Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman made his name with the His Dark Materials series of kid lit. That series is, for me, among the best of the kid lit genre, if not the entirety of literature. He gets so much heart and so many ideas out of a really interesting idea. It did, however, inspire a lot of controversy among those in the religious community. In Pullman’s follow-up book he doesn’t shy away from that controversy. He full on embraces it.

TGMJatSC (which is a long title even when abbreviated!) is a retelling of the story of Jesus with a couple of twists thrown in, the most important of which is Jesus’ twin brother, Christ. Jesus follows his path as we know it and his brother follows him around to record his deeds. But he doesn’t just record the “history”, he records the “truth”. For example, the “feeding the multitude” story is really Jesus’ generosity and hospitality inspiring the rest of the crowd to share their food, thus multiplying the food in a figurative sense if not a miraculous one. It is only in the recording of this story by Christ that the miracle appears fully formed so that Jesus literally feeds thousands of people with only a few fish and loaves of bread.

The idea that Pullman is getting at throughout this book is that Jesus never wanted an entire religion and church to be built around him. During his forty days in the wilderness it’s not the Devil but Christ who comes and tempts him with the idea of fame and everlasting reverence. When Jesus rejects this Christ is approached by an “angel” – who is never identified but might be a certain fallen one – and is set the task of following Jesus around and recording not what happened but what should have happened. He’s making a story here and he is free to warp and exaggerate what Jesus does and say in order to later use him as the foundation of Christianity. This can be best seen in the Sermon on the Mount segment (and they really are segments. Pullman writes the book as if it were one of the books of the Bible and his short chapters with clipped writing do well to get the reader in the feel of those books.) where Jesus uses phrases like “yakkety yak” and “blah blah blah” with Christ resolving to edit them later to seem more Messiah-worthy.

This book is short (I read it in a couple of hours) and the ideas presented within are really interesting to consider. A religious person will get as much out of it as a non-religious person because the story of Christ writing “truth” instead of “history” can be expanded to the act of storytelling in general. Late last year and continuing into this one there has been a lot of talk about The Social Network, a film that has dubious ties to reality but tells a compelling story. Here Pullman argues that it’s not the thing that happened which matters but what it means and what we can learn from it. This book shows us what “actually happened” and our collective knowledge tells us the “truth” of the situation. As the great John Ford film says, “When fact becomes legend, print the legend.”

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The Top 5 Albums of 2010

Here we are, 18 days into the new year and I haven’t given you the best albums of last year yet! How have you survived? Before you do anything drastic, please read on. I’ll let you know what’s good and why.

5. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

There is something to be said for an artist vomiting his-or-her-self out and into their art. Kanye has always been a polarizing figure and his past year has been a turbulent one for sure. In this album he takes all of the craziness of his ego and the way people perceive him and lays it down in wax. His production has always been top notch (“Gorgeous” has a really awesome sound that seems more at place in my number four album but totally works here, too) but on this release he’s got some really killer lines: “Too many Urkels on your team / that’s why your wins low” (Family Matters!) and pretty much the entirety of “Runaway” prove that he’s still a force to be reckoned with no matter what he does in his personal life. 

4. The Black Keys – Brothers

I’ve liked The Black Keys since Magic Potion (after which I promptly went back and enjoyed Rubber Factory). I even saw them in concert, no small feat for living in the nowhereland between Boston and NYC. Brothers is the best album since Rubber Factory because it finds the duo going back to what made them so great while retaining a bit of the adventurousness that they found while having Danger Mouse produce their previous album. The revelation here is Dan Auerbach’s falsetto found on a couple of tracks. I never expected him to sing in such a fashion but it totally works. The rest is all blues and rock and all. It’s great fun. 

3. Vampire Weekend – Contra

From this album on to the end there’s a bit of a trend. My top three are albums from bands that I have not heard before but fell in love with upon listening to their 2010 efforts. I’m not usually one to get in on the ground floor of a band’s work (2010’s Local Natives is the only “new” band that I really liked) but when I do find a band I like I’ll go back to the beginning and see how they developed. Anyways, all of this is kind of meaningless, when it comes down to it.
Vampire Weekend is a love ’em or hate ’em kind of band. I fall into the former. Yeah, “Holiday” got overplayed this Christmas – which is funny because it’s a song about the summer as far as I can tell – and they have songs about Horchata and balaclavas. They get really into their own thing and I admire that. The final song on this album “I Think Ur A Contra” (and damn if I don’t hate that whole shortening thing) is freaking perfect. It’s got an end-of-summer vibe to it which works wonders at describing the way a relationship works. It’s lazy and intense at the same time. 

2. The National – High Violet

A friend of mine hates The National. He can’t stand the constant mellowness of their sound. I can’t really argue that they are a super-diverse group. Their songs do sound kind of similar. Their subject matter doesn’t vary all that much. But they are the best at what they do. Every song on this album is fantastic. Whether it is the sad reflection on familial and home-town ties of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” where we learn that still owes money to the money to the money he owes or the sad song from the perspective of a man in love with sorrow (on the aptly titled “Sorrow”) The National know melancholy and know it well. Probably the best song is “Lemon World”. We get the portrait of a man back from war (“It was the only sentimental thing I could think of”) and dealing with his friends and family not understanding how he feels. He ends up “try[ing] to find something on this thing that means nothing”. It’s a wonderfully touching song and resonant even for people that haven’t gone to war.

1. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

Before I listened to this album I could have sworn that I wasn’t really a fan of the technologically inclined music. Daft Punk never did much for me. I guess this album isn’t full on techno. It is full on awesome. What really appeals to me is the cleverness. “Dance Yrself Clean” (there it is again) starts the album and it begins quietly. James Murphy whispers some lines about “Talking like a jerk / Except you are an actual jerk / And living proof that sometimes friends are mean.” There’s a very basic beat for a good 3 minutes and then the song explodes into crazy energy and loud noises. The song sets the tone for the rest of the album. The way Murphy plays with words and production really makes this album great. In “Drunk Girls” Murphy extols the virtues of the titular beings, telling us that they “know that love is an astronaut / It comes back but is never the same”. It’s a song that seems like one of those drunk anthems but is really about waking up the next morning and talking about the weather.

His kiss-off to the record labels/music journalists/fans, “You Wanted a Hit” is a lot of fun, too. Murphy knows what he is doing in every sense of the word and when he tries to do something for somebody else, “it ends up feeling kind of wrong”. That’s an artist. That’s the best album of the year.

I’ll return soon with some odds and ends from the year in music. Some good songs and albums that didn’t make the cut.

Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

This book (thankfully denoted as “A Novel” for those of us that don’t know how books work) is a departure from Jasper Fforde‘s popular Thrusday Next series. Instead of being based on an alternate England where literature crosses over with reality, Shades of Grey is the story of an alternate England where color perception denotes your social standing. There is a Colortocracy in place and it ensures that everybody is kept in their right place. Purples (those that can see, well, purple) are at an almost religious position and Greys are of such little importance that they don’t even have to follow the Law of Munsell, the man that instated the Colortocracy after the Something That Happened. All of this is to say that it’s kind of like a typical utopia/dystopia story like 1984, A Brave New World or Brazil. Everything seems pleasant at the beginning but the reader slowly learns about the way the world works and that it may be more sinister than we initially thought.

Ever since the 1-2 punch that is 1984 and A Brave New World there hasn’t been much new in the way of dystopian fiction. They all follow the same pattern so you pretty much know what you’re getting into story-wise. Luckily Fforde realizes this and makes the world more important than the story, at least in this first (and – so far – only) book in the trilogy. He throws the reader right into the middle of the action and begins by slinging terms like “wrongspotted” and “National Color” around with little explanation of what exactly those terms mean. He builds upon these terms and we soon realize that each person can see only one or two colors naturally and that the hero, Eddie Russet, is a pretty high perceiving Red. That he can see so much red makes him desirable to some and a threat to others in the Outer Fringes town he is sent to as a punishment for trying to improve line-queuing. This is a society where the Laws of Munsell are king and only through clever loopholery can on improve the way things work. In fact, through successive Leapbacks most technology and art have been destroyed in order to create a streamlined society so that the people can focus on chromatic improvement.

If all of this seems like a lot of ideas and no story you’re kind of right. The book takes place over the course of a week or so and much of it is just Russet going around and figuring out how the town works and falling in love with a Grey named Jane. But he can’t marry her because marrying for love and not chromatic improvement is the silliest of follies. Everything is done to set up your next generation to be of a higher perception. Fforde brings the lighthearted clever prose the Thursday Next series was known for over to this one and it’s a good thing he does. The weight of explaining all of the new concepts here and telling the story might have been too much for the book to handle without the little laughs we get as the characters root around an abandoned city for spoons (which, of course, have postal codes on them which, of course, have been rendered close to useless through various Leapbacks that have all but destroyed the Postal Service as we know it) and marriage brackets and pools much like those that pop up at the beginning of every sports tournament. It’s a clever book that moves quickly through its 400 pages thanks to Fforde’s writing and plotting.

Of course, this is the beginning of a trilogy of books. As such there’s a lot of build up and only a little payoff. I suspect that, much like the Lord of the Rings books, this first section’s climax will look small in comparison to the end of the trilogy as a whole. That’s not to say that Shades of Grey’s Balrog fight isn’t exciting. The climax brings several relationships to a head as well as opens the world wide open. Some things are explained but have little impact as of right now but seem like they will be of great importance later in the series. I’m alright with this as long as the payoff actually happens. As is the last section is much more exciting than the previous 300 pages and really sets up the rest of the series quite well. The book is certainly worth a read for those that like clever dystopian futures and fun – if a little light – writing. And, if you’re not down with the French language, here’s a little hint:

retroussé (comparative more retroussésuperlative most retroussé)
  1. Turned up, as in describing the nose.

The beginnings of a story

Here’s a little thing that I wrote a month or so ago. Part of it is true, part of it isn’t. It’s a work in process, obviously, and this is only the first part of what should be a longer story. If you like it please let me know. If you don’t and know a way for me to improve, let me know that, too. 

When I ran into George it didn’t seem like a life-changing moment. We were just kids at daycare, waiting for our parents to come and running in circles. The building had a playground with swings but kids don’t need that. Give them an island with some bushes in the middle of a parking lot and they’ve got hours of entertainment. Everybody knew that you were supposed to run clockwise around the shrub island, it was a law that nobody spoke but everybody felt. I don’t know if George went the wrong way on purpose or if his inner compass was off kilter and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we were running in one direction, our band of pirates or Vikings or marines or whatever we were that day, and he was running in the other.

It happened at night, though it wasn’t stormy, and that accounts for our poor vision. I rounded a corner, running away from my friends or towards them, depending on how you look at it. That’s the beauty of childhood games. There doesn’t need to be a reason for anything. Run this way because it is fun, run that way because it’s fun, too. Be a dinosaur, be a superhero, be a gust of wind, be a kid. One lap you’re flying in a spaceship, the next you’re driving a racecar. You can’t be wrong when you’re in third grade and running in a circle. Accidents, however, do happen. They usually end up with a bruised knee or a scraped hand. This time I became a supervillain.

When George and I collided we became a mirror for each other. Both of us led with our heads, our faces hot and cold at the same time thanks to the wind and our exertion. I hit my forehead on his and we fell straight on our backs. The next part isn’t so much a blur as it is a red smear. My injury this time was not a bruised knee or a scraped hand but a gash in my right eyebrow, cutting it diagonally in half, leaning away from my nose. I know a friend’s dad, a policeman, wrapped my head so tight that I couldn’t feel the wound anymore and did the same for George. We were put in a room inside the daycare building and seated on opposing sides of the room. I’m told that I was crying and crying and crying and I believe it. I’m also told that George just sat and watched as I cried. He had the same injury that I did and we ended up with the same number of stitches. I don’t understand how he could be stoic in the face of such an event.

After my mom came and brought me to the local walk-in clinic to see if we could get my wound treated quickly (thanks to my crying and yelling, we couldn’t) she took me to the hospital. I left the hospital with eight stitches and major swelling. I know my dad and some large male nurses had to hold me still while the doctor was stitching my eyebrow back together. It’s hard to sit still when you can see a person putting a needle through your skin right above your eye. On the positive end, I got eight lollipops to go with the eight stitches but during the ride home my mom told me that girls like a boy with a scar. In third grade that’s not a good thing. Girls are the enemy and you can’t have them liking you. Eww.

The rest of my childhood and adolescence was normal. I did some-to-most of my school work and talked with my classmates. I never had any real, hang out after class friends but that was ok, I guess. I was always a bit on the scared end of the confidence scale and I never had a real girlfriend in High School, either. College was much the same, except in that I actually liked the school work and I had friends. Still no girlfriend but again, that was fine by me. I guess my mom didn’t know much about how girls think about a guy with a scar. I don’t think Harry Potter helped me all that much either. As a nerd with glasses and a scar in his eyebrow people believed I was trying to cash in on that popular trend but really I was just a guy that got unlucky.

My senior year of college was filled with a kind of melancholy that I hadn’t experienced before. Here I was, about to graduate and move on to the next part of my life and that was exciting. But I liked this part of my life. I liked writing papers. I liked watching my basketball team play. I liked going to parties. I liked learning. What was I going to do next? My English degree didn’t offer a firm path. You can do anything with a degree in English, but what do I want to do? Teaching is an option, sure, but that requires more education. And teach what? High School? College? Younger? Older? I could write a mean paper but I took no journalism classes so that would be a hard thing to break into. I took a creative writing class but my writing wasn’t all that great. A lot of comma splices and too little description. Sentence fragments, too. So what? My parents asked me every time we talked and I never had an answer. Do I try the writing thing and see if I can get better? Do I join the corporate world and try to hold on to my creative side some other way? Choosing courses at the beginning of each semester was a lot easier than choosing the rest of your life.

And then the decision was made for me. At the end of my final semester I awoke to the sound of an envelope shoved under my door. I don’t know how they, whoever they were, got into my apartment to slip the envelope under my bedroom door but the contents shocked me more than the intrusion of privacy did. It had only two sentences.
Dear Alex,

You are now officially a supervillain-in-training. Please report to the sixth subbasement of the Empire State Building for your uniform measurements and mentor assignment.
Evilly yours,
The Destroyer
Senior Recruitment Advisor