Book Review – “A Golden Age” by Tahmima Anam

a-golden-ageIn honour of today’s anniversary of the founding of Bangladesh, I give you — A Golden Age.

A year ago, I wrote about the launch of Tahmima Anam’s first novel, in my “Do I Want to Read Your Book?” series. Now I have accomplished my desire to read the book, and it has fulfilled everything that was promised that evening.

The book provides a bittersweet, personal tale of the events surrounding the creation of Bangladesh, as East Pakistan declared independence form Pakistan and fought for its own identity. While many of the events that befall the main family in the story are fictional, Ms. Anam reached into her personal history to base much of the tale on the life of her own grandmother. The account of everyday existence in the midst of turmoil appears simple at first, yet expands to reveal profound insights into personal identity in the context of family and country.

The events that led to the declaration of independence, and the troubling and frightening times that followed until it was finally achieved, weave almost seamlessly through the lives of the widow Rehana Haque and her two young adult children. While the young people have no doubts whatsoever about their own identity and allegiance, Rehana herself must struggle with hers: is she Bangladeshi, or does she truly belong in Pakistan, on the other side of India to the west, where she was born and grew up?

Rehana’s own trauma from previous losses stunts her and makes her afraid. Yet as she fights to protect her son and daughter — even while they plunge themselves deeply into the war for independence and remove themselves from her protection — she begins to fight also for herself. And as Bangladesh achieves its own identity, through tragedy, loss, and victory, she finds a way to recreate herself, both as a person and as a citizen of the new country.

A Golden Age does not get bogged down in the fine details of the politics and history of the war, but it does reveal them to the reader through the eyes of people who lived it all: the ideals, the betrayals, the battles, and the ultimate victory. The book is a story of exuberance, struggle, maturity, and identity — not just in the life of a newly-born country, but in the lives of the real people who gave birth to it.

[To read chapter one of this book online, visit the Shortcovers entry for A Golden Age.]

“The Book of Lies” by Brad Meltzer

bookoflies_smWho could resist a story that links Jerry Siegel’s creation of Superman with the first murder in history – the legendary Cain and Abel story? Brad Meltzer’s The Book of Lies makes that link, in a thriller with an intriguing premise that sweeps you along at a non-stop pace almost from the first.

Cal Harper, a young man who helps homeless people get off the streets, faces his own demons as he encounters his father 19 years after the man went to prison for being responsible for the death of his wife, Cal’s mother. But Lloyd Harper has become involved in a mildly shady deal that soon ensnares Cal as well, mushrooming into a quest for the ancient weapon that Cain used to kill Abel, at the beginning of human history.

Legendary weapons constitute a significant theme in this book, for the gun used to kill Superman-creator Siegel’s father, Mitchell, is also used to wound Lloyd Harper 75 years later. That gun, like Cain’s original weapon, has become almost an instrument of ritual, used in a revival of another primal theme. As Ellis Belasco, the villain of the piece, thinks to himself, “Of course. It had to come back to father and son. Just as it began with Adam and Cain. Just as it was with Mitchell and Jerry Siegel. It was the same when he’d first heard the truth about his own family – the lifelong lie his father had told him.”

The father-son theme or, more properly, the parent-child, weaves through the book as we discover in almost all the characters’ lives the fallout from parental loss, abuse, and abandonment. Yet Naomi, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who begins hunting both Ellis and the fleeing Cal and Lloyd, provides the balance in that equation: a parent whose first concern is the safety and security of her adopted son. Her love for the boy, and even Cal’s own work on the streets, offer a promise of redemption to counteract the tragedies.

The book isn’t perfect, of course. The occasional thing did feel a bit implausible. Would all the characters really always have deciphered the clues leading to the next step quite so quickly? It’s possible that they all actually were that good, but you did raise your eyebrows now and then. Still, it was always fun to see who would ambush whom, at the next step of the chase.

The discovery of the hard-sought documents, and the drama of the revelation of the shadowy person pulling strings behind the scene, lead finally to a sweet and moving conclusion as all themes in this book gather together at last. Yet the Big Truth at the end, the secret of the ages, is something of a letdown, a bit of a platitude.

But that’s not a flaw in this book, as such; it’s a problem with any book whose plot involves the Eternal Verities. Because the truly transcendent, legendary truths are so infinite and indescribable that, well, they’re indescribable. So while the grand human truth at the end of this book is indeed profound, by its (and our) very nature, it can’t live up to its advance PR. The Eternal Verities remain just out of our reach.

But the Verities aside, the story is a rather mad race from Miami to Cleveland and finally to Marina del Rey, California, creating an intriguing puzzle as you try to discern just who are the bad guys, and who are the good. And how the Book of Lies relates to, of all things, comic books.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who reads this genre, and even for those who (like me), often don’t. And for something extra, check out Brad Meltzer’s website, explore all the great goodies (there are a lot of them) connected with this book, visit his blog, find out about his favourite causes — be inspired.

The new Bookishgal blog

Bookish We interrupt the regularly scheduled “cultcha” in this blog to announce the relocation of the Bookishgal blog, for those who have followed it from That Other Place.

Voila! Bookishgal’s new home, at my own website. With posts, even!

Do stop by. Bring cake and champagne! I will try to entertain you.

“The Secret” by Beverly Lewis: this is what a “Christian novel” should be

"The Secret," by Beverly Lewis

My review in a nutshell? I loved this book.

I had read the blurb, so I knew a little of what would develop in Beverly Lewis’s latest Amish novel, The Secret, due out in April. But having this foreknowledge or not, I’d have kept reading. The action in the book was pretty low key, but that’s what you’d expect, since the plot features an Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Yet the story was sweet without being saccharine, a tale of a culture — personified by Grace Byler, the main character — that values community, good food, hearty work, and decent living.

I couldn’t put it down. Despite the rather strict rules in this community, you recognize the complexity of the relationships and the depths of the people’s feelings. And yes, you also see the difficulty these rules put the folk in, when their teaching against being preoccupied with “self” collides with a genuine crisis where they need, most of all, to be comforted.

You become truly interested in the members of the Byler family, wondering how they will cope with the crisis that strikes them, centred on their mother’s secret, and how they’ll choose their futures. The Amish way of life is presented not so much as “old fashioned” as it is simpler, more willing to share others’ joys and burdens than the one we readers come from. Reading about this community, you never feel condescending toward it. There might even be a little envy.

The book follows two plotlines: the main one, with Grace and her Amish family, and another featuring Heather, a young woman from the “outside” world, who faces a troubling medical diagnosis. At first these plots seem completely unrelated (apart from interesting parental parallels). But the stories finally begin to intersect near the end of the book, and you realize that they are going to intertwine more and more deeply.

But not in this book, not yet. Because I discovered, at the end, that this is only the first in a new series for Lewis: the “Seasons of Grace.” It’s a measure of her accomplishment that when I realized that the story will continue into other books, my first thought was, “Oh no, we have to wait to find out what happens now??”

I already can’t wait for the next book in this series. And having discovered Beverly Lewis and her novels, I want to read more. Although Lewis is a Christian novelist, the Christianity, in The Secret at least, was not preachy or in your face. The story of the people themselves was first and foremost, and never used as an excuse to sermonize or condemn.

Meanwhile, I have “a secret” of my own: my Mennonite ancestors moved up to Canada a century or so ago — from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The way this lovely region and its people were presented in the story made me feel the way Heather feels: that some day I must spend some time there, even if it’s just to walk and breathe.

“The Glister” makes me uneasy. Which was probably the point.

The Glister - John Burnside

You know going in that The Glister, by John Burnside, will take you to some extremely dark places. The very setting tells you this: a dying town, the Innertown, gradually fading over time after the local chemical plant was shut down. Even years after the shutdown, people in the town end up sick with strange diseases, and the residue of the chemicals has poisoned the air, the land, and the nearby forest. Even if there are plans afoot to rejuvenate the place, headed by one of the residents of the more prosperous Outertown (a man who always finds ways to profit from even the nastiest circumstances), no one really believes there will be improvements.

And so the Innertown residents just keep going through the motions, waiting for their inevitable illnesses, waiting for nothing to happen. The inertia sits on their souls like a heavy, dusty blanket.

And that’s just the setting for the story. Add to this the even darker, more sinister fact that five high school boys have disappeared one by one in recent years, the townspeople maintaining the fiction that the boys have just skipped town unexpectedly, and you anticipate a lot of gloom, and probably even horror.

Which is why you root so hard for Leonard, the high school boy at the centre of the story. He seems so aware, so determined to figure things out. You really believe that he will both solve the mystery of the murders (because everyone knows those disappearances were murders) and will even manage to escape this grim town and make a real future for himself. He is the one who thinks about what’s really at stake, unlike his nymphomaniac girlfriend, who doesn’t think about much at all, despite her own inner unease that leads her constantly to seek the comfort of sex.

But even when Leonard does seem to find a way to escape, it’s not a happy thing, and it never lifts the dark burden from your shoulders. There are so many questions left unanswered, and it’s hard to tell if that was author Burnside’s intention, or if he believed he actually was providing some type of answer.

If it’s the latter, then the reader needs to do some heavy lifting to discover what it is. Is it that there probably is no real hope, in the end? Or that the only way to shake people out of hopeless inertia is to do something outright evil? Can committing specific terrible acts ever atone for or cleanse the sin of not acting at all?

Or is the final answer a variation on the Buddhist doctrine that the only way to escape suffering is to abandon all attachments to loved ones, to the world, and even to life? Wasn’t that what the townspeople had already done? An answer that risks circling us right back to the “there is no real hope” answer.

Or could it possibly be that the nympho girlfriend, in her endless search for sex, which could be interpreted as a quest for something life-affirming, will actually be the one to crack the inertia and finally achieve something positive?

Or is the whole thing really metaphorical, with “Innertown” and “Outertown” perhaps meant to link a shiny-but-fake outer life with the deadness of one’s inner life?

It’s probably a good sign that I want to reread the book, just to try to get a better handle on the possible answers (if there are any) and what Burnside was getting at. (**)

If it does nothing else, The Glister will certainly prompt you to think — hard — about what constitutes evil, not to mention whether there are ever any genuine solutions to it. That may have been Burnside’s ultimate goal in writing his book.

(** There may in fact be an answer to my own questions about the answer, in the suggested Reader’s Guide that the publisher, Doubleday, provides for reading groups.)

Rene Descartes: the father of us all?

Descartes' Bones

The paradox, of course, is that after Descartes horrified the church by splitting mind from body, the church now relies on Descartes’ work in its frantic attempts to stop their reunion. And thus the French philosopher triggered the “faith versus reason” debate that continues to this day, while providing both sides in the battle with their principle weapons.

Russell Shorto chronicles a fascinating history of modern thought in his Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. Taking the fate of the philosopher’s remains as a skeleton (sorry) upon which to hang his narrative, Shorto follows the growing debate that resulted from a simple declaration: “I think, therefore I am,” or in Latin, “Cogito, ergo sum.

It’s almost impossible, now, to grasp just how revolutionary Descartes’ work was. But Shorto does a thorough job of trying to describe the massive shift in thinking between the Before and After. In fact, as Descartes’ bones were continually dug up and moved from place to place over the years, the process of evaluating their authenticity mirrored the latest developments of thought that this shift created.

Before, one viewed the world through “received knowledge,” that is, assumptions about the world decreed by some authority. In Descartes’ time, that authority was the church, combining the biblical and Aristotelian world views. These assumptions weren’t justified by anything — they were simply there, and everything else was derived from them. For example, no one thought to ask whether angels actually existed; people devoted all their efforts instead to imagining the angelic hierarchies and angels’ divine substance.

Descartes changed all that, using doubt as a method and stripping away everything that was believed simply because “someone said so,” trying instead to find the absolutely certain, bedrock fact upon which we could build an edifice of reliable knowledge. He found it inside our own minds, where there was a “thinking thing.” If thinking was going on, something was there, doing the thinking. You couldn’t even deny the claim without thinking about it, and thereby proving it.

From that point, the floodgates opened. One’s own mind became the instrument of acquiring knowledge, the use of doubt and the requirement of proof becoming its method. From this seed grew countless new scientific enterprises, and even in religious and political circles, one’s individuality before God or the state became paramount.

But this use of doubt and this “thinking thing” became a problem, separating mind from body. Nobody could devise a way to meld the two again, or to explain how an immaterial mind could have any influence on a physical body. Except the materialists, who were quite prepared to identify the mind with the physical brain, so that nothing like a “soul” was required to explain anything about a human being.

And this was when the church found itself having to keep mind and body separate, to prevent the human soul from being done away with entirely, and to prevent itself from going out of business. Never having wanted the split in the first place, it recognized that healing it in this fashion would be even worse. So the religious establishment is still forced to use modern thinking and modern methods — all stemming from Descartes’ revolutionary work — to battle other results of the same work. It’s not a pleasant dilemma.

Shorto follows the historical debates with meticulous research, yet his narrative never becomes dull, nor the facts too heavy. He clearly explains how today’s “culture wars” constantly replay the battle that began in 1637 with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method. Many philosophers have abandoned the idea that the mind/body problem can ever be solved, though Shorto believes that Descartes himself might have been close to finding an answer, by adding human love to the equation.

Unfortunately, the philosopher died before he could succeed, and so the “faith versus reason” battle continues raging. Russell Shorto has done a thorough and fascinating job of chronicling how it developed, as he followed the journey of Descartes’ bones through space and through history.

(For a bonus treat, check out Russell Shorto himself, in this video, discussing his book.)

Leaving fundamentalism

Leaving Fundamentalism, ed. G. Elijah Dann

Leaving Fundamentalism, ed. G. Elijah Dann

We’re like a bunch of PTSD sufferers comparing notes on how we all got shell-shocked. We’re all a bit…twitchy.

A reviewer should maintain some objectivity to do justice to the book she reviews — as I’m attempting, with Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The catch is that like the book’s editor, University of Victoria Research Fellow G. Elijah Dann, and like those who tell their stories in this book, I myself am an ex-fundamentalist.

A fundamentalism-survivor, as it were.

But that’s the point, the common theme running through these stories: the writers were damaged by that world view, many giving the impression they only just escaped with their sanity.

Virtually all describe their experience of being convinced of the doctrines of their church, convinced they have a personal relationship with God, and often making plans to “do God’s work” through some sort of ministry. They frequently enter via an emotional appeal, and firmly believe that through the indwelling power of God’s Spirit, they can overcome sin and live a victorious life.

Then the cracks appear. Sin is not overcome — and it’s never the fault of the teachings — it’s always the believer’s fault, no matter how devout and prayerful and committed they are. Or a dissonance appears, between what fellow believers say in public and how they behave in private. Or — the worst sin of all — the believer asks a question.

Fundamentalism insists on adherence to a rigid set of doctrines, so even an honest question is viewed suspiciously. Pat answers are provided, but if questions continue, other believers attack the questioner, reinforcing the impression that fundamentalism’s simplistic, black-and-white world view can’t handle the real world.

Some of these writers retained a belief in God or some form of spirituality, while others, trained in the fundamentalist “all or nothing” mentality, decided, “Well, then — nothing.” But always their departure from this movement was a painful, seismic upheaval.

Jacob Shelley, in “Life Stages,” describes the “contempt and scorn” with which his wife’s family treated both of them: “…a letter in which she beseeched her parents to accept her decision to marry me … resulted in the bulk of her family — in the name of God, peace, and love — cutting her out of their lives. Their righteous indignation has also led them to reject any interaction with our newborn daughter, their only grandchild so far.”

Julie Rak, in “Looking Back at Sodom,” relates how she could no longer deny she was a lesbian, despite fundamentalist teachings about homosexuality. Her honesty led to a divorce, with the resulting repercussions for her husband and children.

This book will enlighten ex-fundamentalists along with those having no experience in the movement. The fundamentalist mindset appears in places I’d never have expected, such as a group with Marxist beliefs, living as the early Christians did in the Book of Acts. Yet the church I attended would have attacked these people too, for not being “real Christians.” Such is the rigidity of fundamentalism.

I had few issues with anything in this book. In the earlier stories, I felt the writers skimmed over their internal thought process, so I didn’t fully understand why they left. I kept wondering, “What were you actually thinking at the time?”

Many gave detailed descriptions, though. In “The Jesus Lizard,” James Fieser’s story closely resembles mine: an intellectual inability to believe the fundamentalist story, for lack of evidence or coherence. Fieser also encapsulates one of the most poignant reasons why a believer would begin to question. He describes how his friend’s family was swept away in a flood, and “while he wasn’t bothered by the good Lord’s handling of the situation, I was. I felt it was odd that while Alan prayed for the safety of his family, all that was granted was the life of his dog.”

This book will give non-fundamentalists some astonishing insight into how otherwise rational, humane people might plunge into such an anti-rational, harsh world view, and why it’s so hard for them to escape.

But for former fundamentalists, reliving their — our — own traumatic experiences through these stories, the understanding will go much deeper. We will think to ourselves, in relief and empathy, “I was not alone.”

[Note: Thanks so much to Mini Book Expo, where I learned about this book and was able to request a review copy.]