ tracts I’ve seen that has actually bent the inconsistencies, contradictions and gibberish of the Bible so as to err on the side of loving rather than hating. According to Augustine, Christ said to love one another, and so all else is secondary to that, and so all scripture that would seem to urge *not* loving one another must be discarded or interpreted as an analogy, allegory or otherwise not really meaning don’t love. How many other preachers, ancient and modern, do it exactly the opposite—interpret the gay-hating and misogyny literally, and Hell, and the parable of the talents, and coming with a sword, but ask them about selling what they have and giving to the poor and how hard it is for camels to get through the eye of a needle, and, oh well, Jesus didn’t exactly mean *that*. This alone makes On Christian Doctrine well worth reading. In retrospect, it isn’t inconsistent with Augustine’s other major works. It’s just that he is too busy flagellating himself for most of the Confessions and on heaping ridicule on the pagans in The City of God to talk about universal love as the ultimate good. When he interprets scripture in those other works, he chooses subjects like the six days of creation, glorifying God’s Omnipotence power, not His love.

This edition also included an even shorter tract, Of the Teacher, which is a Platonic dialogue only tangentially related to religion, about how we know what we know and emphasizing that the subject matter exists independently of the teacher. Very reminiscent of the Plato dialogues (see pretty much all the Bookposts of 2011), it punctuates the cliche that Augustine = Plato and Aquinas = Aristotle.

Poetry in Explosion: The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
Working in Cairo during the early days of the war, he had been trained to invent double agents or phantoms who would take on flesh. He had been in charge of a mythical agent named “Cheese,” and he spent weeks clothing him with facts, giving him qualities of character—such as greed and a weakness for drink when he would spill false rumours to the enemy. Just as some in Cairo he worked for invented whole platoons in the desert. He had lived through a time of war when everything offered up to those around him was a lie. He had felt like a man in the darkness of a room imitating the calls of a bird. But here they were shedding skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defence but to look for the truth in others.

I only vaguely remember the 1996 movie version of this, but the book is definitely different. Set toward the end of WWII in a mostly deserted villa where allied-occupied Italy is dealing with an abundance of mines and other explosive booby traps left by the retreating Germans, it centers around the interactions of four characters: the title character, who has been brought, seriously burned and partly amnesiac, from the desert; a Canadian nurse who becomes obsessed with tending to him; an Italian spy seeking information about the English patient’s past, and a sapper from India whose efforts to disarm unexploded bombs (UXBs) provide some of the most suspenseful moments of the book.

All three of the male characters flirt with the lone female to some extent, and the English patient’s backstory involves a love triangle. This, interspersed with the sapper’s adventures and the patient’s injuries, are meant to underscore that playing with hearts is like playing with explosives, a theme that Ondaatje tackles with much more finesse than, say, Richard Ford did with Wildlife (Bookpost, October 2012).

The movie version shifts a great deal of focus from the interaction of the four major characters to the patient’s backstory; in fact, the woman from the backstory becomes the major female lead, whereas in the book, the nurse is almost the protagonist of the whole book, and those plot elements not set in and around the villa are placed in chapters much shorter than the others, as if to emphasize that they are side themes, far from the main action. Other historical events, also very far from the main action, have major effects on the central characters later on.

As with Small Remedies, the plot moves back and forth in time, and the writing is dreamlike and poetic; however, I found Ondaatje much easier to deal with than Deshpande. This may be because the patient’s recovered memories and drifts in and out of consciousness lend themselves to dreams and flashbacks, or because Ondaatje gives less culture shock to my occidental mind for cultural reasons. Regardless, The English Patient is a modern classic, and it’s easy to see why it won the Booker prize the year it was published.

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, by Adam Rex
Count Dracula doesn’t know he’s been walking around all night with spinach in his teeth.

Will someone please just tell him? It looks so undignified.
The zombies almost mentioned it. The headless horseman tried.
But when he said, “Vhat are you staring at?” they lost their nerve and lied.

It’s been stuck in there for hours now. It’s getting kind of sick.
I would offer him a toothpick, but he gets this nervous tic
If you ever come too close with any kind of pointed stick.

Well, really. Can you blame us if we don’t know what to say?
His castle has no mirrors, so I guess it’s here to stay.
What was a vampire doing eating spinach anyway?

This is a kiddie book recommended by a friend, containing poems and other vignettes about monsters in a way that reminds me of Shel Silverstien at his best, only without so much “bad things happening to kids” as “Monsters being goofy”.

Sometimes the titles are the best part. Sometimes they’re almost longer than the poems. We have “The Creature from the Black Lagoon Doesn’t Wait an Hour Before Going Swimming”; “The Phantom of the Opera Can’t Get ‘It’s a Small World’ Out of His Head”; and the terse “Godzilla Pooped on my Honda.”. They address things you might not have thought of, like how the Invisible Man probably still needs a haircut sometimes, and boy is that going to be awkward.

I’m lucky. I have tiny tots in my house to read this to. If you’re quirky enough to be my friend reading my Bookposts, and you don’t have kids, you’re probably going to want to at least take a look at this one for your own amusement...and it might be awkward.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

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  • Aria: The Masterpiece, Volume 2

    Aria: The Masterpiece, Volume 2 by Kozue Amano Further life on the wet Mars, now known as Aqua. Akari helps a lost visitor, learns about the…

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