June 19, 2007

Book Reports

The Jane Austen Book ClubThe Jane Austen Book Club: By Karen Joy Fowler. First Plume Printing; 288 pgs., .By Karen Joy Fowler. First Plume Printing; 288 pgs., $14.What is excruciatingly black and white in Jane Austen’s six novels is that her heroines’ stories never delve past the “right of passage” of marriage. Where Austen ominously closes the book on women’s lives, Karen Joy Fowler bravely opens the chapter of life after “marriageable” age.     The book club in this story comprises five women and one man, with a chapter devoted to each of their lives. Each character represents an age group, from the late 20s to the early 60s, and the group is a melting pot of Austen heroines and heroes. Their struggles with marriage, divorce and single-hood are set in contemporary California, but the close third-person narration weaves boundlessly from past to present.    Fowler bows to the Comedienne of Manners with her scrutiny of human observations; the narrator takes jabs at those “nice guys” who lament that women desire jerks by pointing out that they aren’t really as amiable as they think they are. The daily struggle that Prudie, a married high-school teacher in her late 20s, has to endure to avoid sucking in the “soup of adolescent pheromones” is entertaining. There’s even a ball.    But Fowler doesn’t just pay homage to Austen; her book is an open discussion about storytelling that includes an array of subtopics: distinguishing between literature and genre, determining the boundaries of borrowing plot, and poking fun at crappy modern mystery writers.    The back of the book contains a sort of “CliffsNotes” for each Austen novel for non-Austenites. A movie based on the book is scheduled for a Sept. 21 release. —Claudia OleaThe Jesus DynastyBy James Tabor. Simon and Schuster; 377 pgs., $23.The phrase “a real life ‘Da Vinci Code’” does not necessarily make any serious reader hungry, but in this case perhaps it should. An actual genealogy of Jesus is what James Tabor presents, and it makes for quite a gripping tale — half history, half applied science (linguistics, archaeology, etc.) and all with the feel of a particularly informative and endearing college textbook.    This can be a long and tedious read, and plenty of questions arise along the way as to the rigorousness of the research. Nevertheless, if even half of what Tabor has unearthed is being accurately assessed, then the implications are staggering.    This is the text that led Hollywood director James Cameron to make his recent documentary about the discovery of an ancient Jewish tomb with burial markings that suggested it was the final resting place of Jesus and his family. This volume is much better than the documentary film, which was kind of a dud.    Central to Tabor’s thesis is the discovery, back in 1980, of the so-called Talpiot Tomb, allegedly the source of the remains of Mary, Jesus, Joseph, all of Jesus’ siblings (or step-siblings) and Mary Magdalene. None of it can be proven, of course. The extensive theorizing in this book is just that — theorizing — but it is fascinating nonetheless.    The built-in uncertainties of the Jesus story will continue to provide a tinderbox for philosophical and political conflict for generations, if not centuries, to come. —Paul Kopasz