Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

I had heard an interview with A.J. Jacobs about his book on NPR and had put it on my list of things to read. I've recently discovered that I can order books from the library and have them held for me. I realize I'm probably the last library user on the planet to discover this service, but I'm now taking full advantage of it.

I picked the book up Friday morning and finished it last night; I simply couldn't put it down. Iwas fascinated by his quest to live for a year according to the rules in the Bible, both old and new testaments. Actually, did you know that Jews call the "old" testament the "Hebrew Bible" because they don't recognize the new testament. I didn't.

I'm not a religious person, nor did I grow up in a religious household (don't ever get my dad started on organized religion unless you want a half-hour discourse on what's wrong with it), so I actually learned a lot about both Judaism and Christianity from the book.

What seemed to start out as an excuse to write a book turned into a true spiratual quest for Jacobs, who calls himself an atheist. He ends up taking the commandments from the bible very seriously, and living by them affects every aspect of his life. He attends prayer groups and religious conferences. He spends the weekend on an Amish farm and travels to Israel, where he meets one of the few remaining Samaritans. He visits the Creationism Museum and Jerry Falwell's mega-church.

In the end, he remains an atheist, but he refers to himself as a "reverent atheist," which is a term I like. He doesn't believe in a god who intervenes in elections and football games, but he does see the wonder and grace and miracles that exist around us. It's an apt description of how I view the world and religion.

Next, I'm going to order Jacobs's book "Know it All," which chronicles his year of reading the encyclopedia.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dark Star Safari

I tried reading Paul Theroux's Elephanta Suite, which is a collection of novellas set in India, and I just couldn't get through it. I read the first story and half of the second before giving up. The characters were all unpleasant people doing unpleasant things in pretty unpleasant places. Bleah.

So on the advice of my former boss and frequent book swapping partner, I decided to try one of Theroux's travel books. Dark Star Safari is an account of Theroux's trip from Cairo to Cape Town, the entire length of Africa. He travels by train, bus, taxi, private car, boat - basically every mode of transport except an airplane.

His descriptions of the countries and the people he meets are fascinating, if a bit depressing. The cities in certain countries seem to be deteriorating rapidly. And according to many of the people Theroux meets, foreign aid money isn't helping things. Many African countries have become so dependent on handouts that they have lost any incentive to build their own industries. Or else the corrupt government officials take all the money, leaving the citizens in misery.

I did get rather tired of Theroux's holier-than-thou attitude about his trip compared to the safaris and trips tourists take. He mentions over and over again how rich people coming in for safari don't get the real feel of Africa - well after reading his descriptions of the real Africa, I'm not sure I'd want to get a real feel for it.

While I'm not sure I'll read any of his fiction again, I'll look for another of Theroux's travel books the next time I'm at the library. Odds are I won't be visiting any of the places he does, so I can at least read about them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Call of the Weird

My husband and I stumbled on Louis Theroux's (son of author Paul Theroux) Bravo documentary series "Weird Weekends" a decade ago and loved it. The premise of the show was that Theroux spent time getting to know people who live on the fringe of normalcy in some form or another - Survivalists, White Supremacists, porn-industry actors, Ike Turner, a pimp, members of the Heaven's Gate cult, etc. The show was addictive but short lived.

In The Call of the Weird Theroux goes back to revisit some of his documentary subjects to see what's going on with their lives. He finds some interesting things. The porn actor he profiled has left the industry and moved away from Los Angles, but isn't really happy with his life. The surviving members of Heaven's Gate still speak fondly of their leader and their days in the cult. The pimp is still a pimp even though he's married with a child. The Survivalists' camp in Idaho has mostly broken apart. Apparently the non event of Y2K put a dent in their apocalyptic theories.

For anyone who saw any of Theroux's shows, I highly recommend the book. Heck, I recommend it even if you didn't see the shows. He gives enough of a background on each subject that having seen the show isn't a necessity. This is Theroux's first book, and I hope it's not his last. His father has an impressive list of books to his credit, and I hope Louis follows in his footsteps.