Looking back over the 60-plus books I read in 2017, I am struck by how many of the best — 19 to be exact — fall into groups that comprise sort of mini-seminars on a particular subject.
For instance, there were six books about poverty that I reviewed, one after the other last spring. Published between 1890 and 1986, they provided a variety of views on the life of people who live in poverty, stressing their people-ness. In other words, for the most part, the writers of these books weren’t discussing these people as laboratory rats but as fellow folk.
Another grouping — the books in Lives of Great Religious Books series from Princeton University Press — was one that I initially wrote about in the Chicago Tribune and then expanded for my website. This overview cites five books from the series that I have reviewed, some in 2016, some in 2017.
All my life I have been fascinated by Joan of Arc, an interest that has grown in recent years. The four discussed her are among many I’ve read, and there are many more to read.
Similarly, the four books about the Bible are, in general, part of a line of reading that I’ve been doing over the past few years. Two have to do with looking at the Bible as literature, both written by Robert Alter. I have found great pleasure in his books, and have several more ready to read — soon, I hope. One is about the images of Mary and what they say about faith.
The fourth — please forgive me — is Christopher Moore’s comic novel about the life of Jesus as told by his best friend Biff. It’s bawdy and irreverent — and, at the same time, reverent. I think Jesus would laugh reading it.
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Four books about the Bible, particularly about the Bible as literature
“Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” by Robert Alter
In this secular age, many writers striving to create literary works are uncomfortable with or antagonistic toward religion, religious faith and religious subject. For myriad reasons, faith isn’t hip. Yet, one doesn’t have to be a believer to recognize that Western literature and art have deep roots in the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament, and the story of the life of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity in the New Testament.
Every writer of the West, either directly or indirectly, creates within a cultural universe where the Bible and its ideas and its stories are major elements. Think of Adam and Eve. Think of the crucifixion. Think of Noah and the Flood. Think of the Nativity.
The Bible is woven deeply into Western culture, and, when it comes to the English-speaking portion of that culture, one version — the King James Bible — has had a direct and powerful influence on some of the greatest writing in the language, particularly in the United States. As Robert Alter writes in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible:
The King James Version was famously eloquent and a beautiful instrument for conveying the vision of the biblical writers to the English-speaking populace. Its distinctive style would in the case of many major writers, beginning as early as the seventeenth century, give literary English a new and memorable coloration.
Indeed, Alter goes on to quote the noted American literary stylist Edmund Wilson’s comments on the King James Version:
Here it is, that old tongue, with its clang and its flavor, sometimes rank, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter; here it is in its concise solid stamp. Other cultures have felt its impact, and none — in the West, at least — seems quite to accommodate to it. Yet we find we have been living with it all our lives.
“Ecclesiastes” from “The Wisdom Books,” translated by Robert Alter with commentary
I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. (1:14)
When you look behind fantasy football, and binge-watching Game of Thrones on Netflix, and the morning commute to work, and CNN and Fox, and photos of grandchildren posted on Facebook, and weeding the garden, and Uber and Lyft, and the new blouse hanging in the closet, and Grandma’s recipe for spaghetti round steak, and the injured little finger needing minor surgery — well, it’s not a pretty sight. When you look behind life, you find death lurking in the wings.
That’s not a new thought although much of modern American society is aimed at distracting us from that cold reality. We’re born to die, and that’s been a major or minor theme in much of world literature and art over the course of many millenniums. One of the most eloquent writers on this theme, someone who refuses to avert his eyes, is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
Written some twenty-two hundred years ago, Ecclesiastes is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word or name which is the subject of much uncertainty. Robert Alter, in his 2010 collection of translations The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, argues, for a variety of technical reasons, that the book should be called Qohelet….
The book of Qohelet, Alter writes, is “one of the most original texts produced in the Biblical period, early or late” and “the most peculiar book in the Hebrew Bible.”
That’s because Qohelet runs counter to nearly every other biblical text. In the rest of the Bible, God is seen as being more or less involved in human destiny, and, despite the many bad things that happen, there is much hope that, by living a good and moral life, the righteous will win some divine reward and the wicked will be damned.
Qohelet isn’t buying that. The second verse of the book is well-known as it was translated for the King James Bible, completed in 1611:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (1:2)
But Alter argues that it’s important to keep the feel of the Hebrew metaphor by employing a word for something that is physical. Hence, his reading of that line and two that follow is:
Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath. What gain is there for a man in all his toil that he toils under the sun….All rivers go to the sea, and the sea is not full. (1:2-3,7)
“Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” by Christopher Moore
As Biff notes at the beginning of Christopher Moore’s comic 2002 novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, his friend’s name was Joshua.
Jesus, he explains, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew name Yeshua. Also, Christ isn’t his last name. It’s Greek for the Hebrew word messiah, meaning anointed. Biff goes on:
I have no idea what the “H” in Jesus H. Christ stood for. It’s one of the things I should have asked him.
That gives you an idea of the general tone of Lamb and of Levi who is called Biff, one in a long line of Christopher Moore characters who are ribald, raunchy, cheeky, confused, intrepid, vibrant and — did I mention? — randy smart alecks with a heart of gold. Here, for instance, is how Biff summarizes the gist of virtually every sermon he ever heard Joshua give:
“You should be nice to people, even creeps.”
Generations of Christian theologians would probably nit-pick that teaching to death, and, yet, really, isn’t that the heart of Christianity?
Here’s the thing about Lamb: It’s very funny and outrageous and in the worst possible taste, as in this scene:
The new guy…noticed some flowers growing where Joshua had just relieved himself. Lush blossoms of a half dozen vibrant colors stood surrounded by the deadest landscape on the planet. “Hey, were those there yesterday?”
“That always happens,” I said. “We don’t talk about it.”
At the same time, though, in its own weird and wacky way, Lamb is a reverent attempt to tell and understand the story of Jesus.
“Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective” by Jaroslav Pelikan, David Flusser and Justin Lang, OFM
Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective is a delightful jewel of a book that, over the course of 106 pages, is built around 48 lovingly and elegantly presented images of the story of Mary’s life. Most of these images are German Gothic scenes that are depicted on the Buxtehuder Altar, created in the 15th century by the workshop of Meister Bertram, and, as this book points out, they’re noteworthy for their “joyfulness of narration.”
That may seem an odd choice of words since a good number of the scenes depicted are anxiety-filled and painful ones for Mary, such as her son’s death on the cross.
Yet, I think the phrase is referring to two aspects of these scenes. First, of course, for believers, the stories of Mary and of Jesus, for all their pain, fear and sorrow, have a happy ending — the resurrection.
Second, these scenes communicate the great satisfaction, even glee, that these story-tellers have in telling their stories well. As someone who has been writing stories for a living for nearly half a century, I am very aware of how much pleasure and satisfaction a story-teller gets from putting the words on the page or, in this case, putting the images on the altar in a way that communicates some insight about human nature.
It’s a very visceral thing — to take the chaos of life and to find ways, through words or images (or music or dance), to give life form so that it can be understood, however flawed that form and that understanding are. Stories are never perfect. Life is too much of a mess.
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Four books about Joan of Arc
“Joan of Arc and Spirituality,” edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler
Joan of Arc was a mystic and a saint with a sense of humor.
George H. Tavard — the great Catholic theologian and one of the first to take a deeper look into the role of women in the history of the Church — recalls two of her quips in his essay in Joan of Arc and Spirituality, edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler.
It was just after she’d come to the Dauphin to tell him that she would lead his troops to drive back the English and get a crown on his head at Rheims as Charles VII. Understandably, His Royal Highness wanted to be sure he wasn’t being duped by this teenage girl with all her talk about hearing voices. So he convened a meeting of churchmen, one of whom was a Dominican friar.
The friar, writes Tavard, “reported that la Pucelle had made fun of his provincial pronunciation when she said that her voices spoke French with a better accent than his.”
Three months later, as she and the French army came to Troyes, a Franciscan approached her, made the sign of the cross and splashed her with holy water, to which Joan replied:
Approach boldly; I will not fly away!
The riposte, Tavard writes, was indicative of Joan’s understanding that the Franciscan feared she was a witch. It also denoted “a certain tolerance of the friar’s antics.”
“Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc,” edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood
Published in 1996, Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and Charles T. Wood, is a collection of eighteen scholarly essays looking at various aspects of the life and legacy of the woman who led French armies to victories in the early 15th century, was branded a sorcerer and executed by the enemy English and, five hundred years later, was declared a Catholic saint.
The idea of “fresh verdicts” is that these essays examine aspects of Joan’s story that have been ignored or confused over the many centuries since her death at the English stake as a heretic.
Not that Joan’s story itself has been ignored all that time. Indeed, in an opening essay, Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, asserts:
No person of the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc. She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, protofeminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France, “turner-of-the-tide” of the Hundred Years War, and even Marxist liberator.
Similarly, in one of the concluding essays, Kevin J. Harty, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, sees a similar pattern in the way movies have treated the Maid:
Filmmakers have in their turn wrestled with Joan the simple peasant girl, Joan the wily politician, Joan the androgyne, Joan the woman, Joan the doubting sinner, Joan the representative of a nation, and Joan the self-assured saint.
Such lists of various “Joans” are indicative of the wide range of interpretations that have been given to her history.
Nonetheless, despite English stories of a randy witch, the accounts of contemporaries, particularly those who knew and worked with Joan, tell a tale of holiness amid the routinely violent, obscene and brutal setting of war.
“The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453” by Desmond Seward
Desmond Seward is adamant in The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453: No matter what the French or several generations of modern writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, have to say, he writes:
In 1428 an illiterate shepherdess of seventeen decided she had been called by God to save France and expel the English. In fact, far from driving out the English, Joan of Arc merely checked the English advance by reviving Dauphinist morale, and the [English] Regent managed to halt the counter-offensive.
It was not the Maid who ended English rule in France.
Seward has his own perspective as an English writer, and he does a praiseworthy job of summarizing the Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years) in 265 brisk pages in this fine 1978 history. The English of the 15th-century saw Joan as a witch since she seemed to cause things to happen that resulted in unaccountable French victories over the long-dominant English. The French saw her as a saint.
Yet, even as Seward is trying to set the record straight as he sees it, his telling of Joan’s story over eight pages of his text is not unsympathetic. And, good historian that he is, he sets out an array of facts that one of Joan’s admirers could use to counter Seward’s own arguments….
In her lifetime, Joan didn’t accomplish her mission to free France of the destructive, demoralizing and devastating English occupation. Nonetheless, she was the leader of the Dauphin’s armies that won key battles, and she did escort the Dauphin to Reims to be crowned Charles VII.
So, she achieved some of her goals, but not the over-arching one. Or did she?
This is where it matters whether one looks with a very tight focus at her life or sees things in a broader context. Unquestionably, Joan — despite her “failure,” i.e., execution as a heretic — radically changed the momentum of the war.
Whereas the English had been in the driver’s seat for some 90 years, suddenly, with Joan’s leadership, the French took charge. Even after her death, the French, still feeding on the inspiration she brought, persevered through the next 22 years to drive the English out of every one of their strongholds on the Continent.
“Joan of Arc: A Self-Portrait,” compiled by Willard Trask
As Willard Trask notes in the Foreword to his 1936 book Joan of Arc: A Self-Portrait, we know the Catholic saint and liberator of France today — 600 years after she was burned at the stake — in a deep and telling and very unusual way.
That’s because her actual words and phrases were captured by clerks in two voluminous court records. The first was from her rigged heresy trial. The second was from her nullification trial, held a quarter of a century after her martyrdom at the hands of the English and their allies.
The record of the trail contains Joan’s responses to the prosecutors and judges, and the two records hold the recollections of her contemporaries regarding what she said to them or in their hearing during her short 19-year-long life. Trask writes:
The possession of these documents places us in an unique position with respect to Joan: we can hear her speak.
We have not only what she would tell us, but her very words, in a way that we cannot be sure we have the words even of those who live for us chiefly in what they have spoken — Socrates, say, or Saint Francis.
The wealth of detail of autobiography which (the trial and retrial records preserve) is astounding.
Indeed, Trask set out to make that autobiography more explicit by pulling Joan’s quotes from the records and putting them in chronological order to provide a way of Joan her life story in her own words.
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Six Poverty Books
Over the period of a couple weeks, I posted reviews of six books about people living in poverty, published between 1890 and 1986 — nearly a century’s worth.
Below are the books with links to the reviews.
But, first, a few observations from my reading of the books:
Here are the books with an excerpt:
1890 — How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis:
“How the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform. Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger. His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every smudge and detail of the rooms where poor families and individuals lived and often worked and of the buildings and neighborhoods in which they spent their days. These images were startling and unsettling. And what was most startling and unsettling about them were the highly distinctive faces —- the individual faces — of this Italian and that tough, of this Jewish child and that Street Arab, of this sleeping laborer and that drunken woman.”
1902 — The People of the Abyss by Jack London:
“Where Jack London falls short in The People of the Abyss is in depicting the life of the poor as unrelentingly depressing and dehumanizing. In this, he tumbles into the same trap that has ensnared other middle- and upper-class writers who came before and after him.”
1929-1930 — Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell:
“Yet, in this book about his own experience living in extreme poverty over the course of more than three months in late 1929 and early 1930, Orwell makes again and again the strikingly obvious point: that the poor are human beings, just like the rest of us.”
1936 — Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee with photos by Walker Evans:
“There are many ways to approach Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the majestic, mystical and often maddening book that James Agee and Walker Evans published in 1941. I’m going to look at it here through the lens of journalism — how it subverts and critiques journalism as practiced in the United States. It is a book that subverts journalism, even as it reaches — strains achingly — to create a new journalism. It’s journalism as art. But not the sort of art that Agee is at pains to criticize through his book. The art that he is striving to create.”
1937 — The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell:
“Orwell asserts that there are hundreds of thousands of people like the Brookers in the working classes — people without aspirations, without real thought, even. People who have been constrained so tightly by circumstances and a lack of possibilities that they are more like placeholders than agents of their own destiny. These people, he states, are byproducts of the modern industrial world, adding, ‘You can’t disregard them if you accept the civilization that produced them.’ In other words, society, as a whole, bears some responsibility for these people and the dead-ends they find everywhere they turn.”
“Although the Tribune caught a lot of flak during the three months The American Millstone dominated the newspaper’s pages, I have to say that the stories and the series hold up. The American Millstone was an honorable, well-meaning, courageous, insightful, accurate and important effort to look at a national problem that was confronting policymakers who were often tempted to ignore the issue or sidestep its implications.”
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Lives of Great Religious Books: Princeton University Press
For outsiders, religions are often mysterious. Yet, down the centuries, the great books of faith have played major roles in shaping the world of believers and non-believers alike, influencing politics, art, philosophy, literature, language and culture. It’s with that in mind that, since 2011, Princeton University Press has been publishing a series of lively and energetic “biographies” of these important works, titled Lives of Great Religious Books.
“The series may strike some people as odd, but I find it tremendously fun to publish,” says executive editor Fred Appel who came up with the idea during a conversation with an Israeli philosopher.
What makes these “biographies,” each about 250 pages long, so readable is that they’re written with a light touch by experts who are excited about the stories they have to tell and who understand that they are writing for non-experts. Many of them, says Appel, also teach college courses “where they have to make great books interesting to 19-year-olds who may not know anything about them.
Consider some examples:
From “The Koran” in English: A Biography by Bruce B. Lawrence:
“To move from Latin to Arabic is to move from a language with all its antecedents in citified life, where roads and properties, irrigation and water tanks, armies and taxes matter most, to a desert life, where tribes are the norm, spaces open, oases the lifeline for survival, and cities but dots etched on emptiness. It is not just that Latin and Arabic are different alphabets and grammars; they also reflect histories and societies even more disparate than their speech and writing.”
From Ronald Hendel’s The Book of ‘Genesis’: A Biography:
“In our popular and commercial culture, references to Genesis pop up regularly. ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is an upscale exercise machine, priced around $3,000. ‘Am I My Brother’s Keeper’ is the name of an album by the hip-hop group Kane and Abel. The Methuselah Foundation supports scientific research into extending human life. Adam and Eve is the name of a sex toy company.”
From The “Dead Sea Scrolls”: A Biography by John J. Collins:
“Of course, the Scrolls are of great historical value. In fields where new data rarely comes to light, the Scrolls have seemed to be manna from heaven. They shed light on the two main religions of the Western world at a crucial time of transition for the one (Judaism) and the time of origin of the other (Christianity).”
From Mark Larrimore’s The Book of ‘Job’: A Biography:
“Job’s explosions of grief show what even the most holy are driven to by pain, loss, and the sense of divine abandonment. Since he was a moral paragon, however, commended by God for speaking rightly, Job’s words show us what response to unmerited affliction is permissible and even appropriate. Job offers a licensed way to grieve. Submission was one part of it. Rage at misfortune and even at God was another.”
“Lewis’s winsomeness as an evangelist is directly related to his having confined his task to inviting everyone to the vestibule and leaving to others all debates about choosing particular rooms. Paradoxically, one result is that Christians of many very different sorts regard Lewis as though he were one of their own.”
Patrick T. Reardon