AMC breaks for a commercial halfway through the restaurant scene with Sollozzo. An absolute crime.
I’ve always been curious about the life of Jesus, or what of it can be accounted for outside the New Testament. It’s a topic so burdened with sensitive beliefs and emotions, that it’s a little hard to approach with casual interest.
In Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the author acknowledges that neither the Gospels nor their authors were contemporary to Jesus’s life, and that the Gospels were not meant to be historically literal accounts of it. But since there is little else to go by, he analyzes them against what is known about first century Palestine.
Aslan’s thesis is that the historical Jesus led one of a succession of Jewish rebellions and movements against Roman occupiers and corrupt Temple priests. To Jesus, being the messiah would have meant re-establishing the kingdom of David, and ridding his homeland of these malign influences. The fact of his crucifixion meant, in the eyes of contemporaries who weren’t his devotees, that he was not really the messiah. It wasn’t until after the Romans finally crushed the Jewish revolts and destroyed both Jerusalem and the Temple that Jesus’s martyrdom was reinterpreted as “messianic,” and then mostly among non-Jews influenced by Paul of Tarsus.
Aslan dismisses the magical (or miraculous, if you like) stuff, including the resurrection, as a matter of faith and beyond the bounds of historical analysis. So, except to say that magicians weren’t unusual in that place and time, but were considered subversive, he doesn’t take a position on any of it.
I read through Aslan’s extensive endnotes. They are rendered in essay form— something I don’t usually like— but he’s pretty thorough and summarizes opposing viewpoints. I’d love to see this guy’s library.
In the notes Aslan frequently refers to scholarship suggesting that the lack of contemporary references means that in his lifetime Jesus was basically a nobody special; just another zealot from the boondocks. It was the Christians of the early church who made him into Christ, an orthodoxy that was only enforced as Christianity became a state religion. Christian beliefs that Jesus was not God were exterminated soon after.
The splash page of the Lonely Planet website is elegantly simple: a search box already filled with an exotic destination like “Macedonia,” on a background photo depicting one of that destination’s amazing attractions (in Macedonia’s case, a castle perched on a hill).
I sighed, and typed in “Des Moines.”
According to Lonely Planet:
Des Moines, meaning ‘of the monks’ not ‘in the corn’ as the surrounding fields might suggest, is Iowa’s snoozy capital. The town really is rather dull, but does have one of the nation’s best state capitols and state fairs. Pause, but then get out and see the state.
This is a typically sneering assessment and yet, quite accurate.
We had tickets for the Broadway tour of the musical Wicked this afternoon. The Des Moines Civic Center was completely packed for it. Wicked, the book by Gregory Maguire, is one of my favorites. I own it and have read it several times, which was a slight distraction from enjoying the musical, but not too much. There are a lot of layers to contend with, though: the musical is based on Maguire’s book, which in turn is alternate perspective on L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 film adaptation The Wizard of Oz.
Even though the show starts out like an parallel-universe Victorian Grease, it eventually takes on the ominous tone of the novel. The songs were very good, though none were truly catchy. The woman who played Glinda was especially funny (she invoked a lot of Carol Kane). Most impressive about the production was the way they used lighting to create patterns and effects. In the scene that concludes the first act, the character Elphaba floats in the dark at the apex of a cone of light beams which make her look giant and supernatural.
We had a hundred Girl Scouts— Brownies, actually— in the park today. I’ve never seen so many pink shoelaces.
We never have to wonder anything any more. Whenever I catch myself thinking, “I wonder…” I then have to say, “Oh, yeah. There is a device somewhere within arm’s reach that will find the answer.” It’s empowering and a little depressing: once I wonder about something I am then obliged to look it up and obliterate the mystery.
Though I’ve neglected writing my “book reports,” I’ve been through plenty of books this year, part of an effort to be a little more well-read. Lately I’ve been exploring classic science fiction and one of its sub genres, alternate history. The alternate histories I read this summer and fall are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel, and Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. Along with Fatherland by Robert Harris (which I reported on a few years ago) these stories encompassed a formidable spread of approaches to the genre of alternate history.
The Man in the High Castle is set in a United States that lost the Second World War and is divided into puppet states dominated by Germany and Japan. The book’s historical divergence is pretty plausible. The assassination attempt on President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 is successful. The weak and incompetent presidents of the next decade leave the United States unprepared for the coming world war.
The book deals indirectly with how Americans might be disposed toward such an outcome. The Nazis are still bastards, of course, responsible for a monumental holocaust across Africa. Jews and blacks have largely disappeared from the United States, but most of the characters have accommodated themselves to their occupiers. In fact, many Americans express gratitude for the Axis’ extinguishing of world communism. It’s a good reminder that, if not for certain geopolitical calculations, we could have easily ended up on the other side of either world war. The most interesting turn of the plot is the emergence of a popular but subversive alternate history novel that hypothesizes an American and British victory over the Germans and Japanese.
The Years of Rice and Salt is both deep and sprawling . The historical divergence isn’t really plausible— the Black Death of the 14th century wipes out the entire population of Europe (as in, literally, the land between the Urals, Caucuses, Mediterranean, and Atlantic, as if diseases could confine themselves to artificially conceived geographic designations). The characters don’t dwell much on this puzzle; the mysterious plague is simply a handy device for imagining several centuries where Islamic and Chinese civilizations dominate the world.
Robinson’s stories are pretty erudite, steeped in science and philosophy along with history. This can make his books a little know-it-allish and tedious to read, but he constructs a sturdy fictional world for his characters to inhabit. The plot threads its way down the centuries through main characters reincarnated into different periods of world history. The most enjoyable chapter takes place in 17th century Samarkand and chronicles a Muslim gunpowder manufacturer who, under the patronage of the local khan, develops the scientific method as he investigates various natural mysteries.
For Want of Nail is in some ways the most remarkable of the three books. Rather than relate the alternate history through the plot of novel, the book is the alternate history, presented as an academic work, complete with footnotes, bibliography, even a critique by a dissenting historian. The subtitle, “If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga,” is the only evidence of its self-awareness as a work of fiction. The academic conceit of the book makes it a bit of a slog to read through, but I felt it paid off to stick with it.
The historical divergence of For Want of a Nail, as the subtitle suggests, is the British victory in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1778. Which is pretty plausible; there was more than a little luck involved in the War of Independence, which the author wryly illustrates through his pro-loyalist persona. George Washington’s tactical blunders, the fractiousness of the colonies, the unpreparedness of the Continental Army to take on the world mightiest power— the Revolution seems an ill-conceived adventure in a parallel universe, doesn’t it?
The war lost, moderates in Congress negotiate a settlement with London which reconstitutes the colonies as part of the empire in a Commonwealth-style association, the Confederation of North America, or CNA (the 13 colonies plus the Canadian colonies and the Old Northwest). The surviving rebels and their fellow travelers decamp to the frontier lands of New Spain (paralleling the flight of loyalists to Canada), where they set up their own republic called Jefferson (our Texas). Their leaders co-opt the Mexican Revolution and establish the United States of Mexico, or USM (comprising the territories of Mexico as they were before the Mexican-American War, including California and Arizona).
Some of the early characters are familiar, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Dickinson, John Burgoyne, John C. Calhoun, and most importantly Andrew Jackson. But as the timeline progresses, familiar names and events disappear. There is no French Revolution of 1789, no American Civil War, no Second World War; no Napoleon, no Lincoln, no Hitler
The most peculiar development in For Want of a Nail is the rise of a huge multinational corporation, Kramer Associates, which from the California gold rush to dominate Mexico as an vertical industrial monopoly and becomes a world power as a non-state actor, even being the first to develop atomic weapons.
As the CNA and the USM square off in North America, Sobel uses them to play out the dual personality of the United States. The CNA is progressive, egalitarian, peaceful and isolationist, broadly industrialized and prone to quixotic social reforms. The USM is conservative, racially and economically stratified, militaristic, and expansionist. Slavery persists there well into the 20th century, and occasional draconian measures accompany a devolution into authoritarianism and dictatorship.
I also read this summer, as part of a collection of short alternate history stories, Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, about life in the United States after Confederate victory at Gettysburg. By the early 20th century the United States is decrepit and impoverished, at the mercy of predatory foreign interests, including the Confederate States. The main character, an expert on the Battle of Gettysburg, takes his academic investigations to extraordinary. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I wish you would read it, along with some of these other stories.
Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!
Walt Kelly, The Pogo Papers
The song “No Air” by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown reminds me of the movie Total Recall. When Sparks sings, “Tell me how I’m supposed to breath with no air,” all I can think of is:
“Come on, Cohaagen… give those people ee-agh!”
The photograph I most regret not taking was this:
I was driving along Interstate 10 in Mississippi several years ago. The night before someone must have driven a car right into a big highway sign. One of the legs was completely mangled and the other was bent. The sign looked like it had come to life, started walking along the shoulder, and then froze mid-step as if the life had gone out of it as suddenly as it appeared. The highway department fixed the sign before I got around to photographing it.
Around the eighth inning of tonight’s dismal game, Lore asked me when last times the Red Sox won the World Series. In 2004 and 2007, I told her.
“And 2004 was the bad one?” she asked, referring to when the unspeakable happened.
“It’s always bad when they win,” I said.
“Your national anthem is beautiful,” Lore said after watching a country music trio do the honors before game four. “But it is very easy to fuck up when the wrong person sings it.” She expects everyone to sing it the way Whitney Houston did.
We took a short walk through Hickory Hill Park this afternoon and saw some black-capped chickadees. I was thinking they wouldn’t be so cute if they were cigar smokers.
I don’t drink much and never played drinking games (except that one time we played a Star Wars drinking game— the “drink every time Luke whines” rule alone will quickly get you hammered).
But here’s a Tim McCarver drinking game. Drink each time McCarver:
- Proclaims a Universal Law of Baseball (attempts to use an inconsequential play or minor occurrence to reveal some larger truth about cause and effect in the sport). Drink again if that Universal Law of Baseball conflicts with a previous Universal Law of Baseball.
- After gushing about a hot player and making him seem infallible, finally notes that player’s faults or weakness once it becomes self-evident. I admit this is as much a Joe Buck defect as a McCarver one.
- Speaks when the television screen depicts an action upon which no words could possibly improve.
Feel free to suggest more rules.
Holy cow. What a crazy baseball game, with the winning run scoring on an interference call. I’ve decided I’m not nuts about either team’s manager. They made a lot of moves I didn’t like tonight, many of which worked out for them just fine anyway. Baseball, being a game of probabilities, has a way of occasionally validating dumb decisions.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist. Some characters that I still doodle from time to time have been with me in one form or another since I was a child. I don’t know of any extant cartoons from my childhood. I know my earliest work was Superbird, a superhero comic from perhaps as early as my pre-school years (I remember dictating the text to my dad, which he wrote under the pictures). Superbird was a typical alpha-male protagonist with small assistant named Cuckoo, and an evil-genius arch-nemesis pig. He also had a girlfriend who was always being tied up by the pig-villain. I had such a good grasp of superhero clichés that I even knew enough to draw large breasts on Superbird’s oft-distressed sweetheart. I sometimes still draw breasts and birds, but never together.
Superbird was my last superhero comic. I moved on to newpaper-style comic strips. And by newspaper-style I mean panel-bound pencil sequences on the backs of the scrap papers my dad brought home from work. I think I first ripped off Garfield when I was around seven years old with a cat strip called Zig Zag. But then I created a character called Phil the Lizard. Phil was also heavily influenced by Garfield, of which I was quite a fan. The latter-day version of Phil is depicted here. Now he is more of a chameleon.
In sixth grade I compiled my most extensive opus of cartoon drawings: Chickenland. Chickenland was great. It was not a strip, but a full page (8.5 by 11 inches). It was always divided horizontally into three sections: Chicken Heaven, Chicken Earth, and Chicken Hell. It had a pretty rich cast of characters. My favorites were The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior. Junior was an absolute idiot who tormented his father physically and emotionally with his bumbling. I produced perhaps fifty Chickenland episodes, but threw them away when I was in high school. I still regret that. The modern incarnation of The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior are shown here.
By high school (where I wrote a paper on the history of comic strips), I had abandoned sequential comics in favor of random cartoon doodling. I also learned how to draw “for real.” But while researching college programs and careers, I discovered that cartooning was a pretty lousy way to make a living. I lasted about a year as a visual arts major before I switched to the liberal arts. I kept my sketchbook, though. Even as I pursued my career as park ranger, I’d sometimes jot down ideas or scratch out thumbnail sketches. About ten years ago I even went so far as to produce about a dozen strips, intending to create a portfolio to send to a comic strip syndicate. I posted them on another website and then here in the blog.
But I am not a very disciplined artist. I don’t like to paint and I have little patience with ink. My best and most expressive work comes from my hasty and infrequent thumbnail sketches. I also can’t draw people, hoofed animals, or buildings very well. My people look more like semi-morphous blobs— cartooning taken to the extreme, though I can do a fair job with body language. The guy who draws The Oatmeal draws this way pretty effectively.
I recent years I’ve abandoned drawing in favor of writing, with some regrets. Below is a crude attempt at reproducing the spirit of Chickenland, using my wife’s Wacom tablet. The sixth grade version was never quite so gruesome or ironic. As you can see, I need practice with the tablet. I can control a pencil much, much better, but pencil drawings don’t lend themselves to digital scanning.
Here’s a fun book that may not be in your library, since it seems hard to get a hold of: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish.
In the brief introduction, the authors argue that the lack of soft tissue found along with skeletal fossils leads illustrators to depict the exteriors of animals as following closely along the bone structure. But, they note, the skeletons of living animals are “effectively invisible” because they are thickly surrounded by muscle, fat, hides, and hair or feathers.
The skeletons of modern birds– owls and parrots, for example– have long, slender neck skeletons, but overlying skin and thick feather coverings obscure these entirely.
So they present their artwork that follows anatomically faithful to the skeleton and then overlaid with speculation about the soft tissues and behavior (just how did male stegosaurus mount females for mating with all the back armor?). And, in a bit of professional self-criticism, the last section of the book includes drawings of living animals as if only partial skeleton fossils were known, showing just how far off our speculation about dinosaurs might be, illustrating two menacing dragon-like swans with their impossibly long necks spearing fish prey “with their long, scythe-like forelimbs.”
The light touch is what makes it an enjoyable, short book to peruse.