Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth: Book Review

An appropriate book choice with Easter coming up!

I’ve been vaguely aware of Reza Aslan for a few years now, as he seems to do the news and talk show circuit fairly regularly, so I was glad that my Facebook book club brought Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth to my attention. Aslan seemed just the person to provide a popular history of the life of Jesus Christ.

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"
Image courtesy Random House

Author: Reza Aslan

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.83

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: The historical background and context for the birth of Christianity

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in history, politics, or sociology

In-depth thoughts: Whenever I rate a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads, it indicates a book that I think the general public should read. A nonfiction book needs to meet three requirements to get 5 stars from me:

  1. The writing needs to be engaging and accessible. If it’s a not book that’s fun, or at least easy, to read, then I’ll be hard pressed to give it a full 5 stars. Since this requirement is a judgment call, it’s the one I’m most flexible about.
  2. The topic matter needs to be presented clearly and logically, so that after finishing the book I feel like I understand something better than I did before, or that I know more than I did before. You can’t just list a bunch of dry facts, or a collection of charming anecdotes, and call your book done; there has to be a structure and logical sequence that scaffolds ideas and builds on them so that readers retain what they’ve learned long after the end of the chapter, or the book.
  3. The topic matter needs to be something of extremely timely and relevant public interest. A solid resource for specialists in a field, no matter how excellent a resource, isn’t necessarily something the general public will find relevant or interesting, or even need to know.

Zealot hits all three of these sweet spots: it’s engaging reading, it’s chock-full of information that’s presented clearly and logically, and it’s on a topic that’s very much relevant today.

That said, as a book for English students, Zealot might be a reach. There’s a lot of specific and particular terms needed to discuss Roman history and Jewish history; if you’re not comfortable with the rest of the language in the book, it might feel too difficult or specialized to really get a grip on. On the other hand, if you’re already an ancient history buff, you’ll probably feel right at home.

Friday 5: Games People Play

A young white boy in a red shirt is about to pull out a Jenga piece from a tower.

How good are you at word games, and what’s a word game you really enjoy?

I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at these, but I haven’t played any except Scrabble, and every time I’ve played Scrabble I’ve come somewhere in the middle because someone aggressively outmaneuvered me to get to, or to block, the bonus tiles.

How good are you at trivia games, and what’s your strongest category?

It depends on the game. Like, a copy of Trivial Pursuit from thirty years ago (and I suspect that might be how old my parents’ copy of Trivial Pursuit is!) is not going to be my strong suit. Of course, there is something of a horseshoe effect with these things: there was a burger joint/diner near my college that included a handful of Trivial Pursuit: Boomer Edition cards at each table and out of my peers, I tended to clean up when it came to the arts and entertainment category, at least, just because of my movie and music taste.

But Best Chemist Friend and I were a two-woman trivia team for a while and consistently did well enough to win prizes, if not actual first place, until we got other people to join us, so I think that says it all. I don’t know what my best category would be, but without a doubt my weakest category is sports.

How good are you at spot-the-difference or what’s-wrong-with-this-picture games?

Considering that the only ones I’ve played are the super obvious ones in Highlights for Children, I don’t think I can really judge my ability based on my past experience.

How good are you at memory games, and have you ever played Simon?

Of course I’ve played Simon! But what does it mean to be good at Simon? I don’t have enough data to really say.

Otherwise I play a lot of memory with my students. Confession: in the interest of making the activity maximally educational, I deliberately throw the game whenever we play.

What’s your favorite party game of all time?

I have a couple!

Since I have an astonishing memory for song lyrics, I always really liked playing Encore!(My copy is still at my parents’ house, now that I stop to think about it. The things that slip your memory when you’re packing to move out!) I’m also preternaturally good at Tri-Bond, though I guess it’s up in the air whether that counts as a party game? The same could be said for the aggressive and competitive Munchkin series.

I’ve talked before about how much I love Dixitso that should come as no surprise. Apples to Apples is always a good time and I confess to getting a kick out of Cards Against Humanity, though when I’ve played with others there has always been the house rule that you’re allowed to discard anything you feel is beyond the realm of good taste, no questions asked.

A new favorite I’ve encountered in Sweden is Orangino, which is maybe the most Swedish party game ever developed. The whole point of the game is to determine how well others know you, and how well you can gauge other people’s perception of you. The game consists of cards with different personality traits and descriptions; you rate yourself (from 1 to 4) in secret, while everyone else does too, and people get points for matching your rating. There’s no English version as far as I can tell, which is a shame because as dorky and feel-goody as it sounds, it’s also a lot of fun! (Maybe a future translation project?)

Friday 5: Korea Guidance

I see your pun, Friday 5. Well played.

What would be a better name for the color of goldenrod-colored paper?

What’s wrong with “goldenrod”?

Where did you get your silverware?

Either IKEA or the grocery store downstairs.

It is a weird tradition in America (and possibly elsewhere) for parents to have their children’s baby shoes bronzed. What artifact from this past week would you have bronzed as a keepsake and heirloom?

Last week was pretty unremarkable. If I had to pick anything, it might be the toy dinosaur that lives with Chuck, one of my snake plants.

I have no sentimental attachment to the dinosaur or anything. (I bought as part of a Jurassic Park costume a few years ago.) I just think it would be funny to have it bronzed. Maybe I’ll just spray paint instead?

What was the most recent ceremony you attended?

The wedding I went to in August.

What east Asian cuisine is good for your Seoul?

I lived and taught in South Korea for over two years, as I’ve probably mentioned before, and one of the (many) things I miss big time is the food. The Korean diaspora means that Korean barbecue is familiar to most non-Koreans who live in any metropolitan area that approaches international; it seems that bibimbap is also gaining traction thanks to the recent health food obsession with “Buddha bowls.”

But that is only the tip of the iceberg, my friend.

Korean street food is the best, hands down. (Apologies to all of the gatuköks and Philly pretzel carts out there, but it’s true.) My favorite in this genre is tteokbokki: dense rice cakes in a sweet and spicy sauce. It wasn’t uncommon for teachers at my first school to spring for a whole tray of these for a “snack party” after a particular class finished a level test, since they were cheap, tasty, and filling. It helped that we had a little snack shack in the first floor of our building.

A step up from street food are the ubiquitous gimbap restaurants. I don’t know enough about Korean food history to know whether or not these restaurants predate the appearance of American-style fast food chains in the peninsula, but I would guess that they did. These places specialize in cheap, easy-to-make meals and are popular with broke students and people with criminally short lunch breaks. (This is also the kind of restaurant built into Korean spas.) The backbone dish of these restaurants is gimbap (rice, veggies, and sometimes meat rolled in a sheet of dried black seaweed) and all of its varieties, but the menus always include a wide assortment of variations on jjigaes, larger portions of popular street food, and a few odds and ends. Anything off the menu here will be fantastic, though my personal favorites are dolsot bibimbap, rabokki (a combination of the aforementioned tteokbokki and ramen), and cheesy ramen. I actually don’t care that much for gimbap, ironically enough, because I’m not a huge fan of black seaweed.

When it comes to “real” restaurants, places start to narrow down their menus to a handful of specialty dishes (or a handful of variations on one particular dish). Now you have your Korean barbecue restaurants, with various cuts of pork or beef to grill at your table. I preferred the chicken stir-fry equivalent, the marinated version known as  dak galbi; sometimes my coworkers and I even went out for duck. You have seafood restaurants, with raw fish, squid, and octopus. You have, borrowed from Japan, shabu-shabu. On a slightly lesser tier, you have chicken-and-beer joints. You have what are theoretically restaurants but are really bars with obligatory anju (bar snacks, or bar more-than-a-snack-less-than-a-meal), like stir-fried rice or seafood or kimchi pancake-fritters. (These bars are usually famous for the quality of their anju, though, so having to order to be allowed to drink isn’t a problem at all.)

But for me, the crown jewel of Korean cuisine is something else entirely. The city where I lived, Uijeongbu, is famous for budae jjigae, a relatively modern invention that takes a traditional jjigae and incorporates the kind of meat found in American military MREs: sausages, hot dogs and (of course) SPAM. Unlike other jjigaes, it’s usually served with ramen and glass noodles right in the dish.

A bowl of budae jjigae.
By LWY at flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwy/2184707139/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3402989

As far as I can tell, Korean entrepreneurs haven’t brought budae jjigae abroad yet. I guess the immediate connection with scraps and cast-offs from American military bases doesn’t really jibe with the image Korea wants to present to the rest of the world? But that’s a tragedy, because budae jjigae is so damn good. I’ve learned to make a lot of Korean food myself, to scratch my Koreastalgia itch, but the one thing that you can never just make yourself is budae jjigae. It’s a dish best cooked in huge heaping batches, tended by a watchful restaurant employee, and enjoyed in the company of others. Like, if I were fabulously, obscenely wealthy, I would open a budae jjigae restaurant in Stockholm. That is how much I love this dish. One day…!

What Makes a Classic?

One of the very few online groups I belong to is The Classics Club. (Not by way of this specific blog, but via another one.) The idea is simple: come up with a list of 50+ classics to read in the next five years, contact the moderators, and you’re (probably) in! But if you’re not much of a joiner, you can still follow the blog and make use of their spins, check-ins, and the backlog of monthly blog prompts. A recent post on the blog brought up the question: How do you define “classic”?

My own Classics Club list was based on the Top 100 Novels of All TIME. After I graduated from college, I took a year-long break from reading fiction. I’d read and written too much of it over the course of the last four years, and truthfully I was a bit despairing of fiction generally. What’s the point? Who cares about reading made-up stories about made-up people? What’s the value in that? (I don’t know where that streak of hardcore utilitarianism came from; maybe I was actually depressed at the time.) I binged on nonfiction for a while, because I felt like I wanted to learn something about the world. When I felt like I was ready for fiction again, I didn’t know how to direct myself—how to choose my own books. The TIME list was as good as any, so I picked that and went to work.

An old cover of TIME Magazine with the headline "CYBERPUNK: Virtual sex, smart drugs, and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." over an image of a young white male wearing a headset and PowerGlove-like aparatus, seated at a CRT monitor, with a neon purple and pink spiral behind him.

(Obviously not a cover from 2005 but I couldn’t resist using the most hilarious cover of TIME magazine I could find.)

Over time, I made alterations; the list is 79% men (73% white men), which seems a little disproportionate considering how actual America population demographics break down. I didn’t achieve gender parity, but I got closer (26% women / 74% men). I searched out more writers of color. If this list were to accurately reflect US racial demographics in 2005, there would be:

  • 13 Black writers
  • 14 Latinx writers
  • 5 Asian writers (this definition of “Asian” being a broad swathe of nations and ethnicities, from Middle Eastern to East, South, and Southeast Asian; Middle Eastern wasn’t tracked according to the above Pew Center data)

The above statistics don’t list any numbers on Native populations, but later Census data puts it at around 1%. Needless to say, these numbers aren’t reflected in Grossman and Lacayo’s list.

My criteria for replacing a book on the list, such as they were:

  • Authors listed twice had one entry booted (farewell, A Pale Fire; so long, Animal Farm; nice knowing you, A Handful of Dust).
  • Any book whose summary I found really unappealing (Falconer) or whose story or subject matter I felt I was already familiar with via cultural osmosis (Deliverance, Dog Soldiers, Gone With the Wind) could be jettisoned.
  • Any book that I still found boring after a good faith effort (around twenty to fifty pages) could be considered read and/or taken off the list to make room for another book (Revolutionary RoadThe Man Who Loved ChildrenA Death in the Family).
  • If a woman was taken off the list, she could only be replaced with another woman. The same would have been true for writers of color, but I never ended up taking any of them off the list.
  • Another book by the same author counted, if the book on the list was unavailable at the library (Martha Quest instead of The Golden NotebookThe Handmaid’s Tale instead of The Blind Assassin).
  • Books that I had already read could be retroactively counted if I felt they were classics of their own accord (Name of the Rose).
  • Writers of color were given preference when possible.

All in all, this meant that I added the following books to the list:

* this book is out of bounds of the time limit I arbitrarily decided on, which was 1999 (to make a list of great 20th century novels)

** this book is technically out of bounds of the time limit dictated by the original list, since it was published before 1923

So what made those editions “classic” for me? As opposed to other books I read but didn’t add to the list? It’s a very uneven list there, and honestly some of those I might even take off later in favor of something better, but then again the original list was also uneven so if Grossman and Lacayo can usher in some duds, so can I.

The best definition of classic is the quote from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

(Surprising that I would quote Calvino when I find him to be an uneven writer overall, but there it is.)

People gush about classics being “timeless” but that means different things to different people. There are a lot of mediocre writing instructors out there who insist students avoid using things like Facebook or text messages in their stories because “good writing should be timeless,” yet they’re okay with combustible engines and electricity. (Surprise that people of a certain generation always find new technology and developments disturbing! I wonder if writing instructors in the 1920s railed against the use of horseless carriages and radio in stories for the same reason.)

There are universals of human life that have remained the same over time, even if shifting social mores and new technologies have added wrinkles to those experiences. Love, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, hope…nothing can make those irrelevant or passe. Even when you set a story in a very specific historical context (and yes, true, all stories have a historical context), the conflict and the issues related to that context are still around themes relevant to today. Cry the Beloved Country is about troubled race relations immediately preceding apartheid South Africa, but it’s also about forgiveness and fatherhood. Events in The Poisonwood Bible are intrinsically tied to the political upheaval in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, but it alongside the white supremacy that fuels the cottage industry of Christian missionaries to Africa, it also tackles overambitious hubris, responsibility, and culpability.

But what separates a classic from a didactic lesson (“racism is bad, mmmkay?”) is complexity. Your favorite fantasy novel will definitely have an epic good-versus-evil scope. Some will have nuance, with a character who ends up being a turncoat or engaging in morally questionable choices for the greater good, but how many of them will address the complex issues that lead to the rise of evil in the first place, or the kind of evil that is the crushing indifference of a runaway system rather than a tyrannical evil overlord?

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Friday 5: One is Silver; The Other’s Gold

Gold and silver Victorian fascinators and lockets suspended from an unseen hand or display.
Image courtesy Alex Chambers

Who made you laugh most in 2017?

I guess my sambo, since I spent more time with him than anyone else.

What’s something you learned or discovered in 2017?

A friend of mine directed my attention to Ester Blenda Nordström, about whom there has been a recent spate of new media, including a documentary and a new biography.

In what way was 2017 better than 2016?

I think worse things might have happened in 2017, but they felt less bad (for those not directly impacted, obviously) because they were largely things we could see coming. The celebrity deaths in 2017 also seemed to have relented, at least a little, though my heart broke over Adam West.

What was your most pleasing purchase in 2017?

Houseplants! A humidifier! A stepstool! I’M A REALLY BORING ADULT, Y’ALL.


When in 2017 were you pleasantly surprised?

The way that people, especially in the US, have banded together against bigotry and hatred. Love always wins, but let’s help it win a little faster!

Women in Translation

I think about gender a lot, and I’m a woman interested in translation. It’s surprising, then that I haven’t really thought about the impact of gender on translation (who is translated as well as how) until a number of articles conspired to appear in front of me at the same time. (Big shout-out to The Editors Association of Earth on Facebook; I think I came across these in there.)

Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job.

Ensuring women are not lost in translation.

Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own.

A stack of seven different bilingual dictionaries: Spanish, Russian, Romanian, and Slovenian. They're sitting on a brown table in front of a white clapboard wall.

This is all good reading. I want to highlight one fact, one piece of raw data, from the second article: three percent of the books published in English each year are translations, and just twenty-six percent of those translations are works written by women. This reflects the larger situation in literary publishing, where men still outnumber women in being published (but women outnumber men in being the ones to publish them–even at the executive level, surprisingly enough).

A culture gains things when it has access to art and literature outside its own language. An individual gains when they have access to the experiences and voices of someone completely different from themselves. If only three percent of published English literature is going to be translation (and we can quibble about what that percentage should be another time) then it seems the least we can do is ensure that a full half of that three percent is works by women.

Which is why, in 2018, I’m going into my pet translation projects with a renewed sense of purpose. Swedish is already underrepresented in English, outside of Strindberg and “Nordic noir” (or so it seems to me); if I can bring more Swedish to the English-speaking table while at the same time bringing more women, so much the better. Translations are first and foremost labors of love; ultimately, market forces are what decide if a translation is viable publishing material. I can’t guarantee that anything I produce will be of interest to an English-speaking audience. But I can’t try to publish anything without having something to publish first.

Friday 5: Thanks A Lot

A gumpy lemur is not amused.Michelle Phillips

What would you sarcastically like to thank your local government for?

I think Stockholms län does a pretty good job of running things, so I don’t really have much to complain about.

What would you sarcastically like to thank your body for?

Menstruation. :C

What would you sarcastically like to thank your neighbors for?

The awesome parties they have, even though they don’t invite us.

What would you sarcastically like to thank the internet for?

Where to start? YouTube comments, /b/, radicalizing propaganda, a rumor mill cranked up to 11…

What would you sarcastically like to thank November for?

Dark, moody weather.

National Novel Writing Month 2018

Today marks the two-thirds point of National Novel Writing Month (or, if you’re hip and in the know, NaNoWriMo). For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month is a worldwide event where participants sit down and try their best to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. The math works out to 1,667 words every day. Here, on day 20, people should be at a little over 33,000 words in their manuscript.

As I have since 2014, this year I help administer Stockholm’s assorted regional events. This sounds impressive, though it mainly consists of stuffing envelopes for the kick-off event and then helping either set up or clean up when I can, in addition to directing people who attend my own writing meetup to the NaNo website and the Stockholm NaNo forum and Facebook group. When the stars align, I help run the Halloween Head Start event, but the next one won’t be until 2020 (barring someone becoming fabulously wealthy and buying a house where we can host all of the NaNoWriMo things).

I also write, when I can. As I have since 2015, I’m rebelling by revising an older novel (one I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014) instead of writing 50,000 new words. Hopefully by this point I’m on track with my own goals, but since I’m writing this a few days ahead of the game, who can say? In case I’m not, and in case you’re not, I want to pass on a little pep:

It’s okay to fail at NaNo. It’s okay to miss the word goal, it’s okay to give up and decide it’s not for you, or that you hate your story, or whatever. There is an unrelenting optimism from official NaNoWriMo headquarters that can feel no less than oppressive at times, and so I’d like to take a moment and tip the scales back a bit towards neutrality.

It’s okay to hate your story, your characters, your writing, and even yourself. It’s okay to hate your NaNo so much, or the twee pep talks so much, or your fellow WriMos/the MLs/the cafe where you meet so much that you want to quit. It’s okay to quit, even.

Because you sat down and, for however long you managed it, you wrote a bunch of words that you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You declared that this was important to you and that you’d commit to doing it, and even dedicating one day to your craft is better than dedicating no days. This isn’t unrelenting positive thinking bullshit; this is math. One is more than zero.

The funny thing, though, about accepting that it’s okay to quit is that it makes it easier to not quit. Counterintuitive, maybe, but framing it as a choice rather than an obligation can make all the difference. It’s the same way that giving yourself permission to fail can improve performance. (See: the old writer’s block trick of deliberately writing something awful just for the sake of writing something so you can get to the good bits.)

Because if you’re quitting just because you don’t think you can win, you’re missing the point of NaNo. It isn’t hitting 50,000. It’s about prioritizing creativity and time for writing a little higher than you do normally. It’s about meeting people doing the same crazy thing as you, and who have the same crazy habits as you. It’s about making time in a chaotic and frankly terrifying world for creation and for quiet alone time. And that happens with or without 50,000 words.

Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature

The only reason I’m ever aware of the Nobel Prize in Literature is because a bookish friend of mind is the world’s biggest Ismail Kadare fan. Every year it seems like he’s short- or longlisted, and every year he seems to be denied. I haven’t read anything of Kadare’s, so I can’t really offer my own opinion on whether or not I think he deserves it, but I can be unimpressed with this year’s pick.

I’ve only read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro; it seems to be his most famous work, and it generally seems to be that an author’s most famous work is either their best or their worst. (The same is probably true for musicians and albums.) But it’s hard for me to take a book seriously when it has a plot nearly identical to campy 1970s science fiction/thriller movies, and in this case there was nothing about Ishiguro’s writing that elevated the plot beyond anything it was in Parts: The Clonus Horror. And at least Parts had Peter Graves in it! Even without reading any Kadare, I was rooting for him over Ishiguro.

Parts: The Clonus Horror Poster courtesy Group Films
Nobel Prize material, right there. // Image courtesy Group Films

Much like last year, where I was okay with giving the award to a musician on the strength of his lyrics (even though I was personally unimpressed with the musician himself), the academy has again left me underwhelmed with their choice. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’m sure I’ll be rooting for Kadare alongside my bookish friend—again—only to be (most likely) let down again.

Friday 5: Payday

From whom did you receive your first real paycheck?

When I worked at Gilman’s/Lost River Caverns, where I also learned to love rocks.

Among board games involving the exchange of money, which have you enjoyed most?

Do you exchange money in Life? I think you do. I didn’t have anything against Monopoly, but I think I actually finished more games of Life.

 

PayDay is the name of a candy bar consisting of salted peanuts rolled in caramel surrounding a firm, nougat-like center. How does it sound to you if you haven’t tried it, and how do you like it if you have? Is there a similar candy bar you like better?

I don’t like nuts in my chocolate, nor do I like peanuts or peanut butter mixed with chocolate. (Unpopular opinions!) Anything with caramel, nougat, and chocolate without nuts is just peachy keen.

 

When did you last do something nice for yourself just because it was pay day?

I went out and bought new bras. Ladies, I recommend making sure that you’re wearing the correct bra size. (In other words: if you’ve been fitted at Victoria’s Secret, or you’ve used that bizarre “add an arbitrary number to your band measurement,” measure yourself again.)

 

What person with the surname Day are you most familiar with?

I had a really hard time parsing this question at first; I took it to mean “Person With the Surname Day,” as if there were multiple holidays we observe in honor of people with specific surnames. Like, I had to read the question two or three times to understand what they meant.

And my first answer is, of course, Doris Day!