Saturday, March 10, 2018

On "Caught Up" by Jamie Quatro (964 words) ***

The lead story in Quatro's first collection is a short one about a woman whose phone affair with a stranger and advice from her mother leads to a less-than-satisfactory end. It's a startling piece in some ways, because the wife opens by talking about the many things she loves about her husband. I was left wondering why she would dally with another man--and on the phone at that. What is it that her husband lacks? Read the story here at Tin House.

On "The Zealots" by Martin Hengel ****

This excellent summation of the zealot movement from the time of Herod I to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. provides a full assessment of who the zealots were and what made them tick. 

The first point to ponder is who they were. Since Josephus rarely uses the term, we're left with some questions as to who constituted the party. More often, Josephus refers to such peoples as robbers; "zealot" is more narrowly applied to a sect of the freedom movement in the last five years before 70 A.D. But Hengel shows that there are good reasons to think of the Zealot movement as existing for much longer, going back to the time of Judas the Galilean, whose rebellion Josephus covers in detail. This group, Josephus says, adhere to the "fourth philosophy." For much of its existence, it likely consisted of small bands of guerilla fighters.

Judas the Galilean (so-called because he was likely from Galilee but did his work in Judea) was close to a radical wing of Pharisees. "Separation" for them meant accepting the "sole rule of God." The claims of all other rulers were to be shunned. The job of the Israelites was to throw off these other rulers. If they did so, God would bless them, because of their zeal, helping them to overcome the other rulers and establish a kingdom ruled by God. When Judas was killed, other family members took over his movement, which would eventually culminate in the events of 70 A.D.

Hengel covers the full history, as well as various concepts of zeal. It's a lot to take in. The book is great as a reference, if very scholarly, but it does not have a strong argument at its center. This is, in many ways refreshing, insofar as Hengel doesn't seem to make any boldly ridiculous claims, but it also makes for a slightly drier and less summarizable text.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On "Tiger Bites" by Lucia Berlin (6512 words) ****

I found the narrator of this story--in fact, the whole family--to be irritating. She's a young woman, married too young, whose husband has run off, and she's hanging out with another family member who's done the same, in preparation for a family reunion. But in the midst of this, Berlin manages to take us to a Mexican abortion ward, a portion of the tale that is so well told and described, it makes the story well worth the effort to read. Read the story here at Literary Hub.

On "Nazarene Jewish Christianity" by Ray A. Pritz ***

This short but very much scholarly study traces the existence of the Nazarenes, a group of Jewish Christians mostly in Jerusalem who have a few mentions in various early historical works before disappearing. Often, they are mixed up with the Ebionites, but Pritz makes the case for them being a separate group--to wit, the Ebionites did not accept the divinity of Jesus, while the Nazarenes did. Making matters even more confusing is the fact that there are more than one set of Ebionites referenced in literature, some seeming to be Nazarenes.

Pritz studies out the early Christian sources and also the source of the name (Jesus was born in Nazareth; the name is used a couple times in scripture [once in Matthew and once in Acts]; the name appears to have been applied by outsiders rather than by the peoples themselves; it is possibly the fulfillment of prophecy but the fulfillment is obscure--possibly to a scripture in Isaiah, as the root of Nazarene and Nazarite, according to Pritz, appear different).

The study becomes most interesting in the chapters on Epiphanius and Jerome. The former wrote a long description of the Nazarenes in his work Panarian, not to be confused with a non-Christian Jewish sect of similar name about whom he also writes. Jerome claims to have come across Nazarenes in his journeys in Palestine, though it is uncertain whether he is referring to personal acquaintance or just coming across their works. He translated parts of the Gospel to the Hebrews, which he says they used, into Latin. Though they kept Jewish traditions, they were apparently not rejecters of Paul's writings and had much negative to say about the rabbinic Judaism.

After this, Pritz turns to later Christian writers, finding evidence that the Nazarenes likely existed into the third and maybe the fourth and fifth centuries. Most writers earlier accepted them as Christians, and thus that is one reason they are so little mentioned, but later writers considered them heretical, which is how they begin to show up in history.

Appendixes cover the supposed location of the Nazarenes and the question of whether the Pella tradition has any basis in reality. It was questioned by S. G. F. Brandon, who claimed that the Jerusalem Christians could not have escaped to Pella because Romans or Zealots would have killed them on the way, and once they got there, the inhabitants, who had been raided by Jews four years earlier, would have attacked them. Pritz notes that no one questioned the tradition before Brandon, that Josephus actually accounts for others escaping and may have had reasons to claim few did (to show up evil of zealots, power of Rome, etc.), and that no all places that were raided by the Jews reacted negatively to those Jews who lived there, who in some cases defended against the raids. Furthermore, Pella may have had Christian residents already who would have been more than willing to take in refugees.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

On "Even Crazy Old Barmaids Need Love" by Peter Meinke (3465 words) ***

This tale from Meinke's The Piano Tuner collection recounts the lives of several patrons at a bar--and most specifically, an unlikely pair, an old barmaid and an accidental mid-aged actor. What I found most interesting about this story, however, is the account of how the bar changes under new ownership and how the owner makes that happen; it seemed the account of someone who had reconfigured a bar himself. Read the story here at the Orlando Sentinel.

On "Jesus and First-Century Christianity in Jerusalem" by Elizabeth McNamer and Bargil Pixner ***

Written at a very basic and simplistic level, this book is both wonderful and dangerous. It is wonderful because it provides such a simple synopsis. It is dangerous, however, because the authors are believers in a controversial theory that is not so basic or widely accepted as the simple text would make a person believe.

That idea espoused is that the first-century Christians were, in fact, derived from Essenes--in fact, in many ways were Essenes, the isolationist ascetics behind the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The basis for this idea comes from several parallels in belief as well as the proximity of several archeological locations in Jerusalem. The arguments are in some ways persuasive, but part of that persuasion is in the way the information is provided, almost as if the ideas are foregone conclusions that most scholars take for granted.

These ideas cause the authors to propose that Jesus's trial was on a Wednesday, with the Passover meal on a Tuesday night, and his death on a Friday, with a resurrection on Sunday morning. The reason for this is that Essenes always apparently kept Passover on a Wednesday, following a 364-day solar calendar that apparently predated the lunar calendar that the authors says was put into Judaism during the Babylonian captivity. Since the trial could not take place at night (because of Jewish law), it is obvious that it must have taken place on Thursday. My understanding is that that the trial was not exactly by strict Jewish rules, however, which thus would not have precluded a night meeting. And the idea that the calendar was solar before Judah went to Babylon seems specious, since much is made in the Old Testament of the new moon as the means by which to calculate the various Jewish holy days, even in the historical books.

According to the authors, because Acts 6:7 says that priests joined the Christian sect and because the Sadducees were adamantly opposed to Christianity, and Pharisees weren't priest, the priests had to be Essenes. The argument here relies on various assumptions--that no Sadducee could or would accept Jesus, that no Pharisee was a priest, and Essene priests were welcome and served at the actual temple (when what I know of them suggests that they conducted their own religious rites separate from what they considered the polluted temple). But it is these kinds of ideas that are presented as nearly foregone conclusions, while similarities, such as both groups using lots to make a decision, are also pointed to as clear proofs of their being the same, rather than just being similarities among two Jewish groups (after all, lots were a customary way to make certain decisions in the Old Testament).

Another assumption the writers make is that the believers met every Sabbath in a synagogue for worship services of a sort, and then again on Sunday for Eucharist. I don't know the basis on which they make such claims, and without citation notes, it's impossible to find out (from another source, I'm guessing their source in Eusebius 3.27.3-6).

One thing I liked about the simple presentation, however, was the way in which in a matter of a mere one hundred or so pages, the authors were able to weave together so much Roman and Jewish history with the history of the Jerusalem church itself, giving readers a good feel for the events that affected the local congregation.

One interesting idea that authors have is that the Ebionites were the first schism from the Jerusalem Christians. I would figure the group would have been forged after the destruction of the temple and the disappointment over Jesus's failure to return at that time; this would have caused them to see Jesus as a mere prophet rather than as divine and to keep on with their Jewish traditions. But the authors see the Ebionite as forming before the temple's destruction. Rather, they claim, that a certain man name Thabuti (mentioned in Josephus and Hegesippus), who was apparently James the brother of Jesus's assistant (and of course, in these authors' reckoning, an Essene priest), expected to become head of the church after James's death; when Simon, Jesus's brother or cousin, was chosen instead, Thabuti left the group, taking followers with him, and these would become the Ebionites. I will need to read more on this subject.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

On "Stars and Saints" by Lucia Berlin (3188 words) ****

A girl from a Protestant family goes to a Catholic school, because her parents want to keep her away from the "not-so-nice" immigrant kids at the neighborhood school. But the consequences for the girl are loneliness, since she doesn't fit in with the other girls at the school. As such, she begins to find herself interested more and more in the nuns themselves and dreams of becoming one of them. Read the story here.

On "Jerusalem" by Karen Armstrong ***

This basic history of the city runs from its known existence before becoming capital of ancient Israel to its current existence as capital of modern Israel. I picked it up chiefly for chapters 5-8, which cover the period from Jerusalem's resettlement by the Jewish people in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to its destruction and re-creation as the city of Aelia Capitolina. These latter of these few chapters were excellent in giving a summary of the events; the former got caught up a bit too much, in my view, with concepts of the temple as exists in Ezekiel and other locations.

Having read the sections I had the most interest in, I backed up to the start of the book, wherein Jerusalem was conquered by David. The city was, before then, a Jebusite town. And in fact, after David's conquering, it continued to be a Jebusite city, for he did not kill off its inhabitants. Armstrong sees many Jebusite ideas and beliefs as seeping into the Jewish faith at this time. In fact, Armstrong tends to view all faiths as sort of blending into one another, as I would expect, since she is a historian essentially of comparative religion--or at least this is how I've long viewed her work.

As such, it was interesting to read biblical events as explained by a largely secular historian, who sees the role of God as one largely of cultural interpretation. The deliverance of Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah, thus, is not a miracle but a case of luck: that the plague just happens to catch up with the Assyrian forces when they are on the verge of total victory.

Similarly, the Jewish and Israeli people are not really one from well before the time they split up after Solomon's reign. Armstrong brings out how David moved the capital to Jerusalem, probably, because it was more centrally located and "new," thus not giving the feel of Judah having "taken over" Israel. Solomon's excessive taxes of Israel both in money and labor are what drive Israel away, and Rehoboam's intention to maintain said system are what seals the deal. Israel is the stronger nation, and of course, it creates its own holy place to avoid being linked to Judah.

From there, Armstrong covers the familiar material I was looking for a nice summary of, until, of course, Rome obliterates Jerusalem and outlaws Jews from entering it. This policy weakens and strengthens over time, but eventually the Jewish people are prevented from entering Jerusalem due to Christian animosity to them.

Ironically, given today's situation, it is the Muslims who essentially open Jerusalem to the Jewish people again, though the Muslims do end up building a mosque on the Temple Mount that will prevent any rebuilding of a temple in the same location again. The Crusades once again close the city off to those of other faiths, and when the Muslims retake it, rather than seeking revenge, as they desire to do, they give in to pleads for mercy and let the Christians walk. (The Christians, who earlier had eschewed the idea of holy places then started to reverse that trend, which seems so with each group that takes the city.)

During all these times, various sites are newly associated with old events--this is where Abraham did this, where David lived or was buried, where Christ did this, where Mary did that, and so on. Some of these places well might be legitimate, passed on via generations by people who knew, but most appear to have been invented for various idealistic reasons. It makes one question history within the city.

Eventually, the Muslims are overtaken by Byzantium and the Turks (themselves Muslim), who are overtaken by the British, who finally concede the land to the Zionist movement. The latter is helped to fruition by Hitler, as Jews escape Europe to the Holy Land. Even then, the intention was not necessarily to take Jerusalem but to share it, but war with Jordan and Egypt essentially put Israel in charge of the city, and interest holders who earlier saw no reason for a retaking of the city, who had learned to practice Judaism in diaspora and accept it as such, now viewed it as God-given and essential to the faith. Tensions have remained ever since, even within Israel--with some seeing no reason to share the city with those of other faiths and some quite the opposite.

This is where, in essence, Armstrong lays down her thesis, her final points: That the city is most at peace when communities are tolerant of other faiths, as in the time of David or some periods of Muslim rule.

Monday, January 22, 2018

On "Here" by Jamie Quatro (about 4500 words) ***

This story recounts a family trip to a cabin. It's a trip made regularly, but this is the first time that the family's mother, who has died, is not with the members of the family. The dad in the story attempts to come to peace with his new role. Read the story here.

On "The Fate of the Apostles" by Sean McDowell ****

In this book McDowell looks to see what the various viewpoints with regard to the deaths of the apostles are and how likely accurate it is that they actually died as martyrs for the faith. The point that he makes is that their deaths show the sincerity of their views and help us discern to what extent the resurrection of Jesus Christ was real, at least in the minds of those who claimed to have witnessed his resurrected self. For as McDowell denotes, people do not go to their deaths for a con.

Thus, he creates a table of possibilities with regard to their deaths and the historicity of those accounts, ranging from most likely true to most likely false, and he finds that with the most famous "most likely true" is what we can accept and with those less famous we can see the accounts as "as likely true as not."

Most interesting of all, though, is his account of just how important the resurrection is to Christian theology. It was on this basis that the twelve apostles preached the divinity of Jesus and that they faced death as they did. Christianity was a resurrection sect, McDowell notes.

The individual accounts are workmanlike but very informative. For each apostle, plus Paul and James the brother of Jesus, McDowell recounts the legends and historical records regarding where they went or are said to have gone; then he recounts the various martyrdom narratives that surround the individual; finally he evaluates the reliability of said narratives and what this says about the possibility that the apostles actually died as part of their witness. (If I were going to criticize McDowell's argument at all, it would be in his assumption that because no legend shows any apostle as having recanted on threat of death, none left off believing. He doesn't take into account the possibility that an apostle might simply wander off after a time--no recantation necessary. This is not to say that I think this is what happened to those whose trail seems to disappear; it is simply to say that arguments from silence aren't necessarily the most compelling.)

As for where the apostles went, the theories for many run far and wide. Some would seem to be in contradiction with another, and a number arise from rather late traditions. Still, that the apostles scattered and that some traveled into Africa and India and Britain (and back) seems quite possible, given the actual conditions of the time, as McDowell shows.

This is an excellent reference. Would that there were a reasonably priced paperback available for individuals, rather than just the high-priced hardcover intended for scholarly libraries.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

On "People Are Already Full" by Gary Lutz (427 words) ***

Here's a short short by Lutz that feels in some ways put together sentence by sentence. In a way, I feel like Lutz's story is about the creation of the story itself, the difficulty of putting one together--it starts with two characters, elaborating on each, pulling itself against space toward them, changing views. Read the piece here at Thee Invisible.

On "Jesus and the Zealots" by S. G. F. Brandon ***

My interest in the zealots finds root in two factors: the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees (and scribes and priests) are the Jewish sects emphasized in the New Testament as being in competition with each--and Jesus--for power; and the fact that some of the things that the apostles say lend one to feel that they might have had certain zealot leanings--namely, they figure that Jesus is going to create kingdom now, raising up Israel to overthrow the Roman governors. The latter gets full play in Brandon's account, which sees the Jesus movement if not actually a zealot movement than at least one with heavy zealot-favoring tendencies.

The issue with this view, however, is that Christians become in league with zealots and thus part of the reason for their persecution and ultimately the destruction of the Jewish-Christian element of the Christian sect. This is made possible in part only because Brandon starts with two premises: (1) As with many historians of religion, he takes a secular view of the scriptures and the events described therein (hence, he explains away anything supernatural, taking these are inaccuracies in the historical account and creating his own suppositions as to the real events); and (2) he accepts the mainstream Christian view that first-century Pauline (i.e., Gentile) Christianity was already distinctive from Jewish Christianity. Without these two premises, which are after all largely accepted, much of his argument loses strength.

Another interesting element in Brandon's account is that he sees the Jewish uprisings predating 70 AD as taking a heavy toll on Roman patience. This is in deep contrast to the view offered by Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem, who believes that the uprisings described by Josephus were largely minor because no one else wrote about them and Josephus himself had an interest in propping up the mightiness of the Jewish people. It is the story of these uprisings (the first half of the book), however, in which Brandon's account excels, showing the effect the zealot ideology had on the Jewish peoples.

Zealots, as Brandon describes them, were peoples--often of the lower priestly classes, if not laymen, who believed that those in Judah who worked with Roman authorities were in fact causing God to turn from Israel. Taking their views from the idea that Phinehas was commended for killing those who served other gods in the Old Testament, zealots saw the key to Judah's strength as being a return to God at all costs. If one simply had the faith to live in strict adherence to God's way and did not compromise by, say, paying taxes to Roman authorities, God would step up and throw off the oppressors for Judah. No doubt, some elements of Christ's teaching mesh with this, as he criticized those in charge and as he commended people for their faith.

It's when Brandon starts drawing his argument toward how the Christians were zealots (or at least closely tied into their views, for even he admits that they were not out-and-out zealots) that his argument starts to weaken, unless of course one accepts the two premises. He makes this argument in large part by reviewing the Gospels in light of zealot sympathies. Taking the often-accepted position that Mark was written first, he argues that Mark, being written for a largely Roman audience in the immediate wake of the destruction of the temple, downplayed the zealot sympathies of Jesus and his followers. Mark didn't want Christians to be viewed as people who agreed with the uprising in Israel. Hence, he clouds certain events so that Jesus is seen as less in tune with rebels. Simon the Zealot, for example, is not outright called "the Zealot" (this name, of course, is played up to the hilt by Brandon--Jesus had a disciple of zealot sympathies--but there is little mention of Matthew the tax collector, that is, one with Roman sympathies). Much is also made of Peter's role in the book--it is much more negative than in the other gospels, according to Brandon, with Peter coming off like a dolt who doesn't fully understand Jesus's world-encompassing work, while the Gentiles are more able to see Christ's divinity, as in the soldier who proclaims that this truly was the son of God at the book's end. As such, Mark's gospel is Pauline in sympathy and orientation. (Nevermind that many scholars see one of Mark's main sources as being Peter himself!)

Matthew and Luke, being written in Brandon's view, some ten or fifteen years later, weren't as in need to hide the zealot tendencies of Jesus and his followers. Now, Jesus is seen as being merely a pacifist--not necessarily one who is inclined toward Gentiles themselves. The pacifism as such allows him to be more Jewish in orientation (Matthew's audience was more Jewish) without making him one sympathetic with the zealot cause. Still, zealotry peaks through in certain clues. For example, Jesus and his disciples are armed (with two swords) when the priests come to arrest him. That a whole group of people had to arrest Jesus suggests to Brandon that he was actually dangerous, and the two swords (largely to fulfill prophecy, the Gospel writers say) is probably a somewhat twisting of reality to make Jesus seem to not be a rebel rouser. His true danger is shown in how he cleans the temple of moneychangers, a job that, as Brandon notes, likely involved more that just one man (he makes a good point that a single man would likely have been arrested--unless there were others participating or, as is more probably, others sympathetic to his views to prevent the police from interfering). Brandon also masterfully twists Jesus's talk about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's into a statement of subterfuge in support of zealot beliefs about not paying taxes to Rome.

In light of these ideas, Brandon points to, it seems unlikely that the Jewish people were responsible for Christ's death as much as the Roman authorities, who saw him as being as dangerous as the Jewish powerholders, who were in sympathy with Rome. The Gospels deliberately obfuscate this point so as to not arouse the ire of Rome against Christians. It is, by the time the Gospels are written, Brandon thus claims, Pauline Christianity that is winning out: a view of Jesus as coming for sin for the whole world rather than a Jesus who comes to redeem solely Israel and that largely by wielding power (either in this life or in some future return).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

On "The Lurking Fear" by H. P. Lovecraft (8173 words) *****

One of the stronger Lovecraft stories, this one shows off many of Lovecraft's standard techniques and proclivities. It involves a reporter who goes in search of "the lurking fear." An entire village of townsfolk disappears. The reporter goes with some aids, who als disappear. One night, staying in a house, his partner goes to the window upon seeing something intriguing--when he doesn't speak or turn around, the reporter goes up to him and finds his face has been mauled off. The fear, the reporter comes to believe, might have something to do with a family that once lived in the house, specifically with one man who was murdered. But the truth, as the story unfolds, is something ghastlier than a ghost. Read the story here.

On "Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories" by H. P. Lovecraft **

I first came across Lovecraft as a clerk in a bookstore years ago, though I was not, at that time, tempted to read him. I am not a fan of horror fiction, and the lurid covers of the two books we carried by him did not impress. However, I've come to know him in other ways, through the work of others who read him and were influenced by him, most notably Paul Bowles. But one can also see echoes of his predescessor Poe and a certain echo in the work of Latin America's fantastic realists. There is a gothicism and faux intellectualism that appeals in a way, as well as a certain ghost-tale folksiness. What does not appeal, for me, is his tendency to play up the weirdness, naming places and people by ancient made-up names, making it all not just surreal but clearly a world of fantasy so that the horror is of little true horror, even as he tells us how scary and horrifying everything is.

Year ago, I finally read a story of Lovecraft's online, a submarine adventure that proved actually really good--I was hoping for more with this book. Alas, it was not to be. The stories were strange but rarely carried much weight beyond that.

The first two tales in this collection introduce readers to Lovecraft's world. They are essentially histories, explanations of peoples and places, more than actual tales. It's with "The Terrible Old Man" that we begin to see actual plotlines and characters.

Many of the stories center on men coming face-to-face with what I might call "the eternal"--be it death or some spiritual force beyond the ability of our physical minds to fathom. This encounter generally results in a man's disappearance--and for those left behind a token of some sort of transformation that has occurred. For Lovecraft, then, this is what horror is: an encounter with the awesome that we should not behold. This doesn't necessarily equate to fear on the part of the reader (in fact, it rarely does) but rather fascination. Such is the case in a story such as "Hypnos," which recounts two men facing their own nightmares. The survivor of the tale finds that his friend is turned into some kind of statuette, one that others think the narrator himself has carved. If one is pulled along by the story it is by the descriptions not so much by suspense of what will happen.

The collection begins to draw to a close with a set of stories about one Randolph Carter, who descends into the land of dreams to search for, once again, "the eternal"--in this case the old ones/gods and the sunset city. The longest of these tales is more of a novella than a short story, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Here, as in many of the stories, familiar scenes and characters from other stories materialize. We visit, multiple times, Ulthar, which has become a land peopled by cats. All of this is in pursuit of the aforesaid sunset city. While a quest might make for good reading--I was reminded quite a bit of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings--here, the work plays out more like a medieval romance. The character undergoes various trials and performs various exploits among ghouls and other grotesque creatures, but the work seems more episodic than one with a culminating plot. In the end, the character finds that what he seeks is actually the landscape of his childhood.

And that's where the next story takes us--to Carter's childhood. Or rather, it is the story of Carter's disappearance as an older man, with a flashback to a time when he discovered "The Silver Key" that allows him to venture into this dream world. The next story, "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," focuses in part on the search for Carter and in part on Carter's adventures once he walks into the land of the silver key, reminiscent of the Kadath story explained above.

The title story of the collection involves a haunted house of sorts--a place wherein the lead character has bad dreams each night, dreams that he slowly comes to realize are in fact a reality of sorts. Too late, however, for he eventually succumbs to the evil. The house is later torn down. The last story in the collection, "The Shadow out of Time," focuses on a man who has amnesia for a few years, taking on the life of another, but who discovers that his body was actually taken over by another for a time, as their is an ancient race that lives on in and through others as it travels across space/time.

The macabre and strange, fanciful elements mixed with seeming historical detail place Lovecraft's New England work in the realm of Nathaniel Hawthorne, while his tone often makes him seem reminiscent of Poe. Both earlier writers have much to recommend them, but both also tend to be less than satisfying on some levels for modern readers, or at least this modern reader. I could say the same of Lovecraft's work.

Monday, January 1, 2018

On "Better to Lose an Eye" by Jamie Quatro (4192 words) ****

Quatro is often at her best with stories involving religion. "Better to Lose an Eye" takes a rather standard look at hypocrisy among Christians, but what is not standard is the point of view. Lindsey's mother's boyfriend shot her mom, leaving her a quadriplegic with a tracheotomy. Now Lindsey has been invited to a pool party, and she's too embarrassed to go with her mom in tow, especially knowing all the questions she's going to be asked. But grandma insists. It's hard not to feel for a girl in this situation--or for a mom. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "Nectar in a Sieve" by Kamala Markandaya ****

I needed a short, small book to read during travels recently and picked this book of my wife's off the shelf. In most ways a sad work, the book is a narrative probably equivalent to the lives of many people in this world and a great reminder of the blessings we have here in the first world.

The narrator is one of the later daughters of a family in India. As such, she has little in the way of a dowry, so although her upbringing allowed her to learn to read, she ends up marrying a peasant rice farmer--a man who rents the land that he farms.

As she ages, she learns better how to support her husband. She makes friends among the villagers. She has a daughter. She has trouble having more children and visits a doctor, who helps her to have several sons. The family struggles through good times and bad, living off the land, living in a hut the father built, dealing with heavy rains and no rains. Once in a while, they get a treat, like some extra spices for their food, their bowl of rice. A tannery moves into the village, and lives begin to change.

Some of the sons get involved with the labor movement. One gets killed. The daughter, in order to support the youngest child, goes into prostitution. None of the sons go into peasant farming. Some go work for the tannery; some go to work for the medical field. They may or may not be bettering themselves, as the pay is always low, basically subsistence.

If this were an American dream story, hard work would pay off. But this is not. This is third world. A life on the farm leads not to the dream of buying the land but to being kicked off the land as it is sold and having nowhere to go but to one's poor children or to the beggar house.

The language of the book is simple. It reads like what one would expect from a woman living in poor circumstances. One reason for this is likely also the woman's naivete and trustingness. Her husband can have an affair, and she figures it fair because she had trouble bearing sons. Her neighbor can demand food, and she gives it, though she can ill afford it. She leaves her belongings behind in the middle of a city in order to get a meal for herself and her husband and finds them gone when she returns.

Friday, December 29, 2017

On "A Decent Life" by Peter Meinke (4047 words) *****

This great story from one of Meinke's collections recounts the life of a man who is discovered to be having an affair. The issue: He lives in a totalitarian society, and his wife is the one who reports him. As such, the government's ultimate control of the two lovers means that they can be compelled toward actions that they would not otherwise contemplate, enough that choices about life are altered forever. Read the story here at VQR.

On "The Buffalo Creek Mining Disaster" by Gerald M. Stern ****

Although this book will give you a summary of this ecological disaster, but it is less about the disaster itself and more about the litigation that would follow it. As such, it's a great book for those interested in the process of lawyering. As a book about ecology, it's not as engaging. What the book did do was remind me to a large extent why I dislike our court system so much.

The book is written from the point of view of the litigater who would bring suit on behalf of about six hundred people affected by the disaster. As one discovers, both sides are inherently interested in getting as much as they can (or giving as little as they can). The people affected by the disaster, indeed the problems that become inherent in the disaster, seem to fall into the background, even if the litigater's intent is both to make the disaster painful enough that the mining company responsible will take more careful actions in the future and to get better compensation for the people involved.

In the end, who makes the money? Who is hurt?

The disaster is the result of some poorly built slag dams that hold refuse from the mining process and hold back a river. Below these dams are several small communities. After a heavy rainfall, the dams give way and many watch their homes and families wash away. Over one hundred die.

The mining company offers people about $4,000 dollars in compensation to each family affected by the loss of a home. This is the early 1970s, so that's more like $24,000 in today's terms. This is rural West Virginia, but that's still not enough really to pay for the home, let alone the deaths caused by the disaster. That should be enough to make one angry.

The mining company claims what happened was an act of God, an accident, something out of its control. Stern shows the detective work involved in trying to find evidence that the company has been reckless, a point of importance if he is to get as much compensation for his clients as he wants. He eventually shows that the company knew of the problems with the dams, which the company itself refuses to call dams so as to prevent itself from being liable. Likewise, the company claims it can't be responsible, since it's just a holding company for the actual company responsible, another tactic to get off the hook for the disaster.

This is what's so disgusting to me about the whole process. The company does its utmost to avoid paying out fair compensation to those affected by using various legal maneuvers, all to preserve profit. At the same time, there's another part of me that has a hard time believing that the company (or at least a number of the people involved) is that cold hearted. Would it deliberately create weak dams? Compensation may be weak, but too generous a compensation would destroy the company completely.

I was reminded of a film about a small investment company that was mostly obliterated in the 9/11 attack. The president of the company, who'd lost his own brother in the attack, promised to keep paying families the salaries of the dead workers; in short order, however, he realized that he couldn't afford to do so, and cut the families off much earlier than expected. People were angry about his greed. But if the company was to survive, he had to stop compensation. Either way the victims lose out. Sometimes, there's greed, and sometimes there's making ends meet in order to keep people working who are still able to work.

Stern eventually gets about $13,000 in compensation for his clients, or about $81,000 in today's dollars, which might cover a house in the area. He does so by asking for about five times that much and then settling for the smaller sum. He does so by claiming psychological trauma (what would become known as PTSD) for his victims, even those away at the time of the disaster. From that $13,000, people have to pay legal fees of about $4000, leaving them with just roughly twice what the company was going to shell out anyway. They're moderately better off.

But who's much better off are the lawyers on both sides, who make essentially about $75 an hour on the deal (forty thousand hours of work for the litigater). Such a case provides lots of work--granted, work that Stern and his company would not have ever gotten paid for unless the case was won, since they were working pro bono. That's the sad part to me, that if the company had been a bit more generous and sympathetic to begin with, and if a lawsuit could have been avoided, the victims would have been much better off and the company too. Instead, third-party lawyers cost both parties a huge chunk of dough.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

On “The Man from Allston Electric” by Daphne Kalotay (4855 words) ***

"The Man from Allston Electric" deals with longing much like many of Kalotay's other stories do. This time, the longing is in the form of an electrician who comes to check on why an outlet isn't working. Rhea thinks of how much she misses her boyfriend--and has missed out on so many other chances for love. Read the story here at Agni.

On "The Killer inside Me" by Jim Thompson *****

This was the first work I read by Jim Thompson, around a decade ago now. I read it in conjunction with a number of other crime novels. I was impressed in part because, well, I'd known of Thompson for some time, but in the midst of other classic crime novels, it did not stick out perhaps as much as it would have in another type of list, such as this one. I still rated it my second-favorite on that list. Now, having reread my two favorites from that list, I can say that this one was actually better on a second read--and rightfully stands as perhaps Thompson's masterpiece.

It has much in common with Pop. 1280, which I'd recently read--both are about killer sheriffs. But where that one plays things much more for laughs, this one is a bit more serious. That sheriff is over-the-top in acting dumb, and he doesn't let readers in on it: we have to discover such for ourselves. But in this book, the sheriff, Lou Ford, pretty clearly to us readers reveals his cards early on: that he's putting on an act. In a way, I think that works better.

Ford suffers from, he says, "the sickness." There are, I suppose, some psychological dimensions going back to his childhood, not wholly interesting or convincing. What's more interesting is to watch how one action spirals into the set that follows, one murder becomes many more to cover it up.

The work proves suspenseful as one watches Ford attempt to cover each crime. Finally, as the murders mount up, one's feelings for the victims begin to come to the fore. It's not so much that one hates Ford--he becomes more and more pitiful--but one hates what he does to others.