Book Club Update
Eight of us had a wide range of reactions to this book. More of us found this selection not to our taste. There was at least one of us who really liked this book. All of us found intriguing elements and some characters or plot devices we really liked. Almost unanimously we found the sex elements of the seduction of the monk to be of a bodice-ripping nature and humorously so. A few skipped that part entirely. Some literally groaned at those sections of the book..
Lakeview Branch Library
Eight of us met to discuss these two quickly read books. Heartburn had been on our list for a long time, but we added Leaving Mother Lake, because we wanted to discuss another book with a strong woman. Heartburn was fiction based on fact and Leaving Mother Lake was a memoir, "as told to" anthropologist, Christine Mathieu. Christine Mathieu also added her anthropological analysis of Yang Erche Namu's community in Yunan Province. Our discussion leader for Leaving Mother Lake shared very thorough notes, which brought us all up on the major details.
Yang Erche Namu was born in 1966 in a very remote village in the mountains of Yunnan Province, China. Her isolated community developed a "matrilineal" society over hundreds of years. Anthropologist, Christine Mathieu, conjectures that this evolved from a feudal society under past emperors and warlords. Women own the land and live together in a commune-like setting. All children belong to all the women of a household and are raised in common. There is a leader woman for the large household, but the leadership does not necessarily pass to that woman's daughter. The lead woman chooses her successor from among the female children. The children do not necessarily know who their fathers are. Women choose their sex partners and dismiss them by setting a bag of the man's belongings outside of the home. Women have a private room for their sex lives and call their lovers with a light in a window. The men live separately and conduct business with the outside world.
Because the community is small, primitive and very much dependent on each other for survival, each member of the community is very careful to always be kind and to never gossip about others. They actively repress jealousy and envy. Animosity could have dire consequences.
Yang was a colicky baby and so her mother sent her to another household to live. Yang was even sicker there so was returned to her mother. Yang's mother was the leader of the household. It seems that Yang did not bond strongly with her mother or others and we wondered if that was a consequence of the communal living or a trait of Yang's. Yang was sent as an older child to live remotely with an uncle whose son had left the community. The uncle needed a yak herder in the mountains. Life there was very hard for Yang. She was barefoot and freezing in the winters, even to the point of standing in yak urine to keep her feet warm and to sleep next to the yaks for body warmth.
When she reached puberty, there was a “skirt” ceremony where she had to stand naked before all of the community, which included men and women. She felt beautiful during this ritual, where she received a jade bracelet from her mother.
Soon after, she was chosen by the government to join with other excellent singers from rural areas to perform in various Chinese cities. After her experience she was dissatisfied with her life at home.
She was attracted to a boy in the village and decided to have sex with him, but then changed her mind and refused. In her rage over the experience, she destroyed the village school room and ran away to the city to try to attend a music conservatory. She had to sell her jade bracelet to live. Selling the bracelet and destroying the village school room was such bad behavior, she felt it essentially severed her ties to her village.
Once in the metropolitan world she eventually became a star, a singer, a model and a successful actress. Her biography online points out that she is not popular among many Chinese. We noted that some of her behavior seemed arrogant and cruel by our standards. For example, she carried on a courtship by letter with a young man, but when she met him, she told him he was ugly. She seemed surprised that someone who wrote beautifully could possibly not be handsome.
We were impressed at the successes she had, given that she was illiterate and from an essentially primitive culture. While primitive in some ways we thought that the power and freedom some of the women had in it should be adopted for our own culture. We also thought that the communal living of mothers and children, or at least those mothers and children, resulted in relationships which were not as close as those most of us have had with our mothers and children.
The appendix by the anthropologist was scholarly, but fascinating.
We were glad that we had a window into a rare community, that unfortunately has been changed by Yang Erche Namu’s contact with the modern world and the tourism that has resulted from that and other incursions of modernity.
Yang Erche Namu is a rare strong woman who molded her life with the opportunities she found. We thought that few others would have the courage or strength to plunge into such a foreign life.
It is a fascinating story and one well worth checking into, if you have not yet read it, there are several copies in OPL.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron was a different sort of book about a strong woman. We found it to be lighter fare, because of the humor involved. One of the lighter elements was the interjection of recipes by the main character. One of our members brought one of those recipes to our meeting, a delicious peach pie. The secret of the recipe was that it had custard in the mix of ingredients. We LOVED that pie! What a treat!
While based on reality, this was a novel. The reality topic was the disintegration of the marriage of Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame. Their marriage was the second marriage for both of them. We liked the characters very much and felt that they were real people, as they probably are. The father was loopy, writing about alternative universes. The mother was an eccentric outspoken woman with some sage advice. Every character had a therapist to discuss the downs in their lives. In group therapy each tried to outdo the other with a horrible situation. (Does this really happen? I bet it does.)
The only part that felt really made up was the mugging of the main character right before a group therapy session. If that story was contrived, it was important to the plot. It set in motion the quirky and outrageous events that led to the final conclusions.
While humor connected most all events and often made us laugh out loud, there were, in contrast many moments of very real sadness. The main character kept a journal and so must have Nora Ephron, because there would be no way to make up the depth of feeling and amazing details she shared had she not pulled from her reality.
We noted the passage where her therapist asks why she has to put everything in her life into a story. Her answer was that if she made a story of it, then she had some control over it. Perhaps it was a method to manage the pain. We also discussed the ending events when she gave birth to her second child by Carl Bernstein. She tells the doctor, who would do the Cesarean procedure, not to let her about-to-be-divorced husband, who would be there during the procedure, “Do not let this stranger see me eviscerated.” Her memories of the kind and loving moments of the failed marriage filled her with aching sadness. He would sing to her made up lullabies during the good parts of their marriage.
He ended up with the wife of their mutual friend. Nora described this woman as a giraffe and made other viscous and witty comments about this woman. We saw in the Wikipedia biography that Carl Bernstein sued Nora Ephron about this book! Maybe his new wife DID look like a giraffe!
We liked her description of the first husband who seemed to care more for gerbils or hamsters than for people. We thought her humor was viscious, but so entertaining!
We also noted that her tone throughout seemed to be “one note,” that is, the writing style didn’t keep us captivated throughout. There was a rhythm that seemed too repetitive at times. We also felt that some of the choices and constrictions on the main character’s life were dated, but this book is not a recent book and so much has changed for women since it was published.
Some of us were surprised that at the end of this marriage and novel; she immediately moved in with another man. According to her biography online, that marriage seemed to have stayed solid. Nora Ephron's last marriage was to writer Nicholas Pileggi.
Nora Ephron is definitely a strong woman with a great deal of success. She has won many awards and written the screenplays for many unforgettable movies, such as Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, and Julie and Julia.
She was a playwright as well as a screenwriter and author of books of essays and fiction. She was also a journalist. She died in 2012 of pneumonia brought on by myeloid leukemia. It may be a long time before we see another such intelligent talent with such an original voice.
Lakeview Library Branch Manager
It's Halloween, let's talk monsters!
For Book Club this month, we read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Before I get into my book rant, I'll fill you in on a few details of the author's life. Her biography is arguably more scandalous than the book's plot.
Mary Wollstencraft Shelley was the daughter of a famous feminist and a well known author who were too hip to get married. Her mom died shortly after her birth, so Mary grew up with her dad, her mean stepmom, her mom's daughter from a previous relationship (an affair with a soldier), her stepmother's kids from her previous relationship, and dad and stepmom's new kid. Mary was the poor brown-headed stepchild. As a teen, she met and started a relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy was already married to another woman, but why let that stop the magic. Mary and Percy ran away to Paris and when they returned to England, both Mary and Percy's wife were pregnant. Mrs. Shelley (the first one) was unhappy, she sued for alimony and custody of their kids, but eventually drowned herself, allowing Mary and Percy to be married. The new Mr. and Mrs. Shelley suffered the loss of their first daughter, only one child survived to adulthood. Also, Mary's sister dies. Oh, and shortly after that, Percy fell into an Italian lake and drowned at age 29.
Onto the book.
It's a story within a story and different characters get to play narrator at different points. The novels is both gothic and romantic, with some seemingly never-ending descriptions of nature and light and feeling. The meat of the novel concerns the young Swede, Victor Frankenstein. He looses his mother, becomes consumed with thoughts of death and the essence of life, goes off to college and emerges a scientist. He decides to make a man, just because, he makes the man/monster. Man comes alive, Frankenstein freaks out and runs away abandoning his creation. His creature learns to walk and talk and read, he is badly mistreated, he goes on a murderous rampage, Frankenstein vows vengeance on his creation. Excitement ensues. Here's a better annotation.
There are 235 entries just in the Oakland library catalog for the term Frankenstein. Many of the books and movies that refer to Frankenstein is the name of the monster, not it's creator. Which brings me to the topic of names. Remember in Roots, when Kunta Kinte's master tries to make him own the name "Toby" and Kunta refuses (it was bad)? Or when the Empress of Fantasia begins to fade and die until Bastian saves her and the whole empire by giving her a name. (And, yes, I did just make a Roots and Neverending Story reference in a post about Frankenstein.) Your name helps you form your identity, it lets others identify you. It's almost as if you're not real without a name. Frankenstein not only abandoned his creation, but, in not naming him, he refused to acknowledge Creature's existence. Dirty and wrong, Victor.
Creature is feared for his ugliness, he's badly beaten and spit upon, and, while he does go on a small killing spree, he has a low opinion of himself, he just wants to be loved, he needed a name. The book doesn't have too many sympathetic characters. In my opinion, Victor Frankenstein was a mad scientist, and a bit of a spoiled brat, driven even more mad by his experiment-gone-awry. His creature was literally a nameless man-child who probably should have known better, but has still captured my sympathies.
Are you Team Victor or Team Creature?
Submitted 31 October 2014, by Jenera Burton, Piedmont Ave branch
Henry James's grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1789 and was a successful venture capitalist, who owned a canal and made a fortune. The grandfather had 3 wives and 16 children.
Henry's father inherited wealth and was a philosopher. There were five children in the family. Henry was the second child. His sister was an invalid, who only lived to her early 40s. Henry traveled extensively with his family.
Henry was not the only famous James from that family. His brother William was the very famous psychologist. It is said that William wrote psychology as if it were fiction, and Henry wrote fiction as if it were psychology. Both William and Henry were Calvinists, but we didn't see evidence of a religious point of view in this novel.
Portrait of a Lady is considered to be the best of the novels of Henry James. Henry's insight into the lives and emotions of his characters is stunning. His use of language is lyrical. Susan cited where Isabel sees a private conversation taking place between Ms. Merle and Mr. Osmond as the peak psychological scene of hidden meaning where the reader is left in suspense to figure out what the two villains were plotting.
That observation launched us into a discussion of Ms. Merle. We all had mixed feelings about her. Yes, she was evil, but since James didn't really explain all the steps that led her to be that way, we wondered if she were driven to her malevolent choices by her lot in life. Some thought she was a sad character. In fact, we noted that James leaves us with many, many questions. One person pointed out that James used an ellipsis plot device of skipping over steps in the plot, leaving them unaddressed intentionally. One of the plot points we wanted to know more about was Isabel’s relationship with Goodwood before she moved to Europe. Also, why did she reject him before the book even started? What happened to Ms. Merle’s husband? Was he alive or dead? How did Pansy end up in Osmond’s care? What were the circumstances of Osmond’s and Ms. Merle’s affair? How did the death of Isabelle’s child affect Isabelle and Osmond? After hundreds of pages of delicious writing and detailed description, we wanted to know more!
One person mentioned that Ms. Merle's name meant black bird. That observation led us to Ms. Gemini, who was described as a bird with a beaklike nose, which led us to the deliberate and descriptive choices of names. Mr. Goodwood, who we all liked, seemed the most masculine of Isabel's suitors and his name gave rise to chuckles. Another example of a name that has a meaning is Isabel, who "is a belle."
We found Ms. Gemini very interesting. Though she seemed like a dimwit at times with her scattered conversations, she knew the dirt and had lived through difficult times with her philandering husband. She eventually laid out the truth to Isabelle regarding Ms. Merle and Osmond.
The character of Ms. Stackpole was interesting to us. She truly was an independent woman, self-supporting and free to travel, yet her character, though perhaps less flawed in some ways than Isabel’s, seemed somewhat superficial. She provided some comic relief and insights that were ignored by Isabel.
The history and politics of the world at the time did not intrude on the insulated world of the wealthy and near wealthy expatriates. The Civil War in the United States was taking place during James’ life, yet there is never a reference to that upheaval and carnage. That surprised us.
We also wondered why James chose a female to be a protagonist for his novel. One member of our group thought that James identified with the lot of the female world. For men at that time, the typical choices in life were business, military or religious life. James, a writer, was in the world of the arts, often perceived as more feminine choice.
We wondered about Osmond’s courtship of Isabel. Did he really find her desirable for anything more than her money? Though we get to know Osmond as a miserly, controlling and an emotionally abusive husband and father, we noted that he had charm when he needed it. In fact Isabel thought he was “poor, noble and lonely.” He thought that Isabel would settle into a submissive role after marriage. Though Isabel certainly tried to be a submissive dutiful wife, ultimately, we thought she would break with Osmond in a stark and final way.
We discussed how the major characters were introduced to us through descriptions of their homes. The description that felt the most unsettling was Osmond’s house. It was dark and filled with his collection of art work and left one with the feeling that once inside, there was no escape. Isabelle became a piece of property of Osmond's, the same as his valuable pieces of art.
We noted that Pansy’s true love, Rosier, was also a collector of fine art. In order to prove to Osmond that he had enough wealth to marry Pansy, he sold his entire collection. Instead of being impressed by the wealth, Osmond was pleased that those pieces of art were now available for purchase! Pansy was also part of Osmond’s collection.
Isabelle changed considerably from the beginning to the end of the novel, a span of around five years. She was self-centered, independent and naïve. Over time she learned to distrust Merle, upon whom she relied to show her the way of the European world and society. She came to understand that she was used by Merle and her husband. She was strong enough at the beginning to reject suitors who did not appeal to her, but was naïve enough to not understand the malevolent nature of Osmond and Merle, even after being warned about them. Ultimately she understood that Osmond truly hated her. We thought that Isabel needed the betrayal in order to grow. By the end of the novel Isabel defied Osmond by seeing the dying Touchett. She was her strongest there.
It was interesting to us how James resolved the lives of the suitors. Goodwood, who never stopped loving Isabel, ultimately married someone else, much to the chagrin of our heroine. Warburton, who was probably 40 years older than Pansy, courted her. We thought he did this to be near Isabel, perhaps putting a subtly incestuous vibe on the possible union.
Ralph Touchett and the narrator seemed to understand the most about all aspects of the story. Ralph loved his cousin Isabel and perhaps was in love with her, but he seemed to be asexual, perhaps because of his illness. He set into motion all the possibilities in Isabel's life by seeing that she became wealthy through inheritance. He lived long enough to see Isabel marry Osmond and to provide Osmond with the funds he needed to continue collecting art and to support the lovely Pansy. In other words, ironically, Isabel helped Osmond the same way Ralph helped her.
This novel was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. Every chapter ended in suspense and anticipation for the reader. The novel ended the same way, frustrating all of us. In spite of two different endings in different editions, we will, alas, never find out if Isabelle regains her independence, rescues her stepdaughter and at long last finds true love. Perhaps James’ unresolved endings are more realistic than our desire for closure and happy endings. After all, we are all flawed. Fate intrudes. We make poor decisions. We reap the consequences of those decisions and move on. None of us ever really knows what comes next. Do we really want to know?
Obviously this novel struck a harmonic chord with us all. Many We were all moved and caught up in this gripping story. Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady confirms why a classic earns that name.
Our discussion leader did an outstanding job in presenting the background story on Zealot.
Dr. Reza Aslan is a non-religious American whose family emigrated from Iran to the United States when he was a child. His family was Muslim. He was invited to go to a Christian summer camp and became a Christian, because it attracted him emotionally and helped him feel he belonged. He was a practicing Evangelical Christian for some years. He was later educated by Jesuits and investigated the historical Jesus, finding that he could no longer be Christian. He studied Islam and found that he was attracted to it intellectually.
In his book about Jesus, he pulled from the few historical records of the time and from the social history of the era. In his research he discovered that much we have all been taught about the life of Jesus does not correspond to the real history of the times. He points out that three fourths of the New Testament was written by Paul, who did not know Jesus and had a perspective different than the Apostles. Aslan defined the concept of Messiah in terms of Judaism. No Jew at that time or in the present would define Jesus as a messiah. Messiah was a royal title, NOT a religious title.
The difference between Jesus and other preachers of the era was that although many performed miracles, Jesus never charged money for the service. Jesus focused on the disenfranchised, the poverty stricken and the exploited Jews of Palestine.
The first gospels were written in 72-75 AD over 40 years after Jesus died. James, the brother of Jesus, took over the management of the followers and focused on the laws of Moses, since at that time all the followers were Jews. (We noted that Catholics are taught that Jesus had no brother, whereas the Gospels mention James as his brother.)
Later when Paul became involved, there was a split between Paul and James. Paul was a product of Rome, spoke Greek and was literate, three qualities that James did not have. Since Paul wrote, his interpretation of the life of Jesus is the one that has had the most influence and has been more lasting.
Paul claims he was the 1st Apostle and he geared his message to the Jews in the Roman Empire.
A little background: Judaism was temple centered before Jesus. The first temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. The second temple was destroyed in 70 A.D by the Romans. The Romans destroyed it, because of the constant rebellious acts against the power of Rome. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed in 70 A.D. and others dispersed. Those Jews were no longer in Israel and in a temple centered life. Eventually many of them were less culturally affiliated with the Judaism of Israel and more drawn to other beliefs, some of those being Christianity.
Aslan points out that Jesus never said he was the Son of God. Jesus, however, was a revolutionary, as in preaching in a way that ultimately would undermine the power of Rome. He was crucified and crucifixion was the execution reserved for sedition. The sign on his cross labeled his crime as Jesus' claiming that he was the King of the Jews. The leaders of the temple were making a lot of money and Jesus' teachings were a direct threat to the temple leader's ways of supporting themselves in the style they liked.
As Paul gained a following of Gentiles (non-Jews) after the death of Jesus, Gentile men could join and not have to be circumcised. There was also no need of a temple and its priests to absolve people of their sins, because "Jesus died for our sins."
In the oral culture of the time there were two elements, "Fact" and "Truth." Fact was not as important as Truth. Truth was the tradition. For example, there was no massacre of first born sons during the early childhood of Jesus. Another example is that Pontius Pilate didn't have the exchange with the crowd of Jews, where the Jews took responsibility for killing Jesus. Paul had to absolve the Romans of guilt for Jesus' death, since he was preaching in a Roman world. After 70 A.D., the generation of non-Jewish followers of Christianity outnumbered the Jewish Christians. It made more sense for Paul to blame the Jews for Jesus's death.
There are other sources that point to other possible historical interpretations of Jesus's life. In the book, How Jesus Became God there is a reference to a papyrus document that mentions that Jesus had a wife.
Before Paul, Judaism and Christianity was only for Jews. The Jews held that they were chosen by God and that infuriated the non-Jews around them.
Another non-truth shows that Jesus was not truly from the House of David. His father Joseph was from the House of David. Jesus was considered at the time to be the illegitimate son of Mary, which would make him a person of ridicule, so his lineage was marked from Joseph's family.
We discussed how some of the issues over which people are currently fighting in the Middle East sound very similar to the issues in Jesus's time, such as power and religious zealotry.
Aslan pointed out that Jesus was in fact a zealot. His Palm Sunday ride into town on a donkey was actually provoking the establishment to retribution. It was a revolutionary act of rebellion, because at that time only Kings rode donkey's in processions. He rode into town with the trappings of a King! It was, therefore, an overt threat to the system.
It was pointed out that if you take all the writings from the Bible attributed to James, Jesus's brother, it amounts to the total of three pages and those pages show the Jesus we would most likely want to know.
One member of our group, who is Hindu, described the evolution of Hindu stories and how they have also changed over time to reflect what people needed to hear to understand reality in the light of belief. She said there are 400 basic Hindu stories that have all changed over time. We can see that the stories about Jesus also changed.
The writer, Alan Dundee, says there are 22 things that make a hero and Jesus has 19 of them, virgin birth, miracles, etc.
We all thought this book was thought provoking and certainly had a new take on the story of Jesus, that he was a Zealot and a candidate to be the King of Jews.
It was Jesus' followers who witnessed his resurrection and the believers of that event, which in turn made the religion expand. Paul's letters all over the new Christian world unified those beliefs among the new followers with gentile origins.
St. Stephan declared that Jesus was the Son of Man while Stephan was being martyred, in effect saying that Jesus of the actual Son of God, equal to God!
That belief was made official when Emperor Constantine, a few hundred years later, called for the Bishops of Rome to make a unified decision on the beliefs of Christianity, hence the creation of the Nician Creed and throwing out of the Bible books which were controversial or did not mesh with what the group at that time believed. This paved the way for the persecutions of heresy and for future rules about what to believe.
We discussed a very popular book that came out in the 1970s that a few of us read at that time, called The Passover Plot, which is by a Jewish Rabbi explaining what he thought of Jesus. There were some correlations Zealot. I recommend trying that one, also, if you liked Zealot.
What a ride! We had a hard time leaving after our discussion. It was truly exciting to share with others how this book affected us.
Our discussion leader emailed an addendum of points she forgot to make that night. She said that Aslan made these points during some fascinating interviews she found online on YouTube. She said:
"I remember some questions that were asked about what Reza Aslan's wish was for the people who read his book. Aslan stated that "faith" and "history" are two separate ways of knowing something. Faith concerns what is *possible* and History concerns what is *likely.* The Jesus of history became more relatable to Aslan than the Christ of faith, so he stopped "believing in the creed." He said that people have a choice of how they can view Jesus.
Aslan also said that his book attempts to reveal the historical Jesus to provide a sense of who Jesus was and why he was perhaps the most important man who ever lived. Aslan tried to peel back the layers of myth, interpretation, legend, dogma, theology and doctrine that have been placed upon Jesus for millennia. He said that Biblical scholars already know the information he presents in his book.
Aslan said that religion is far more a matter of identity than a matter of beliefs and practices. Living in revolutionary Iran showed him the power of religion and how it can transform a society for good or bad. He stated that after studying the religions of the world it is hard to take any one religion seriously. He said that it's not that Islam is true and correct and other religions are not true, but the language of Islam feels more comfortable to him."
We liked this history, which often read like a novel. We recommend it to anyone interested in a new view of the life of Jesus.