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Wed, 20 Aug 2003

The Gnostic Gospels

— SjG @ 4:08 pm

Elaine Pagels, 1979, Vintage Books, nonfiction.

I’ve seen many references to the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi, whether in “counterculture” literature from the likes of Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, in lit-crit rantings like the work of Hakim Bey, or in more popular literature like The DaVinci Code (see review, if you so desire). I had a vague idea that there was controversy surrounding this collection of texts, just as there was around the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I knew very little about the texts themselves.
This book deals with the texts from Nag Hammadi, but specifically with regard to what they tell us about early Christianity and the formation of the Church. It does not go into great depth in describing general Gnostic philosophy outside of these concerns.
The book is fascinating. Many of the Gnostic Gospels had vanished, having been purged from the historical and religious record when they were declared heretical and apocryphal. In fact, as Pagels describes it, much of the previous understanding of Gnostic Christianity came from the Church polemics against it. With the discovery of some of the original writings, the picture of early Christianity and the doctrinal divisions becomes clearer. Pagels does a remarkable job of articulating these differences, and bringing back to life the diverse interpretations of faith that defined early Christianity. We even get to hear the words of the opposition: Gnostic Christian polemics directed at the orthodoxy of the Church and criticism of their interpretations. Early attitudes towards the individual’s relationship with God, with Jesus, and with the hierarchy of the Church are explored, as are differences in the value of martyrdom, mystical revelation, and validity of the non-apostolic writings.
Recommended reading for anyone who is interested in the development of religious ideas and ideology.

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The Three Musketeers

— SjG @ 4:06 pm

Alexandre Dumas, originally published 1844, e-book version of uncertain origin.

This book was one of the vast canon of “Great Literature Which Everyone is Expected to Have Read And Yet Which I Have Somehow Avoided.” To my joy, it is no longer in that collection, as it is a ripping good yarn, a rollicking adventure, and a laugh out loud funny book to boot! Now I, too, join those who know that it’s really about four Musketeers, more or less, and that they actually do use muskets (and musketoons) on rare occasions, instead of depending entirely upon their swords. It’s no surprise that so many film-makers have used the book as a vehicle for swashbuckling adventure stories (although I can’t claim to have watched all fifteen feature films made of the story, nor the half dozen animations, I have seen enough excerpted to know that their faithfulness to the original is, shall we say, typical Hollywood).
I enjoyed how Dumas not only shows us the King’s Guard as a bunch of rough, overprivileged thugs, but actually makes us like some of them as well. His depictions of political intrigue, court gossip, and the romantic manipulations of the nobility are also particularly entertaining.
It may need to be noted that social norms change, and some ideas that are taken for granted by Dumas may annoy modern readers. Attitudes towards women, servants, Jews, blacks, Muslims, Huguenots, Puritans, or just about any other group of non-Nobility won’t be mistaken for progressive. If you find yourself bothered by this kind of thing, you can take solace in the fact that Dumas attacks with a broad brush, and few escape unscathed.

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Tue, 19 Aug 2003

The DaVinci Code

— SjG @ 4:05 pm

Dan Brown, 2003, Doubleday

Brown couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a Hollywood thriller screenplay, or an Umberto Eco tribute. So he selected elements of each, and thus The DaVinci Code was born.
It’s an action packed tale, spanning roughly two days time, where the Grail Conspiracy collides with greedy Church officials, eccentric British knights, Harvard Symbology professors, and, of course, the requisite blood-line of Jesus. While it’s a fun ride, I frequently found myself wanting to get a bit … er … medieval on Brown. His transgressions start with his cribbed-from-Fyodor’s place descriptions, to his tour-guide size comparisons. How many times must I read the square footage of a building or a plaza? And must I be told that the Louvre is longer than three Eiffel Towers laid end to end, while the Grand Gallery is as long as three Washington Monuments?
Then, borrowing a page from any techno- thriller, Brown has high-tech tracking gadgets and frequent cell phone usage. Unfortunately, he feels the need to go into detail on how these things work; even more unfortunately, he gets it all hopelessly wrong. Cell phones ringing on planes over the mid- Atlantic? A tracking dot that “continuously transmits its location to a Global Positioning System satellite that [police] can monitor” which works to an accuracy of two feet, even when the trackee is underground.
The overall plot is, as mentioned before, a fun ride. It’s full of the improbable narrow escapes and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t switcheroos that make for a good Summer action film, mixed with enough history and Grail legends to give it an intellectual patina. Still, in the end, we’re left unsatisfied. It’s difficult to have strong feelings for any of the characters, as they’re often presented as foils for a plot point or an opportunity to lecture on semiotics. The twists and turns get less and less believable as the pages pass, and, by the end of the book, we find that we wish it had ended a few twists back.

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Mon, 18 Aug 2003

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates

— SjG @ 4:04 pm

Captain Charles Johnson, 1724, republished by Conway Maritime Press, 1998, nonfiction.

This book, published in several editions in the early eighteenth century, is a fairly straightforward accounting of the lives of some of the biggest names in what is called the “Golden Age of Piracy.” It includes a number of the familiar names, such as Captain Kidd and Captain Teach (Blackbeard), as well as some of whom I had never heard. The book has been republished as a portion of the edition of 1724, leaving out many of the histories, but including a preface and a discussion of who this Captain Johnson actually was (it was long believed that this was a nom de plume for Daniel Defoe). Others have noted that this particular edition mixes and matches various editions of the book, and are quite critical of the editor; as I haven’t read any other versions, I’m unable to comment on this.
While probably shocking in its day, today’s reader may find the book almost dry. The English language has undergone some evolution since the time of the writing, and some readers may find Johnson’s text stilted or challenging. He also is very concerned with accuracy, even when it gets in the way of a ripping good yarn — Johnson chronicles litanies of ships looted (by type, and by captain) in a Deuteronomy-style list. There is a great deal of description of the mundane aspects of sailing ships (whether for trade or piracy), such as the frequent need to careen the ships and clean the hulls, as well as provisioning them for further journeys. Johnson also frequently reproduces (in their entirety) letters or documents that may have appeared in court cases or were sent by pirates that duplicate his description of events, or the final speeches of pirates who were hanged, or proclamations that affected their exploits, or lists of names identifying who was convicted and who acquitted.
The prurient details hinted at by the lurid title are rarely detailed, although in certain histories (such as that of Captain Low), there is a fair amount of murder, brutality, and mayhem provided in shocking portrayals. Johnson also dwells on the cases of Mary Read and Anne Bonny with a particular glee, as the idea of women pirates probably was about as controversial as you could get in the 1700s.
Where I found the book most interesting was in the descriptions of places, social mores, and world events. In several places, Johnson describes (or quotes others’ descriptions) of islands or places, and the patterns of life in those places. We also get a view of the American colonies, half a century before the American Revolution, not to mention views of far flung places like India and Madagascar. Having traveled in India, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary commentary on Aurangzeb (“the Grand Mughal”).

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Sun, 17 Aug 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

— SjG @ 4:03 pm

J. K. Rowling, 2003, Scholastic Press

Well, our fears of “anticipointment” were fortunately misplaced. J. K. Rowling has managed to pull off another Harry Potter book which is great fun, involving, and quite entertaining. In fact, this book addresses one of the complaints I had of Goblet of Fire, which was that everyone seemed to take Harry’s word for the critical events at the end of that book, even though there were no witnesses.
As usual, I offer some predictions of what will happen in the next book(s) … taking into consideration that I’ve been wrong on all counts thus far: Snapes will not survive the next book, and Harry will belatedly discover Snapes’ good qualities. Harry will become the Protection from Dark Arts teacher. Harry and Ginny will finally hook up, as will Ron and Hermione. The House Elves will rebel, but probably against Hermione’s organization — they’ll provide good intelligence into the workings of the Death Eaters. Neville will hook up with Luna, and Neville will be the one who finally offs Voldemort.

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