Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Zealot" by Reza Aslan

I first heard about Zealot from an interview with Aslan (my husband couldn't help but comment on the coincidence/irony [depending on how you read it] of the name) on NPR. Plenty of books have been written about the historical Jesus--what Aslan terms the "Jesus of Nazareth," as opposed to "Jesus the Christ," worshiped by modern Christians. But what makes Aslan, as an author, stand out is that he's Muslim, though he converted to Christianity for a period of time as a teenager. Ultimately, though, Aslan's personal background is irrelevant in Zealot, which seeks to explain the historical context for Jesus' life and ministry.

It's this context that has been stripped away from modern Christianity, which seems to argue that Jesus' message is timeless and the time period in which he lived is arbitrary. And while the generic platitudes of Christianity--turn the other cheek; love God, etc.--aren't rooted in any time period, Jesus certainly was. He existed as a Jewish man (and the identity is significant) at a period of Roman occupation of the Jewish people. Like other revolutionaries of his time, his goal was freedom from Rome: an independent country of God's chosen people. He was the called the Messiah, but was done so like many others before him. I once had someone tell me the "proof" that Jesus was the literal son of God was that "no one" would have called himself the Messiah unless he was the son of God or was absolutely crazy. Somehow this "either/or" proposition was supposed to convince me (I guess I was supposed to be offended by the suggestion that Jesus could have been crazy?). Aslan effectively argues that there's a third option--that Jesus was called the Messiah in a long tradition of non-crazy devout believers who took the title. Such an argument doesn't discount the other two options, but it does reject the premise of the "either/or" argument.

Aslan suggests that the significant Jewish underpinnings of Jesus were stripped away after the destruction of Jerusalem, when Christianity became a Roman religion. Of course they would want to remove the cultural significance of his actual life and preachings.

Aslan addresses simple, basic misunderstandings about the Bible. Like the fact that the New Testament books concerning Jesus were written after Jesus' death, by people who never knew him (and not by the people for whom the books are named), and by people who had clear agendas. This doesn't mean that the writers of the books of the Bible were lying, but they also weren't recording "history" in the way that we presume history books are written today. They had a specific ideological goal in mind, and their stories reflect that.

Similarly, Aslan notes that basic elements of the Jesus myth are absurd--like Joseph and Mary going back to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth. From Aslan: "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (30). There's nothing wrong with studying the stories of the Bible, but only as myths and parables designed for a purpose--not as literal "truth."

Zealot is in no way out to "debunk" Christianity. In many places, Aslan notes that items are matters, ultimately, of faith. For example, he does not try to give scientific explanations for Jesus' attributed miracles, as the argument would ultimately be fruitless. Either you believe he's the son of God and performed them, or you believe they never happened and were inventions by the Bible authors. There's no way to "prove" one way or another. Instead, Aslan attempts to lay out the known historical record of Jesus, producing a book that I think could actually enrich Christianity.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer

I think I've spoken before of my automatic distaste for any book described as a "saga." Not that I haven't enjoyed books spanning lifetimes or generations, but somehow the term "saga" has become associated, in my mind, with drawn-out melodrama--of the decidedly unappealing variety.

So, that brings me to The Interestings, which came up on so many "best of" lists that I felt the need to try it. And it is a "saga" of friendship, it is a drawn-out melodrama, but it's also a mostly engrossing book.

The Interestings begins at Spirit-in-the-Woods creative arts summer camp, where ordinary Jules is unexpectedly drawn into a group of "cool" campers: siblings Ash and Goodman, animation star Ethan, musician Jonah, and dancer Cathy. The story follows Jules throughout adulthood and her continuing friendships with Ethan and Ash.

Thematically, the novel hits home for many. Our concept of identity as formed as a teenager and challenged as an adult. Dealing with jealously as we recognize our peers and friends are more successful than we are. Learning to be happy with what you have. Finding and accepting your place in the world.

I enjoyed the book for the first half, but at some point, it started to drag. I think I was tired of hearing how "gentle" Ash is or how "talented" Ethan is. Or how Jules is so "funny" and "awesome" even though the reader doesn't really see that side. Or, goodness, the dragging on of Jules' husband Dennis' depression. It just felt like nothing was happening--the same feelings were just recycled through new periods of the characters' lives. And though that's perhaps true to life, it was also a bit dull.

The book also didn't seem to know what to do with Jonah, who's more of a character than Goodman and Cathy--they largely drop out of the book except to exist on the periphery--yet significantly less important than Jules, Ethan, and Ash. His childhood trauma is wrought and overdone, and somewhat irrelevant to the rest of the novel.

In the end, The Interestings began promising, despite being called a "saga," but ended a bit flat.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo

In many ways, We Need New Names is a collection of short stories, though all follow the experiences of the young girl Darling, first in Zimbabwe (though I believe the country goes unnamed in the book), and later after she immigrates to America. But rather than a continuous narrative, the novel is comprised of a series of vignettes illuminating Darling and her friends' lives.

I found the stories about Darling's life in her home country the most engaging, as Bulawayo perfectly captures the voice of the young while illuminating a culture and country different than my own. There's the simple joy of stealing and eating guavas, or the fear (even though Darling and her friends are black) when a white neighborhood is ransacked.The simultaneous concern and indifference with which Darling and her friends treat the pregnancy of their friend Chipo--a child as well--too feels emblematic of youth.

The stories when Darling moves to Michigan are similarly engaging, though thematically they tread ground I was more familiar with from similar novels which describe the challenges of the American immigrant experience. Darling is proud to be living in America, but she also desperately misses her country and her friends, and she struggles to adjust to the inevitable distance that such a move creates between her and the people back home.

Bulawayo writes beautifully, and I had a hard time putting the novel down, even though, because of the structure, it would seem easy to stop. I'm eager to read more.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is the true account of Cahalan's battle with a mysterious neurological illness which caused her to become paranoid, hallucinate, and completely forget a month of her life. The story is helped by the fact that Cahalan was a young, attractive, New York Post reporter--in short, a person going places--when everything began.

What I found most interesting about Cahalan's story was the way in which the medical establishment is ill-equipped to treat unusual illnesses. This fact makes sense--after all, most illnesses do fall into pre-established categories--but it also means that people who fall outside the norm are easily dismissed. In particular, it was frightening how quickly doctors were willing to write Cahalan off as a young person drinking too much, or later as just another case of mental illness. Cahalan notes that if it weren't for her privileged position and a supportive family, she easily could have ended up in a mental institution for the rest of her life.

Cahalan's bizarre behavior and the search for the cure are compelling stuff, but not enough to sustain an entire book. The other space is filled with medical descriptions of disease--relevant, but dull material. I was left feeling that the book would have been better as a lengthy essay rather than a standalone piece.

In short, I'd try Cahalan's original article in the New York Post first and only pick the book up if you're left wanting more.