Tuesday, January 14, 2014

An Explosive Mystery

The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

What an extraordinary novella this is! It's the story of an old woman telling her grandson about what she knows of a horrific event that happened decades ago. It's also the story a small town in Missouri and how it deals with a tragedy. It also has a love story.

That Woodrell has accomplished all of that in 164 pages is impressive. And with such beautiful prose! This is my first Woodrell book, but it won't be my last.

The story opens with Alma DeGeer Dunahew sharing what she knows about a 1929 explosion at a dance hall that killed dozens in the town, including Alma's sister, Ruby. Alma is spending time with her grandson, who begins the book with this description of her:

"She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She'd sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed, shadows ebbing from the room and early light flowing in through both windows. Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn't walk when her hair was not woven into dense braids and pinned around and atop her head. Otherwise her hair dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and she had to gather it into a sheaf and coil it about her forearm several times to walk the floor without stepping on herself. She'd been born a farm girl, then served as a maid for half a century, so she couldn't sleep past dawn to win a bet, and all the mornings I knew with her she'd sit in the first light and brush that witchy-long hair, brush it in sections, over and over, stroking hair that had scarcely been touched by scissors for decades, hair she would not part with despite the extravagance of time it required at each dawn. The hair was mostly white smeared by gray, the hues of a newspaper that lay in the rain until headlines blended across the page ... It was years before I learned to love her."

I italicized the line about being born a farm girl because I liked it so much. Anyway, Alma was a longtime maid of Arthur Glencross, who was an important banker in town. We soon learn that Arthur had been having an affair with Ruby, and Alma wasn't happy about it. When Ruby broke up with Arthur, it caused a rift. The night of the explosion, several townsfolk saw Arthur acting suspiciously, running through streets and speeding away in his car. 

But wait! Before you jump to conclusions about who or what caused the explosion at the dance hall, you need to meet the rest of the town. Each chapter brings us different voices, different narrators, and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. We meet Alma's husband and children, Ruby's lovers, and many of the people who were at the dance hall that night. An especially moving chapter was the description of the memorial service for the victims: 

"The town was represented from high to low, the disaster spared no class or faith, cut into every neighborhood and congregation, spread sadness with an indifferent aim. The well dressed and stunned, the sincere in bibs and broken shoes, sat side by side and sang the hymns they had in common."

I like writers who can masterfully share multiple perspectives of a story and create a narrative that flows between the past and the present. The structure of the book reminded me of a few others I had liked: "So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell and "The Sweet Hereafter" by Russell Banks. The prose truly is lovely; I paused numerous times to reread a pretty sentence.

If you prefer a linear story with only one narrator, you might not enjoy this book. But if you like beautiful prose, a rich cast of characters and stories with a bit of mystery, you might love this.

The Historical Jesus

Zealot by Reza Aslan
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a fascinating look at the historical, social and political context of the First Century in Palestine and of Jesus the man. The information will be familiar to religious scholars, but Reza Aslan writes so well and synthesizes so much knowledge that he makes it accessible to the layperson. 

The book begins with a touching author's note, which tells how he first became interested in Jesus. It happened when Aslan was attending an evangelical summer camp in California: 

"For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, [Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection] was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God. In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable. After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran. My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or drawer somewhere. But for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God. That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed. Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America's national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American."

Aslan, who became a religious scholar, goes on to explain his interest in the origins of Christianity: 

"The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I'd just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face. Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world. The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history -- between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth. In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts of my own. The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant. The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions -- just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of hands across thousands of years -- left me confused and spiritually unmoored."

After sharing his personal background, Aslan sets the stage for the First Century in Palestine, which was teeming with political activity and zealotry. The Romans were in control and demanded high taxes from everyone they conquered, which often led to revolts. Anyone charged with sedition against Rome was put to death. Meanwhile, the Romans disliked the Jews and tried to wipe them out. In 70 C.E., Roman soldiers stormed the gates of Jerusalem, massacring Jewish citizens and setting the city on fire. 

This is important to note because Aslan is trying to correct the long-held belief that the Jews killed Jesus, when it's more historically accurate to say that the Romans put Jesus to death because he was a revolutionary and was threatening sedition by trying to be "King of the Jews." 

Aslan goes through the Gospel stories and explains how and why they were written. For example, the Book of Mark has a story that Pontius Pilate offered to release a prisoner to the Jews, and instead of picking Jesus, the Jews demanded the release of a murderer named Abbas. Aslan argues that the scene makes no sense, especially since Pontius Pilate was "a man renowned for his loathing of the Jews, his total disregard for Jewish rituals and customs, and his penchant for absentmindedly signing so many execution orders that a formal complaint was lodged against him in Rome." 

So why would Mark write such a fictitious scene, one that Jews would have recognized as false? "The answer is simple: Mark was not writing for a Jewish audience. Mark's audience was in Rome, where he himself resided. His account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth was written mere months after the Jewish Revolt had been crushed and Jerusalem destroyed ... Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus' death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism."

That's just one example of how knowing the historical context of the New Testament helps to better understand what was really going on. There are many other insightful details in the book, such as addressing Jesus' birth, his baptism, the prophecies, the title of Messiah, how Jesus died, and the stories of his miracles and resurrection. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Jesus' life, and Aslan references the religious texts and historical documents to better understand it.

Perhaps I should share that I do not belong to a religion, although I was brought up in the Christian faith and spent my share of childhood in Sunday school. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I loved learning the details of what some biblical phrases and stories really meant. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Christianity.

Cowboys of Cthulhu

The Cowboys of Cthulhu: A Weird Western Grindhouse NoveletteThe Cowboys of Cthulhu: A Weird Western Grindhouse Novelette by David Bain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Dunsworth Brodie hooks up with General Kang's sideshow and soon finds himself chasing some alleged braineaters to the Canyon of Cthulhu...

I love weird westerns and when I saw I could read this novelette for free due to it being part of the Kindle Lending Library, I was all over it.

This book has all the winning weird western ingredients: gunfights, humor, the Necronomicon, non-Euclidian geometry, and a bloody shootout at the end with Lovecraftian beasties.

However, the ingredients came together in the form of an appetizer rather than a main course, and as far as appetizers go, it was a pretty small portion. There was very little setup before the big battle and then it was all over except for the aftermath.

So it was engaging while it lasted but it didn't last nearly enough. With that in mind, I'm giving it three out of five stars purely for the entertainment value.

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Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie CoyleThe Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gun runner Eddie Coyle is facing jail time for some hijacked booze. While trying to procure some guns for a friend of his for a string of bank robberies, Coyle decides to drop a dime on the man he's buying from. But will that be enough? And what will happen to Eddie once people hear he's a fink?

Elmore Leonard called this the best crime novel ever written. Dennis Lehane called it a game changer. Raylan Givens even mentioned it on an episode of Justified. I figured I should give it a read.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a lot more challenging than you'd think a slim crime novel would be. It's mostly dialogue and a lot is left up to the reader to figure out. However, it's also clearly the spiritual ancestor of a lot of crime novels that came after. I was immediately reminded of the works of Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark, and the Boston setting reminded me of Lehane's work set in Bean Town.

Speaking of his friends, they're more like co-workers in that most of the characters are criminals, including Eddie. Even the cops are kind of shady. I wasn't sure who was lying to who for a great portion of the book.

Eddie's a conflicted character, not wanting to be a rat exactly but also not wanting to go jail. Even though he got what he deserved in the end, I still felt a little sorry for him.

Higgins' punchy dialogue is the star of the show. It holds up to the standards of today's crime fiction and probably inspired a lot of it, directly or indirectly.

The book's strength is also its weakness, however. Since it's mostly dialogue, it's hard to keep the characters straight at times and the only characters with any degree of substance are Eddie Coyle and Detective Foley.

I wouldn't say it's the greatest crime novel ever written but The Friends of Eddie Coyle is definitely worth your time. Four out of five stars.

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