[Home] [Weblog] [The Bibliothecary] [Driving the Quill] [Library][Bookmarks]

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book Thirty-Five

We read our thirty-fifth book this year, The Woman Who Waited, by Andrei Makine, for the Slaves of Golconda, and were quite pleased.

Life, the narrator tells us, is a constant mixture of genres. He is writing an anti-Soviet satire while simultaneously recording legends and myths of village life, and this novel is an autobiographical product of it all. From the first page of this book, we were reminded of the fiction of Milan Kundera, whose novels are less about characters and events than they are about the author writing the novel about those characters and events. The Woman Who Waited purports to be about a woman who's been waiting thirty years for the man she loves to return from the war; it is more about the narrator who writes about her.

Vera waits for the man she loves because she is convinced he will return; otherwise, love will mean nothing more than the satisfaction of a carnal instinct. She sits at the end of a bench in her house where she can look out the window across the fields to the crossroads where she could see anyone approaching. She waits for the man she loves, and she watches for him too, and at times a dark figure appears and then disappears again. She waits for him and sees him in her mind the way Heathcliff did Cathy.

Here is what Makine does best, writing what the narrator calls "luminous moments rescued from time," something very similar to Proust's privileged moment:
A very thin layer of ice had formed at the bottom of the well. (I had just caught up with Vera, who was drawing water.) As the ice broke, it sounded like a harpsichord. We looked at one another. We were each about to remark on the beauty of this tinkling sound, then thought better of it. The resonance of the harpsichord had faded into the radiance of the air, it blended with the wistfully repeated notes of an oriole, with the scent of a wood fire coming from the nearby izba. The beauty of that moment was quite simply becoming our life.

The narrator and Vera are drawn to one another by the sharing of these moments. She finally gives herself to him, and their encounter ends abruptly at the sound of a door or window. She rushes to the window to watch outside for the man she loves, perhaps fearful that she has waited for thirty years and now, when she finally allows herself the embrace of another, the man she loves returns to find she has stopped waiting for him.

First the narrator feels pride at being able to seduce this woman so intent on waiting for another. Then he feels shame. Finally, he fears that he will now be the center of Vera's life, that she will cling to him, and that he will owe it to her. And then she shows him the way out of town. He has not taken the place of the man she loves, and he has not released her from waiting. Instead, Vera has learned that the emotion between them was an illusion of love, and that the ghostly figure she sees outside, the dream she waits for, is the reality of love. The narrator has renewed her ability to wait once more, forever more, for the man she loves.

There is great emphasis in this novel on time. In the village of Mirnoe, the narrator discovers a floating, suspended time. There is a collective forgetting of the past. Vera, however, remembers the past exclusively--it is the present and the future that she forgets. And each evening the narrator prepares to leave the village, but each morning he stays, as if replaying the same day over and over. He finds time is completely absent from the village, history has been eradicated, and all that remains is the essence of things.

The only thing more historically founded than Soviet life is Christianity. The ten days that shook the world, the rise of the proletariat, the dissolution of the state all happen, or were meant to happen, in historical time. Vera lives, physically and emotionally, in a place beyond time. And even though thirty years pass while she waits, the essence of life remains. The Woman Who Waited is the narrator's satire, ridiculing the historical failure that is Soviet life.

This was our first experience reading Makine, and it was enjoyable. To the comparisons with Kundera and Proust, we can add Nabokov and Kadare. Indeed, there seems to be an impressive strain running through eastern European fiction of illuminating a privileged moment, of uncovering the essence of life that most American fiction lacks. We would certainly recommend The Woman Who Waited. It doesn't matter if you already know the plot, the enjoyment comes in sharing the experience of the luminous moments.

...cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Thirty-Four

The thirty-fourth book we read this year is To Renew America, by Newt Gingrich. This book is now twelve years old, but much of what Mr. Gingrich has to say is still valid. We are not really politically conscious, so we chose this book mostly because we wanted to expand our understanding of Mr. Gingrich, and because it was available on Bookmooch and we have lots of extra points.

Mr. Gingrich had a high profile in 1994 and 1995, when he and the Republican party took control of Congress and in the first one hundred days passed the ten-point Contract With America. That is already more than we knew about him at the time. However, there was an inconspicuous program on public television, called "Ethics in America", that had captured us as a devoted viewer. In each episode a panel of noteworthy people from all disciplines would debate an ethical issue. Mr. Gingrich appeared on the panel in at least one of those episodes, and he impressed us as an intelligent, moral representative of the people. This impression holds up in his book.

The book is divided in three major parts. To begin, Mr. Gingrich explains in detail what he believes to be the six major challenges that America faces. Next he presents the story behind the Contract With America, and how it was accomplished. Finally, he addresses numerous critical issues that have a direct impact on his vision of a renewed, recommitted American future.

The one challenge that resonated most with us was Balancing the Budget and Saving Social Security and Medicare. He describes the runaway national debt as "an extremely regressive form of income redistribution." The taxes the average American pays are ultimately going to the wealthy bondholders. When viewed in this way, it seems obvious to us that liberals enrage the public over tax cuts and loopholes for the wealthy, while it is the very big government they endorse that is doing the most to make the wealthy wealthier. In addition, the extensive borrowing of the government drives up the interest rates for other borrowers, namely us. The importance of the debt is evident when we think what could be done without it. If we are paying thirteen percent interest on the national debt, or even on our own credit cards, that is money spent on absolutely nothing. What could you afford with thirteen percent more buying power? If the money the government spends on interest alone could be spent on something else, how many more schools, or police, or energy research grants could there be?

One of Mr. Gingrich's basic beliefs is that less government is best government:
... what we really want to do is to devolve power all the way out of government and back to working American families. We want to leave choices and resources in the hands of individuals and let them decide if they prefer government, the profit-making sector, the nonprofit sector, or even no solution at all to their problems. It is important to remember that freedom ultimately includes the right to say no. If you must say yes to something--or everything--then you are not free.
In his reflections on national defense, Mr. Gingrich examined the responsibility that America had accepted in opposing the Soviet Union and communism in the Cold War. He noted that once the Soviet Union collapsed, and victory could be claimed, America's responsibility actually increased. We see the same situation today in Iraq where America took on the responsibility of bringing about a change in the government, and now is faced with even greater responsibilities in more places requiring firmer resolve and larger resources.

This book covers a wide range of issues, from education to immigration, from taxes to drugs, from language to health care. It is clear and concise, a quick read, although we did become mildly confused at the profusion of numbers in the chapter about the budget. In the chapter concerning Violent Crime, Freedom from Fear, and the Right to Bear Arms, Mr. Gingrich says the key to making America safer and free from fear is not to ban guns, but
... to focus our attention on violent people and not be drawn off into emotionally satisfying detours that harass the honest citizen but have no impact on crime.
Somehow people seem to have forgotten that freedom must be protected, and though we hire others, like police, to protect us, it is still ultimately our own responsibility. We assume a right to bear arms means not only guns, but swords or knives or other weapons by which we are able to defend our life, liberty, and happiness against the next King George, be he a Hanover or a Bush.

While reading we noticed how one-sided most public officials are portrayed by the media. Mr. Gingrich reveals that good qualities exist in many people, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. No one in the government wants to bring about the ruin of American society. However, we need to take a hard look at certain of our experiments, such as welfare, and realise the results are not what we had intended. When, in 1994, Speaker of the House Tom Foley filed a lawsuit against a successful referendum in favor of term limits in his home state, it was clear that some politicians had become so drunk on their power that they had forgotten they are elected by the people to represent the people, not to sue them. America needs critical thinking and an eye on the future. We need people like Mr. Gingrich who are willing to take risks, to question everything, and to engage people in level-headed debate of the issues.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Book Thirty-Three

The thirty-third book we read this year is New York: Then and Now, by Annette Witheridge. This is one in a series of photography books that compares city views of the past with the present.

We chose this book because we enjoy viewing old photographs, and because it was available on Bookmooch. There actually wasn't much to read, only the captions to about 150 photographs. Although the book does tell a very interesting story.

In over 100 years the city of New York has changed most notably in scale. Buildings have risen to the clouds, and streets have spread into a huge metropolitan area. This has changed the appearance of the city from afar, as well as from within. In many of the old photographs, the East River or the Hudson River can be seen in the background. Any such panoramic views in the modern photographs are completely blocked by skyscrapers. In some of the photographs one can see the same buildings still standing. But they are identifiable almost exclusively by their exterior features, because in most cases their use has changed, as well as their surroundings. Shanties along the river have been replaced by ritzy mansions. Railroads have been pushed underground. Swampland is now park. Saint Patrick's Cathedral was built on the outskirts of town, and is now nearly lost amid towering neighbors. The change of scale makes some buildings difficult to recognise at first. Church towers that once soared above all other buildings are now dwarfed by giants.

The turn of the last century was a grand time for architecture. Every building was resplendent, decorative, distinctive, classical. Modern buildings in comparison are dull and unimaginative: the cell-block look of the United Nations, great walls of glass lining Times Square, the utilitarian design of the World Trade Towers. This record of New York's progress is less triumphant than sad. Much of the city's most beautiful works of architecture have been demolished and replaced by buildings. All the old photographs are in black and white, but they have a certain warmth and comfort; the modern color photographs show a cold, sterile, impoverished urbanization.

For us, the climax of the book is an episode of shame. Pennsylvania Station was a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts, and a sparkling jewel of New York. It was the largest building ever erected for rail travel.

The Main Waiting Room:

The Concourse:

The jewel was replaced by this slab:

This was necessary because the second Madison Square Garden had been demolished for the headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company. The new train station was forced completely underground:

No wonder travelers are weary. No wonder the modern station is kept hidden underground. No wonder a New York Times editorial lamented, "And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

This book was enjoyable, despite the lesson we learned from it, that progress can sometimes be a step backward.


If you haven't already done so, go read the September issue.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book Thirty-Two

The thirty-second book we read this year is The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

This is an intriguing book that explores the beginnings of Christianity. Since the publication of the Nag Hammadi texts, there has been a wealth of new theories concerning Jesus and the religion he is said to have founded. In the Information Age it has become impossible for any organization to suppress knowledge and opinion and dissent. Writings that had for centuries been denied, hidden, and destroyed by the Church present quite a different view of the Christian religion and its tradition.

The major thrust of the authors' premise is that of a Gnostic foundation of Christianity. The Catholic and Protestant religions are offshoots of Christianity that have been most successful in appealing to the masses. Though they have been forced nearly out of existence, the Gnostics comprised a majority of believers at the time the religion was being formed. They did, and still do, understand that the New Testament was simply a rewriting of ancient pagan myths. The Jesus Mysteries Thesis is that Christianity is not a new and unique revelation, but a Jewish adaptation of the perennial Pagan mystery religion. Each tradition consisted of Outer Mysteries, which were myths and rituals of common knowledge, and Inner Mysteries, which were sacred secrets known only to initiates. At the heart of the Mysteries has always been a dying and resurrecting godman, variously known as Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Bacchus, Mithras, and, of course, Jesus.

The first chapter makes explicit the commonality of each of these myths. The composite Osiris-Dionysus was regarded as God made flesh, the savior, and the Son of God. His father was God and his mother was a mortal virgin. He was born in a cave on December 25 before three shepherds. He offered his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism. He turned water into wine at a marriage ceremony. He rode into town on a donkey as people honored him with palm leaves. He died at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. After his death, he descended to hell, and three days later rose from the dead to ascend to heaven. His followers awaited his return as the judge during the Last Days. His death and resurrection were celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, which symbolized his body and blood. The historical biblical accounts of Jesus sound strikingly similar to the myths of Osiris-Dionysus.

The authors rely heavily on various texts that were never canonized by the fledgling Church such as alternative gospels, ancient Greek and Roman works, Egyptian and Jewish texts. They follow each point back in time, examining the ancient classics, the formative Gnostics, the early Church fathers, and early Church philosophers and critics who were on the scene as the religion was being born. They rearrange the books of the New Testament in the order they were written and demonstrate that it is not so much a history of actual events as a history of the evolution of Christian mythology. The four canonical gospels contain so many contradictions and inconsistencies that we are hard pressed to believe they are each historical accounts of actual events, or that they are the Divine Word, for what God would be so confused and confusing?

What, one might wonder, is the Inner Mystery? If one is looking for a concrete explanation, it will not be found in this book. Perhaps one of the best places for an answer to this question is the Apocryphon Iohannis, the preeminent Gnostic Gospel. In general terms, the mysteries lead one to the revelation of an eternal light indwelling life, a divine image of the soul, a salvific experience of transcendence. Though it is universal, it is also highly personal, and therefore has always been a threat to organized religion.

This book has changed our outlook on western religion. We had always felt that the Bible, and in particular the New Testament, was filled with stories that, though not eye-witness accounts meant to be taken literally, had a basis in historical events. Any number of books offer a convincing picture of the historical Jesus, stripping the gospels down to their most basic units of truth. Now we see that it is more likely the Bible is pure myth in the tradition of the beliefs of man since belief began. Instead of a divine experience that begins in history with the life of one man, we can now experience the divine presence that has been known to man since before history. And, somewhat surprisingly, the myth of Jesus makes belief easier than the literal truth of Jesus.

We would highly recommend this book to anyone with an open mind about religion, anyone who is a believer of critical thinking, anyone who has ever felt at all uncomfortable with a top-down religion. This book contains copious notes, so one may examine for oneself the evidence for the authors' claims. A loving God desires us to know and experience divinity on our own, not simply accept what we are told. Only a despotic God would demand us to accept Him on faith alone.