february 2015 books.

Three Men on a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Jerome K. Jerome
This was kinda fun. It's the story of three Brits taking a little boating vacation down the Thames. Nothing really happens other than various minor misadventures that happen on outdoor excursions, but the narration was very funny. There's lots of tangents and anecdotes, which makes up for the basic lack of plot. Overall, I would call it droll, which I don't get to say nearly enough.

Fun fact: The 'K' stands for 'Klapka.' He changed it later in life to honor the Hungarian general Gy├Ârgy Klapka.

The Last Temptation of Christ
Nikos Kazantzakis
I bought this book because it was written by Kazantzakis, who I like a lot. I had no idea there was any controversy about it, whatsoever. So I read it, and I noticed that there were definitely parts that some folks might consider heresy. And then I started doing a little research, and holy cow. Most of the controversy seems to be centered around the movie, which I have not seen. I found some really angry stuff from Christians, who mostly saw it as an attack by Hollywood and Liberal America on their faith. I even found a guy who blamed it on the Jews (because they run Hollywood, remember).

So, this is the story of Jesus. You know, that guy. At the beginning, he is simply a carpenter who is suffering from what we would now call mental illness. He senses a birdlike creature following him always, sometimes clawing at his head because he is not on the right path. Everyone in town is also very upset with him, because he's been making crosses for the Romans to crucify various Zealots that the people hope might be the Messiah.

One thing that struck me throughout the book was what people expected to be the Messiah. I knew they were expecting a king and a warrior, but it didn't occur to me that they were looking for someone to save them from the Romans, and by "them," they meant specifically Israel, or the Jews. Part of what was so revolutionary about Jesus' message was that the Romans were our brothers. This is probably obvious, but it hadn't occurred to me before, having grown up with the idea that Jesus is for everybody.

Finally, Jesus gets tired of this birdthing on his head, and he goes out to a desert monastery. The birdthing goes with him, but stops hurting him, so it seems to approve of this task. Judas also follows him there, with the intent to kill him for making all those crosses. But Jesus, having made peace with his birdthing, is ready for whatever, and Judas thinks he might be the Messiah, so he's gonna just follow him around until he's sure.

I really liked what Kazantzakis did with Judas in the book. I've always felt conflicted about old redbeard. He's the bad guy, right, because he betrayed Jesus for some money. But the whole point of Jesus was that he died. Someone had to play this Judas part, and then we get all mad at him for it and a perfectly good name is ruined forever. In the book, however, Jesus tells Judas to betray him because he is the only one strong enough to play this role. None of the other disciples know about it. I'm not sure if this scenario is considered heresy. It's not in the Bible, but is it unBiblical?

Jesus comes out of the monastery and starts being that guy we all know. He saves a prostitute from being stoned, he preaches about love and brotherhood, he heals some people, he talks about the poor getting theirs, he picks up some disciples along the way. There is a great scene where Barrabas, another of the Zealots, has been sent to murder him, again for that cross-building thing. He slaps him, and Jesus turns the other cheek. The nonviolence of it just stops Barrabas and the assembled crowd in their tracks.

One of the disciples that starts tagging along is Matthew, who takes it upon himself to write all their adventures down. He has an angel over his shoulder, guiding him and telling him him what to write. And some of the stuff that he writes is not true, but the angel told him to write it, so he does. At some point, Jesus reads some of it, and gets really mad that Matthew is making up stories about virgin births and Bethlehem and Magi. Matthew defends himself with that old chestnut, "an angel made me do it," and Jesus says okay, whatever. It's implied that the angel does this to align Jesus' birth with prophesies in the Old Testament. I've heard that the gospel of Matthew was likely used to speak to Jews to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore there is a lot of stress on fulfilling prophecy. This seems to be actually controversial to me.

At some point, Jesus realizes that he has to die, as he says that death is the door to immortality. He sets up the betrayal with Judas, gets arrested and tried. Meanwhile, Barrabas has also been arrested for killing Lazarus. Kazantzakis apparently wondered whatever happened to Lazarus after he came back from the dead. It wasn't pretty. He's all brittle and decayed and smelly. He seems to be recovering slowly, but Barrabus kills him to prevent him from walking around and being a living reminder of Jesus.

While Jesus is on the cross, his guardian angel comes to him and takes him away, saying that God is rescuing him because he did the right thing. He is swooped off to Mary Magdalene, who is a sort of childhood sweetheart figure for Jesus. They make sweet love before she is killed by an angry mob, led by the hunchbacked Saul. Jesus is not overly upset about that, but goes to Mary and Martha, where he marries the pair of them and lives a normal, happy life as a carpenter and patriarch.

This whole life is a dream that the devil (the guardian angel) has set up for him to tempt him to choose a normal life as a man, rather than dying young to save everybody else. This is the last temptation of Christ. We have a title, folks!

During this life, he is visited by Saul, now Paul. Jesus gets kinda pissed off that Paul is telling everyone that he died and was resurrected, but Paul tells him that it doesn't even need to have actually happened, because the story is working anyway. Again, this part seems pretty controversial to me, but more people seemed to be up in arms about the sex with Mary Magdalene.

Finally, when he is an old, old man, he is visited by the apostles, who are also very old and very sad. Except Judas, who is royally pissed at Jesus. Judas held up his end of the bargain (betrayal), but Jesus did not (dying). And this is what makes Jesus realize that it's all been some kind of alternate history dream put on by Lucifer. He rejects it and immediately his nice life disappears and he's back on the cross in agony.

And that's the happy ending.

The parts that I found controversial were not the parts that the greater public got upset about. I can see people being offended by a movie sex scene featuring their savior. But as far as I can tell, people were mostly up in arms that Jesus would've rather had a nice, simple life with wives and children than die in agony in his thirties. Seems pretty relateable and also biblical. Jesus prays the night before his arrest to please let there be another way to save humanity, because this way sucks, Dad, c'mon.

Being tempted is a part of being fully human, which is again, the big deal about Jesus. He goes to the desert and the devil tempts him. Maybe it's a misunderstanding of the word. Like, the devil could hold out a nice juicy cantaloupe to tempt me. But cantaloupe is gross, so it would not actually tempt me. I could reject the devil and his cantaloupe, no problem. It's not being tempted if you don't want the thing, and it's not a virtue to reject it. The importance of Jesus being sinless was not because he never wanted to sin, it's that he definitely wanted to, just like the rest of us.

I dunno. I'm sorta having to glean what I can of what the controversy was, so maybe I am not representing it in its most coherent light. I liked the book, is what I'm saying. Sorry about all the plot summary.

Animal Dreams
Barbara Kingsolver
You know, when I think back about the plot of this book, I'm sorta at a loss as to what I liked about it. A lady goes back to her home town, finds redemption and forgiveness and belonging. It's set in Arizona, so there's lots of Native American spiritualism. None of that would appeal to me particularly, but somehow in Kingsolver's hands, I am always sucked in.

Part of it is her actual prose. As Josh says, I read like a scientist, which means for content rather than form. I really have to make myself slow down and notice the individual words and how they interact. A few times while reading this book, I found myself noticing a really good metaphor. It'd be great if I had written one down for you to see, but I did not do that. Kingsolver does a good job of conveying a feeling by comparing it to something more relateable. Apparently, I'm into that.

Her books also have a very strong sense of place. The characters visit a reservation and a couple of old Pueblo villages. The landscape seems dry and mostly red-brown, yet the people make it vivid and beautiful.

And there are peacocks. I'm pretty sure they're symbolic peacocks.

Josh says it's not important to be able to pick out individual literary devices; that you just read, and you'll feel them intuitively. I am skeptical of this. I am sure it's true for him, but he has some kind of special relationship with words. But Kingsolver makes me think it could be true for people like me, too.

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