Martin Palmer: The Jesus Sutras

Martin Palmer: The Jesus SutrasWe’ve never suffered from a dearth of books on Christianity. Even leaving aside the Bible, books on all things Christian–apologetics, fiction, inspirational tracts, and even books that take on Christianity from an atheistic viewpoint–have never been in short supply. The Christian publishing industry takes in revenues in excess of billions of dollars per year, much of it spent preaching to the converted, and much of the rest attempting to convert the rest.

What we don’t see nearly as often are books that unearth the other Christianities, those that have existed side-by-side with orthodox Christianity, or that show us the Christianities that might have been. Sure, The DaVinci Code created a flurry of interest in all things Gnostic, but there are a plethora of other possibilities that blossomed in the early years of the religion, many of them never to come to full flower. One such “alternate” Christianity is outlined in Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras.

As we’re still reminded on a nearly daily basis, cultures and religions seem more likely to clash than collaborate. Palmer’s great gift in this book is to show us that it wasn’t always, and need not always, be so. Continue reading “Martin Palmer: The Jesus Sutras”

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s UnionI’ve been told by a handful of people that I have to read Michael Chabon. Given the sources–thankfully not the same people who told me I had to read Dan Brown–I kept it in the back of my mind. I still haven’t gotten to the book generally regarded to be Chabon’s masterwork (thus far), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Klay, but my gut tells me that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union would likely give its predecessor a run for the money. I mean, this is a book you’d get for the title alone, if you’re of a certain cast of mind. If you’re a browser of other cultures, if you’re inexplicably drawn to things Yiddish to begin with, and you generally like the better class of detective fiction (the kind that doesn’t prominently feature crime-solving cats), it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

Chabon follows the rules of noir–there are nods to Hammett and Chandler in a few places–but makes up most of the rest as he goes along. All the familiar tropes are on display: the drunken, disillusioned detective, his long-suffering and more level-headed partner, the ex-wife–I could go on. But Chabon isn’t content to stop there. In prose that’s alternately hard-boiled and incandescent, he unravels Jewish religious and social strata, examines family ties and obligation, and puts identity politics and fundamentalism through a meat grinder. Best of all, he does all of this in a cadence readily familiar to anybody who’s watched the earlier films of the Marx Brothers. Even the story’s red herrings–and they are legion–are served pickled, in sour cream.  Continue reading “Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”

Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved ChinaReading Simon Winchester is a bit like listening to a well-traveled friend at a cocktail party who’s always just come back from somewhere, brimming with interesting stories about people you would otherwise never have heard of. His previous books, among them the bestsellers The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, A Crack at the Edge of the World, and The Meaning of Everything, have shown the author’s unerring knack of unearthing subjects you would never have thought to explore and making page-turners of them. Before I discovered Winchester (courtesy of Professor some years back), I would never have given much thought to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Krakatoa would only have been a footnote in life that brought no small amount of amusement to my fifth-grade teachers.

Winchester returned in 2008* with The Man Who Loved China: The Fascinating Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom which, like The Professor and the Madman, is equal parts biography of the creation of a sprawling tome (in this case, the unfinished-but-still-in-progress Science and Civilisation in China) and of its creator, the eccentric polymath Joseph Neehdam. Needham set out to answer a single question: Why, after centuries of unparalleled innovation–times that saw the invention of movable type, gunpowder, suspension bridges, and the abacus, among scores of other useful stuff, sometimes centuries before their appearance in the West–did China suddenly, and for hundreds of years more, effectively shut off the lights, backsliding to the status of a scientific backwater? His quest to answer that question animates Winchester’s book, and–the author suggests–may yet underpin our understanding of a modern, very resurgent, China. Continue reading “Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China”

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard BookI shouldn’t be surprised that Neil Gaiman’s latest offering, The Graveyard Book, is as good as it is. Many moons ago, when he and Terry Pratchett wrote Good Omens (which I’d also suggest you read), they captured the kids to a “T.” These weren’t a bunch of adults trapped in little bodies, nor were they a bunch of one-dimensional hellions. Nearly twenty years later, Gaiman delivers a book that’s properly “for” kids, though it’d be short-sighted to dismiss it as “just” kiddie lit. Adam Young, meet Nobody (“Bod”) Owens.

Much has been made of the book’s genesis in, and parallels with, Kipling’s Jungle Book, and the English major in me could probably while away the better part of an afternoon finding the parallels between the two. I’ll leave that to the folks over on Amazon, likewise leaving them their complaints that Kipling did it better. So much in literature–whether for adults or kids–cannibalizes so much of what came before that it seems silly sometimes to point out that really, Kipling did Kipling better. There’s satisfaction enough in reading The Graveyard Book on its, and its author’s, own merits. Continue reading “Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book”