Thursday, November 27, 2014

Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot

Four QuartetsFour Quartets by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish there were a way to give more than five stars, or something beyond stars. My reaction to this work goes so far past the dichotomy of "like/dislike" that any stab at a review or an opinion falls well short of the reality.

Decades ago, I remember reading one of these four poems in an advanced English literature class, and it snapped me out of the haze of adolescence into something resembling total awareness. All the words were familiar, but arranged in a way that shook me awake. One quote stuck in my conscious and subconscious permanently: we shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

As a Unitarian Universalist, later in life I took Emerson's fine advice to “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” During the many years I've been doing this, Eliot's quote above found its way into my own words three separate times-- nothing else is repeated amongst the thousands of quotes taken from all I read.

This month, I read Four Quartets the morning after my mother died, as a way to somehow integrate the enormity of what had happened and get some of the pain to move. The themes in the poems of time, life, death, immortality, destruction, and love helped more than anyone else's words of comfort or hope. It helped me frame a tragic event in a larger context so that I could move forward, internally and externally.

Another reviewer said that this work will echo in your head for the rest of your life. It's one of the most enduring and important things I've ever read.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

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

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fall of 1995, I heard a paradigm-shifting lecture delivered by a philosophy professor who happened to be a lay leader at my Unitarian Universalist fellowship. Titled "Paul's Little Invention," he laid out some of the history of the early church and explained why Paul, not Jesus' own followers, got the foothold in Rome and created a new religion in Jesus' name only. Through the ideas he presented, I was able to finally pinpoint the theological and philosophical problems I had with mainstream Christianity and find what was left of truth for myself. I blame Paul for my split with the church of my youth, and he's probably responsible for many similar disillusionments over the last two millenia.

Aslan's book is an expansion of the ideas I first encountered in 1995. He meticulously explains the social, political, and religious climate in which the historical Jesus lived and taught, and through this, it is simple to see why he gained a following and what made him stand out from many other miracle workers and self-proclaimed messiahs in the area. Even just understanding that the Roman punishment for sedition was crucifixion makes very clear what was happening the last week of Jesus' life and removes some of the mystery.

In my opinion, the greatest loss of the early (and probably contemporary) church is the sidelining of Jesus' brother James, who took up his ministry in Judea and continued to practice Hebrew law while gaining followers within Judaism. Because the early church felt it necessary to emphasize Mary's perpetual virginity, the fact that as a married woman she would have had a number of other children over time was conveniently ignored, and James faded into ecclesiastical obscurity. But contemporary writings of his time paint him as a pious, law-abiding, inspiring figure even to church leaders, despite the fact that he was an illiterate peasant living in extreme poverty in accordance with his brother's teachings. The world is poorer for the lack of illumination on his example.

Zealot clarified a lot of points for me about the history of the times, the timeline of events, and the reasons why certain paths were taken in the early church. Paul was reviled by practicing Jews for his refutation of Hebrew law; once the Temple was destroyed in 70AD and Jews scattered through the region, Paul's teachings gained significance in the gentile world; James had already been put to death.

Read this if you are interested in Biblical history and want to know how things came about. A third of the book at the end contains extensive notes and references. I agree with Aslan's conclusion: the real historical Jesus of Nazareth is much more compelling a person than Paul's little invention.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh

Vile BodiesVile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set at the crossroads of the last gasps of Edwardian propriety and the close of the Jazz Age, Vile Bodies skewers the Bright Young Things of 1920s England. These are the young survivors of the first World War who mean to have fun, because who knows what could happen next?

Waugh himself was a few years older than the very real BYTs from which he draws his characters, and in real life, had a mixture of admiration and revulsion as he observed them at near distance. These 18-to-25-year-olds leveraged their families' excellent social standing and wealth to live lives of great excess and ultimately emptiness. Some escaped through respectable marriage and settled down into upperclass convention after a few years of wild living, and others were forever broken.

One might want to consult a few notes about 1920s England before embarking on this short novel; it's helpful to know what the political, social, religious, and economic milieus were in terms of understanding some of the sidebar action, such as the Angels, which would fall flat without a point of reference.

As with so much of Waugh's work, he manages to capture adroitly a fleeting moment in history via his fiction: here, it's the very last of carefree 1920s society before the realities of the Great Depression and World War II change everything. His dry sense of humor and way of setting up a scene to deliver a fantastic punchline are simply delicious. Well worth reading if this era fascinates you as it does me.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

The World Without UsThe World Without Us by Alan Weisman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What if humans no longer existed on Earth? If we evolved up to this point, and then suddenly were gone? How would different species fare? Which would prosper and which would die? What would happen to our feats of engineering, our art, our architecture? Our houses? Our things?

Weisman answers all these questions and more from his scientific perch, from which he often moves to take us to Pacific atolls encrusted with plastic, to Chernobyl where wildlife, however mutated, has reclaimed the area; to a primeval forest preserved for centuries by Polish royalty, to bridges, buildings, graveyards, nuclear waste sites, ancient Egypt and Peru, the bottom of the oceans and the outer reaches of interstellar space.

We humans have left a massive footprint on our own planet and have managed to beam something of ourselves out into the cosmos as well, but the final word is that we are not indelible, and that our mark will, with time, fade into obscurity for other species to discover and ponder. This isn't a plea for conservation or ecological measures, though the case is made through simple factual presentation; one leaves this book behind pondering how our waste-creating species turns such a blind eye to the tremendous damage we do. All of it is reversible, though-- just not with us around.

Humans add one million newborns to our numbers on Earth every four days. Every four days. The planet continues to accommodate us as best it can, but one wonders about a tipping point. Your interests in science, travel, history, and the human condition all converge here for a very thought-provoking, sobering, and anything but nihilistic read.

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Blind Man's Garden, by Nadeem Aslam

The Blind Man's GardenThe Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tense, poetic, disturbing, indelible. THE BLIND MAN'S GARDEN takes place in a small city in Pakistan in the weeks and months following 9/11, when President Bush has vowed that "we will smoke them out." This is that experience from the other side, and the Americans don't look so good.

The blind man in question is still sighted at the beginning, and thinks his son and foster son are going off on a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan, when in fact they are joining the counter-militia that threatens their peaceful life as sons of a former schoolmaster. The school in question has been commandeered by a radical Islamist faction and churns out zealous young men and women prepared to fight the West for the supremacy of their fringe version of Islam. Complicating matters further, son Jeo is married to Naheed, who is secretly in love with foster brother Mikal.

The contrast between the beautiful gardens of the school grounds and the terror of the torture chamber is upsetting and chilling. To read this is to better understand how the West has kicked over a beehive; a region that has been in tenuous balance between peace and warfare for millenia does not react well to outside force.

Nor do the people in this book, who represent the many faces of modern Islamic society. This book is graphic, unsettling, and important. Aslam challenges the reader to put aside preconceived notions and take all sides into account before re-forming one's opinion of right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. If you are interested in the situation in the Middle East from a non-Western perspective, although this is fiction, the voices are real.

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