Friday, May 1, 2015

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

    Mary Norris's career at The New Yorker began with a lucky connection, but continued by dint of patience, perseverance, and talent. Between You & Me is Norris's cheerful memoir of three decades as a proofreader, fact checker, and copy editor. Some of what she's learned has to do with grammar and usage, but she also treats us to history lessons and field trips.

     Naturally, Norris encounters some marvelous writers, including John McPhee, the great natural history reporter. “When McPhee uses an unfamiliar word, you can be sure it's the only word for what he's trying to say, and he savors it, he rolls the syllables in his mouth as if words were food and he were licking his chops.” Then there are others, who go nameless: “There were writers who weren't very good and yet were impossible to improve, like figure skaters who hit all the technical marks but have a limited artistic appeal and sport unflattering costumes.”

     This being The New Yorker, even the proofreaders are legendary. Norris draws a memorable portrait of Eleanor Gould, grammarian and query proofreader. “Clarity was Eleanor's lodestar, Fowler's Modern English her bible, and by the time she was done with a proof the pencil lines on it looked like dreadlocks.” Right next door sat Lu Burke, who “patrolled the halls like a prison warden–you could almost see the ring of keys at her side–and she terrorized anyone new in the copy department.”

    These women schooled Norris in standard spelling and grammar, and in the quirks and shibboleths of The New Yorker's style. She has interesting things to say about hyphens and commas; she explains what a dangling participle is, and why it can't always be fixed.

     I have my quarrels with a few of her stances. Norris places overmuch confidence in the stylings of Strunk and White, though I suppose that is natural in E. B. White's old bailiwick. I don't quite trust her discussion of 'that' and 'which'; and I'm readier than she is to embrace 'they' as the pronoun when 'he' or 'she' can't be determined, for whatever reason. Her
review of the other nominees for that post, however, is extremely entertaining: “Shem and herm sound like Noah's offspring; ho, hom, hos, if they ever had a chance, would have succumbed to the 'ho' problem; se and hir are apparently used by an online group devoted to sexual bondage; ghach is Klingon.” Compared with these, is a simple 'their' really so offensive?

    But it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races, in the immortal words of Pudd'nhead Wilson, and a lively argument can be more fun than immutable authority. Norris does a challenging job well, and writes about it entertainingly. This is her first book, and I'm eager to see what she'll get up to next.

Email edition, May 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Christ Actually

Any Good Books

April 2015

Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age
James Carroll (Viking Penguin, 2014)

Every year around this time, local musicians perform Bach's Passions, almost always accompanied by some effort to detoxify the murderous role the stories assign to the Jewish people and their leadership. The structure of the story demands enemies for Jesus; The Gospels of Matthew and John fill this role with Jewish high priests, though Rome is clearly the executioner of Jesus. Why is this so?

In Christ Actually, James Carroll probes the first-century origins of Christian anti-Semitism. For the sake of a book that will fit between two covers, he brackets 18 centuries of misunderstanding and ill will. He places the modern point of his compass in the Nazi's war on the Jews; he places the other end in 70 C.E., when the Gospel of Mark was probably written. That was also the year the armies of the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, a critical context for all of the Gospels.

Carroll, digesting a great deal of modern Biblical scholarship, shows how the various gospels were written for communities undergoing tremendous losses at the hands of the Roman Empire. It wasn't religion, per se, that made the Romans make war on the Jews. The Romans were accustomed to violently subduing populations who put up resistance, and the Judean territory lay across valuable trade routes. But it was religion that made the Jewish resistance so valiant and tenacious. To this day the Jewish calendar commemorates losses in that war.

The hundredth-generation ancestors of today's Jews and Christians were two tiny groups of Jewish survivors who, out of the wreckage, made new stories of God's plan for them. For the rabbinic survivors, Torah study and the Sabbath replaced the Temple at the center of their religious life; for the Jesus followers, the story of Jesus Christ filled that place. Over time, these groups elaborated the contrasts between them, a story Carroll has told elsewhere, but in the context of the year 70, they're like the primal shrew-sized mammals living in the age of the dinosaurs: you could never tell from looking at them what they will grow up to be.

If we actually grasp that the Gospels are stories written forty to eighty years after the events they depict, a lot of things make more sense. Anything Jesus says that appears to predict the destruction of the Temple, for instance, doesn't necessarily mean that he has extra-sensory perception. Rather, it's a way of placing him in a larger story the first audience already knew. There are also many passages in which the Scripture is said to be fulfilled, at least partly because the narrative is structured to echo prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible.

The book of Daniel, in particular, is full of Messianic language about the Son of Man coming in clouds of glory. Dating from about 165 B.C.E., Daniel's vision “was both realistic –acknowledging present violence–and hopeful, in that it insisted that the violence would not be vindicated in the end.” Carroll posits that this is part of what John the Baptist was preaching in Galilee when Jesus was a young man. In that case, Jesus calling himself the Son of Man was a revolutionary and radical act–but still a very Jewish one.

Generations of retellings would render that reality obscure, and soon enough, invisible. The violent hand of Rome, too obvious (and later, too dangerous) to record would also disappear from memory. If you have that context available, on the other hand, the idea that Roman governor Pontius Pilate needed Jewish assistance or encouragement to execute a single dangerous man is absurd.

Christ Actually is a meaty book, rich and dense. Carroll introduces insights from the work of many scholars and theologians, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from whose letters he takes his title. In the end, Carroll is looking for a way to be a Christian in the twenty-first century, in a way that insults neither the intelligence nor the conscience. Our understanding is inevitably partial; But alongside the manifold sins and crimes of the church, there's a strand of memory and practice that endures and is continually made new. We can still pray and break bread together, we can still serve the poor and visit the sick and imprisoned. We may always understand Jesus imperfectly, but we can follow him.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Notes from No Man's Land

Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays
Eula Biss (2009, Graywolf Press)

     Right out of the gate, Eula Bliss's essays are arresting. In “Time and Distance Overcome”, Biss researches the early history of telephone poles, which were initially met with resistance, because they looked so ugly and unnatural. The New York Times carried stories about the workers putting up poles being threatened with tar and feathers, and other places where the city fathers ordered poles chopped down.

      Even more stories from the times concern telephone poles being used in violence against black men. “In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi.” The New York Times took a peculiarly dispassionate tone about these events; Biss lets that speak for itself, though she notes that “[m]ore than two hundred antilynching bills were introduced to the U.S. Congress during the twentieth century, but none were passed.”

      The string of facts does not necessarily appear tightly knit. Double spaced on the page, they might rather be the stone of a mosaic. But then there's a little burst of concentration: “The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.”

      In this collection, Biss shows us all kinds of ways our history lives on in our landscape, and in her own biography. (Her grandfather worked putting up telephone poles, having his back broken when one fell on him.) She has interesting things to say the differences between New York, Chicago, and San Diego, and about how she navigates her white identity while working for a black newspaper or living with a black cousin. 
     Biss can venture into very touchy territory, speaking of guilt, fear, politics and power, because she is light on her feet. She roots around in history that should not be forgotten; she offers a vision of things we customarily look past, one that might make our own neighborhoods, and neighbors, more visible to us. 

March 2015

Sunday, February 1, 2015

10% Happier

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works    
Dan Harris (Dey Street, 2014)

    Dan Harris was not expecting to have his life changed by a self-help book, still less one from Oprah’s Book Club. He was pretty successful already, after all: by the time he was thirty, his broadcasting career had advanced from small-town Maine to working for Peter Jennings at ABC. He had been overseas covering the Middle East and South Asia; later he garnered a respectable amount of airtime for his coverage of religious movements in America, though he covered it from a resolutely agnostic position. (“My private view was quite harsh, and rooted in a blend of apathy and ignorance. I thought organized religion was bunk, and that all believers–whether jazzed on Jesus or jihad–must be, to some extent, cognitively impaired.”)

    When Harris was invited by a producer to read a book by Eckhart Tolle, he thought that it might lead to a story about Tolle and Oprah, but he found himself captivated by the book’s weird combination of grandiosity, turgid jargon, and blazing insight. “Our entire lives, he argued, are governed by a voice in our heads. This voice is engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking–most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential.” That voice, which Tolle calls the ego, is never satisfied; it thrives on drama; it is constantly comparing itself to others; and it scampers ceaselessly from the past to the future, sparing almost no attention for the Now.

    Harris piercingly recognizes the truth of this idea. A fretful competitiveness has been his dominant mode of relating to his work, with not always agreeable results, but what is to be done about it? From the sincere but possibly crazy Tolle, he moves on to Deepak Chopra, who strikes him as definitely sane but possibly a huckster. The third time’s the charm: Harris’s girlfriend introduces him to the writing of Dr. Mark Epstein about Buddhism, which it turns out was the effective substance of what Tolle was saying.  On meeting Epstein, he’s pleasantly surprised to be offered an actual solution to the noise in his head: meditation.

    Harris being Harris, it’s not that easy. Meditation brings up all kinds of images of things he hates about ‘granola life-style’, like saffron robes, Sanskrit phrases, and new-age music. He thinks it would be uncomfortable, embarrassing, or difficult. Well, yes, it’s all that–but also “a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands.”

    Challenged by some of his friends and mentors, Harris undertakes a meditation retreat. Ten days of silence in the beautiful California woods is just as difficult, and sometimes excruciating, as you might guess. If nothing else, he wonders why he didn’t just go to the beach with his wife. Some days are terrible, others radiant. “Having been dragged kicking and screaming into the present, I’m finally awake enough to see what I could never see in my regular life. Apparently there’s no other way to get here than to engage in the tedious work of watching your breath for days.”

    Harris is perfectly aware of the irony of his taking up a practice he would have scorned just a short time before. And he takes a while longer to find the balance between being unstressed and being too passive to work on television effectively - there are times when you need to Hide the Zen. The tone of this book is itself a corrective to the hippie-patchouli image of meditation; you could try it without going out of your mind or erasing all the neuroses that make you who you are. Harris’s good news is this: “Mindfulness, happiness, and not being a jerk are skills I can hone for the rest of my life–every day, every moment, until senility or death.”

Any Good Books                                                                                                                 
February 2015

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ                                                                 
Philip Pullman (Canongate 2010)

    I’m surprised to learn that the popular novelist Philip Pullman has retold the Gospels, because he is, quite publicly, a skeptic on religious matters, and a thoroughgoing materialist. (He started out as a schoolboy within the Anglican tradition, but turned away as a science-minded teenager.) But even if the Gospel is empty of religious truth for him, Pullman wants to wrestle with it; he’s a storyteller, so the Bible’s unresolved contradictions and paradoxes earn his interest and respect.

    In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman sticks very close to the received story, mashing highlights of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into the familiar tale of a charismatic and impatient Jesus. Pullman’s imaginative innovation is to posit a twin brother for Jesus, called Christ. Christ is the chronicler, witnessing and recording key events of Jesus’ life, either at first hand or by the report of a friendly apostle. In his chameleon anonymity, he also serves as his brother’s betrayer, and the stranger the friends recognize in the resurrection.

    Christ is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a long view of what Christianity will become; Jesus not only doesn’t share this vision, he spurns it. The temptation of Jesus in the desert, turned into a conversation between these two characters, acquires a new dramatic heft when told from the tempter’s point of view. His logic is, in fact, unassailable. The power of miraculous stories will indeed be one of the vehicles that carries the story from that day to this, so the resistance Jesus shows about being famous for his miracles is self-defeating.

    As Pullman says in his afterword, the Christ character got away from him in the course of the writing, developing motives and feelings Pullman did not have in mind at the outset. Like anyone, Christ is not the villain of his own story, and he’s doing the best he can. His treatment of the words of Jesus is at least a credible way of describing what may have happened in the handing down of the stories. It’s also a way of dealing with the parts of the Jesus story that cannot, on their face, have had human witnesses. (I’ve always balked at those parts, too, which is a literalist error of some kind.)

    If you think all this sounds terribly cheeky, it is, but it isn’t played for laughs, in the ‘Life of Brian’ vein. Pullman addresses one of Christianity’s central paradoxes, how the humility of Jesus stacks against the grandeur of the Church – can all that ritual, and material wealth, really have been what he had in mind? Do we know better than Jesus  himself what his life was about? And what was the price of Christianity’s trade-off in the time of Constantine, from being an oppressed minority to taking the reins of power, and inevitably becoming the oppressor?

    These are honest and genuinely provocative questions. I don’t think I’ll come out where Pullman comes out, but I’m grateful for the conversation.

Any Good Books                                                                                                                  
January 1, 2015