This Side of Brightness: Colum McCann

April 29th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

The First Husband and I spent five days over Easter in New York City, travelling there with some friends who are quite familiar with the city. My one and only experience of the Big Apple was some 15-20 years ago, when No. 1 Son and I stayed with friends in Connecticut, and spent a couple of afternoons and evenings strolling around Manhattan.

During this trip, we travelled by subway on several occasions and also went to the Top of the Rock, the elevator ride to the top of the Rockefeller Building. Both experiences were immeasurably heightened by the fact that I was reading Colum McCann‘s amazing book during our infrequent down times in the hotel.

One of the protagonists, Nathan Walker, belongs to a team of “sandhogs,” the workers who are digging the subway tunnel under the East River in 1916. He is one of four “muckers,” men who go to the furthest reaches of the tunnel, out beyond the metal shield that holds the mud back in the event of an accident. It’s their job to shovel the mud and load it on carriages that are pulled out by draught horses, so that the shield can be pushed further into the tunnel. On the day the book opens, there is a spectacular accident. It’s based on an historical incident, the Great Blowout of 1916, when a blowout in the tunnel caused some sandhogs to be sucked right through the hole and out into the East River, on a geyser four storeys high. In McCann’s narrative, three of the sandhogs survive, while the fourth is trapped inside the walls of the tunnel.

Another of the protagonists, Nathan’s mixed-race grandson, born in 1964, becomes a beam walker, working on the skyscrapers. It’s his job to step out into space, onto a ball on the end of a crane jib line, which carries him across to a column, where he wraps his legs around the column and waits for the crane to bring him a beam, which he knocks into place. Then he and the co-worker who had done the same job at the other end of the beam, walk across the beam to the middle, where the headache ball, as they call it, picks them up again and carries them down to the decking several storeys below, where the other workers are.

One of the sub-themes in the books is the unbelievable racism of those times. I know that racism is far from dead in the USA, but it’s nothing by comparison with then, when black people were treated like animals. Immersed as I was in the events taking place in McCann’s book, there was a certain sweet irony to noticing an African-American woman on the subway, one evening, reading one of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith.

It’s becoming a trend!

April 28th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

Here I am, agreeing with Christopher Hitchens again! It must be something in the wine (like W. C. Fields, I refuse to drink water because fish fornicate in it.)

I’ve been reading the extracts in Slate from Hitchens’ new book “God is Not Great”, and it’s a hoot.

Of the Book of Mormon, he writes:

Mormon partisans sometimes say, as do Muslims, that this cannot have been fraudulent because the work of deception would have been too much for one poor and illiterate man. They have on their side two useful points: if Muhammad was ever convicted in public of fraud and attempted necromancy we have no record of the fact, and Arabic is a language that is somewhat opaque even to the fairly fluent outsider. However, we know the Koran to be made up in part of earlier books and stories, and in the case of Smith it is likewise a simple if tedious task to discover that twenty-five thousand words of the Book of Mormon are taken directly from the Old Testament. These words can mainly be found in the chapters of Isaiah available in Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews: The Ten Tribes of Israel in America. This then popular work by a pious loony, claiming that the American Indians originated in the Middle East, seems to have started the other Smith on his gold-digging in the first place. A further two thousand words of the Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament. Of the three hundred and fifty “names” in the book, more than one hundred come straight from the Bible and a hundred more are as near stolen as makes no difference. (The great Mark Twain famously referred to it as “chloroform in print,” but I accuse him of hitting too soft a target, since the book does actually contain “The Book of Ether.”) The words “and it came to pass” can be found at least two thousand times, which does admittedly have a soporific effect. Quite recent scholarship has exposed every single other Mormon “document” as at best a scrawny compromise and at worst a pitiful fake, as Dr. Brodie was obliged to notice when she reissued and updated her remarkable book in 1973.

On Islam:

There is some question as to whether Islam is a separate religion at all. It initially fulfilled a need among Arabs for a distinctive or special creed, and is forever identified with their language and their impressive later conquests, which, while not as striking as those of the young Alexander of Macedonia, certainly conveyed an idea of being backed by a divine will until they petered out at the fringes of the Balkans and the Mediterranean. But Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require. Thus, far from being “born in the clear light of history,” as Ernest Renan so generously phrased it, Islam in its origins is just as shady and approximate as those from which it took its borrowings. It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or “surrender” as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing—absolutely nothing—in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.

On religion itself:

The mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the “meaning” of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them. And yet—the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what “he” demands of us—from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction—itself composed of mutually warring factions—has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need. Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough on its own to exclude “belief” from the debate. The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.

I can hardly wait to read the book. It sounds like so much fun.

Murdering Bastards

April 2nd, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

I rarely agree with anything written by Christopher Hitchens, including “and” and “the”, in Mary McCarthy’s immortal phrase. But he’s right on the mark with this piece, posted in today’s Slate.

Get Adobe Flash player