Monday, October 26, 2009

Power Struggle

The Devil’s Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis was a beautifully written historical novel based on the life of Catherine de Medici. It was fascinating to read, and the juxtaposition of it with The Karma of Jesus made it all the more intriguing to me.

Jeanne Kalogridis has a lovely way with words. She uses gorgeous word choice and description to enhance the reader’s understanding of the story and the characters and draw even the skeptical readers into the magic-entwined world of the Medici family and its effect on European history. She paints a realistic view of a time filled with political intrigue and power struggles where women were pawns to be sold in marriage and religious differences were an excuse for civil war. Although disturbing, the magic in this novel is intended to show how the characters impact history and often hurt themselves and those they care about. Occasionally Kalogridis ascribes contemporary ideas of tolerance or morals to Catherine that do not seem realistic with the setting.

This sympathetic portrait of Catherine de Medici shows her to be a sweet girl set on doing what she believed to be right and yet sometimes realizing too late that the results of her actions did not always produce the good result she intended. Catherine goes to great lengths by involving herself in astrology and other magic to protect those she loves. Everyone sees the kindness of her heart, but she feels increasingly burdened and weighed down by the evil she commits – or commands others to commit – and the unforeseen horrible events that follow. Her dreams of the future cause her to believe that her destiny is to save all who cry out to her for help, but each magic she invokes lead her and those she loves further into the despair she dreams of. It seemed that the novel was a commentary on a person’s inability to truly cheat or change fate. The law of he universe remains a life for a life.

The saddest part to me was that she failed to see an alternative to her actions. She said that God did not listen to her prayers, but she does not attempt to pray. She felt that her only option was to rely on magic. I could not help but wonder which events would have occurred without her magical intervention and which were truly dependent upon them. Of course, within this novel’s world we are to believe that all events are directly caused by the movement of the stars through each person’s natal chart and thus were destiny. Magic could appease the stars for a time, but eventually destiny would triumph.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is that it is based in history. Real quotes are lifted from the historical records and inserted skillfully into the narrative. Catherine truly did have dreams that revealed the future and she was a friend to magicians and Nostradamus. She was blamed for the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Jeanne Kalogridis seeks to show the softer, loving side of Catherine de Medici who wanted only to protect those she loved and bring peace to France. To this end she changed a few details that would make Catherine unsympathetic to today’s readers. She also changed the name of Catherine’s third son who became King of France. I wish she had included more about the other contributions Catherine de Medici brought to France: pastry, art, architecture and music. It is a very interesting and well-written novel.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Getting what we deserve?


The concept brings to mind the ‘pay it forward’ idea that was recently made into a movie and the delightfully fun TV show, My Name is Earl. But is it really so simple? Do we truly “reap what we sow” for every single action or thought? Can the concept of Karma, so rooted in Eastern thought and tradition, be combined with Chrisitianity? Is it, in fact, actually present in the teachings of Jesus? These are the questions that author Mark Herringshaw seeks to answer in his book, The Karma of Jesus, structured within a conversation he had with a questioning young man.

Getting what we give makes sense on many levels. If we are kind to others, most of them are inclined to be kind back. If we are unkind or rude, they are inclined not to help us when we have need and to snub us when they have that chance.

This basic idea is present in most major religions and is believed to have originated in Shramanic thought. It can be simply described as the belief that past actions have impact on the present and future. Life was seen as the time to ‘get it right’ and each person would be reincarnated to go through many lifetimes until they reached perfection. With correct conduct and behavior, a person may escape the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhism developed from these early Indian beliefs. Siddhartha Gautama was the founder of Buddhism and a follower of Sramana philosophy. In the book of the same name, Siddhartha shows how he tries out each style of belief in an attempt to gain perfection, finally choosing self-denial of all desires in an attempt to gain perfection and end his cycle of reincarnation. It seems that once a follower ends the cycle of reincarnation, he ceases to exist at his death.

Hinduism’s karma is similar. All intentional and unintentional actions, thoughts, and words that produce affect on others produce a person’s individual karma. Each person must suffer the consequences until they have exhausted their store. Some ill effects of karma can be mitigated by the gods (very rarely, but sometimes as a reward for prayer, pilgrimage or worship) or by one’s virtue and good deeds.

In fact, karma is at the root of the most basic questions that Christians and non-Christians struggle with when considering God. They ask, “How can God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The underlying presumption is that if people are good they will get good in their lives. When they are bad, bad things will happen to them. It is essentially the most basic form of karma.

Reincarnation answers the question of why good things happen to bad people and why bad things happen to the good people for Hinduism and Buddhism. It explains that each person’s fate is a direct reaction to the karma they have stored up over their many lifetimes.

Herringshaw reveals that Christianity has a few teachings that somewhat parallel the idea of karma. “You reap what you sow” “As you judge others, so will you be judged” “Treat others as you would have them treat you” and others. However, the main difference is the concept of forgiveness that is present in Christianity and the lack of reincarnation. Christians believe that they can never atone for their wrongdoing of their own accord. How can they ever be ‘good enough’ to cancel out every wrong? And how could they ever know which deeds equaled another? The concept of forgiveness cancels out the idea that all must pay in kind for every wrong action that they have taken, although the natural consequences are not always lifted. Forgiveness cancels the debt that people's wrongdoing has racked up by paying for it with the death of Jesus on the cross. Thus Jesus exchanges his perfect goodness for the evil all mankind has done -- in essence taking our bad karma on himself so that we do not have to pay for our actions with our lives. People enter into this agreement with God with an act of will and it is available to all who ask. The lack of reincarnation makes all people responsible only for their current life. It also gives some urgency to the fact that forgiveness must be attained in the current life, as opposed to the idea that many consequences of your bad actions will be paid for in the next life.

This book gives a clear understanding of a modern American view of both karma and Christianity and seeks to show how they compare and how they differ. It seeks to answer the question of who or what truly rules our lives? God or karma? It also reveals what draws people to both options. I found it to be a very interesting book and one that I would recommend to all interested in the difference between karma and Christianity and the ways each have shaped American culture.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Parallel Structure

A review of Peony in Love by Lisa See
Normally I love Lisa See’s novels. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls both captivated me within the first paragraph or two – even by just reading the back cover copy – on two separate vacations and it was all I could do to stop reading them and spend time experiencing the places and people I had come to visit. Remembering those experiences this week, I searched out another novel by Lisa See and started reading Peony in Love as soon as I got home.

I liked the opening description. I liked the first few chapters. But at the end of the part one I put it down in disappointment. This is a good story. It has compelling characters. It has some lovely description. It just is so predictable. The protagonist is obsessed with an opera and then her life begins to parallel the opera, though she doesn’t recognize it. By the end of part one, the readers know exactly what is going to happen. I felt let down. I like a story to surprise me, and although Peony’s life didn’t follow the opera in every detail, it did in general. It isn’t fun to know the whole story before reading it.

Another issue I had with Peony in Love is that there are so many spots where instead of showing what is happening, the readers are just told that it is happening. These spots could have benefited from more dialogue or at least a description of the facial expressions and actions of the characters to reveal them. There are also some parts that have a lot of potential for action and excitement, but they are brushed aside with a quick ‘and then this happened’ explanation that left me wanting more. Those are the types of details that make the reader feel like a participant in the story – like we are present and watching it unfold. (Of course, she did include wonderful parts where this was present. Those made the novel worth reading.) I think that this novel is one or two more drafts away from excellent. These two issues caused me to consider not finishing the novel.

I did finish it, of course. I was intrigued by the fact that these characters were based on actual people who had lived during this tumultuous time in Chinese history. Peony in Love is set in China a generation after the Manchus had overthrown the Chinese government and the people were still adjusting to what this meant for their lives. As the men were preoccupied with figuring out where their place was in the new government and society structure, women were given more freedom and some began to venture outside of their homes. Cloistered life within the family compound walls was no longer always a given. Educated women wrote about their new experiences and to publish their work. They read other literature and published their reactions. Within the next generation – Peony’s generation – some families began to return to the traditional expectation that women’s place was within the inner wall while others continued with their greater freedom. Women’s emotions and desire to choose her own fate was celebrated in the famous (and now partially banned) opera, Peony Pavilion. This opera captured the hearts and minds of many girls and women across China and many imitated the heroine in hopes of getting to choose their own fate and find true love. This was one of the reasons it began to be banned.

This novel gives a fascinating insight into the traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterworld. This topic was the most interesting part of the novel for me and made me wonder how all the ancestors could be remembered and honored properly as the generations went on. How many thousands of ancestor tablets were kept in a given household? What happened to the ones that were so old that no one remembered them? Was there a limit on how long a soul was supposed to spend in the afterworld before it was reincarnated? Were all souls believed to be reincarnated eventually?

Peony in Love is a decently good novel. I would recommend Lisa See’s others in its place, but it is a great story. The issues that I had with it are the same I have had with many other contemporary women’s lit. It seems to have been very popular; many have liked the novel and the history surrounding it is fascinating.

A good description of the opera’s story and its production:
A fun review of the opera:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Churchill's secret

I just finished this absolutely wonderful novel, The Paladin by Brian Garfield. I could hardly put it down! I read the whole book over the course of two days, just wrenching myself away to work, see friends as I promised, eat and sleep. It was originally published in 1979, but its focus on a boy's adventures during WWII make it a timeless tale and one I think would appeal to everyone who likes adventure, intrigue, death-defying stunts and initiation into a secret of heads of state. The best part is that it is based on a true story, fictionalized to protect the identity of these secret agents. Young boys between the ages of 10 and 18 would identify with Christopher, which makes it a wonderful book to give to reluctant readers. It is written in an engaging, suspenseful style that makes it a real page-turner.

Themes: Coming of age, good vs. evil, the questions of 'do the ends justify the means?' and 'What is good?'

The story focuses Christopher, a young tenant on Churchill's estate. He meets Churchill and impresses him when he is ten-years-old. He is soon inducted into Churchill's small private spy agency, separate from the national force, and is sent on a dizzying number of dangerous spy missions as Hitler schemes and conquers Europe. He becomes Churchill's Paladin, his personal knight errant, who serves at the request and direction of Churchill himself. He grows up, learning more and more about the world of secret agents and participating in hugely important events of WWII, including the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He hardens and struggles with murder, torture and the emotions of growing up and becoming a man. There is also a bit of romance. It ends with him at age seventeen.

As Christopher is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of international intrigue and political spying he struggles with the fact that these men he faces are simply doing what they believe is best for their country -- essentially born to their worldview just as he has been born to his. He struggles to determine the fairness of his missions -- ought he to 'off' these unsuspecting people just because he was ordered to do so? As he sees his friends die because of his missions, he begins to question the rightness of his orders and ultimately Churchill himself.

I don't want to give it all away, but it is a wonderful story. I wish there was a sequel so I could find out what happened to Christopher the man. Does he continue with this life as a secret agent? Does he continue to be practically Churchill's son?

I highly recommend this novel.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On Food and Cooking

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is by far the most complete and detailed work in the genre. It is fascinating and fun to read, with easy-to-understand explanations of the chemical and biological makeup of each food it covers. This book explains why and how various cooking techniques affect each food substance and how to tell when the food begins to spoil. The text's fifteen chapters cover milk and dairy, eggs, meat, fish and shellfish, edible plants, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices, seeds, cereal doughs and batters, sugars and chocolate, alcohol, cooking methods and utensils, and lastly the four basic food molecules. Each chapter contains a breakdown of the molecules within that food, its history of domestication, the oldest recipes found that use it and explanations of how it reacts to other foods, heat and cold - on a molecular and visual level.
McGee does explains all with panache and beautiful prose - making this book as fun to read as it is informative. His obvious passion and love for food and science is felt in every line. There are even literary quotes involving food throughout the tome. I got more and more excited to cook as I read it, and could not stop myself from reading aloud to friends a few of the more astonishing tidbits of food history or chemical reactions. This book increases my confidence in the kitchen and frees me to experiment even more with ratios instead of following exact recipes. Since I now understand the purpose of including various ingredients --such as eggs for binding -- in recipes I know what I can leave out, increase, decrease or add. In short, this book explains everything the modern cook could ever want to know. I highly recommend it as a handy reference guide in the kitchen, and to all interested in the art and science of food, cooking and good eating.