Review 2005: Rose Nicolson

It’s 1575. Mary Queen of Scots has been ousted from the throne of Scotland in favor of her young son James and a series of regents. This revolution has been mostly a religious one, with Queen Mary a Catholic and James (referred to as Jamie Saxe) being raised Protestant. But there is also a struggle between the Calvinists and milder forms of Protestantism.

This struggle is reflected in the home of young William Fowler, whose father is a Calvinist and whose mother, with contacts in Queen Mary’s court, is French and Catholic. However, William’s father is accidentally killed during a siege on Embra. Now William is off on the Sonsie Quine to school at St. Andrews. On the ship, he meets a red-haired boy who asks to borrow his dirk. This meeting proves fateful, as William finds out years later that the boy is Watt Scott of Buccleuch. (For Dorothy Dunnett readers, I believe this is the grandson of the man of the same name in the Lymond chronicles.)

William has an affinity for poetry, and at school he befriends another scholar, Tom Nicolson. He struggles within himself over the religious issue as he feels pressure to commit one way or the other. He also falls in love with Rose Nicolson, Tom’s beautiful sister, a fisher girl with a remarkable mind.

As the King gets older, the Catholics and Protestants compete to control him. The country remains Protestant with the Calvinists gaining power while the Catholic side gains strength at court with the arrival of a favorite from France.

As he approaches graduation, William wants to marry Rose, but she is betrothed to a fisherman with the influence to protect her. She needs this protection because her remarks have been misunderstood as evidence of witchcraft.

William, despite himself, is forced closer to deciding between the two religions and finally decides that Protestantism is the least bad alternative. He also meets Scott again and is drawn into political intrigue.

This is not dry stuff. Greig is great at depicting the realities of living in this difficult time and place. I was fascinated from page one. This novel became part of my Walter Scott prize project by getting on the shortlist, but being a fan of Greig, I had already read it.

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Review 1856: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

First, let me say that I am not a religious person, furthermore, that I have a big problem with how many people practice their religion, especially if it involves war. I believe one of my brothers feels the same, so I was surprised when he recommended Zealot to me.

Reza Aslan is not so much interested in Jesus Christ as in Jesus of Nazareth, that is, not in the ministry of Jesus or the beliefs about him, but the actual man—what can be found about him from the earliest and most reliable sources. This examination involves placing utterances and events in their proper context, not as we understand them today.

The result is eye-opening, starting with the story of his birth, for example. For Aslan reveals this story as a construct by the writers of the gospels—all written well after his death—to support messianic claims. The messiah was supposed to be a descendant of David, which meant he had to be born in Bethlehem. There was indeed a tax levied, but on Judea, and it would never have required the populace to travel to pay it, as taxes were levied in the place of residence. Jesus’s parents lived in Galilee and so were not subject to that tax. Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth all his life, as he was born in Nazareth.

One by one Aslan knocks down the myths that have risen around the life of Jesus and explains why these myths were created. Instead of the gentle soul that emerges from the gospels, we get a fighter for the poor and a strong supporter of the laws of Moses who never intended his teachings for anyone but Jews.

One of the myths is that Jews killed Jesus, not the Romans. Aslan explains that after his death, the new religion shifted from being a sect that was always meant to be a form of Judaism to one that began to recruit gentiles. As Rome was the base of many of these activities, the writers of the gospels had to find a way to appease Rome. They couldn’t come out and say Jesus was killed by Rome. So, to quote Aslan, “Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s 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.” And wait until you read what this book says about Paul.

This book is an eye-opener, written by an acclaimed scholar of religion.

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Review 1839: #1954 Club! Go Tell It on the Mountain

Reading Go Tell It on the Mountain checked off some boxes for me. Not only does it qualify for the 1954 Club, but it is on my Classics Club list. In addition, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Baldwin.

Fourteen-year-old John Grimes is in rebellion. His stepfather, Gabriel, is a deacon in a Black Pentacostal church. Gabriel is a man who believes himself bound for heaven, but John sees his faults. He is self-righteous and treats John harshly while he is kinder to his own scapegrace son. He is cruel to John’s mother, Elizabeth, because she had John out of wedlock. He has other faults that John doesn’t know about but Gabriel’s sister Florence does. John sees his hypocrisy and that of the “saints,” as the novel calls the church faithful, and stands aloof from the frenzied religious services.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first explores John’s frame of mind. The second is divided into thirds, which explore the thoughts of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Finally, in the third section, John is forced to confront his feelings in a service at church.

This novel is powerful, and its language is masterful. As I am an atheist, it’s hard for me to conceive of the characters’ mindset, in which everything is about the acceptance or rejection of God and all others are sinners. I thought it was interesting to explore this world, but I found especially the last, hallucinogenic section, and the resolution of John’s dilemma, to be a bit too much.

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Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1621: Bewildering Cares

Camilla Lacely has been asked by a friend to tell her more about her life in a letter, so she decides to keep a diary for a week. Aside from daily entries, though, this diary reads more like a first-person narrative.

Camilla is the wife of a vicar running a household on very little money, attempting to attend numerous meetings every day, and trying to help parishioners so they don’t all bother her husband with concerns as silly as what the railroad schedule is. Her cares range from how to afford a new hat to how to provide dinner for an unexpected visit by the archdeacon to how to be more attentive to her religious thoughts and prayers.

This novel is touching and amusing, although I occasionally found it bewildering. As an unreligious American from another time, I didn’t always understand the references or jokes. Because of its focus on religion, I had more difficulty with it than with other novels from this period.

The novel does have a plot. It concerns the furor of the village residents when the unbending, self-righteous curate gives a sermon preaching pacifism. Since this novel takes place in the early days of World War II and many villagers have relatives in the war, this sermon causes an uproar.

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Review 1504: The Curate’s Awakening

Thomas Wingfold is a curate who was brought up in the church but has never really considered what his beliefs are. When he is challenged by a cynical university man, George Bascombe, to prove that Christ even lived, he realizes he can’t do it. This sends him into a crisis of faith, during which he tries to form his own beliefs.

Helen Lingard is George’s cousin, a young woman who is described as someone who has never thought before. George comes to believe he can mold her thought to match his, in which case she might make a wonderful wife. However, Helen finds she needs someone to turn to when her beloved brother, Leopold, returns home in desperate trouble. After the curate begins preaching more heart-felt sermons about his search, she decides to confide in him.

This novel, written in 1876, is part of a trilogy called The Curate of Glaston, and it is meant to have a spiritual message. As such, it wasn’t a good choice for me, especially as it goes into great detail about Thomas’s conversations with his mentor and his sermons. It is perfectly readable, though, if you are interested in such a subject. I was, in fact, interested to find out what happened to Helen and Leopold, but although I tried very hard to finish this book, I couldn’t.

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Review 1360: Abide with Me

Cover for Abide with MeElizabeth Strout is known for her compassionate explorations of true-to-life characters. Set in the late 1950’s, Abide with Me explores the states of mind of Tyler Caskey, a troubled minister, and his congregation.

Tyler is in mourning for his wife, who passed away from cancer. His mother has insisted on caring for his youngest daughter, Jeanne, while his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, lives with him.

Tyler is afraid he has lost his relationship with God. He is performing his duties without joy or inspiration. Katherine is having troubles in Kindergarten, because her teacher can’t understand that she is grieving. Aside from this, Tyler only feels comfortable talking to his housekeeper, Connie, and rumors are beginning to go around.

Misunderstandings divide the minister from his congregation. Strout builds tension as the pressures upon the minister build.

This is another insightful and touching novel by Strout. In some ways, it reminded me of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, except that it doesn’t require as much erudition to understand it.

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Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1136: The Wonder

Cover for The WonderLib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, journeys to a small village in Ireland to take on a two-week case. Her assumption that she is being hired by a wealthy family that can afford to bring a nurse out from England turns out to be false. She has been hired by a committee to observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who has reportedly not eaten for months. Her job is to make sure whether the girl is actually eating or not.

At first, Lib suspects that Anna is perpetrating a hoax, but slowly she realizes that the deeply religious girl believes she is living on manna from heaven. Still, she finds the people of the village steeped in ignorance and superstition, the local doctor incompetent, and her employers with a vested interest in a miracle. Her only confidante becomes someone she shouldn’t even be talking to—William Byrne, a journalist.

link to NetgalleyAs Anna shows unmistakable signs of starvation and imminent death, Lib eventually finds out what is going on, but no one believes her. Suspense builds as you wonder whether and how Lib will be able to save Anna.

For me, this was a surprisingly good book. I didn’t think I would enjoy it based on the subject matter, and later, I could not imagine how it would end. It has a great deal of psychological depth and often feels like a mystery.

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