Zealot (Book)

Reza Aslan, an Iranian who grew up as a Muslim, flirted with Christianity, became a New Testament scholar, and returned to Islam again, is uniquely placed to write this book about Jesus the man, not Jesus the Christ. He reviews the available evidence and comes up with some startling, not always persuasive, interpretations about Jesus’ life.  Aslan does a good job demolishing the myth of the hand-washing Pilate, charting its trajectory from the earliest Biblical sources (which barely mention Pilate), to the later “let the guilt be upon our heads for generations” version that was used to justify centuries of anti-Semitism. And Aslan is certainly correct that the followers of Jesus had to refocus the view of Jesus’ mission after his crucifixion (the same way Jews had to refocus after the destruction of their temple).  But they didn’t create the more spiritual Jesus out of whole cloth — there’s a reason why Jesus is still remembered after 2000 years, and the rest of the more politically-oriented would-be messiahs of 1st C Judea (and there were a bunch of them) are now forgotten.

Aslan has a lively writing style suitable for the general reader. For those interested in more information, in the end notes (which take up about 1/3 of the book) Aslan reviews the academic controversies on various points and explains why he has made the choices he has.  More scholars should write this way.


Emperor of All Maladies (Book)

This book by an Indian-American oncologist (S. Mukherjee) is subtitled “A Biography of Cancer.”  But it is less a history of the disease than the history of the medical profession’s response to the disease in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mukherjee is an excellent writer, with a strong sense of the “herd mentality” of scientific and medical research. Dr. Papanicolou developed an understanding of the stages of cervical cancer in the 1920s, but the medical profession, focused on (mostly unsuccessful) surgery as the only successful route to cancer treatment, wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when the first “chemotherapy” drugs came online, that people started to be interested in screening tests. Similarly, research on chemotherapy for breast cancer was delayed for years while people focused on bone marrow transplants (which turned out to be based on fraudulent research)

Dr. Mukherjee also has an eye for the ironic detail, and isn’t afraid to follow up on the sometimes startling stories uncovered by his research. For example:

  • The first chemotherapy drugs were developed using a fortuitous (if you can use that word) finding from mustard gas survivors. The gas was very good at selectively destroying white blood cells, which turns out to be very useful in the treatment of leukemia. Some of that research came from an “inadvertent” release of mustard gas in WWII that was previously unknown to me — a German bombardment of an American ship in the harbor of Bari Italy, which ship was, unknown probably even to the American sailors, loaded with mustard gas.


  • The “Jimmy Fund” for children’s cancer started with an emotional appearance on a national radio program (in 1948)of a child being treated for cancer in Boston. The little boy was a huge baseball fan, and the Boston Braves, and later the Boston Red Sox, became the principal supporters of this charity, which continues to this day. Chocolate sprinkles on ice cream cones in Boston are still called “jimmies” in his honor. 50 years later, someone tracked down the adult “Jimmy”, now living quietly in Maine with his wife and three children, and brought him to the hospital where he had been successfully treated, for an emotional reunion.  “Jimmy’s” real name was Einar Gustaffson.

  • The link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was discovered independently by American and British researchers (some initially skeptical) in the early 1950s. The scientific evidence was overwhelming, and by the early 1960s there was no serious scientific debate on the issue. The tobacco companies embarked on a program of paying scientists to discuss the “controversy,” and leaning on Congressmen heavily dependent on tobacco company donations as a means of delaying significant government intervention — a method successfully copied by science denialists many times since.

1493 (Book)

This book is a sequel of sorts to Charles Mann’s 1491, but it’s on much firmer ground.  Mann is interested in discovering the roots of the global economy by following the transmission of New World products worldwide — silver, rubber, bat guano.  He has some fascinating letters from Spanish explorers trying to describe a game played by Aztecs with rubber balls without having a word for bounce.  And he speculates that the transmission of bat guano (used for fertilizer) from an uninhabited island off the Chilean coast in the same ships as potato plants may have played a role in the Irish potato famine.

The most interesting chapter, though, was the essay on malaria, which was brought to the New World by English settlers.  We think of malaria as a tropical disease, but all it needs is a malaria plasmodium variety and some anopheles mosquitos.  The fens (marshes) of East Anglia happened to house a particularly hardy variety of malaria (P. vivax) as well as the appropriate mosquitoes, and malaria was endemic to the region for centuries.  (Some historians now believe that Richard the Lionheart’s “tertian fever,” which he suffered from long before he went on Crusade, was actually malaria.)

The Elizabethans realized there was a connection between marshland and malaria, although they didn’t understand the role mosquitoes played in the transmission of the disease.  Attempts to drain the marshes in the late 16th C were incomplete, and in fact made things worse.   (It wasn’t until the 19th C that more modern drainage techniques finally ended this ancient scourge.)

Not surprisingly, in the 17th C, many folks living in East Anglia decided to emigrate to the new American colonies.  Many carried P. vivax with them (in their bloodstreams) to Virginia where, as (bad) luck would have it, there was an unemployed colony of Anopheles mosquitoes.   The colonists kept dying from malaria at frightening rates.  Native Americans were also very susceptible to the new disease.

African slaves,however, were not.  It’s well known that many Africans carry a gene for sickle cell anemia, which offers protection against many forms of malaria.  But it was recently discovered that a second genetic mutation, common in West Africans, made them almost completely immune to the “English” malaria.

Mann suggests that this differential malaria death rate might have had a role in the growth of slavery in the American colonies.  White indentured servants died at much higher rates than black slaves did.  Interestingly, the habitat of the Anopheles mosquito tracks pretty closely to what was later called the Mason-Dixon line.

Galileo’s Dream (Book)

by Kim Stanley Robinson.

This is really an extended essay about the life and work of Galileo, masquerading as sci fi (there’s a time travel “framing story,” but it serves only to add a modern observer’s viewpoint). Robinson frequently writes about the interaction of scientists and policymakers, so the subject of Galileo, the world’s first scientist, is a natural for him.  It’s the first treatment I’ve seen that correctly depicts the controversy surrounding Galileo as primarily a political, not a religious, one and, as such, one that has interesting resonances with our own day. It’s not all poltics, though — interspersed are excerpts from Galileo’s work (some of which seems amazingly modern) and fascinating interludes about daily life in Galileo’s day — eating and drinking, transportation and communication, and even the horrifying state of medical care.

This book is pretty long (over 500 pages), but it’s an easy read. It is available in paperback or in Kindle format.   

Wolf Hall (Book)

This piece of historical fiction, by the English author Hillary Mantel, has a strong political aspect, which is why I recommend it to this group. It’s a sympathetic look at Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Cromwell is usually regarded as the “horned toad” of the fractious tale of Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.  In an age where most government ministers came from at least the propertied class, if not from the aristocracy, Cromwell was an uneducated butcher’s son who prospered by hard work and shrewdness. Henry’s ministers despised Cromwell, but Henry valued his unquestioning loyalty. Cromwell, untroubled by Catholic scruples, was willing to assist the king in the matter of his divorce (unlike Anne Boleyn or even Henry himself, Cromwell actually was a Protestant.) And Cromwell was unparalleled in his understanding of the uses of power.  It was in large part because of Cromwell that England under Henry became what we would today call a “nation state.”   A reappraisal of Cromwell is probably long overdue.

I take issue with Mantel’s depiction of Thomas More. It’s probably a necessary corrective to the hagiographic portrayal in of A Man for All Seasons, but I doubt that More could have achieved what he did had he been as much of a snake as Mantel paints him. At the end of the day, More chose to go to his death over a matter of great principle — no man, not even a king set himself above God’s law. Cromwell went to the block for more prosaic reasons.

Mantel’s other characters — Wolsey, Queen Catherine, Princess Mary, and Henry himself, are well-imagined and historically well-grounded. The graceful writing style makes the book easy to read despite its 500+ page length (and there will probably be a sequel.)

The Booker Prize folks have made some strange choices in recent years.  But their award to this book is well deserved.

The Lady and the Monk (book)

by Pico Iyer

I picked up this book initially because I’m interested in stories of westerners in Japan. I got more than I bargained for.

Iyer, a young writer born in England to Indian parents but raised largely in California, convinces a publisher to fund his trip to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. The early chapters of the book detail Iyer’s fumbling attempts to figure out what’s going on in Japanese temples, interspersed with vignettes of young Western men who have come to Japan to meet compliant Japanese women — men, of course, to whom the intellectual Iyer feels immeasurably superior.  Iyer eventually winds up in a study group at a local temple, and meets a young Japanese housewife, with whom Iyer pursues a relationship that he believes to be purely intellectual relationship. Uh-huh.

The story becomes not so much one of Iyer’s relationship with Sachiko (of which we learn very little), but of Sachiko herself. Through the skilll of the author, we see the world of the Japanese wife, which is every bit as circumscribed as that of the Japanese geisha (and, I suspect, Japanese men). Sachiko takes over the book to such an extent, that when she disappears briefly about 2/3 ofthe way through, I started turning pages rapidly to determine when she would reappear.

Since this is real life, not a fairy tale, the story doesn’t end the way you think it’s going to.  But along the way, Iyer learns much about Japan, about himself, and about Zen Buddhism too.

Highly recommended.  Ted and I have very different reading interests, but we both liked this book.  Available in paperback.

Captain Alatriste (book series)

by Arturo Perez-Reverte

These books tell the story of the beginning of imperial Spain’s decline, in the early 16th C, through the exploits of the fictional but historically plausible Captain Alatriste.They’re all there — low-born pirates and well-born thieves, conquistadors and footsoldiers, the King and the Inquisition, prostitutes with hears of gold and the beautiful daughters of the aristocracy, as closely watched as any sheik’s daughter — most of the time.  Even one of my favorite historical characters — the wonderfully named Conde-Duque de Olivares — puts in an appearance. The author not only creates terrific characters, but conjures up an entire world, In particular, the world of the ordinary soldier during the time of the Thirty Years’ War.

Perez-Reverte seems to be well served by his translator. The language is perfectly good, idiomatically correct English which somehow preserves the lilt and grace of the original Spanish. There are four novels to date (the fifth has yet to be translated):  Captain Alatriste, The Purity of Blood, The Sun Over Breda, and The King’s Gold. Each is a complete story, so you can read them out of order.  Each is relatively short — perfect for beach reading. The first two, at least, are in paperback.

The Enchantress of Florence (Book)

by Salman Rushdie

When I tell you that the major characters are Niccolo Machiavelli and the Indian Emperor Akbar (who never meet), and that the minor characters include Queen Elizabeth I, Simonetta Neri (the reputed model for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus), Vlad Dracul (the reputed model for the blood-sucking count), Amerigo Vespucci, an Empress who doesn’t exist, a hidden princess who does, and two prostitutes named Skeleton and Mattress who exist in both Florence and India at the same time, you’ll know that this is Rushdie in top form. The book is notionally about a Florentine adventurer, one of whose secret names is Love (like Puccini’s Calaf), and who tells stories (like Scheherazade) to save his life, some of which can’t possibly be true but (as in Chinatown) maybe they are. But it’s really just Rushdie having a good time. You’ll have so much fun reading it you won’t even care that there wasn’t actually any polenta in 15th C Florence. Or tomatoes either.

It’s a historic, histrionic tour de farce.