Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Good Man Jesus

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman, is from Canongate’s Myths series – in which contemporary writers retell a myth in a new and memorable way. Pullman has pulled off quite a feat in taking the foundation story of the Christian religion and bringing the well known tales encompassing Jesus’s birth, ministry and death to readers in a fresh and enticing form. He explores how history is recorded – what is included and how this is intended to influence those of the future. The author asks challenging and thought-provoking questions but in a beautifully clear and simple way.

Major events covered in the biblical gospels are included in the story: Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, Jesus’s life and death. The key twist in the tale is that Mary gives birth to twin boys – Jesus and Christ.

As a boy Jesus is the volatile naughty one, often defended and thereby protected by his more considering and compliant brother. When Jesus becomes a preacher, Christ writes down his teachings that they may be remembered accurately. He is encouraged in this endeavour by a stranger who visits from time to time and takes care of the scrolls. Jesus comes across as raw and unswerving, passionate in what he promotes. Christ smooths his words out to make them more palatable and useful.

What do I mean by useful? Christ believes that the growing number of followers should be brought together in a church, with leaders appointed to continue the teaching and carry out the good works encouraged. When he spoke of this to his brother, Jesus vehemently opposed the idea. It was Jesus’s belief that the Kingdom of God was imminent. No planning for the future was therefore needed. What mattered was to get people to repent of their sins and start to behave better, that they may be saved now.

The reader is offered a closer account of Christ than Jesus. It is easy to empathise with the thoughtful brother’s reasoning, even though with hindsight his hopes for the church appear naive. I was disappointed by the inclusion of one scene in which he chooses to sin – it seemed unnecessary and against character. Apart from that, the development of the brothers is skilfully rendered, especially as they come to realise how the wheels they have set in motion are heading in unintended directions, hurtling beyond their control. There is nothing magical in either of their actions. Crowds are always looking for something new and sensational to be a part of, and gossips interpret for attention as suits them.

I enjoyed the author’s Afterword in which he shares his personal views on God and religious belief. He asks: if time travel were possible, would church leaders try to prevent their Messiah being so barbarically put to death? Actions have consequences, as both Jesus and Christ discover to their cost.

I have enjoyed several of the Myths series and this easily stands with the best. It offers an imaginative take on the potential power of storytelling to control and influence. A fascinating and memorable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate.

Book Review: The Goddess Chronicle

goddess chronicle

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Goddess Chronicle is based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi, gods credited with the creation of the Japanese Islands and many of their elemental gods. It is a tale of love turned to hatred, of death and revenge. Much of it is set in an underworld where the spirits of those who died with regrets drift unhappily for eternity. They end up in this place as they were unable to make peace with their fate while living.

The book is divided into five sections; all but one narrated by a young woman named Namima who died young. The opening section tells her story, how she was born and raised on an island far to the south and east. For generations cruel customs had been accepted there, believed necessary to keep the majority of islanders from starvation.

Namima is the youngest of four siblings, closest in age to her adored sister, Kamikuu. Their family is privileged as it is they who must produce the island’s Oracle. On Kamikuu’s sixth birthday she is taken to live with her grandmother to begin training for this revered role. Namima learns that she is ‘the impure one’, but what this means is not explained until she turns sixteen.

The section opens with a great deal of exposition, describing the small island and the lives lived therein. Much of the culture appears shocking, such as occasional culling of the elderly and killing of babies not born within rules. The plot progresses slowly but nevertheless retains interest after the lengthy descriptions of setting. The islanders live daily with the unease of repercussions if caught in transgressions, something Namima risks when she falls in love with an outcast, Mahito.

“I had never encountered anyone with such strength. The rest of us lived such timid lives, fettered by laws, fearful of breaking them.”

When Namima learns what her role on the island is to be she rails against it. Mahito sets out to save her but with motives she only learns of after her death.

The second section is set in the Realm of the Dead. Here Namimo meets Izanami who she is to serve. A lengthy few chapters tell the creation story, how the many gods came to be. The detail provided did not seem entirely necessary for the telling of this tale.

Despite being a god, Izanami died. She feels betrayed by her beloved Izanagi and now kills any woman he marries. Namima empathises with these feelings of jealousy, desperate to know what became of Mahito yet struggling to accept that he will have moved on with his life.

The third section opens in the underworld where, each day, Izanami chooses one thousand humans who are to die. She remains bitter over what happened to her and how Izanagi remains in the land of the living, still siring offspring.

“She continued with her task, silently and listlessly. Determining who would die was, in truth, a chore that left an unpleasant aftertaste.”

Namima now learns there is a way she could briefly visit the land of the living. Izanami advises against such a course of action. Ignoring this, Namima sets out to try to return to the island, albeit in a different form. Through this quest, Namima changes the direction of others’ lives.

The fourth section explores what became of Izanagi since Izanami died. Many centuries have passed and the god is growing tired of his immortality. Having travelled, as is his wont, he is returning to visit his latest wife who is due to give birth. Unashi, his loyal servant, has misgivings about this plan being more aware than his master about what befalls the women he marries. When Izanagi presses Unashi to share this knowledge, the pair concoct a plan to try to break the cycle.

Although this section pulls together the threads of the story, it does so by imbuing further characters with a death wish. When choices in life appear limited, suicide is accepted. Throughout the story, life is given little value until lost, and then it is only selfishly desired.

The final section returns to the underworld where there is a showdown between Izanagi and Izanami. Love turning to hatred due to jealousy has also gripped Namima.

“I suddenly made a terrible discovery. Spurred by my hatred of Mahito, I found myself longing for someone to die. Wasn’t this the feeling that had gripped Izanami when she was first locked up in the Realm of the Dead? Hatred is terrifying.”

The denouement offers a certain dark satisfaction. This carries with it a disturbing undercurrent as to why.

Previous releases in ‘The Canons’ series have been tightly woven, imaginative retellings. By comparison this was ponderous with much detail beyond what was needed for clarity. Although containing interesting elements, the length seemed unnecessary.

Any Cop?: An embittered tale of selfish desire that cast on this reader a perturbing shadow.

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Short History of Myth

A Short History of Myth, by Karen Armstrong, is part of the Myths Collection of novellas put out by publisher, Canongate, under the banner of The Canons. These (mostly) fabulous little books include ‘bold retellings of legendary tales, by the world’s greatest contemporary writers.’ I have so far reviewed:

The author of this latest read has been described as ‘one of our best living writers on religion’. Her style is factual but never didactic. She approaches her subject with insight and clarity, exploring how and why myths evolved with persuasive wisdom.

The book has seven chapters that take the reader from The Palaeolithic Period (hunter / gatherer communities) through to the present day. Opening with an explanation of what a myth is, Armstrong states

“mythology […] is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

“mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality”

There are recurring reminders that myths are not intended to be read literally. In tough times (and life has always included such times in abundance) they offer a means by which man may experience transcendence.

“Spiritual flight does not involve a spiritual journey, but an ecstasy in which the soul is felt to leave the body.”

“one of the essential yearnings of humanity is the desire to get ‘above’ the human state.”

I recently reviewed The Idea of the Brain: A History,  by Matthew Cobb in which he explores, among other things, how centuries of scientific research has sought to understand the biology of man’s ability to reason and feel – ‘how neural activity is turned into thought’. Armstrong explains that, for millennia, ‘myth and reason were complimentary’. A fixation on logical explanation can be damaging to man’s well being.

 “A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals.”

Myths – or beliefs – also help man come to terms with change, enabling personal growth and acceptance of mortality. Throughout history, as lifestyles altered, myths developed to match what was needed. Hunter gatherer became agriculturalist and then urban dweller. Alongside, myths evolved into religions.

Ever changing cultures require suitable deities. Although countries around the globe named their gods differently, many of the stories and characteristics were similar. They reflected what was needed. They served the psyche of the people.

The importance of ritual is explored. These also changed as cultural practices altered but remained a vital component in creating a sense of the sacred.

With the advent of literacy, philosophers questioned the rationale behind beliefs and their practices.

“[Reason] was indispensable in the realm of medicine, mathematics and natural science”

“But when they wanted to find ultimate meaning and significance in their lives, when they sought to alleviate their despair, or wished to explore the inner regions of their personality, they had entered the domain of myth.”

“[Reason] had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require.”

Moving on to the period of enlightenment, myths were abandoned. Instances of depression were recorded amongst advocates.

“we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place.”

In the present day the author posits that ‘We still seek heroes’. Perhaps this explains celebrity culture, although what is offered through them is unbalanced adulation.

“The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves.”

Armstrong suggests that literature could provide a solution.

“A novel, like a myth, teaches us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.”

I would contend that it is not just novels that can offer help. In a time of great change and fear for the future, this book provided me with a much needed hopeful outlook. Bad things happen, but will pass. Emotions need not always have a logical basis or justification. The purpose of myths is to encourage man to become: better, kinder, more generous and considerate.

This is a concise and well written history offering many ideas to ponder. A recommended read, especially in these uncertain times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate Books.

Book Review: Girl meets Boy

Girl meets Boy, by Ali Smith, is from Canongate’s Myths series. It is woven around a retelling of the story of Iphis which originates in Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Also briefly included is a story based on the early life of Lilian Lenton, a suffragette who became ill due to being force fed while in prison. How women are valued (or not) is a recurring theme, although this is far from a polemic. Rather it is a love story in which gender is merely one aspect of attraction, yet a significant one to the uninvolved who observe and then worry themselves about societal appearance.

Imogen and Anthea are sisters living in their grandparents’ house in Inverness. Their parents separated when they were young and this has coloured their relationship. Imogen stepped into her mother’s place when she was only seven years old. She feels responsible for Anthea, and frustrated when her sister acts in a way she regards as irresponsible.

Both girls work for Pure, a company marketing bottle water as an aspirational consumable. When a graffiti artist daubs the office signage with a message suggesting that selling a necessary and natural product in this way is wrong, Anthea is smitten and questions her faltering role in the creative team. Imogen is proud of her own success at the company, won by agreeing with the boss and going along with the banter of colleagues. She hopes for a promotion and is horrified by her sister’s behaviour.

Despite the brevity of the tale many issues are covered including: foetal selection by gender, eating disorders, the male gaze, expectations of women’s role in the workplace. All of this is secondary though to the happiness found in a mutual love affair. The girls may have been scarred by the actions of their parents but they were nourished by the tall tales told by their fun loving grandparents.

“it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse.”

Given that this tale is based on Metamorphoses, expect transformations. When they come their contemporary relevance is highly satisfying.

In many ways a humorous and quiet story, there are many thought provoking aspects that will linger. An enjoyable addition to a series of concise reimaginings from established and well regarded authors.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Canongate.

Book Review: Lion’s Honey

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Canongate Myth Series is promoted as a series of short novels in which ancient myths from myriad cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors. Its focus is intended to be international with writers from a variety of countries invited to participate. Lion’s Honey is the contribution from Man Booker International Prize winner David Grossman who is Israeli. Translated by Stuart Schoffman it promises ‘a provocative new take’ on the biblical story of Samson.

Unfortunately this is not a retelling of a myth but rather a study of the biblical text that strongly implies it is being read as a fact based historical account. There is much cross referencing with writing from the Torah and from Jewish academics. The author picks his way through the tale seeking proof of desired notions rather than as one aiming to enlighten with carefully detached reasoning.

The book opens with a reprinting of the story of Samson from The Authorised King James version of the bible: The Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. This makes for rather dry reading. A foreword then explains that ‘Samson the hero’ is what every Jewish child learns to call the protagonist, despite the fact he was a muscle bound murderer prone to lust and whoring who ended his life as perhaps the first recorded suicide killer. Grossman portrays him as an artist yearning for love. I struggled to agree with the arguments presented for this portrayal.

Key incidents in the story are dissected and debated. Where the author claims a sensuous side I saw attention seeking and licentiousness. Where he tries to depict women letting Samson down I observed how badly he treated them. Samson came across as petulant and bullying; a much desired child, perhaps over indulged by his parents, who subsequently used his immense strength to wreak destruction when he did not get his own way.

As an example, Samson decides he will marry a Philistine he is attracted to, not one of his own people. Despite their misgivings his parents agree to this plan. At the wedding Samson, in a show of one-upmanship, sets his guests an impossible riddle that results in bad feeling and a deadly threat made against his new in-laws. Naturally this upsets the bride. When she asks her husband for the solution to the riddle he berates her, stating he has not even told his parents. Thus her secondary importance in his life is made clear before the wedding celebrations are even complete. That she subsequently acts to save her family is hardly a surprise. Following this Samson shows how vicious he can be, killing strangers and burning the community’s newly harvested crops. The author writes of the hero’s yearning for love. Such barbarism is hardly conducive to a loving marital relationship.

Continuing on the theme of love and a desire for intimacy, questions are posed about why Samson visits a whore. This seemed naive – surely such reasons are obvious. The author sees confusion and emotional need in Samson’s interest in the Philistines. I saw natural curiosity in the world outside a narrow culture. That Samson kept encountering rejections speaks to me of his behaviour around others which, when detailed, is rarely worthy of esteem.

Of course, instead of trying to make sense of an historical figure one could read the story of Samson as a myth and allow that the more extreme events detailed are included to add colour and enhance the telling of the tale. Where this treatise falls short is the apparent seriousness with which the biblical text is being read and certain religious interpretations accepted.

Any Cop?: Lion’s Honey does not sit easily within a series of evocative story retelling. Even as a study I found it unconvincing.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Weight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Why then did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried? I realise now that the past does not dissolve like a mirage. I realise that the future, though invisible, has weight. We are in the gravitational pull of past and future. It takes huge energy – speed of light power – to break that gravitational pull.”

Each time we tell a story from our lives we tell it anew. Aspects may remain but nuances change. Our present is heavy with all that has gone before and all we aspire to become. We each carry the weight of our individual worlds.

In the introduction to Weight, the author writes

“When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already. The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended.”

Thus we get a retelling of the tale redolent with Winterson’s personal experiences of living under the burden of her upbringing, and the great effort required to be someone who does not meekly follow what is be expected. Atlas’s burden was a punishment for daring to defy the gods. Winterson wished to step out from under the world she had been moulded to inhabit.

“We lie helpless in the force of patterns inherited and patterns re-enacted by our own behaviour. The burden is intolerable.”

The story opens with an exploration of space and time, the creation of the universe. It introduces Atlas, the offspring of Poseidon and Mother Earth. Atlas was one of the Titans, half man and half god. He resided within the perfection of Atlantis until this was no longer enough.

“Everything that man invents he soon turns to his own destruction. You could have chosen differently. You did not.”

Atlas fought the gods for what he regarded as his freedom. His punishment was to forevermore carry the weight of the world he loved on his shoulders.

The reader is then introduced to Heracles, the Hero of the World. This hero is depicted as unusually strong whilst embodying every weak trait known to man. He is crude and lacks control of his desires and appetites. His part of the story makes for unpleasant reading.

Heracles asks for Atlas’s help, offering a trade that could suit them both. Having got what he requires he tricks Atlas and leaves him with all of time to mull over the lessons learned.

The writing is a mix of the poetic, the profound and the playful. Contemporary elements are woven through to good effect. Heracles’ self-centredness, his ability to quash feelings of guilt over his behaviour, is all too recognisable.

“Every man assumes that what is valuable to himself must be coveted by others.”

I particularly enjoyed the denouement which neatly brought the myth into the modern realm.

Any Cop?: The tale was not as wholly satisfying to read as The Penelopiad, the previous Canon I reviewed, but the layers and musings provide a thoughtful retelling.

 

Jackie Law