The Vatican Diaries and the Illusion of Unity

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When you study Orientalism and the media, you learn that Islam is falsely portrayed as a monolithic force, an unified whole with little room for dissent or the messiness of humanity. The media throw around terms like “Muslim extremist,” “fatwa,” and “imam” without explanation or any apparent need to distinguish between schools of Islam. This is, of course, a baldly incorrect perspective: Islam is as varied and complex as the billion people who make it up.

While Muslim leaders struggle against this illusion of unity, Catholic leaders have cultivated it for centuries. The Church is The Church–it is to speak with one voice, guide with one hand, be always one with the body of God. Yet, books like “The Vatican Diaries” reveal the truth: that Catholicism is, indeed, as messy as any other religion. Religious traditions, you see, are artifacts of humanity, and thus all reflect our flaws back upon us.

The Catholic Church is a complicated institution, where politics can be as important as faith, where money can disappear, where hundreds or thousands of voices can set to war with one another. It is subject to oversights, to changes of opinion, to all the other imperfections of humanity. From forgetting to warn the Pope that acrobats were going to spend 10 minutes stripping in front of him, to accidentally de-excommunicating a vociferous Holocaust denier, the Catholic Church is a mess–but it’s a juicy and ultimately beautiful mess.

Hello Old Friend

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I read her every year. And every year I find something new.

The first year, it was wonder at the narrative structure. Everything made sense, even though it all seemed to be written in a jumble, a complicated string of present-past-future-past-future. Yet, I came out of the book with a complete story woven in my head.

This year, I noticed the post-colonial threads as never before. Maybe it’s because I’m living in a culture where whiteness is beautiful and blackness is ugly, where mothers smear cream on their toddlers’ faces every night to bleach their skin a little whiter. The idolization of The West, of England and America, came through to me very clearly. The way the children love The Sound of Music, the way it resonates with them and yet makes them feel wrong, unloved. Sophie Mol, loved from the beginning, an odd clash of cultures. The Communists, using dogma imported through China via Russia via England to build a “new world,” one where they are still bound by the ancient laws of caste and creed.

Roy crafts a world in these pages, and then she tears it apart. The world of a family, of four people who love each other, of people who are incapable of anything beyond self-love, and of people who are merely History’s Agents.

And Sons

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This story should no longer be interesting. Fathers and sons? The blessing and curse of the son who follows in his father’s footsteps? Upper class men in the artsy culture of New York City? Done, and done to death, correct?

But from the moment I opened “And Sons” in a Singapore airport bookstore and turned to a random sentence, all those old stories fell away. This is those stories, and it is not. It is something ancient and intensely modern, something told endlessly but never told like this. Just as the relationship between fathers and sons repeats itself across time, and all the other days the story was lived are nothing next to the drama of the moment, so is this novel something simultaneously old and new.

In prose that just kills me, with sentences that last for pages and left me unable to tear myself away, this book is something truly special. Just because a story has already been told is not a good enough reason not to retell it.

The Lady and the Monk

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In “The Lady and the Monk,” Pico Iyer, world traveler, stops in Japan for a while. There he falls in love with a woman, not only through talking to her, but through communicating with her between languages. Neither is fluent in the other’s tongue, so they must reach, endlessly, across a vast linguistic and cultural gap. I was lucky enough to have foreknowledge, and I knew that Iyer’s planned yearlong stay in Japan would in fact last a lifetime, and that the woman he had an affair with would become his partner of more than 20 years.

Iyer immerses himself in Japan, not only in the surface of what he sees but in the deeper well of what he can know. He is enamored of the mothers and children he sees walking the streets of Kyoto his first weeks there, but through his friendship with one of those mothers he comes to see the shuttered life they lead, comes to understand the emotions and pain beneath the quiet Japanese exterior.

Without ever veering into stereotypes, but with admitted reverence for the culture, Iyer writes the rarest of travel books: the kind that not only shows you what is out there, that not only shows you what lies beneath the sights, but that teaches you how to see. How to begin to understand.