Tag: review

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.”

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:

retrouss√© (comparative more retrouss√©superlative most retrouss√©)
  1. Turned up, as in describing the nose.