Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Jesus Stories

My reading choices in the past few months have focused on 1st century Palestine. It all started when a friend recommended Christopher Moore's Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. It's fiction and a clever work of imagination but Moore did some decent research to serve as the basis of his narrative.  He has a pretty blank slate work with since not much is known about Jesus Christ until about age 30.  Apparently some tradition suggests that Christ traveled east in his earlier years, an idea that Moore expands with no small amount of humor.  I read Moore's A Dirty Job years ago and found it wildly inventive and funny.  Moore does a good job with the Jesus story.  I give it as much credence as the Bible and it's WAY more readable.

About the same time I was reading Lamb I found  A Jew Among Romans: the Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus by Frederic Raphael at the library.  I vaguely recognized the name from a classified add that often appeared in The Nation claiming to offer proof (for only $1 and a self addressed-self stamped envelop) that Jesus Christ was an invention of Flavius Josephus.  I figured I might learn what that proof was.  What I learned was that Palestine was was awash with Jewish nationalism, factionalism, messianism and terrorism in pursuit of the promised Kingdom of Israel in the years before and after Jesus of Nazareth.  I learned that in 66 CE (most any time, actually since they often profited from the Roman occupation) wealthy and educated Jews, including Josephus, thought that rebelling against the Romans was very ill-advised.  I learned, too, that many other Jews would kill anyone who questioned the rebellion.

As governor of a city besieged by the Romans and defended by zealots, Josephus was was a dead man no matter what he did.  What he did was manage to survive by making himself useful to the victorious Roman general Vespasian.  Josephus ended up in Rome as historian when Vespasian became emperor.  Josephus wrote history that flattered his patron but it serves as a valuable chronicle of 1st century events.  A Jew Among Romans taught me some history I did not know and added context to the familiar history and myth I do know.  I never learned if Josephus invented Jesus Christ.

Well before reading either of these books I had a request in at the library for Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Resa Aslan.  It drew attention when it came out a few months ago; from  Fox News wingnuts coming unglued about a Muslim writing about Jesus to and religious scholars/authorities who question Aslan's research.   Whatever it's quality and interpretation, Aslan's research is extensive--53 pages of notes and 10 page bibliography.  Aslan examines the historical record, which excludes the Gospels and other New Testament accounts written after the fact with a point of view, to place Jesus of Nazareth in the messianic and revolutionary traditions of 1st century Palestine and questions whether Jesus intended his message for non-Jews.  That said, Aslan acknowledges that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one of the several messiahs of his era who is remembered and the religions created in his name have flourished, even if the remembered Jesus is not the actual Jesus.

 Reading Zealot immediately after A Jew Among Romans added to Zealot's credibility.  Both relate the same events without contradiction.  Zealot focuses more narrowly on Palestine and events in Jesus's life but offers a rich background of the era's politics and culture.  A Jew Among Romans is more broadly focused, as Josephus life events took place on a larger stage than Jesus.  The two books reinforced my belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure.  I don't need him to be anything more than that. Another version of the Jesus story is "The Ballad of Mary Magdalen".  Mary figures prominently in Lamb, the most readable and fun of the three works.  Seems only right to end with her story.

"The Ballad of Mary Magdalen" is written by Richard Shindell.  It's one of many fine selections on "Cry, Cry, Cry"  by Shindel, Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best Books of 2013

Ever so timely.  I found this draft that I thought went out.  Here it is now.

From the book section of this blog, my choices for best books of 2013.  The only criteria I use are that I read the book in 2013--most were published in previous years--and that I remember it without looking back at my notes.

Of the fiction  I read in 2013 two novels stand out: Stalin's Barber by Paul Levin and The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri N. Marari.  Both are tales of cleverness and chance in perilous times and places told with reasonable accuracy and imagination.  Stalin's Barber is set in the 1930's Soviet Union I know from studying Russian history in college.  Paul Levin recreates the paranoia and tension that underlay Stalin's Kremlin, a dark tale that is not at all improbable.  The Taliban Cricket Club is from more recent history and, while the dire conditions under Taliban rule that are the the setting are all too real, the plot is a real stretch.  The plot is clever, though and to Marari's credit, he makes it seem possible with a well-crafted conclusion.  Both books were published in 2012.

Sherman Alexie's short story collection, Blasphemy, is also worth noting.  The stories are fiction but the voice always sounds autobiographical.  Alexie writes with the mordant humor of a Native American who lives in two cultures and sees the fallacies and foibles of both.  At times laugh-out-loud funny, other times teeth-gritting real, Blasphemy demonstrates Alexie's mastery of the short story form.

For non-fiction:  The Man Called Brown Condor: the Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot by Thomas E. Simmons (2013), A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle, and At the Dark End of the Street:  Black Women, Rape and Resistance--a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McClure (2010).  The first two were notable for me because I was entirely unaware of the history.   A Dance With Death is an oral history told by the women who served as fighter and bomber pilots, navigators, armorers and mechanics in Soviet Air Forces.  If you ever need proof that Russians are tough, these histories will serve well.  The Man Called Brown Condor tells the story of one of the first African American aviators, John Robinson, a man who in the face of 1920'sracism and exclusion. learned how to build, fly and maintain airplanes.  He became an advocate for African-Americans in aviation and ended up in flying for Ethiopia in the face of the 1935 Italian Invasion for which he became a celebrity in the US.  He returned to Ethiopia to create that nation's air force in 1944 and later Ethiopia's national airline.  He died in a plane crash flying medicine in an emergency.

At the Dark End of the Street broadens my understanding of history that I know.  Well before African-Americans began to demand economic and civil rights, their women demanded the right to be safe from assault and rape.  Beginning in the 1940's, those efforts established the organizing strategies and legal arguments that became the groundwork the broader movement that emerged in the following decades.  Along with a 2008 work, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, At the Dark End of the Street adds new dimensions to an important history that is usually told only superficially.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ancient Arts

Saturday evening I attended an event at the Olympia Library about typewriters.  Jim Hair of Blue Moon Camera (they also deal in vintage typewriters) in Portland came up to talk about typewriters, their history and their (somewhat) renaissance.  I have a fondness for typewriters since it was the typing class I took in high school that landed me the company clerk job after five months humping the boonies as a rifleman in Vietnam.  Never mind my college degree--it didn't do diddly for me--but knowing how to type was literally a life saver.

People brought in their manual typewriters to show.  There were some pretty bizarre antique machines as well as more "modern" ones.  There was also a typing contest where contestants typed copy for three minutes.  The sound that was loosed in the building when 10 or so people all began to type was amazing.  I can't recall the last time I heard the clatter of keys like that.  I typed in the second round.  I managed 70 words with 21 errors.  The winner typed 108 words with fewer errors.

Since then I've been playing around with my 1941 Royal Quiet Deluxe.  The keys have a presence that you just don't get from a keyboard.

The event reminded me that I'd heard an orchestral piece that mimicked the sound of a typewriter at some point.  This being the internet age, I quickly found a few videos of  Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter" only it was not a mimic--the piece features a real typewriter.  The musicians look like they are having a good time.