Category Archives: Religion

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

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If her years as a reporter had taught her anything, it was these two things: One, the world was filled with people who were adrift, rudderless, and untethered. And two, the innocent always paid for the sins of the guilty.

…their traditions mean more to them than their humanity.

While reading Thrity Umrigar’s latest, novel, Honor, her ninth for adults, my thoughts kept drifting to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, not the totality of the story so much as the classic opening sentence.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the case of Honor there are not exactly two cities. Mumbai certainly counts, but Birwad is a remote, rural village. It was the best of times for the reporter, India-born, but American since age fourteen, an international correspondent for a major New-York-based newspaper. It was the worst of times for the local woman, a young widow, living a terrible life in Birwad. Her brothers had murdered her husband, the light of her life, in plain sight, happily including their own sister in the conflagration. It was the spring of hope for a crusading lawyer, Anjali, desperate to find a woman willing to press charges against abusers like these, very grateful to have finally found one. She is hoping to establish a precedent, maybe even gain some justice. It was the winter of despair. But even if Gorvind and Arvind can be convicted and sent to prison, Meena would still be stuck living with her mother-in-law, who hates her, blaming her for the death of her son. It was an epoch of belief. The brothers had torched their own sister because she, a Hindu, had dared marry a Muslim, which the brothers believed was an abomination. They also hated her because she worked, while they did not, again somehow shameful, even though she gave them her entire salary. It was an era of incredulity. Really, this medieval bullshit is still going on in the 21st century?

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Thrity Umrigar

Smita Agarwal had not wanted to go back to Mumbai, but the veteran reporter cut short her vacation in the Maldives when she got a call from Shannon Carpenter (broken hip, in hospital), a friend, and the South Asia Correspondent for her newspaper. Smita expects to be hanging with her pal for a while as she prepares for surgery, then recovers. But Shannon redirects her to taking on reporting duties for a grim story. The trial of brothers Gorvind and Arvind is due for a verdict soon. An associate of Shannon’s is sent along to help with translation, and coping with local cultural issues. Mohan is not a reporter, but someone is needed to help smooth things for Smita, who will need a translator. She has not been back to India for decades, and very much needs the help.

What Smita finds in this remote place is incredibly disturbing, a primitive society riven by a particularly deep and violent religious division and a legal system that is a caricature of bias and corruption, although sadly far too real. Smita interviews Meena, her mother-in-law, the brothers, the village leader who had encouraged them to commit the crime, and the lawyer who is handling the case against them. There is no ambiguity about guilt here. The only legal question is whether there will be any sort of justice in such a backwater.

Honor is a tale of two tales. It is not only in Birwad that bias crimes are committed. Alternating with the tale of Meena is Smita’s attempt to address the reason her family moved to the states from Mumbai when she was a teen. She revisits her old neighborhood and speaks, or tries to speak with people she knew back then. Her story is revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel. Later she tells Mohan the full tale of her family’s experience. It is clear that it is not only remote, rural India that has a problem with mindless us-versus-them bigotry.

The parallel stories incorporate contrasting elements. The novel looks at old versus new, faith versus materialism, rationality versus extremist religiosity, corruption versus honesty, modernity versus tradition, right versus wrong, kindness versus cruelty, understanding versus blind rejection, patriarchal abuse versus gender equity. There is the contrast between the cosmopolitan Smita and the rural Meena, the comfortable Mohan and the struggling villagers.

Smita wrestles with her feelings about India, mostly repulsed by it because of the treatment her family had received, the ongoing religious warfare, and a million small miseries the nation inflicts on everyone. But she also recognizes some of the kinder sides to life there, particularly as epitomized by Mohan. She is also confronted with a woman in Meena who had actually done a radical thing, standing up for love in the face of extreme bias, and then standing up for justice in a cruelly unjust place. She had opened herself to huge peril by attending to her heart. Whereas Smita lives a solo existence, sustaining barriers that prevent her from ever committing to anyone emotionally. Even though Smita’s reporting for a western newspaper is expected to benefit the fight against religious bigotry, this is not a trope of westerner coming to the rescue of a desperate third-worlder. Here, the illiterate local has much to teach the sophisticate.

The novel had dual inspirations. First was the reporting of New York Times reporter Ellen Barry, who documented some of the worst outrages of Indian injustice during her years working there. There are a couple of links in EXTRA STUFF to Barry’s NY Times work, and one article of hers in particular that was an obvious source for this novel. The second inspiration was Umrigar’s family’s history.

In 1993, my middle-aged father stood on our balcony and watched helplessly as the apartment building across the street burned. It had been set on fire by a mob of angry Hindus who had heard that a Muslim family lived on the ground floor.
By this time, I was living in faraway America, safe from the paroxysm of insanity and violence that gripped Bombay—the erstwhile most tolerant and cosmopolitan of Indian cities—during that terrible period. But I can still hear the bewilderment in my father’s voice as he later recounted the incident during our weekly phone chat. I immediately worried about my family’s well-being, but he brushed aside my fretting. We were Parsis, a small, prosperous, and educated religious minority in India; the joke was that there were so few of us, nobody saw us as any kind of threat.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

So, the two places may be dramatically different, but the underlying problems are remarkably similar. In addition to continuing her writing about India, in which she focuses on class and gender issues, there was another stream that flowed into her work this time.

I wrote ‘Honor’ during the Trump years,” she says. “I was writing about India, but I was also writing about my own adopted country. This othering of others is not a phenomena you can assign to any one country. The trend winds are blowing across the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States. I am sometimes appalled and bewildered and dismayed by the parallels.” – from the LA Times interview

It is certainly no stretch to see in people who erected a gallows for a vice president who would not do what their leader wanted the very group madness Umrigar shows us in India. The Indian version gives us a village leader stoking the violence, encouraging the brothers to commit an atrocity. Here we have Trump, Tucker Carlson, Fox News and a host of fascist demagogues screaming lies about “the other.”

A major focus in Honor is on how the word has been misused to support unconscionable policies and actions.

The word honor has been abused and shorn of its meaning in traditional, male-dominated societies, where it is simply a cover for the domination of women by their fathers, brothers, and sons. The sexual politics of the so-called honor killings are impossible to avoid. Women are raped, killed, and sacrificed to preserve male pride and reputations.


In this novel, I wanted to reclaim the word and give it back to the people to whom it belongs—people like Meena, a Hindu woman, and her Muslim husband, Abdul, who allow their love to blind them to the bigotries and religious fervor that surround them, who transcend their own upbringing to imagine a new and better world. – from the Bookbrowse interview

Honor is a tale of two loves. We get from Meena’s POV her history with Abdul, and how that love survives his murder in her love for their daughter. Smita has never really had that kind of relationship, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, as she sees him in action, helping her maneuver a culture she does not really understand, sees what a good, kind man he is, and begins to wonder if there is some way to sustain their connection after her work on this story is complete. She also struggles with her feelings about India, which have been hostile, but as warm memories from her youth return, as she learns from Mohan of the many good things about her birth country, she warms to it, and regains some of the affection she once had for her homeland.

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.


“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” – Tale of Two Cities – via Project Gutenberg

Shift the boy in Dickens’ tale to Meena’s daughter, Abru, in this one and it also fits right in. Honor is a gut punch that will being you to tears of grief and rage. Hopefully it will make you aware of the currents of group hatred that flow in far too many places, probably one uncomfortably close to home. But it will also offer you cause for hope, cause to see beyond the storm clouds of conflict to the clearing skies of hope. Honor is not a far, far better book than Umrigar has ever written. Really? With her dazzling oeuvre, what could be? But it is certainly among her strongest works. And that is saying a lot.

Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Umrigar sustains a positive outlook. In the LA Times interview, she references Tony Kushner.

He says something to the effect of: Hope is not a choice. Hope is a moral obligation. I try and live by those words. I may sometimes not feel hopeful about my own personal circumstances, which is absurd because I’ve had every opportunity and privilege in the world. But I always feel hopeful about humanity.”

Review posted – March 25, 2022

Publication date – January 4, 2022

This review has been, or soon will be cross-posted on my site, Coot’s Reviews. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Thrity Umrigar – there are two parts to this, first, an essay by Umrigar re Honor then an interview from 2006. Both are excellent
—–LA Times – A book of horror and hope in India, inspired by extremists closer to home BY BETHANNE PATRICK

My reviews of prior books by Thrity Umrigar
—–2018 – The Secrets Between Us
—–2016 – Everybody’s Son
—–2011 – The World We Found
—–2009 – The Weight of Heaven
—–2008 – The Space Between Us

Items of Interest from the author
—–Book Club Kit
—–excerpt – Chapter Five
—–Workman Library – Thrity Umrigar discusses her upcoming novel, HONOR (Jan 2022) – video – 3:22

Songs/Music
There is a play list in the Book Club Kit

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – articles by Ellen Barry
—–Read this one of Barry’s in particular – How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India
—–Wiki on Honor Killing
—–Gutenberg – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – the entire text

Reminds Me Of
—–The Heart of Darkness

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Filed under Fiction, India, Literary Fiction, Public policy, Religion

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

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Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

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Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

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7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

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Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

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Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

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Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB
—–The Guardian – How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall – an edited excerpt

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society
—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, World History

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

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What do you do when you’re a scared-shitless kid that’s been faking it for so long? You bury it. You polish your smile and study until you can’t even focus your eyes. You buy yourself a big red sweater with an S across the chest, just like the superchild you once were. You try to prove them all wrong. You attempt to outrun it. But then you get injured and your mom goes insane and a kind man in a blue shirt with a trim black beard uses the words. Emotional abuse. Crossing physical boundaries, Trauma. Neglect. I feel like a blank space covered in skin.

Who is that masked man? If all of your life you’ve worn a mask, what do you see in the mirror? A reflection of someone you aren’t. How can you know who you really are, or who you might become, if you see your world through cut-out holes? And the world never gets to see you, never gets to relate to you, the real you, behind your facade. Kinda tough to live your best life that way. Kinda tough to live a real life that way. And how did that mask get there in the first place? And how did it impact the nuts and bolts of your life? And is there any hope you can tear it off without losing the you beneath, pull it off slowly, maybe un-sew it from your face, a stitch at a time?

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Mikel Jollett – image from his Twitter

Who is that masked man, the kid from the cult, the pre-teen looking for thrills, the teenager who nearly killed himself, the long-distance-runner, the Stanford student, the substance abuser, the serial spoiler of relationships, the music-world journalist, the successful rock musician, the wonderful writer? Or are they all just different masks?

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Synenon leader Charles Dederich – Image from San Diego State University

The impetus to write the book was a recent one. Jollett had been writing and performing music with his band, Airborne Toxic Event, since 2005, a step sideways from his intention to pursue a writing career, and a closely linked redirection from his work as a music journalist.

Then, in 2015, his father died, and Jollett says he was overwhelmed with grief and confusion. “I wondered why it hit me so hard, so I went back into my past—that day my mom took us out of the cult. I went in to lockdown and started to write.” He stayed with it for three years. – from the PW interview

There was a lot to write about. This coming of age story begins when he was five. Jollett had the bad luck to be born into a bad situation. His parents were members of Synenon, a place that came to public prominence in the 1960s in California, a goto drug rehab community for a while. People charged with substance-related crimes were often sent there by California courts. It probably did some good in the beginning, but as the leader of Synenon, Chuck Dederich, became more and more unhinged and power mad, his not totally crazy community became a totally crazy cult. Not the best start for a new life. One of the rules in Synenon was that children were to be raised communally. So, even though mom and/or dad might be around, they were not the ones providing care. Have a nice life.

“It was an orphanage!” Grandma screams. “That’s what you call a place where strangers raise your kids!” Grandma says that mom doesn’t even know who put us to bed or who woke us up or who taught us to read. She says we were sitting ducks. (We did play Duck Duck Goose a lot.) “You made them orphans, Gerry!” Grandma will point at us from her chair as we pretend not to listen.

We follow Mik’s journey from his earliest memories of Synenon, raised by people other than his parents until Mom flees with him and his older brother in the dark of night. Most orphanages do not send goons to track down people, including children, who leave. Even out of the Synenon cult, Mik, his brother, Tony, and his mom, Gerry, were not safe. Mik gets to see a fellow “splittee” get beaten nearly to death by Synenon enforcers outside his new home.

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Facing your dark side – image from Narcissism and emotional abuse.co.uk

If this decidedly unstable beginning was not enough of a challenge, his mother was not the best of all possible parents.

Is that a mom? Someone who you can’t ever remember not loving you? I know Mom doesn’t think that’s what it is but I do…She tells me I’m her son and she wanted kids so she wouldn’t be alone anymore and now she has us and it is a son’s job to take care of his mother.

Gerry was just a weeeee bit narcissistic, to her children’s decided disadvantage. It would take Mik years to learn that the usual arrangement was that parents take care of children.

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Image from collectiveevolution.com

Jollett takes us through many stages of his life, successfully modulating the narrative to fit the age he is portraying in each. As he grows, his awareness increases and his interests broaden. It makes him, appropriately, an unreliable narrator as young Mik does not yet have the tools to see past the misinformation he is being given.

It took my brother and I a long long time to piece together the reality that a functional adult might have about the situation, that we’d escaped a cult that had once done good things for addicts (including our father), that our mother was severely depressed, and that these experiences were very unique in some ways and quite common in others. So I wrote the book from that perspective, at least at the beginning: that of a child trying to piece together the reality of the changing world around him; because that’s how I experienced it. There were mysteries. What is a restaurant? (We’d never been in one). What is a car? A city? And, most devastatingly, what is a family? Because we simply didn’t know. – from the Celadon interview

Being born into a cult and having a depressed, toxically narcissistic mother were two strikes already, but then pop, and other paternal family members had spent considerable time behind bars, and in both his paternal and his maternal trees there was a history of substance abuse, of one sort or many. You’d think Mik was destined to wind up an alcoholic and/or a drug addict and in jail. Is genetics destiny? This is a core battle he faced in his life. Another was to come to terms with how his strange upbringing affected how he related to other human beings, particularly to women. He talks a lot about how he presented a façade to the world, while keeping his truest self well back, if he even knew his true self at all.

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Robert Smith mask – Image from funkyBunky.co

Jollett endured years of poverty, and emotional abuse. He found outlets in criminal acts and substance abuse. But he also found other ways to fill his needs and channel his creativity. A close friend introduced him to the music that would push him in a new constructive direction.

I go to a place in my head where I can be alone. Listening to Robert Smith sing his happy songs about how sad he feels is like he’s there too, like he has his Secret Place in his head where he goes and since he wrote a song about it, he’s right there in my headphones, so we’re in this Secret Place together. Me and Robert. It’s a place where we are allowed to be sad, instead of feeling like freaks of nature, us weirdos and orphans.

A major change in Mik’s life is when he begins spending time with his father, Jimmy, and his father’s significant other, in Los Angeles, first summers, then, at age 11, moving there more permanently, Gerry having moved to Oregon with the boys when they were fleeing Synenon. It is a whole new world for him there, not just offering different ways to get into trouble, but the opportunity to get to know Jimmy and his father’s family, something that was not really possible in his earliest years, particularly as his mother had portrayed Jimmy negatively.

I’d been told so many terrible things about him at a very young age. He was a heroin addict, an ex-con who’d done years in prison. He “left my mother for a tramp.” That was a common refrain. But none of it turned out to matter. He was clean by the time I was born and all I ever knew once I got to spend time with him, was this guy who would do anything for me. He was affectionate. He took us everywhere. He cared so deeply about our basic happiness. He had a great laugh and a quiet wisdom about him. He never cared what I became in life. He wanted me to be honest, to be interesting (or simply funny), and to be around. – from the Celadon interview

The emotional core of the book is connections Jollett has, for good or ill, with the people in his life, friends, and particularly family.

Jimmy was fond of betting on the ponies. He took Mik with him once he started visiting LA. Hollywood Park is the track they attended. It is where Mik has meaningful heart-to-hearts with his father. It is a place that lives in his imagination as well, a place where he can connect with his family across time. Will Mik grow up to be a ”Jollett Man,” a bad-ass tough guy who leans hard toward wildness, or something other? There are certainly strains in him that offer other possibilities. His athleticism, intellectual curiosity, academic licks, creativity, musical talent, and stick-to-itive-ness offer hope for a future different from his father’s.

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Image from The Smiths and Morrissey FB pages

As an adult, Mik finds a career in music, and gains insights into the musical creative process from some household names. He gains as well insights into his emotional state that help him understand the life he has been living. But the real core is how he got to that place to begin with.

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Image from Invaluabl.com

Jollett employs literary tools to great effect. For example, as an eight-year-old in Oregon, his family raised and slaughtered rabbits for food. In addition to this being a sign of the family’s poverty, it is clear that young Mik senses that he, too, is being raised in an emotional cage to provide sustenance of another sort. His writing is smooth and often moving. There are sum-up portions at the end of chapters that pull together what that chapter has been about. These bits tend toward the self-analytical, and are often poetic.

…music makes me feel like I belong somewhere, that this person I don’t know, the one who swims beneath his life in a dark, chaotic, unknowable place, this one has a voice too.

Mikel Jollett has written a remarkable memoir, offering not just a look at his dramatic and event-filled personal journey, but a peek out from the masks he wore to the times he lived through. While his actions and experiences covered a considerable swath, there is always, throughout his moving tale, a connection to family, to his mother, father, brother, various step-parents, his extended family, and closest friends. The power of these connections caused him considerable difficulty, but also made it possible for him to weather some major life storms. The odds are you will be moved by Jollett’s celebration of real human bonding, cringe at some of the challenges he had to endure, mumble an “oh, no,” or worse, as you see the missteps along his path, cheer for the triumphs when they come, and luxuriate in the beauty of his writing. Whatever else you may get from the book, it is clear that Mikel Jollett is unmasked as an outstanding writer. Hollywood Park is a sure winner of a read. Bet on it.

One sentence [in The Scarlet Letter] stood out to me as I read on the edge of my bed. I marked the page: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” It made me think of the Secret Place, the place I hide with Robert Smith. I know this face. I’ve learned not to tell anyone at school about Synanon or Dad in prison or…Mom in the bed staring up at the ceiling. It’s a mask, this face you create for others, one you hide behind as you laugh at jokes you don’t understand and skip uncomfortable details, entire years of your life, as if they simply didn’t happen.

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Jollett (l.), with dad Jimmy and brother Tony -image from Publishers Weekly

Review first posted – May 15, 2020

Publication dates
———-May 5, 2020 – hardcover
———-March 22, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an ARE of this book from Celadon in return for an honest review. But, do they really know who they gave this book to? I could be anyone, pretending to be anyone.

Thanks to MC, too.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page and a promotional site for the book

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Mikel Jollett Crafts a Heartbreaking Memoir of Staggering Growth by Louise Ermelino
—–Lit Hub – Sheltering: Mikel Jollett Challenges the Memoir Form
by Maris Kreizman – video – 17:58
—–Celadon – Mikel Jollett, Author of Hollywood Park, on Life Inside and Outside a Cult by Jennifer Jackson

My dad was my best friend and when he died it completely derailed my life. It wasn’t just sad, it was confusing. No one tells you that about grief. Or at least no one told me. Just how disorienting it is. And it’s probably the reason I started writing the book: because I couldn’t think about anything else. I was just baffled by how sad I was, how much it felt like the world was actually ending. I emerged from a very deep depression in which I hardly left the house for about six months. I’d put on weight, hadn’t written a word or a single song. I cried every day, and spent so much time just questioning who I was in the world without this guy who was the first person I ever trusted. And all I wanted to do was write about it because it helped me to understand it.

Songs/Music
—–Celadon – Animated Trailer for the album Hollywood Park by the author’s band Airborne Toxic Event – samples from the album songs, with animated backdrop
—–The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
———-Boys Don’t Cry
—–Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall
—–The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
———-Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
—–Jackson Browne – Running On Empty
———-The Pretender
—–The Airborne Toxic Event – Wishing Well
———-Sometime Around Midnight

Items of Interest
—–Instagram – images from the author and his band
—–The Hollywood Park Book Tour – only for ticket holders
—–The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Religion, Reviews

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

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We were no different from the doves above us. We could not speak or cry, but when there was no choice we discovered we could fly. It you want a reason, take this: We yearned for our portion of the sky.

Masada, the word summons up images, war, Romans, Zealots, slaughter, mass suicide. A place of national pride for some, historical and archaeological controversy for many, a bit of Python mockery to others. On visiting the place itself Alice Hoffman was inspired to wonder about the experience of the women who had lived and died there. The result is The Dovekeepers. She uses the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as the foundation for her tale. (The Monty Python crew used Josephus’s writings as well, for a very different purpose, in Life of Brian.)

The four primary characters meet at Masada, where they are assigned to care for the doves. There are those who might consider this a hardship post, regarding doves as dirty, disgusting, filthy, and lice-ridden, or as rats with wings, but they are also a source of fertilizer, meat, eggs, and maybe a bit of hope. No one is designated as the concierge.

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Alice Hoffman

The four are Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. Yael is notable for, among other things, her coloring. Her father, Yosef bar Elhanan, is a notorious assassin, a member of the Sicarii , a blade-minded branch of the Zealot movement. They do unpleasant things to Jews who collaborate with the occupying Romans. He was known not only for his effectiveness with sharp objects, but for his talent at going unnoticed. He did notice, however, that his wife died giving birth to their second child, Yael, and, possessing a mind and heart not nearly as honed as his weapons, he blames her. Thanks, Dad.

All the while I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood.

Their relationship is, shall we say, strained. Big brother, Amram, however, is the apple of papa’s eye, (I know, shocking) even follows him into the family business. That business involves doing in a Roman general, which gains them the attention of the occupying force and the family is forced to beat a hasty exodus from Jerusalem. They team up with another Sicarii family, headed by Jachim ben Simon. Things get complicated. They all endure a trial by heat, sand and misery on their trek, offering witness to others’ tales of sundry Roman atrocities as well. It is a road of self-discovery for Yael, and she arrives at Masada much changed from who she was when she had set out.

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Rachel Broshahan as Yael – from CBS

Revka had a nice family. Hubby was a baker. Her daughter was married to a nice studious young man. They had two boys. Romans sacked their town, murdering Revka’s husband while slaughtering anyone within reach. Revka is forced to become a refugee. Further atrocities are visited on her family. While she gets a measure of revenge on the latest evil-doers, she darkens her own soul. Her grandchildren have become mute and her nice-young-man of a son-in-law has become a psycho warrior.

Aziza and her mother were sexually assaulted when Aziza was still a child. Mom decided to raise her as a boy to reduce the likelihood of that happening again. She becomes a bad-ass warrior. Her brother not so much. There is a scene that could have been pulled from Robin Hood in which Aziza demonstrates her proficiency with a bow and arrow. Also gawjuss. Think Xena, at least I did. (you sprouts out there might conjure Katniss)

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Kathryn Prescott as Aziza – from CBS

Last and definitely not least is Shirah. A witchy sort, with a book of magic spells, great hair and ravishing beauty. She comes from a line of women in a particular line of work, but her mother sent her away from their home in Alexandria when she was young, as an anti-them pogrom was going on, to stay with relations in Jerusalem. Things do not go well for her there. She meets The One, but there is a mess with him being already married, and not up to standing up to his parents, and her being, oh, twelve. She later finds someone with whom to share a home, pops out a few progeny, but is now a single mom in Masada, doing the odd spell to help female residents with this and that, and still looking up to the goddess Ashtoreth for her main religious sustenance. But what’s the deal with her and the hunky head of the Masada warriors, Eleazar Ben Ya’ir? And what’s up with his seriously creepy wife?

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Cote de Pablo as Shirah – from CBS

So that’s the four. We know (you know, right?) that things do not go well for the residents of Club Masada. The story is in tracking the progress of the place’s demise and how the four got there, and how they cope with the stresses that are steadily building. We are also given a bit of a tour, and get a sense of place beyond the stick figure general notion.

Hoffman definitely has an inclination towards incorporating history into her work, whether of the maritime sort in Blackbird House or a bit of Transcendentalism in The Red Garden. She is also fond of incorporating dollops of magic into her tales, sometimes more than a little. She usually tells tales of women who are forced to cope with challenging circumstances. And she is quite fond of fairy tales. It will come as no shock that this novel is very much in keeping with her previous work. What makes it different is its ambition, scope, and length. It is not a huge book, at 500 pages or so, but is bulkier than her previous work.

First, and probably most important, it is an engaging read. Her main characters are interesting, all strong in their way, and worth finding out about. The story moves along at a decent pace, most of the time. Place is of obviously central import and is given star treatment. I would not say that you could matter-transmit yourself to the fort and know your way around, but you might see places that look familiar and wonder how you knew about them. Hoffman mixes martial material of different flavors, blending some warriors in combat with the more appalling laying waste of defenseless civilians by armed sorts from both sides. There is romantic entanglement aplenty, but my guy-genes did not feel much inclination to generate spew. It all worked pretty well.

She may have overdone it a bit with her imagery, IMHO. Yael, in particular, is associated with, among other things, a Flaming Tree image. Red hair, get it? There are other bits of significance associated with this, but it seemed to me that it was popping up like one of those birthday candles that won’t go out. Yael is also associated with lions, in various guises, a love interest, an encounter with a feline or two in the desert, a kittie held captive by the occupying army. As a host to six of the creatures, I know that, however much we may love and be fascinated by them, sometimes you need to step back a bit. Maybe it is just that in a longer book there are more mentions than one is used to from Hoffman, who knows her way around imagery. I do not recall feeling bugged by other such strands. Watch for image streams relating to serpents and boids, sorry, birds (I am from Brooklyn, after all) Hoffman associates some elemental aspects with her characters, which seemed very fairy-tale-ish and ok. Shirah is associated with water, for example, and that aspect was used in moderation and worked quite well.

Magic most definitely plays a part here. Spells are cast and have the expected impact. Of course some of what works is an expert’s knowledge of science, and that seems like magic at times. It is suggested that one character’s cloak has a feature may make it a likely ancestor of a similar garment used in Hogwarts. One expects magic in AH’s novels. This is all good.

For her historical basis, Hoffman relies on the writings of Flavius Josephus. Here we get into a bit of controversy. The tale of mass suicide that is Masada appears not to have a particularly strong foundation in archaeological research. It was fluffed at a time when it served well as a symbol of Israeli determination and nationhood. Evidence that proves that the events Josephus describes actually occurred is less than entirely persuasive. While there are certainly elements of Josephus’s tale that have a basis in reality, others might constitute a bit of playing to his audience. We all have our national myths. Think George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Paul Revere’s ride, WMDs in Iraq. I do not fault Hoffman for centering her tale around a historical event that is less than universally accepted. Myth is what she does. And she has done an outstanding job with this one. Whether one sees the source material as ancient history or a mythologization of a less exceptional reality, the story she spins around that core is a compelling one.

I have only read a handful of Alice Hoffman’s adult books, so cannot claim a deep knowledge of her oeuvre. But I would put my shekels on The Dovekeepers being the crowning achievement of her career. (One might say it is the feather in her literary cap. I wouldn’t, but some might.)

Review posted – 3/28/15

Pub Date – 10/4/11

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Here is a reading guide from Hoffman’s site

The CBS mini-series is due any day now. The series makes do with three of the four primary characters, (sorry Revka) and Josephus is not a character in the book.

Oy, there are so many unfamiliar words used in this story that it would be a useful thing to have kept track of them. Sorry, kids, I did not. However, AH does collect some of those in a glossary on her site. It is not comprehensive, though. There are plenty more in the book.

A documentary that looks at the historical event: Time Travellers: Myth of Masada

Here is a nifty site if you are interested in this particular sort of boid bird

A couple of songs that seem, vaguely, suitable

Yes, yes, I know the title of the song is Edge of Seventeen, but I imagine most of us think of it as The White Winged Dove

A favorite from a non-Jewish Prince

And then there is Monty Python, noted at the top. Here is a site that not only links to the infamous Python suicide scene from Life of Brian, but offers a look at a scene, cut from the film, that had been intended to set it up.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

book cover And it came to pass that I read and ye shall learn of a pretty amazing book. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman takes on the subject of how, in history, the notion of Jesus as god developed. Was it there from the beginning? How did it arise? What does it even mean? Was he considered divine by believers before conception, at conception, at baptism by John, when he died on the cross, when he rose from the dead, when he headed upstairs to the executive offices? And the answer? Yes.

As with many mysteries there is a paucity of physical evidence. One might consider Ehrman’s task a very challenging episode of [Incredibly] Cold Case Files, or maybe fodder for a new version of a favorite show (as if there are not enough already) CSI Antiquity.

Not much to work with here as far as physical evidence goes, but Ehrman does apply his considerable skill to analyzing what documentation we have, tracing provenance, to the extent possible, applying what we know of the period(s), and lasering in on crucial questions.

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The author

Ehrman makes it very clear that he is not about trying to turn anyone away from a particular set of beliefs.

I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God.

Or who said what, and when, where and why did they say it? And who saw what, where, when, how and why?

My knowledge of the period is extremely limited. Twelve years of Catholic school taught me a lot more about obedience than it did about biblical scholarship, and while I have read the odd book here and there about the period, I claim no particular expertise, so am not in a position to offer a particularly educated consideration of the information presented here. Ehrman, on the other hand, has written vast amounts on things biblical. I refer you to his considerable bona fides, here. I am inclined to give his very accomplished, educated interpretation of the material he examines a bit more weight than I might the opinions proffered by individuals boasting lesser scholarly accomplishment.

Key, of course, is the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Without that there is no such thing as Christianity, as prophets and Messiahs were sold by the gross at the dollar-store equivalent of the era. In fact, Ehrman opens his book citing an unnamed individual whom one might expect is JC, as the details are incredibly reminiscent. But no, it turns out to be another prophet entirely. (No, not Brian) His pilot was not picked up by the world at large, so you might find him in the antiquity channel’s version of “Brilliant but Cancelled.” And he was not alone. But, since any Tom, Dick, and Appolonius could claim to be a prophet, it was the claim that Jesus was resurrected that was key to a long run, and Ehrman focuses on that.

He looks into the details of Jesus’s death and supposed return. For example, how likely was it that he was buried at all? The answer will surprise you. How about the likelihood that someone who had just tried to have him done in would arrange a burial? How likely might it be for wanted criminals, as the apostles were, to stick around after their chief had been so harshly treated? It continues, but you get the idea. Each tiny piece needs to be examined.

One of the things that Ehrman does consistently and well is to define terms. Divine? In what sense? There is a lot of variety in levels of divinity. Ehrman points out a pyramidal structure common to many religions, and how supposedly monotheistic faiths shuck and jive trying to explain how the multiple divine entities in their religions do not violate the monotheism-shrink-wrap guarantee covenant (it’s in the mouse print). He applies his piercing logic to notions of resurrection as well.

For [most ancient people—whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan] the human realm was not an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse. On the contrary, the human and divine were two continuums that could, and did, overlap.

(Bette Midler knows about that, for sure) So what was it that was supposedly seen?

It was widely believed in antiquity that the spirit we have within us was also made of “stuff.” It was material. But it was very highly refined material that could not be seen with the eyes. (Kind of like what people think when they imagine they’ve seen a “ghost”—there’s something there, made of stuff, since it can be seen, even though it’s pure spirit.) When Paul speaks of a spiritual body, then, he means a body not made up of this heavy, clunky stuff that now makes up our bodies, but of the highly refined, spiritual stuff that is superior I every way and is not subject to mortality.

Who knew there was such a level of detail to consider? Was the risen Jesus made of chunky human flesh or the sort ectoplasm more usually associated with someone like, say, Slimer . Or was he some ethereal non-substance?

And what about the veracity of the stories that were told of the supposed resurrection?

Even apart from the fact that they were written forty to sixty-five years after the facts, by people who were not there to see these things happen, who were living in different parts of the world, at different times, and speaking different languages—apart from all this, they are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled. In fact, the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in their resurrection narratives

So, we are relying, in the gospels at least, on an inconsistent story, from multiple non-witnesses, that was the end result of a decades-long biblical version of the game telephone? These days, of course, you can probably become a god, or at least obtain, Wizard-of-Oz-style, a document attesting to your divinity, by sending a certain sum to a particular web site. (GodsRUs.com would be my guess). It was so much more complicated back then.

So, what might be less than divine in Ehrman’s examination? Well, we are digging through some very old material here, and it is not surprising that in a book focused in the Middle East a bit of sand gets in. The level of detail does, on occasion, cause one’s eyes to ascend to another level of being. But I found this a fascinating, and educational read, opening up many notions to consideration that I had never really thought about. Whatever it may do for your spirit, this book will definitely stimulate your brain.

Whether you find this examination of history divinely inspired or deserving a place on the lower levels of you-know-where, it is certainly a fascinating look at a critical element of history, and, by implication, religious belief. But don’t take my word for it. See, feel and read it for yourself. And if it doesn’t work for you the first time, hey, you can always come back to it.

Posted May 23, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Ehrman’s blog, Christianty in Antiquity

Check here for a very nifty collection of audio and video clips of the author

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, Reviews

The Bees by Laline Paull

book coverThe Bees is a powerful tale of what life might look like to a hive member. This is not your kids’ Bug’s Life, but a very grown-up, compelling drama that includes both sweetness and considerable sting. There are several elements that might make one think of Game of Thrones Drones. Corruption on high, battles of succession, sinister enemies, both in the hive and outside. Not only must all men die but winter is coming, twice. There is also a lot of religious reference here. This sits atop a marvelous, deep portrayal of a world that is very alien. And to top it off we are led through this journey by a character who, while far from perfect, is a very good egg, or was.

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Bee life cycle

Of course Flora 717 might not have been considered a wonderful egg to those around her. She was born to the Flora caste, a group responsible for, ironically, cleaning up, a sanitation caste, essentially untouchables. But this Flora is a bit different. She is larger for one, possessed of great determination, curiosity, and a capacity for speech that is mostly suppressed among her peers. Still she is different and that is not usually allowed. The police are about to remove her (Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted.) when a Sage intervenes. Sages are the priestess class. Their intentions however, are not entirely holy. This Sage takes Flora under her wing, and the story is on. Sometimes it is good to spare the deviants, and experiment a little. We get to see many aspects of hive life through Flora’s five eyes, but also through her six feet, which are able to interpret vibrations in the floor, and her antennae, which she uses to sense scents and for more direct communication with other bees. That Paull can make the very alien sense environment of bees understandable to those of us with only four limbs and no antennae at all (well except for our friends in intelligence) is a triumph on its own. The Hive Mind is considered for its positive and negative aspects as well.

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Laline Paull

Paull tells about the origin of the story on her web site

A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation.

Her feeling of loss is very much present here. Bees are not the longest lived creatures on the planet, and more than a few see their end here. But there is another element as well, from a recent interview posted here on Goodreads,

Becoming a mother changed me and made me stronger—but evolution is never easy. I didn’t write Flora from an intellectual perspective but in a very visceral way: Motherhood made me a more passionate person—or allowed me to express that innate side of myself much more. So perhaps that’s why Flora works as a character: There’s primal truth in her motivation. She accepts her life one way, but then a forbidden force takes possession of her. Called love.

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Religious nomenclature permeates the tale. The Queen is not only a temporal ruler, but is considered divine as well. This is helped along by her ability to produce pheromones in vast quantity that can soothe her hive family. There are sacraments in this world, a catechism, rituals, prayers, some of which will sound familiar. There are also some virgin births. And what would religion be without a little human sacrifice, or in this case bee sacrifice. It is a place in which religion is joined to politics to generate Orwellian mantras like Accept Obey Serve, Desire is Sin, Idleness is Sin, From Death comes Life Eternal, and the like. And, of course, there is some Orwellian behavior. Life is held cheaply, particularly for those not of the favored groups, and the jack-booted police that enforce the rules are definitely a buzzkill. The death penalty is more the norm than the exception, and it is often applied immediately and energetically.

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Western honey bee

Flora’s explorations of the world are entire adventures on their own, as she encounters not only adversaries like wasps, spiders and crows, but man-made hazards as well. On the other hand she experiences the longing of the flowers, and the expanded internal horizons that result from expanding one’s horizons externally. She has a particular longing of her own, which fires the engines of her determination.

The Bees is a fast-paced, engaging, invigorating tale that will have you flipping pages faster than a forager’s wings. You will come away not only with the warm feeling of having shared a remarkable journey but will find yourself eager to learn more about our buzzy brethren, well, except for Nicolas Cage. And you might even find yourself tempted to get up and do a

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Waggle Dance

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

In Paull’s site there is a photo of a Minoan palace map that informed her hive layout. Worth a look .

The May 2014 GR newsletter features a brief interview with Paull

That buzzing in your ear might be more cause for concern that you’d realized. New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion, Reviews, Science and Nature

Among the Cannibals by Paul Raffaele

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What could be worse than a dog eat dog world? Oh.

I was of two very different minds about this book.

Australian Paul Raffaele is a feature writer for Smithsonian. He has covered many parts of the globe in his work for that venerable institution. And he travels far for this work, looking into that darkest of human activities. He investigates special meat-eaters in New Guinea, India, Tonga, ancient Mexico, and Africa. We have a certain image in mind of what cannibals might look like. I mean in the real world, not the dark imagination of Thomas Harris or the psychosis of some of our more aberrant criminals. They would probably live on Pacific Islands, or remotest Africa or South America, use primitive technology and have acquired a taste for missionary over easy. Mostly, but not entirely the case.

Cannibalism of one kind or another had been common around our globe through the millennia, and yet the classic Western image of cannibals is a terrified white Christian missionary in pith helmet crouching in a large outdoor cooking pot, the logs burning fiercely as wild-eyed African warriors in grass skirts dance about him shaking their spears. Their glinting eyes show their eagerness to tuck into their human meal. In truth there is not one record of a missionary ending up in an African cook pot. The cannibals invariably ate one another.

The book offers interesting, surprising, and very disturbing information about a practice most of us (certainly me) thought had vanished from human behavior. The reasons for chowing down on such forbidden fruit vary. High on the list is to degrade and strike fear into one’s enemies. Another is to honor close relations. Some even consider eating human flesh a form of religiousity. The Korowai people of New Guinea justify their practices by maintaining that victims had already been killed by evil spirits and it was only the evil spirits that had taken over the body that was being devoured.

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Kilikili says he has killed no fewer than 30 khakhua (male witches) – from Smithsonian.com

The practice is supposedly a thing of the past in New Guinea, but I would not like to place too high a wager on that. Raffaele’s looks at the practice in Tonga and Aztec Mexico are more firmly planted in the past. Unfortunately, there are still people-eaters today. There is a Hindu sect in India, the Aghoris, whose holy men chow down on you-know-what “as the supreme demonstration of their sanctity.” They even sit atop rotting corpses as a show of devotion and Raffaele reports some particularly unspeakable acts in which they engage, that I will not report on here.

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An image of this cheerful Aghori is sure to help you sleep at night – image from Dharma Keng

And no, wiseass, it is not a self-portrait. I cannot really fold my legs like that for any length of time, and I keep my hair and beard much shorter these days. But there is worse to come. His report on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army of northern Uganda takes the eating of human flesh to whole new level of depravity, a true heart of darkness. This information is the stuff of nightmares. Very disturbing.

I have a major gripe with the book. The cover is sprightly. It shows a hand reaching up out of a large cooking pot writing the book title. Lower down on the page is an icon that repeats inside as a section divider, a skull and crossbones in which the crossbones have been replaced with a knife and fork. One might get the impression that the information contained within would fulfill the silly graphics. We know that even such darkness can produce smiles. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (the stage version, not the very disappointing film), for example, is probably the only Broadway musical to have cannibalism as a central focus. Devouring scenery does not count. And while my personal favorite all-time Broadway show was rather dark, it still maintained a significant level of humor.

Todd: What is that?
Lovett: It’s Priest. Have a little priest.
Todd: Is it really good?
Lovett: Sir, It’s too good, at least.
And of course it don’t commit sins of the flesh
So it’s pretty fresh
Todd: Awful lot of fat
Lovett: Only where it sat
Todd: Haven’t you got poet or something like that?
Lovett: No, you see the trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased? Stick to priest.

And so on…

The light touch promised by the cover art for this book does not deliver as promised. There is nothing at all amusing about children living today who are forced to eat human flesh under pain of death. In that way the book offers a bait and switch, promising a light touch, but delivering a deep gouge.

I also found the author at times personally off-putting. While in Tonga, he felt it necessary to comment on his translator’s physical attributes in a way that came across as salacious.

Waiting outside and holding aloft my name printed in marker pen on a pad is a round-faced, bright-eyed girl who looks to be in her early twenties. She is clad in a Congo-style ankle-nudging cotton dress that fits tightly about her neatly rounded thighs, and a short-sleeved top printed with a spray of red orchids that clings to her firm high breasts. She has woven her hair in to strands festooned with colored beads. Unlike most of the women at the airport who are laden with fat and boasting the enormous bottoms that most African men are said to lust for, she is sleek and silky.

Either his editor was not doing a good job, or the author exercised an ill-advised veto.

Raffaele does not come across as a particularly deep thinker and this is not a scholarly investigation of a very dark side of humanity. There is only passing mention of the Catholic sacrament of Communion, in which practicing Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ. There is even less on the sundry cannibalistic psychopaths who have come to public notice. Are there any studies indicating when and where it might have begun? Raffaele does note that it existed in prehistory. Records go back at least as far as Herodotus (well before Soylent Green) of such culinary preferences, and it lasted into the 19th century, at least. How about a comparison with other species? How widespread is the practice in the animal kingdom. Are we really different from what we consider lower orders? For a more analytical look at the subject you might consider Carole Travis-Henikoff’s book, Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Tabboo. An NPR interview offers a taste of what she has to offer.

Among the Cannibals definitely offers new and intriguing information. Be forewarned that you will need a strong stomach to get through it all. But, because it was so much not what was expected, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

To remove the taste, you might consider taking in a bit more of Sweeney. Another gem from the vaults is a song by Sheb Wooley that was actually a #1 hit when I was a tyke.

If you get an invitation to the Donner Party, I would pass.

And of course, every abomination must have an advocate, so you might want to see the modest proposal the folks at Zebra Punch offer, while humming their particular version of Barbara Streisand’s classic tune, about why we should
eat people.

There is an interesting item on cannibalism in Wikipedia

Raffaele’s article for Smithsonian Magazine, Sleeping with Cannibals, was the basis for the book

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