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Archive for May, 2010

woman scholar frescoSo I’m writing a book set in 5C Alexandria. I know the plot and my characters intimately. I’m typing away at the seduction scene when I think, “Did they have underwear back then? If so, what was it like?” I know the handsome hero doesn’t unzip his pants but does he unbutton, unbuckle, untie, unwrap? Of course I could finesse this with a sentence like, “He dropped his garments onto the floor.” But it won’t be long before readers get impatient with generalities because the devil is in the historical details.

The sights, smells, sounds and descriptions of clothes, food, housing and transportation in a different time make the reader suspend disbelief and join whole-heartedly in the fiction. Valerie Anand, who writes historical mysteries (most recently The Siren Queen), under the pseudonym Fiona Buckley makes this point: “When planning a specific book, I read works on the period, and chase up such details as the layout of particular towns, styles of furniture, fashions of the time, laws in force, and technologies which existed then. I use maps a lot. I had my sitting room floor completely carpeted while I tried to work out whether one could or could not ride a horse from one point to another in a single day. I always try to be accurate, because there is always someone out there who will write in and point out your mistakes.”

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Modern Bibliothetic AlexandrinaThe Great Library of Alexandria conjures images of bearded scholars strolling marble halls, studying rolls of papyri at large wooden tables, or arguing with colleagues under covered walkways. The loss of “the world’s knowledge” through wanton destruction is a metaphor for the coming of the Dark Ages in Europe. But what was the Great Library really and how was it destroyed?

After Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, his general Ptolemy Soter I took over the province of Egypt and his descendants ruled until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC. Ptolemy was advised by a former Athenian named Demetrius to “collect together books on kingship and the exercise of power, and to read them” so as to become more like Plato’s ideal philosopher-king.  Ptolemy then sent a letter to his fellow rulers throughout the classical world asking that they send him works of authors of all kinds because he wished to collect “the books of all the peoples of the world.” This was the beginning of the Royal Library which eventually became the Great Library.

Ptolemy and his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus constructed a walled palace district taking up almost a third of Alexandria which not only housed the  royal residences, but also a sprawling temple to the muses—the Museum which included the Royal Library, scholars’ living quarters, classrooms, a zoo and gardens with exotic plants. Strabo the geographer describes it:

“The Museum, too is part of the royal palace. It comprises the covered walk, the exedra or portico, and a great hall in which the learned members of the Museum take their meals in common. Money, too, is held in common in this community; they also have a priest who is head of the Museum, formerly appointed by the sovereigns and now appointed by Augustus.”

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Gladiator CD CoverThis is the first of a series of essays/reviews on “sword and sandals” epics from movies and TV shows during the past few years.  I love history and historical fiction.  I love to read it, write it and watch it.  When an epic hits the big screen, I eagerly plunk down my money, buy popcorn, cheer the good guys, and boo the bad guys.  It’s fun, but I have no illusions about the accuracy of the historical content.  Movie producers are first and foremost entertainers who want to earn a profit from their product.  Part of the entertainment for me is seeing what they get right and what they get wrong.

My first review is for Gladiator directed by Ridley Scott, which came out in 2000.  I watched it in the theater and recently reviewed the DVD.  So let’s check the facts: (more…)

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Lavina coverBest known for her children’s stories of wizards in Books of Earthsea and award-winning science-fiction such as The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin has brought her brilliant writing to historical fiction. Lavinia, her most recent book, is inspired by Virgil’s classic The Aeneid and brings Bronze Age Italy to life with this story of war and madness. Born in 1929 to an anthropologist father and writer mother, Le Guin submitted her first story at the tender age of twelve. It was rejected. But she persevered and has defied categorization by publishing mainstream stories, novels, children’s books, essays, literary criticism and poetry. She’s accumulated numerous awards including: the National Book Award, five Hugos, five Nebulas, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Howard Vursell Award, among others. Ms. Le Guin talked to me from her home in Portland, Oregon.

FAITH L. JUSTICE: You’ve described yourself frequently as an artist.  What does that mean to you?

Ursula K. Le Guin: There are dance artists, painting artists, writing artists. Authors are writing artists.  I think people restrict the term artist to mean painters and sculptors.  I think the practice of art, in whatever medium you do it in, is one large similar thing.  I’m just glad that words are my medium, because I love them.

FLJ:  So you consider it something of a sacred calling?

UKLG: It’s probably not a term that I would originate, but yes I do.  Any craft pursued with real seriousness has a sacred quality about it, unless you’re just doing it for the money. That’s rather rare.  Most people do it, at least partly, for their own sake.  This is true of teaching or carpentry, not just the fine arts.

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Islam: A Short History

In Part I, Ms. Armstrong talked to me about her journey in becoming a world renowned writer and thinker on all things religious.  In Part II, she discussed her book The Battle for God and the rise of fundamentalism. Now she talks to me about her book Islam: A Short History and Islam in the modern world.

FAITH L.  JUSTICE: How did you get involved in writing Islam: A Short History?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: One of the editors had worked with me on Jerusalem as a sub-editor before he got into the hierarchy.  He knew my work and thought Islam would be good for me.  So it was simply knowing the right people.  They wanted a short, slim volume to give you somewhere to start, with lists of books for further reading, so you can explore further on.  I think it’s a good idea.  Forty thousand words is a lovely length, but for Islam it’s hard to compress 1500 years.  I had to find the theme and tell the story.

FLJ:  Other than get people started, what do you want to accomplish with this book?

KA: To correct some of the imbalance.  The long history of Western prejudice ever since the Crusades has troubled me ever since I became interested in Islam, way back in Jerusalem.  Islam was like the United States.  Europe was an undeveloped country — way behind the big civilizations after the Dark Ages and the collapse of the Roman Empire.  Everywhere you looked there was Islam — Turkey, the Middle East, India, Japan, China, Southeast Asia.  It was a far-flung empire.  In the 16th Century, it was the most advanced civilization in the world.  In Europe, we were coming up, but we hated a lot of people, which we often do when we’re in a position of striving.  We approached history with a hostility towards Islam.

It comes out in all sorts of ways.  In the media they assume that Islam is quite fanatical, intolerant, violent and bad about women, but it’s no better or worse than any other major faith.  People think fundamentalism is an Islamic tradition, whereas fundamentalism is in every major faith.  And none of the great world religions is good about women!  Islam has a much better record of tolerance than Western Christianity.  It has a kind spiritual tradition, a philosophy of openness.  I wanted to correct that distorted view, because we’ve leaned in the 20th Century it’s dangerous to hold any such inaccurate stereotypical view of people and religion.  It damages our own integrity to support an intolerant culture.  Islam has its flaws, but it also has great strengths.

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The Battle for God cover

In Part I, Ms. Armstrong a self-described “freelance monotheists”, discussed how she came to be one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers of religious history.  In this section she talks to me about her book The Battle for God and the rise of fundamentalism around the world.

FAITH L. JUSTICE: In The Battle for God, you discuss how religions have evolved in the past millennia, could you explain the essential differences between pre-modern and modern society/religion what you call “mythos and logos”?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The basic change is economic. During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the West began to develop a kind of civilization that was entirely new and without precedent in the world.  Instead of based economically on the surplus of agriculture, as all premodern societies have been, it was based on technology which could be replicated ad infinitum, or so people imagined.  During this time science achieved such spectacular results that the old mythical way of looking at religion became entirely discredited.

Today in popular parlance the word “myth” means basically something that’s not true.  If a politician is accused of some peccadillo he will often say that this is a myth — it didn’t happen.  In the premodern world, myth was a primitive form of psychology, an event that in some sense happened once and which also happened all the time.  This is a concept for which we have no word in our language because we’ve lost that sense.  We think of history in terms of a succession of unique events.  In the premodern world people knew that what they called myth and logos –scientific rationalism — were distinct and entirely separate.  You needed both.  You needed myth to give yourself the meaning that human beings require from life, because we’re meaning seeking creatures and fall very easily into despair. But you also needed logos — practical, scientific, rational, logical reason to sharpen an arrow correctly or run your societies.  But you did not mix the two.  Both had complimentary tasks.  Each had its own particular area of competence.

Once myth had been discredited, religion had to be rethought.  In America, in particular, the fundamentalists became extremely concerned that if the truth of religion were not historically demonstrable and scientifically verifiable facts, then they couldn’t be valid. That’s been a crucial thing in the West.  In the Jewish religion people are less concerned with dogma and doctrine than Christians are.  This dogmatic concern is a peculiar and unique aspect of Christianity.  Judaism and Islam are both religions of practice.  People are more concerned to make their religions function effectively in the world and often use the truths of religion as a blueprint for action in a way that usually would not deemed advisable in the premodern world.  So religion has changed because our society changed.  We rethought the old truths of religion.  Fundamentalism is just one of the many attempts to say how we can be religious in the modern world.

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Karen ArmstrongMs. Armstrong, who calls herself a “freelance monotheist,” is among the foremost religious historians, writers, and thinkers in the world.  A former Catholic nun, she’s written biographies of Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed, and St. Peter as well as the best-selling books The Battle for God, A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Ms. Armstrong talked to me  about her writing and research process, her struggles with life after leaving the convent, religious fundamentalism in all its many forms, and Islam in the modern world.

FAITH L. JUSTICE: When did you start to write?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: My first book, about my life in the convent, was published in 1981 — it was a long time after leaving.  I found people tended to introduce me at parties and suppers as, “Here’s Karen.  She used to be a nun.”  I would spend the entire meal being questioned about it and I didn’t have time to explain why — the interior stuff and the rationale that made sense of all these things.  So I told funny stories and trivialized the experience.  After awhile, I wanted to remember it as it was and try to deal with it in some way.  The first drafts were very angry.  My agent at the time asked, “If it was that bad, why did you stay so long?”  The book was a way of coming to terms with the experience and seeing the positive side as well as the negative. Now writing is my living.  It’s what I do.

FLJ:  Why did you take up the religious life?

KA: For a number of reasons, because motivation is never simple.  There was a religious aspect to it — I wanted to find God, or what I thought might be God.  I had a teenage oversimplified view: I would find the divine, be filled with peace and serenity, lose all that adolescent anguish and misery, and overnight become a wise saint.  I was also very shy and very uncomfortable socially.  I was okay at lessons and exams, but socially and emotionally?  In the early 60’s, before things loosened up, it was a bad time to be a woman, if you weren’t pretty.   Now you can find your own style.

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