Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch
Rebecca Mead (2014, Crown Publishers)

Rebecca Mead's book about Middlemarch is also about the life of Mary Ann Evans, and how she became George Eliot. Delving deeply into (Evans's) life and (Eliot's) work, Mead stands on the shoulders of many scholars, while adding cogent observations of her own. She weaves deftly between the action and characters of the novel, and the life and times of the author. There's also just enough of Mead's own history as a student of English literature, as a journalist, and as a sleuth poring over letters and diaries, and visiting places Eliot knew. It's all skillfully put together, without a wasted word.

The plot of Middlemarch is instigated by Dorothea Brooke's high-minded but foolish decision to marry a much older man, a clergyman and scholar named Casaubon. Eliot stretches the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel by making marriage the beginning of the story rather than the conclusion, as in the works of Jane Austen. "One thing is beyond any doubt: if this were Jane Austen's story, the courtship of the blossoming Dorothea by the dry-as-dust Casaubon would have been a comedy." But something more serious is going on: "The pages vibrate with Dorothea's yearning for a meaningful life. Her soul is too large for the comedy of manners into which she at first appears to have been dropped. She is bigger – her longings are grander–than the conventional story that others would write around her."

For a century and a half, young women readers have vibrated in sympathy with that yearning, including Mead, who experienced it as a drive to leave her home in an English seaside resort for Oxford University, and the unknown adventures beyond. Looking into the letters Mary Ann Evans wrote in her school days, Mead discovers another such young woman: "She, too, was waiting for her life to start–not complacently, or resignedly, but anxiously and urgently....She knew she wanted something. She knew she wanted to do something. She didn't know what it was. She just knew she wanted, and wanted, and wanted."

After her father's death in 1849, Evans made her way in London as a translator and writer of critical essays. In 1851, she met George Henry Lewes; she moved in with him in 1854, though he was married to someone else, with whom he had three sons. (He also gave his name to two more children his wife bore by another man. Victorian life could be complicated.) Lewes encouraged Evans to try her hand at fiction, as a potentially more profitable line of work, and the world is richer for it.

Mead describes how the two supported each other, and how Lewes's sons became sons to Eliot, who had none of her own. The couple hosted a regular salon; they knew Thackeray and Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. "Their life together took its own course, free of the necessity to observe propriety. They read widely, wrote copiously, talked endlessly." For twenty-five years, this unconventional menage was, by some accounts, one of the happiest marriages of the age. 
Mead says, "There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree." As a look into this process, My Life in Middlemarch is a marvel. 

Any Good Books – December 2015 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle

The Beautiful Struggle
Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008, Spiegel and Grau)

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in and around Baltimore. His memoir is the story of a bright but unfocused child (who, in other circumstances, would surely have been spotted as having attention deficit disorder,) learning to get along in the world on the streets. His oldest brother, Big Bill, has the Knowledge: he dresses in style, always has a few friends around for backup, carries a gun. Ta-Nehisi doesn't. He's a babe in the woods.

It's also the story of their father, Paul Coates, who wanted his children also to be Conscious of their historical place as descendants of the African diaspora. A Viet Nam veteran, he had been a member of the Black Panther party, in the days of its decline. In the late 1960s, the organization had fed breakfast to poor kids, and helped people keep their lights on, but 1972 saw it crumbling into factionalism and paranoia. The Panthers' threat of violence was genuine - he was once arrested for transporting guns - but he stepped out of the ashes to achieve a college degree, and then a masters. He took a job in the library of Howard University, commuting from Baltimore to DC. From his days in the movement and onward, his private passion was publishing and distributing forgotten treasures of African and African American history.

Having those books and pamphlets around the house was just a part of Ta-Nahisi's education. The hip-hop stylings of Public Enemy introduced a form of Consciousness that knuckle-headed teenagers could embrace. A bit later, there was a core of adults who rounded up fifteen-year-old boys and gave them a sort of paramilitary training, with calisthenics and sparring. Under their influence Ta-Nehisi got hooked on African drumming. School, as such, was a roller coaster. He was smart enough for advanced classes, but not focused enough to succeed in them.

It was actually Ta-Nehisi's mother who pushed him over the finish line into The Mecca of his father's dream, Howard University, after numerous perils and misadventures. He did eventually learn to defend himself, after a fashion, though fighting never really appealed to him. Nor did drugs, even as the crack epidemic mowed down the community around him. He was protected by his Walter Mitty innocence, and the watchful eyes of his parents, and plain good luck.

The book is both melancholy and angry about the old friends who weren't so lucky: "Their fates were maddeningly clichéd. Even the ones in whom I saw a tighter head game fell into shadow, became a statistic in the cold hands of some pundit, who looked out on our streets and rolled up his windows." Pathological as those streets may seem, or may actually be, the people who live there have a fundamental right to respect. "No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail."

Though I found it difficult in places where I didn't have enough background in what he was talking about, Coates's writing is powerful and beautiful. He knows things most of us need to know, and says things we need to hear.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Negroland: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson (Pantheon Books, 2015)

              Negroland is a memoir, and a meditation, on growing up privileged but black, or black but privileged. Margo Jefferson was born in Chicago, in 1947, to prosperous parents: her father was head of pediatrics at the nation's oldest black hospital, and her mother stayed home to raise two daughters. Margo and her sister went to private school, mainly with white children. They met their black peers at Jack and Jill, an organization dedicated to social and cultural enrichment for the future doctors, lawyers, and teachers they were presumed to be. 

              In calling that culture 'Negroland', Jefferson is looking back into a time when the term 'Negro' framed a hard-won and fiercely defended respectability. In spite of, or because of, the fact that they could expect so little respect in white quarters, the matriarchs of Negroland brought up their children to exacting standards of grooming, dress, and manners. For fear of disgracing their people, the Jefferson girls could not appear in public with ashy skin or unkempt hair; they could not wear denim (except at camp) or too-bright colors; they could not laugh too loud. 
               There's something isolating about all this, of course. It places this self-conscious elite at a remove from the mass of black people without quite admitting them to the upper classes as viewed by white America. Jefferson's memoir doesn't tell a major dramatic story, but it locates the drama in some small ones: her father, pulled over in Hyde Park because he doesn't look like he lives there; and her uncle Lucious, who passed for white in his working life, then failed to fit in when he retired and returned to black life. "And my parents looked down on him a little. Not because he'd passed, but because he'd risen no higher than traveling salesman. If you were going to take the trouble to be white, you were supposed to do better than you could have done as a Negro."

                Margo is, most of the time, an avid participant in the uplift on offer. She plays the piano, acts in plays, and goes out for cheerleading. She spends three summers at Interlochen, winning prizes for her enthusiasm and talent. She loves Audrey Hepburn and Diahann Carroll, Robert Browning and Langston Hughes, Ebony and Vogue. It's a very bright childhood, though marked at intervals by cautionary tales from her mother, because the costs of going off the rails are so very high. 
              And, always, of those to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that can be wearing. "We were to be ladies, responsible Negro Women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that." By way of rebellion, Jefferson cultivates an aesthetic of suicide for a time, though by then she's a successful journalist and literary critic. (Sylvia Plath never had to worry about ashy elbows.) And she declines the imperative to become a wife and mother, though she's delighted with her sister's daughter. 
               Negroland tells old truths that shouldn't be too scary to tell; it tells old secrets that deserve to be freed from the power of secrecy. If Jefferson's grandmothers were proud to the point of snobbishness, well, they had much to be proud of. Her own reward for the awkwardness of being the only black child in her class was an education befitting her intelligence. The candor, integrity, and tenderness of this memoir show that while Jefferson was being taught manners, she also acquired character, which is always a beautiful thing.

Monday, August 31, 2015


Sextant: A Young Man's Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World's Oceans
David Barrie (2014, William Morrow)

In 1973, David Barrie sailed from Maine to England aboard the thirty-five foot sloop Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for 'sea queen'.) Along the way, Barrie, then nineteen, learned celestial navigation from the ship's owner, Colin McMullen, a retired Royal Navy captain. Today's satellite-aided navigation was a decade and more in the future, so, for three and a half weeks, the sun, moon, and stars were the only way they had of knowing where they were. 
The story of the crossing is full of small adventures, like trying not to get hit by larger vessels, and surfing before gale-force winds that threw up awe-inspiring waves. Excerpts from Barrie's journal also recall the small annoyances of life at sea: the tight quarters; the lack of exercise, fresh food, and sleep; and, sometimes, the boredom. Yet no two days were exactly alike: "People sometimes complain of the monotony of the sea, but it is, with the sky, the most changeful of all natural spectacles. Its surface, brushed by the wind, whether gently or with violence, presents patterns of of infinite variety, and its color too undergoes astonishing transformations, depending on factors like the time of day, the depth of water, and the weather."

The voyage of the Saecwen is the framework for a longer, larger story, of how heroic mariners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explored and mapped the Pacific Ocean. Captain Cook and Captain Bligh are familiar enough names, but to read about what they actually did, and lived through, is thrilling. Barrie also piques our interest in Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who sailed around the world by way of the Falklands and Tahiti; George Vancouver, who mapped the northern Pacific areas that bear his name; Robert FitzRoy, who, in addition to captaining Charles Darwin's voyages on the Beagle, developed the use of the barometer as a weather prediction device; and many others.

The tools and methods these men used were being developed at the same time. The sextant reached its modern form in 1731, and a timepiece useable at sea was tested in the 1760s. In the North Atlantic, Barrie learns to fix the Saecwen's latitude by measuring how high the sun is at noon; if he also knows that it's half past two at Greenwich at that moment, he can establish her longitude as well. The first-generation chronometers were not reliable enough on their own to assist in mapping the Pacific – some mariners traveled with a dozen or more. Sextant readings of the angle between the moon and the sun or certain fixed stars (once predictive tables had been developed and published) also helped explorers fix crucial longitude readings for the islands of the Pacific.

Facility with the sextant has begun to decline in the age of the satellite; American naval officers don't learn celestial navigation unless they are specialists. Of course, electronic systems run the risk of all sorts of failures, from jamming equipment to sunspots, so it is probably a bad idea to be exclusively dependent on GPS. More than that, there's the grandeur of the thing: "When I recall learning how to handle a sextant all those years ago, I see myself, a transient speck of life, fixing my position on the surface of our small planet by taking the measure of vast, unimaginably distant suns whose lives are measured in billions of years. The chastening contrast between their calm majesty and my fretful pettiness was overwhelming."

Email publication, September 1 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County:

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle
Kristen Green (2015, HarperCollins)

    In the fall of 1958, thousands of Virginia schoolchildren had a semester off from school, while the state's governor promulgated 'massive resistance' against Federal court orders for racial integration. Over the winter, the state backed down and reopened schools, admitting the first black students, but the following fall, Prince Edward County began the most massive resistance yet. Twenty-one schools, white and black, were shuttered in defiance of court-ordered integration. The shutdown would persist through four years, leaving some three thousand students without public schooling.

    For their own children, of course, the patriarchs of the county prepared a soft landing, in the form of Prince Edward Academy. Kristen Green is a second-generation product of the school, and a granddaughter of one of its founders. She was staggered to learn that the white citizens of Farmville had been thinking about a segregation academy since 1954, when the Supreme Court announced the decision in Brown v. Board of Education – a case in which the black high school students of Prince Edward County had been litigants, with the assistance of the Virginia NAACP.

    Green attended the academy, as her mother had before her; but only as an adult, after moving about the country and establishing a career in journalism, did she seek to investigate its origins. Her consciousness is sharpened by the fact that she is married to a brown-skinned man, and they have two daughters. Bringing the family back to Virginia to be closer to Green's parents and brothers meant questioning and confronting some beloved ghosts.

    But what, really, can they tell her? When she interviews one of the Academy's founders, he brags about using public school resources to get the new school off the ground. “We never did let the children miss a year.” He is thoroughly unreconstructed, with nothing, in his eyes, to apologize for. The other children, the children who missed four years of school or had to leave the county, are not his concern. Green's high school history teacher tells her, “I'm just so tired of this subject I could scream. I am tired of rehashing this thing. I just want to move on.”

    Green does not have much more luck with the black citizens she'd like to ask about those days. Many of them are gone, for one thing. Barbara Johns, who instigated the walkout that touched of Farmville's part of the Brown case, moved to her uncle's home in Montgomery, Alabama, to finish high school. The black woman who cooked and cleaned for Green's parents and grandparents sent her only daughter to live with relatives out of state, and the daughter never came back. Green observes, “The separation of children from their parents echoed the indignities of slavery and the irreparable harm done when the closest of relationships were suddenly severed.”

    Irreparable harm, indeed. Prince Edward County's literacy rate lags behind the rest of the state's down to this day. The academy now admits students of all races, but it still drains the public system of resources. Green shows us her own path from ignorance to awareness to a sort of painful guilt, but this is not work that she can do for anyone else, and in any case, guilt is not a fruitful end product. It doesn't do anybody any good unless it leads to greater awareness of what's going on today, and a greater willingness to think of all the children.

Published by email, August 1, 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Flash Boys

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 2014)

   My grandmother used to say that her favorite grandchild was whichever one she was looking at. I feel that way about Michael Lewis's books. They are generally great, and Flash Boys is amazing. It tells a story that could very easily have gone unreported, but which has undeniable implications for the whole financial world. (I'm being a tad hyperbolic: in footnotes, he mentions a couple of other books that I know I'll want to look for.)

   Flash Boys is structured around the story of Brad Katsuyama, a trader with the Royal Bank of Canada. His job was to take large institutional blocks of stock that a client wanted to trade and break them up so that they could meet the market at a fair price. In 2007, he noticed that the price information he saw on his computer screen wasn't stable enough to work with. As soon as he hit 'Buy', most of the offers at the price he was looking at disappeared, and he'd wind up paying more than he intended.

   Was it a problem with his hardware? No. With his software? No, again. It was with the markets themselves; and that plural noun is a telling detail. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq became public, for-profit corporations in 2005. “Once competition was introduced, the exchanges multiplied. By early 2008 there were thirteen different public exchanges, most of them in Northern New Jersey.” All this activity was mediated by computers, of course. Fiber optic cables carried signals at two-thirds the speed of light, and trades were executed in a few thousandths of a second, with no further human intervention.

   What Katsuyama, and Lewis, learned is that some traders ('high frequency traders', or HFT) were working so much faster than the official average price that showed up in RBC's offices that they could run ahead like the big bad wolf reaching Grandma's cottage. They'd find out about RBC's need for ten thousand shares of AnyCorp at forty dollars each by offering to sell one hundred shares at $39.99; within a fraction of a second, they could corner the market on any shares under $40.05 and sell them to RBC with a nice little premium of a few hundred dollars for themselves. When the HFT computers are in the same room in New Jersey as the exchange's computer, they can easily trade rings around a brokerage on Wall Street whose information is always fifteen thousandths of a second slow. And even if their margins are measured in a few pennies or dimes per hundred dollars, this adds up to billions of dollars a year.

   The proliferation of markets, including 'dark rooms' or private exchanges set up within brokerages, only encouraged this scalping. As the name implies, dark rooms operate under rules that are opaque to investors, and indeed to regulators. That would be fine if they were truly honest brokers, but the evidence is clear that they usually aren't. Worse yet, “[E]ven if the Wall Street bank resisted the temptation to trade for itself against its own customers, there was virtually no chance they resisted the temptation to sell access to the dark pool to high-frequency traders.”

   The people who helped Brad Katsuyama figure this out came up with a high-tech solution. They wired their computers to transmit orders to arrive at all the public exchanges at the exact same moment, depriving the scalpers of their time advantage. This system, dubbed 'Thor', put the RBC traders back in the position of making the trades that appeared to be on offer.

   In a meeting with an arm of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Katsuyama had a startling experience: an SEC staffer told him there was something wrong with his new system: “What you are doing is not fair to high-frequency traders. You're not letting them get out of the way.” In other words, Thor was forcing traders to honor bids that had not been offered in good faith. Another staffer, an older man, argued back: “If they don't want to be on the offer they shouldn't be there at all.” The SEC hardly ever argues like that in public, but clearly they were not going to take the lead in finding a solution to this problem, especially considering how many people move from the SEC into lucrative jobs with high frequency trading outfits.

   The game is well and truly rigged, and we hardly dare to know how much; the HFT business works in response to the last set of regulations, from 2007, but that's just the latest in a seemingly infinite series. Every new regulation makes new loopholes. In 2012, Katsuyama and his team had a radical idea: start their own exchange, with a simpler and more transparent structure. He left RBC and assembled a crew of people with expertise on all sides of the business. By the end of 2013, IEX was taking orders, and they are now processing about one per cent of the market.

    After reading Flash Boys, I can see why index funds are so much likelier to make money than actively managed funds – every single time a fund manager goes into the market, he's the prey. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game. Now, however, there is literally one honest broker out there. My individual trades weigh nothing, but I dare to hope that the people who run my IRA funds are getting fair prices on IEX. If not, why not?

Emailed July 1, 2015

Monday, June 1, 2015

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald (2014, Grove Press)

   A few months after her beloved father died, Helen Macdonald brought home a young goshawk. She let go of her graduate studies at Cambridge, and lived by herself, hand feeding the hawk raw meat. This is an odd thing to do, but not as strange for her as it would have been for most people: she had been interested in falconry since she was a small child, drawing birds obsessively and collecting the major literature on the subject by the age of eight.

   Macdonald is shadowing an experience she read about as a child. Terence White is best known for The Once and Future King, a book a certain kind of bookish kid used to fall into in the days before Harry Potter. Long, dense, and magical, the book also bears a strain of melancholy; the more we get to know White, the more we see why. In his late twenties, he trained a hawk he called Gos, and wrote a small classic about it called The Goshawk. What's remarkable about this is that he made a complete disaster of training Gos, and even at eight, Macdonald could sense this, and find it disturbing.

   She's actually well qualified to handle her new bird, having had other, smaller hawks and falcons, but a goshawk represents a special kind of challenge. They are somehow more ancient, more reptilian, more wild even than other birds men keep. “Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something lovable and close.” So lovable, in fact, that she calls her Mabel, “from amabilis, meaning lovable, or dear.”

   Her days, and the book, are filled with close observation of Mabel; and it's as if she can see the world around them through Mabel's eyes. On one of their first trips outside together: “Joggers! Like bats leaving their roost, their numbers build incrementally. ...By the time Mabel and I are halfway home it feels as if we're in a nature documentary about the Serengeti. They are everywhere.” She describes the countryside in acute detail; she's almost always hawking by herself, so she has to trot across woods and fields, and plunge into thorny hedges. The goshawk has no conception of property lines, and Macdonald doesn't always know where she'll come out.

   Since the major characters in H is for Hawk are two dead men and a wild animal, we spend a lot of time in the author's own head. There's an authorial sleight of hand, by which Macdonald describes herself losing her place in human society, almost to the point of losing language, in the most beautiful and precise language imaginable. Is she losing her mind, going feral, going mad with grief? She must have recovered enough to write the book in your hand, but you can't always see how that will occur. “Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

   But of course, people are not meant to be wild animals. Macdonald is in conversation with the dangerous example of White's attempted retreat from society; her criticism of him is seasoned with compassion. He had a frightened, lonely childhood, and was never free from sadistic urges that he would have been ashamed to put into practice. But Macdonald remembers in time that the bloodthirstiness of the goshawk is natural to the goshawk, and not to people. “Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.” 
   Macdonald has extraordinary control over this material. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and I was surprised how much of it there was within fifty miles of Cambridge. She can cite sixteenth century falconers, and in the next breath see how her own bird gives them the lie. H is for Hawk is also a wonderful memorial to her father, who passed on a way of seeing the world that is to be treasured.

Any Good Books - June 2015

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