Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein (Harper, 2016) 301 pages

SAG Orenstein

Last time, I looked at Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls, so this will be a good comparison of books dealing with similar content read more or less back-to-back. I have to say, I liked Orenstein’s breezy style a lot more than Sales’ more formal and “this is really a serious issue” approach. Also, as I mentioned, Sales’ book has chapters organized by age, from 13 to 19, which suggests boundaries that, in my experience, are more in the eye of the beholder than deeply embedded in reality.

I read this book because I liked Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter book from a few years ago. Here, the author, as parent of a young girl, examines the whole “Disney princess” culture and the potential negative effects this “little girl as royalty” might have on girls as they grew up.

Orenstein’s book has chapters organized by theme. So one chapter investigates whether girls today are encouraged to consider themselves as sex objects (only when they want to be, the chapter title suggests) while another explores if the term “virgin” has any meaning when sexual activity, even for very young teens, is much more adventurous that it was not too long ago.

Instead of an age progression based on social media and technology use, Orenstein uses conversations with girls of many ages (but still mainly teens) to structure chapters revolving around sex, from hookups to coming out at a young age as a lesbian to friends and parents. Orenstein does not form judgments often, except perhaps when it comes to the role of alcohol in campus rape scenarios. She doesn’t moan when girls report that being known as a “prude” or a “virgin” might be just as shameful as being called a “slut” (p.3).

In fact, the book begins with a plea on the part of a well-endowed high-school girl that it should not be her (and other girls’) responsibility to “dress to control the boys” (p.9). Why should it be? she asks. Why isn’t the school and the boy’s parents doing more to have boys control themselves? It seems a pertinent question when 100% of girls report being sexually harassed (p.11) and most girls have resorted to wearing shorts under their school uniform skirts because the boys will not refrain from grabbing at the hems and lifting them up. Why aren’t boys encouraged in ads and on TV to wear tight shorts and expose their midsections in freezing weather (p.12)?

As Orenstein points out on p.14, Bruce Jenner, covered in Olympic sweat, used his body, but Caitlin Jenner, covered by a corset from “Trashy Lingerie,” displayed it. And many times, what girls are encouraged to do is to use their bodies to please boys, through sexual activity. Girls in middle school will strip on Skype for their boyfriends, because this remote display was one way to be a “bad girl” without the risks of “real sex” (p.23).

You can find the same kinds of perhaps surprising or even shocking statistics here as in Sales’ book: the new second base is masturbating the boy’s penis while he fingers the girl (p.47), 12-year-olds routinely ask health teachers if they should spit or swallow (p. 48), the concern about queefing (look it up: it was on South Park…p.63), girls are pressured to shave their public hair about the age of 14 (p. 67), and do on.

On the other hand, Orenstein does a very good job of dealing with the perils of date rape and campus drinking. She ties a lot of it in to the concerns about what the book calls “the number”…that is, how many sexual partners are too many (p.98). The book says that the average number of partners a girl has in college is seven. (p.105). But like many averages, a few really high or low numbers might skew the results.

This book goes places where the other book did not travel much. There is a long section on a “Purity Ball” where fathers take their daughters to dances and exchange vows of virginity until marriage vows are exchanged (p.84 on). Like the author, I got a bit of a queasy feeling about this strident display of rejecting all forms of intimacy. If there’s anything that perpetuates the view of a female as the possession of a man, it’s the idea that these girls have to be chaperoned by their fathers (or another close male relative) until they can be safely handed off their husbands (and later, their sons).

There are also long sections on women who have been raped (p.130) and gay sexuality (p.142). The age when girls came out as gay has dropped from about 25 in 1991 to 14-16 today (p.148). One issue I had is that Orenstein tends to split the stories up as she goes through her narrative, so a woman goes on a date on one page, gets drink ten pages later, then wakes up naked more pages later. Some schools have begun teaching “refusal skills” so that fewer women will have unwanted sexual activity (the FBI definition of rape) and still feel compelled to say (as the woman on p.197) to the boy, “Thanks, I had fun.”

The book ends with a frank discussion of how modern society is failing to give women and girls the tools they need to succeed in their relationships. Girls are still more likely to learn “what feels good” when they are touched not by themselves, but from someone else (p.205). There is more consideration in ordering a pizza for a couple (“Ok, you don’t like anchovies…”) than there is about sex (p.207).

Orenstein is not afraid of tangling her sex talk with politics. Once we decided to teach only abstinence in schools, we lost all chance of teaching our children to be responsible at the same time. We expect teens to break rules, but not the ones regarding the denial of their sexual natures (p.221).

On the other hand, I have a hard time agreeing with people that women who post naked photos are “empowered” by their sexuality. I say this because I think the female body has been so fetishized in modern America that an objective appreciation of the nude female form is all but impossible today. I think that a woman (or man, for that matter) should be able to walk down the street naked if they want too and not be at risk of any harm. But we are a long way from that, I think. At this point, I’ll be happy enough to hear about a boy covering a drunken girl with a blanket and staying with her until she sobers up.

American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales (Knopf, 2016) 404 pages

AG Sales

I actually bought this book when it came out in February and read it sometime in March, I think. But for many reasons, it just percolated up to the top of the pile recently. One reason is that I wanted to talk about it in contrast to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex, but that will have to wait until next time at the earliest.

I raised one daughter who is now a wife and mother, and my wife Camille teaches K-8 Art (yes, from kindergarten through 8th grade, and she’s watched many a child, boy and girl, grow up and mature along the way). So I didn’t really read this book to find out “all about modern girls” or whatever. I just wanted to see how an author’s perception of the role of social media in the lives of modern American teenage girls corresponded to my personal experiences and the tales I heard my wife and other teachers relate—I promise there will be no titillating details.

For those who came for the “secret lives” promise in the title, the main point the author makes is that teenage girls often live rich lives that remain hidden to their parents, although not necessarily to other parents or the authors of books on social media and teenage girls. I was much the same way when I was a teenager—horrified of my parents finding out something that my friends’ parents knew already—because they caught us doing it. 🙂

I did struggle a bit with the overall organization of the book. A 20-page introduction introduces the reader to the new world of social media in high school and on college campuses, mentioning well-known incidents of sexual and drinking photos posted at Syracuse and ASU. Although I Knew a bit about the problems of early teens “sexting,” a lot of the newer apps like Yeti were new to me. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, I already knew that Facebook was all but obsolete among teens in general, thanks to talks with my wife’s students. Why use anything your parents know well? Are you crazy?)

After the crash-course-social-media introduction, the book is organized into seven chapters spanning the years from 13 (naturally) to 19. A short conclusion chapter ends the book.

I found the structure a bit limiting in letting the reader try to fit together the anecdotes into a coherent whole. And I already knew that some girls in some places at 14 are way ahead of (or far behind) other girls in other places at 16 (although these differences have become more homogenized than a generation or two ago: thanks, MTV et al). If anything, modern social politics has delayed entry into adulthood until after college or beyond, and, as a result, marriage and children come later and later as well. I don’t have to read a book to tell you that many of the kids I went to high school with got married right out of high school (17-18). Only about 50% went to college, and that was in Westchester County in NY.

The rigid structure all but forces Sales into unacknowledged “themes” for each chapter. After all, girls in college at 19 don’t need to watch YouTube videos on how to apply eye makeup like they do at 13 (or 9, if you want to freak out a bit). I did compile a sort of informal list on Sales’ main concerns for each age group:

13: the tech itself. (How many “likes” did I get?) Girls in this chapter deal with 50-100 texts a day (sounds low to me). The Internet traffic is 35% porn, and most kid’s first exposure to on-line porn starts at 6 (p. 13: still the giggly-looky stage…but still), usually through an older sibling or by a Google search gone wrong. (I still recall being absolutely shocked that a middle-school’s computers had no porn blocker…I hope they do today). But no matter: the boys go directly to the girls with “Send noodz” texts, and the girls often produce their own porn just to have some measure of control (p.41). If you want shock, you can ponder the 12-year-old Australian girl’s “I Love COCK” shirt (p.49)

14: The theme here is “Appearance”…it’s all about clothes, makeup, and accessories. There is a lot of Internet celebrities and following them, imitating them, obsessing over them. Sometimes, the girls themselves ARE them. Page 83 has a nice image of a flummoxed dad helpless to understand his daughter’s Internet fame: she won’t do the dishes but she has 100,000 followers on YouTube?

15: The theme shifts to bullying (p.128). About 50% of girls need to “manage their reputation” and for the first time issues of gay/lesbian come along (p.140). Another topic is who-is-cheating-on-whom (all that built-up sexual tension has to go somewhere).  I have to say, bullying is one place where schools I know about are really alert. But stamping out a negative storm of shaming texts is always a problem. For the first time, we meet cutters and other forms of self-harm (p.169).

16: There theme here is “Love” in all its teenage…I was going to say “innocence” but by now it should be obvious there is more innocence on a reality show like Lock Up Raw than there is among teenage girls today. The book relates the 2013 incident in California (p.205 on) where “Uncle Jim” abducts Hannah Anderson. But the usual pervert story is stood on its head when the rescued Hannah, after Jim’s death, becomes an Internet star and brags of her sexual conquests (p.207-208). At 13-14, I think, girls are not often aware of their effect on boys and men (maybe especially men). By 16, however, most know just what they are doing.

17: Love is so 16-ish, don’t you think? As we phase out of high school and into college, the theme is now dating (or rather, the lack thereof) and hooking up. Yes, why date when you can look at a hot guy online and have sex that night, or afternoon, or whenever? And if he doesn’t call, well, why would you want him to, silly? Free love has always been around (p.233), so what’s all the fuss if some of us like it?

18: Now we confront drunk sex and the rape culture. I don’t need to say much here: the case of the California swimmer from Stanford is all over the news. What should be the punishment for fingering a passed-out girl? Should he get points (as someone said) for “not having raped anyone before”? All I can say is it’s as bad as they say.

19: A sobering look at STDs and the risks all this sex talk and action might involve. I have to admit I found the last two chapters a bit depressing (not that Hannah was really uplifting).

So what’s Sales’ conclusion? Well, whether we’re “misunderstood youth” or their well-meaning elders, the author points out that we all manage to grow up. What we want, in the end, is some feeling of intimacy with someone special. The means might change, but as long as the end is satisfying to the partners, people will be all right.

Maestra by L. S. Hilton

Maestra by L. S. Hilton (Putnam, 2016) 309 pages

M Hilton

I read this novel because I know L. S. Hilton as Lisa Hilton, non-fiction author who wrote books about Queen Elizabeth and other Medieval queens. I almost bought one, but didn’t, picking up a history of the Plantagenet dynasty instead. So why is Lisa Hilton, historian, now L. S. Hilton, “erotic” novelist? Probably for the same reason that Harry Turtledove, Byzantine historian (I have his translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes) became the award-winning novelist of alternate histories of WW II: because that’s where the money and fame are. At least Harry kept his name and personal history, while Hilton seems intent to disown any of that intellectual person she once was.

Why? Well, Turtledove’s former life was a good platform for his historical novels, although I wonder how much a deep knowledge of Byzantium had to do with understanding how the history of modern Europe might have played out if a few things had changed. But if what you are writing, as the New York Post said (proudly displayed on the Amazon page) is an “erotic novel [that] makes Fifty Shades look like the Bible”…well, you might want to keep those two careers separate. (I doubt anyone at the Post is familiar with how salacious the Bible actually is…you hear me, Lot?)

Also, if you look at the photo of Hilton on the end flap, that woman looks much more like the jet-setting serial killer in the novel than a history geek (although she is almost 42, the image on the book reveals that she is very well preserved). And when it comes to loving sex, no one can doubt that Hilton began laying the groundwork for an eventual titillating best-seller almost 10 years ago: see her article in the Guardian from 2007.

By the way, the title Maestra comes from the feminine form of “maestro,” meaning a teacher or someone of consummate skill, usually in the field of music. In Italian, oddly, the term maestro is used for both male and female.

Now, about the book itself, which is the first of a promised trilogy. I found the idea of a psychopath who kills and screws her way to fame and fortune intriguing, not in the least because every other female (and many of the males) in the book is either a vapid moron or fodder for the maestra to manipulate and conquer. But I found the sex a bit forced, if done with athletic vigor and sometimes drug-induced enthusiasm. To me it was more a curiosity than erotic (do people really do that? I guess so…but no thanks…maybe I’ll just wait outside).

The narrator, Judith Rashleigh, starts out as an assistant at a London art house, the kind that acquires art at an estate sale, cleans it up and appraises it, and then auctions it off so that international drug dealers can launder their money…I mean, so that discriminating rich people can enjoy fine artwork. But because Judy can’t get enough sex, she’s also a hostess at an upscale champagne bar, the ones where the good stuff costs 3000 pounds…but who cares, because the bank I work for is paying my business expenses, right?

Judy is apparently the only person who wants to better herself (she is tired of working for people who don’t have her Oxford education – as Hilton does – but who come from better families). Judy tries to be good until she stumbles onto a plot to sell a “school of” painting as the real deal (a Stubbs). She decides to celebrate her freedom by talking a client into taking her and a friend to the French Riviera, where the girls manage to administer an overdose to their sugar daddy. This event somehow inspires Judy to become a serial killer and pass herself off as one of the vacuous rich that flit on yachts between France and Italy and Spain as the whim strikes them.

Now, I surely applaud people who want to better themselves and become famous novelists after a series low-paying non-fiction books (ahem). But of course you can succeed by killing everyone and anyone who stands in your way. Especially if every coincidence and messy step with the cops and the mob happens to break your way. The trick is to do it while still playing by the rules. You can always cut the Gordian Knot, sure, but everybody with Alexander the Great could have done that.

This is the psychological thriller equivalent of the zombies who, when they chase others, run like the wind, but when they chase the heroes, stagger with leaden feet and stumbling gait. One or two coincidences and betrayals I could take, but by the third or fourth occasion of just-in-time escapes or great fortune, I started shaking my head and longing for a good evaluation of Queen Elizabeth among the rulers or her day.

No matter who old Judy shoots, stabs, poisons, or strangles, she is always one step or more ahead of those corrupt authorities who are, after all, as evil in their own way as our dear maestra. Probably more so, don’t you think? Because they’re supposed to be good guys, a claim Judy never makes for herself.

I did come away with an enriched vocabulary and a better sense of modern female fashion and style. If I ever need to pass myself off as a hooker in downtown London or an ingénue on the Riviera, I’ll know just how to dress for the lap dance or the dinner party on the big boat (see pages 7-8, 20, 55-56, 68, 77, 96, 144, 124, 144, 161, 244, 264, 279, etc).

Now, a lot of the words used in the book I knew, but seldom encounter in my reading (like the colonic on p.33). Many you can figure out from context (like the gun with the silencer she keeps in her Parisian escritoire on p.284). But I don’t often scramble for the dictionary like I did here (a lot of them are special food/clothes words, but there will be a test): angostura (p.9), peruke (p.26), syllabub (p.41), “ruched her pashmina” (p.45), squiz (p.53), monoï oil (p.74), etiolated (p. 79, but 10 points off for repeating this odd word for “feeble” on p. 270), passarelle (p. 104), kurta (p.124), foulard (p.144), snaffle ([.167), raclette (p.201), and “perse” skin and “kir framboise” (both on p. 215).

One odd oversight, although it is absolutely essential to the plot: the Eden Roc in Antibes on the Riviera (NOT the one in Miami), once noted for taking only cash, now takes finer credit cards. (How do I know? My father might have been a coal miner, but I am not a peasant…)

Note to self: If I can arrange for an illustrated edition of this book with a hot blond (Hilton?) dressed up in all the outfits in the book, especially if I can show the monoï oil on her nether regions, I’ll be a multi-millionaire.

But I’ll probably pass on the next two books. I just could not think of old Judy as someone I wanted to succeed. Actually, I wanted someone she trusted to gut her like a fish, preferably during sex while wearing only her pashmina. Maybe that’s how she ends up…one can only hope.

America’s War for the Greater Middle East by Andrew J. Bacevich

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House, 2016) 453 pages

AW by Bacevich

This is Memorial Day, so this book seems to fit right in. If I live to be 100, my fondest memories of growing up revolve around Memorial Day. In New York, that was the day the pools opened, the big Little League double header, and the day of the big parade (in New York, a lot of kids went away to camp, so the 4th of July parade was non-existent). We all trooped down to Village Hall and stood at quiet attention. There, after the high school band played the Anthem, in front of the statue of Dollar the horse and the War Memorial with the names of the dead, the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion (Mrs. Suda and someone else) brought wreath to the monument. Then came the highlight of the day: the firing of the salute…three rounds of three blanks into the deep blue spring sky, the kids scrambling on the ground for the ejected shells, still warm from the barrel. Yes, I still have a few, somewhere. Then, after the local minister or priest gave the blessing, the mayor gave a short speech, and then he read the Roll of Honor: the names of all the locals who had died in all the wars since the Revolution. I am old enough to remember the skinny but absolutely erect veteran of World War I who walked the whole mile of the parade without a cane of help until the year he died in the late 70s. By then, the names of the Vietnam Veterans had joined the rest.

Only when the last name was read did the crowd disperse to their cookouts and barbecues.

That is my memory. By the time I left town in my early fifties, about the time of the second Iraq War, many adults used their cell phones all through the service, their kids ran around the edges of the crowd shouting, and a lot of new residents from South America and Eastern Europe had no idea what was going on, if they bothered to show up at all. I won’t judge them or the times we live in, but books like this help to show where America went off the rails.

All you need to know about this book is on the flap and in the beginning:

From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the Greater Middle East. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere else. (p. 11)

Bacevich’s book explores how this happened.

Where is started to go wrong is open to debate. The early part of the book goes over a lot of history we have all but forgotten but should not. One key event is the overthrow of the vicious reign of the Shah of Iran by the religious mullahs who still rule the country today. U.S. support of Israel, even when the Israelis attacked U.S. vessels, cost this country the support of the Arab world.

Or maybe it happened even earlier. After Israel won the October War in 1973, the Arab notions retaliated by suspending oil sales to the United States. I still recall the days of gasoline shortages, when you could only buy gas on odd days if your license plate ended in an odd number, or even days for even numbers. (For those who wonder, A-L endings were considered odd, M-Z considered even…at least in New York.) That was when Nixon decided that oil was more important than almost anything else.

Bacevich, a West Point graduate, emphasizes the military aspects of our Middle East dealings, but he has good reminders about other events often overlooked. Everyone knows about how the Iranians took Americans hostage in their embassy in Tehran (p.24). But how many remember that the cause of the student’s action was the U.S. allowing the deposed and dying Shah to enter the US for medical treatment? The students feared that the U.S., which had the CIA kill the elected leader of Iran in 1953 to put the Shah in power in the first place, was plotting their old tyrant’s return. (In spite of repeated claims of conspiracy, there is no evidence that the hostage-taking was a well-thought-out plot.)

In any case, by the time Reagan came along in 1980, America’s policy in what Bacevich calls the Greater Middle East (roughly from Morocco to Pakistan) was founded on three key beliefs (p. 35):

  1. The Soviet Union would take over Middle East oil if we didn’t defend our right to buy it.
  2. Our allies needed the USA to defend them: they were too weak to do it on their own.
  3. Our military had to be strong enough to take the oil we wanted by force if necessary.

Following these tenets led to all kinds of odd things: support for Iraq, then Iran, then neither. Only the military and political mattered: that Sunni/Shia historical and social thing? Who cares! (p. 42).

The Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, which makes Hillary’s silly email problem seem like, well, a silly problem over email, meant that U.S. planes were in danger of being shot down by Hawk missiles that the U.S. had sold to one side or the other (p. 101).

The book slogs on through all the mistakes we made in the First Gulf War, then the Second, as well as our stumbles in Afghanistan and the Balkans (where, oddly, for once we were on the side of the Muslims), and our troubles with Arab revolutions in Egypt and Libya and elsewhere.

Throughout, the author focuses on our military failures, which compounded our shortcomings in the political (democracy for all, as long as you vote in people we like!) and social (get along with those Sunnis/Shia like we get along with minorities and illegal aliens!) arena. Basically, our biggest shortcoming has been to overestimate the impact of air power and modern mechanized warfare and underestimate the will of the people of the invaded country to resist our occupation in spite of a veneer of cooperation.

More than one book I’ve read recently points out that US casualties increased when the Iraqis stopped “fighting” with modern weapons and started using IEDs. And that didn’t start in earnest until the Iraqis realized that the US forces were not there to get rid of Saddam and go home: they were obviously digging in to stay while (and chasing rumors of those “chemical weapons” that had to be hiding somewhere).

The book ends on a depressing note as drone strikes are making a generation of new enemies for us in Libya and Syria (p. 325). And although we can save the lives of more and more of our wounded troops, we have created a large pool of people who will need care for the rest of their lives, not only because they lack arms and legs and faces, but because their ordeal has shattered their minds as well as their bodies.

No, Memorial Day is not the way I remember it. I hope the oil was worth it. I fear it’s not.


Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane by Paul Thomas Murphy

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy (Pegasus Crime, 2016) 270 pages


I love books like this, for some reason (and it has two colons in the title!). The notion of an unsolved mystery, even one where we are 99.99% sure who did it, intrigue me. I still hope I live long enough to find out who that Zodiac killer was in San Francisco, although I am sure he was a frustrated engineer or professor who killed only while in the area on business (which makes it hard to find a local to pin it all on). But I certainly don’t think the theory put forth by Trump followers that Zodiac was Ted Cruz is feasible, given their ages. 🙂

Moreover, although I am the most squeamish of people when it comes to visual depictions (or real ones) of blood or gore, I can read accounts of the most horrid events without blinking. And the crime in Pretty Jane is lurid enough to satisfy the most blood-thirsty reader.

This event preceded the much more famous Jack the Ripper murders by more than 15 years. In 1871, the city of London included districts in the southeast (past the grounds of the Greenwich Observatory and Blackheath) that were little more than muddy lanes running along ditches and rows of trees and bushes. And along one of these muddy cow traces on the way to Well Hall Farm and Shooters Hill before dawn on a Tuesday in late April, PC (Police Constable) Donald Gunn came across a woman sprawled in the road, her face bashed in so badly that her brain was exposed (p. 3).

Yet the woman, dressed in the “going out clothes” of a humble Victorian servant known as a “maid-of-all-work,” still lived and stretched out a hand to PC Gunn. Horrified, he ran to get help and, by the time he returned, the woman had slipped (thankfully) into a coma. She survived in a local hospital, against all odds, until that Sunday, when she died, her identity still unknown. An autopsy revealed that the woman was two months pregnant, suggesting a motive for the crime (p. 24).

As the police scrambled to find missing young women in the area, the site of the murder became a place of pilgrimage. The working poor of the area, and there were many, came to honor one of their own (p. 22). This show of support became a constant throughout the investigation and trial, and the book includes a picture, facing page 133, of the monument erected at the site of the victim’s grave.

Later that Sunday, a woman whose niece had gone missing provided the clues needed to identify the victim. She was Jane Maria Clouson, age 16, a servant at the home of Ebenezer Pook, a well-known printer in Greenwich. Detectives focused on his son Edmund, age 20, a quiet young man who suffered from epilepsy and blamed a fall for the blood stains the detectives found on his clothes. Unimpressed, the police arrested him, based on the added testimony of Jane’s family that Edmund had promised to marry Jane and had arranged to meet her that Monday night so they could run away together.

The police even managed to find the murder weapon, discarded on the grounds of Morden College, located between the scene of the crime and Edmund’s house. The weapon was a plasterer’s hammer, an odd tool with a hammerhead on one side for hammering nails and an ax blade on the other side for scraping away plaster from a wall. The police even found a shopkeeper nearby who had sold one only the week before the murder to a man who could have been Edmund.

It looked like a justified arrest and a solid case to bring to trial. But from that point on, things went quickly downhill for the prosecution. Ebenezer Pook has the wisdom or the good fortune to hire as his son’s lawyer a man named Henry Pook (no relation), a bulldog of an attorney who bombarded everyone involved with threats of lawsuits for slander and libel and often followed through. By the time the trial began later that year, lawyer Pook had managed to make Edmund seem to be the victim of a grasping young girl – and a not-so-good-looking one at that – who had set out to trap a husband from the first day of her employment.

In fact, the Pooks had to recently let Jane go. Why? The police wanted to know. Because, said Edmund, Jane was a “dirty girl,” a comment that could be read in as many ways then as it would be today.

I don’t think I need to tell you how this rich versus poor story turned out. Jane could no longer speak in her defense, and witnesses melted under lawyer Pook’s withering cross-examination. Edmund Pook lived out his otherwise dull life and died in 1920. Jane has the better memorial on her grave.

If you want to read this book – and I hope you do – you might consider reading it after you read about a murder that happened in England in 1860, at a place west of London called, oddly, Road. Together, the Road murder and this book show how early detectives struggled to fight for justice in the face of well-off families who could afford lawyers to fight off claims of wrong-doing among the upper-classes. How much have things changed, really?

There’s another reason I’m glad I’m talking about this book and crime and justice.

For a week and a half, from May 9 until May 17, I was part of the jury pool at Superior Court in downtown Phoenix. So, starting at 7:30 on Monday morning, fully 500 of us sat in a room and waited to be called upstairs for jury selection for one of the trials starting up that week. Most were simple, 3-day affairs with selection, trial, and decision rendered in the same week (yes, he did cause the accident). This is good, because there is no testimony for a jury on Fridays (that’s reserved for motions and lawyer-judge conferences). And if they don’t use you, you get sent home and excused for 18 months.

I lasted until about 3:30 PM that Monday. At first I was happy not to be called in the groups of 65, then I was wondering “what’s wrong with me?” Then they called 200 (!) of us to fill out a questionnaire that had more than 80 questions and we weren’t supposed to talk about until our involvement ended. We were “admonished” not to speak even to each other about the trial were being considered for, lest we poison the other jurors with our biases (the case involved the sexual abuse of children under the age of 10). So I ended up as prospective juror #126 for this case, which was expected to last for 20 trial days, or 4-6 weeks. Half of the people said they couldn’t possibly stay on a jury until the end of June, and the judge let them all go, on their word (“I have un-refundable plane tickets next month, Your Honor”).

The rest of us got to sit while we were interviewed, in numerical order, to find a smaller pool of 30, out of which would come the jury of 16 (12 and 4 alternates, but in Arizona, you don’t know the alternates until the trial is over). The first day, they interviewed 24 of us, and not all numbers were included due to the earlier dismissals.

Sitting and talking was boring, but with just enough distractions to prevent you from doing anything meaningful, including work, reading, or even playing stupid games. They got the 30 (actually, 29) they needed at #115, so I escaped by a mere 6 people. Considering it took almost two weeks to pick a jury, I’m kind glad I didn’t get roped into this for 4-6 weeks more.

I wonder if I should write more about my jury experience or not. (The case, if you want to follow it, is the Chris Simcox case in Arizona. I actually formed an opinion about his guilt or innocence, just based on my gut feeling when I looked into his eyes – and that look was across the room. I was surprised at the feeling, and a bit thrown off by it, so I won’t tell you what it was.)

Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Erhman

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior by Bart D. Erhman (HarperOne, 2016) 326 pages

JBTG Ehrman

This book was my Easter book, which shows you how far behind I am (or how fast I have been reading). Either way, I still have 6 or 7 books on the pile, and I might have to double up or something. Anyway, this is a religion book, but it’s by Bart Ehrman, an author I always try to read when he comes out with a new book.

Sometimes people who know my techie books are surprised to find that I have such a background in the Catholic Church. I wanted my children to have some idea of morality and religious experience until they were old enough to make up their own minds, so off to church they went to be baptized, communioned, and confirmed. Now, when I went to church as a child, my parents sent us kids and stayed home (that saga took years before I found out what the beef was). But as a parent myself, I progressed through the “lay hierarchy” and became a member of the parish council (advised the priests), a youth coordinator (so the children didn’t fight), a lector (readings at mass), Eucharistic minister (give out the host and the wine at mass), and they even wanted me to train as a Deacon (no thanks…you can’t serve in your own parish). I saw Pope John Paul II doing mass in Central Park, close enough that we could see without the TV screens. I even gave out ashes one Ash Wednesday (“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”), an event that eventually led to my “falling away” from the church.

This long introduction is so I can talk about Erhman’s book without you thinking that I am some kind of atheist. Not that I’m one of those people who think they are worthless sinners who survive each day only because of the love of Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you believe – although I don’t like it when people like that think *everybody* should be just like they are. I try to get along with everyone, regardless of faith, creed, religion, or belief.  🙂

Erhman’s latest book is a kind of answer to books that position the Gospels as a kind of “eyewitness testimony” to Jesus’ time on earth. I have a few of those (my “religion section” in my library is only a bookcase and a half – maybe 250 books or so – but I have some good ones), but I am mainly unimpressed by arguments that the Gospels, written some 40 to perhaps even 70 years after the crucifixion, somehow preserve authentic details about the life of Jesus.

It’s clear that, with a few exceptions that Ehrman carefully covers, that the Gospels were based mainly on a long oral tradition: stories passed down from someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew a guy who hung around with a guy who was related to an Apostle, or maybe even saw Jesus himself.

Why couldn’t stories passed down this way be accurate? Well, Erhman says, that process depends on memory and stories, so lets’ look at the science and research says about that way of preserving facts. (Let me say again that I have no problem with people who believe every single word of the Gospels is…well, the Gospel truth…but I don’t think that means you get to ignore people who don’t agree with you. Surely God will grant you the strength to resist the snares of unbelievers!)

As Erhman has pointed out in his (many) other books, the Gospels are contradictory, have gaps in space and time (they alter the known geography of Galilee, a surprise for people who were supposedly born and raised there), show signs of alterations and editing, and so on.

The biggest surprise, for me, in the book was when Erhman discusses other oral traditions, such as the works of Homer or the “Singers of Tales” in Yugoslavia (p. 181). Homer is bad example, because we don’t have any “recordings” of oral recitations of the Iliad or Odyssey from the ancient world (perhaps obviously). But from 20th Century “singers” we do. And both studies of the surviving texts of Homer and the Balkan “singers” show signs of variation from performance to performance (sometimes a lot of variation). For example, one song could be between 8,488 lines and 12,323 line long, depending on audience or time available (p. 186). Erhman also cites studies from court records and experiments that show just how unreliable “eyewitness testimony” is. He uses John Dean of Watergate fame as an example (p. 140). When compared to his recorded words, which came to light later, Dean’s memory is fairly horrible (but so was Nixon’s).

The evidence in this book shows that the Gospels were made up by unknown writers, based on a few scraps of “sayings of Jesus” (like the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas), the letters of Paul (although not much of that), some oral traditions along the lines of “someone told me that Jesus…”, and a whole lot of fantasy. The result in a mish-mosh of stories that many people jump through many hoops of fire to reconcile and “prove” that every word is true.

The best example I found in the book of that is a conversation Ehrman records that he had with Professor Harald Riesenfeld when he was a graduate student of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. It concerned the variant stories of Jairus and his daughter, which go like this (p. 69-70):

In the Gospel of Mark, Jairus tells Jesus his daughter is very sick and would like Jesus to come and heal her. But they are delayed and before they get to the house, Jairus’ daughter dies, so people come and tell them not to bother coming. But Jesus is not concerned and raises her from the dead (Mark 5:21-43). But in the Gospel of Matthew, Jairus tells Jesus his daughter is *already* dead. He wants Jesus to raise her form the dead, not heal her (Matthew 9:18-26).

How can both versions be right? asked Erhman. How can the Gospels be absolutely true and infallible?

Easy, Erhman says Riesenfeld said: Matthew and Mark were describing *two* different occasions when Jairus’ daughter needed Jesus’ help. The first time, she had not yet died, and the second time she had (!). I suspect that Ehrman, like many people, saw others tying themselves up in knots like this so often that he finally had to give up the illusion that the Gospels are more than a bunch of (ill-remembered) stories about Jesus.

And so it was, after I put ashes on the foreheads about 300 or more people in church that Wednesday, I realized that whatever it was these earnest, honest, eager people came to get, that wasn’t  being handed out at church that day. The priests and I were not saints handing out holiness on our right thumbs (I did not know that trick of putting olive oil on my thumb to make it easier to clean the ashes off, so my thumb was dirty for three days). We were just people, some of us trained to say and do certain things when a death occurred, or an accident, or a tragedy.

And I saw that the thing they were searching for and needed and wanted when I looked into those 300 pairs of eyes that day – yearning for hope or love or forgiveness – was something I didn’t have in those ashes…

Nothing Compares 2 Prince

I know I said I’ve been really busy the past two weeks, but if I don’t write something, I’m gonna go crazy. I have a pile of books to write about (naturally), but what I’ve been reading for the past two weeks is mostly about Prince. His death now looks like a drug interaction (note to self: do not mix Ambien for sleep with painkillers…) or just a straight Percocet (Oxycontin + Acetaminophen) overdose.

My wife Camille and I have really been torn up about Prince’s death. I sort of shrugged when David Bowie died, and I have lots more Bowie music at home than Prince. But this was like our brother died or something, and I’m not sure it’s merely because we spent three years living about five miles down the road from Paisley Park (we lived in Hopkins). Camille even met Prince a few times in the early 90s, when she would go clubbing in Minneapolis and Prince had like a booth in back at the Pacific Club (We’ve been the First Avenue too, I think).

I think it’s mostly mourning the passage of genius. Supposedly, when they asked Eric Clapton how it felt to be the greatest living guitarist, he said “I don’t know…you’ll have to ask Prince.” Now, anyone who knows anything about Clapton, who wouldn’t even give an inch to Jimi Hendrix, suspects a Prince fan made that all up. But I’ll leave it up to you: check out the solo Prince whips off during George Harrison’s tribute during While My Guitar Gently Weeps as Prince falls backward off the stage (and then Prince throws the guitar up in the air at the end and walks off the stage with that little grin of his that says “Top that…if you can.”

The 2004 video is here.

Prince comes on at 3:28, wipes the fretboard at 4:02, falls at 4:40 or so (and without missing a note: check out the glee on Tom Petty’s face as realizes what will happen), and “the toss” is at 6:09.

Prince supposedly found the sounds of the guitar “limiting” and often playing all instruments on his albums, except, famously, the saxophone. His drumming has been described not as flashy, but as solid as handclaps. Since I have a soft spot of multi-instrumentalists like Brian Jones, I think that explains a lot of why I’m mourning the loss of Prince. I admit a lot of his post-80s stuff was barely listenable, but there were some goodies in there, and once you’ve done it all, you basically having nothing more to prove and can do anything you want to amuse yourself.

Let me close with a word about Prince’s lyrics. Like Hendrix, I think Prince’s skill with words has been under-appreciated. I’ve been listening to Sinead O’Conner’s recording of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U a lot lately. Prince has a version too, usually a duet with men’s and women’s parts, but I think it works best as a soliloquy on the part of one person pleading with a former lover. Let me break it down for you so you know what I like about it (my comments in parentheses):

Nothing Compares 2 U

by Prince

It’s been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away
I go out every night and sleep all day
Since you took your love away

(Note the fault of the breakup: the other person “took” their love away. I’m blameless!)

Since you been gone I can do whatever I want
I can see whomever I choose
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant
But nothing
I said nothing can take away these blues
‘Cause nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

(Note the tone: the sky’s the limit without you, babe! And note the strict grammatical objective wording “whomever” instead of the more common “whoever.” Also, never mind that I never took you to a fancy restaurant when we were together…heck, I can do that now that I don’t have to pay for you too! I like the subtle way this subtext opens up the narrative, although it still hurts that you’re gone.)

It’s been so lonely without you here
Like a bird without a song
Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling
Tell me baby where did I go wrong?

(Ah! Maybe I *did* have something to do with the breakup, but I have no idea how you could have found me less than perfect. Where did I mess up? Give me a hint…)

I could put my arms around every boy I see
But they’d only remind me of you
I went to the doctor guess what he told me?
Guess what he told me?

(I love the challenge in the “guess what he told me?” line. The implication is that the doctor said we should still be together, if not for your health, then certainly mine! And the repeated challenge is pure genius. But the doctor’s advice was different…)

He said girl you better try to have fun no matter what you do
But he’s a fool
‘Cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you

(This is the payoff of the whole song: life is no fun since you broke up with me, and it will never be. We MUST be together, and if that stupid doctor can’t see that, then he’s obviously a fool.)

All the flowers that you planted mama
In the back yard
All died when you went away

(This is my favorite lyric in the song. See! Not only am I suffering, but you killed our flowers! It’s not clear why the singer could not water the stupid flowers. I can’t hear these words without thinking they are a metaphor for Prince’s legacy: the “flowers” he “planted” – I mean the songs he performed – will wither and die “when he went away”.)

I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard
But I’m willing to give it another try

(The song ends with the hope of reconciliation. Note that there is no sign anywhere that this return is possible, and likely is not. Just as well: it puts the blame firmly on the other person again…living with you was so hard, see? But, gosh, I could try again if you really ask me nicely…)

Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you
Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you
Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

(The song ends with the theme repeated over and over…)

Goodnight, Sweet Prince!

We’ll not see another like him for a long while.

The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe by J. Richard Gott (Princeton, 2016) 255 pages

TCW Gott

After a sex book last time (Full Service), I don’t feel bad in plucking a physics (ok, astrophysics) book off the pile this time. I love books like this, and I just bought one that will make a good comparison to Gott’s ideas in a few weeks….so stay tuned. You can compare this book to Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question as well, but considering the smallest things in the world instead of the largest.

Not too long ago, astronomers knew as much about the structure of the universe as anyone can tell from looking up at the sky. The Earth seems to be suspended in the middle of a big sphere of stars, with a few wandering things that turned out to be planets (Copernicus put them circling the sun instead of everything orbiting the earth). There was this big cloudy lane called the Milky Way through the sky, really thick in Sagittarius, and a few smaller cloudy blobs scattered here and there, again with a lot toward the south.

Once telescopes came along, Da Vinci saw that the Milky Way consisted of myriads of small stars, presumably dim because they were so very far away. So the universe grew a lot bigger a couple of hundred years ago. And it’s been growing ever since, as the initial chapters of Gott’s book points out.

Remember those cloudy blobs? Those are other “island universes” like the Milky Way. And it turned out that the sun wasn’t even in the center of the Milky Way, it’s sort of way out toward the rim, as determined by some of those blobs, which turned out to be globular clusters that formed a kind of halo around the center of our galaxy.

Why does any of this really matter? Well, in a sense it really doesn’t, except that the fact that humans can figure it out is very, very cool. But in the big scheme of things, sometimes I think only the geeks and nerds really care. It reminds me of an old joke I heard in college: the professor says “yes, science has determined that the sun will burn out in 4 billion years, ending all life on earth…” and a sleepy student in back goes “What! That’s horrible!” And the professor says “well, but 4 billion is a lot of years…” and the student says “Oh, that’s ok then…I thought you said 4 million years.” Now, why anyone would really worry about anything happening that far in the future when we don’t usually worry about what will happen in 10 years (Global warming? What global warming?) is of course the joke.

But I think that our knowledge of the structure of the universe at the largest scales, like our understanding of the universe at the smallest atomic scale, can help us to figure out how humans fit in. It’s an odd fact that we happen to be suspended about halfway between the smallest and largest things we know about. Maybe it’s our job, in some sense, to figure it all out. Or not.

Anyway, this book costs about thirty bucks (but you can find it cheaper), but it well worth it just to look at the 16 color plates that Gott has assembled to illustrate our knowledge of the universe as it stands today.

In a real sense, the purpose of Gott’s text is to get you to understand what you are looking at when you examine the incredible beauty of Plate 5, a yellow and bright gold group of filaments that shows how galaxies flow in the “Laniakea Supercluster.”  And there we are, a little red dot, not to represent our planet or even our galaxy, but our whole group of galaxies. It’s a big universe out there. (Laniakea means “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian: we live in a place as beautiful as a tropical paradise.)

Gott was one of the first people to figure this large-scale structure out. The universe is a sponge it seems, with big bubbles or voids or more or less empty space and thin veils of galaxies forming the material of the sponge to keep it all from falling apart (kidding: it can’t really fall apart, andeverything is pretty isolated anyway.

Much of the central text describes the infighting between US scientists, who favored a model where the galaxies form walls and clusters in space, and the Russians, who favored a model where the galaxies form a honeycomb and the voids are the “clusters” in some sense.  If this bores you, and it was tough going in places, just look at the pictures and read that pages that reference the color plates. Our home is a beautiful place.

The blurb on the jacket promises that Gott’s work on distant galaxies and surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey will supply “vital clues” on both the origin of the universe and “the next trillion years” that stretch out ahead. So don’t worry about the universe going away anytime soon. Now, the sun, on the other hand…we’re doomed!

Addendum: Let me add a few words about the numbers million-billion-trillion because astronomers and politicians tend to throw those numbers around without any real appreciation of what it all means.

OK, I used to say when I taught this stuff, everyone wants to win a million dollars in the lottery. What if you could win a million dollars in a lottery every day of your life? How long would it take to win a billion dolloars? Well, a billion is a thousand million (and a million is a thousand thousand, of course). There are 365 days in a year, so it will take about 3 years to win a billion dollars (there’s no winner on Sunday if you want to make the numbers fit a bit better).  Three years at a million dollars a day. How long for a trillion? Well, a thousand billion is a trillion, and at a million dollars a day it will take 3,000 years to win a trillion (the national debt of the USA is about 19 trillion dollars, by the way).

When I used to teach this, given Bill Gates of Microsoft’s age and net worth at the time, it turned out he was making a million dollars a day since the day he was born.

So the next time you see anyone use the terms million-billion-trillion as if they were somehow the same type of thing as a dollar bill and a ten and a hundred, take a minute to make sure they understand just how much that is, and how big the universe is.


Full Service by Scotty Bowers

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg (Grove Press, 2013) 286 pages

FS Bowers

Last time I checked, Scotty Bowers was still going strong at 92 (he was born July 1, 1923, so he’s not quite 93 just yet as I write this). This is a good thing, because once Scotty goes, the number of people who can testify first-hand about the wild and crazy days of Hollywood between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when fear of AIDS made everyone a bit nuts (or become porn stars), will be greatly diminished. And Scotty was not just a witness, he claims to be one of the movers and shakers of what is sometimes called “Hollywood Babylon” (which Kenneth Anger wrote a famous book about).

This book probably only exists because you can’t libel dead people. And almost everyone famous in this book has been long gone. Shocking, I know, the thought that they had sex, sometimes with people they weren’t married to, and of the same sex…and a LOT of it…but get over it.

Trigger warning (I actually know what those are): If sexual topics upset you, or if the very idea that people, men and women alike, are having sex makes you turn away because the whole thing strikes you as sort of icky, then you might want to stop now and read about war or violence or something safer. On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that you have to use a certain vocabulary (or not) to talk about sex, so you might be disappointed in that regard also.

This book made me think about things I hadn’t pondered for years. I thought about how my father had fought in the Pacific like Scotty Bowers, although my father fought for the Army’s 77th Division on Guam and Okinawa and Bowers fought for the Marines on Guadalcanal. My father, however, rejoined his family in White Plains, NY (where they had moved from outside Scranton, Pennsylvania) while Bowers stayed in Hollywood after the occupation of Japan ended. I always wondered why my father came back, until he told me much later that he didn’t trust his stepfather, a drunk who abused all his children, with his mother. When my grandparents’ family moved to Rockford, Illinois, my father had married my mother and stayed in New York. At least, my father always said, the war got him out of the coal mines. Next time anyone tells you how wonderful and vital the coal industry is, talk to me, and I’ll tell you what my father thought…you could ask my grandfather, but he died in the mines in 1917.

Back to the book, I promise.

Scotty Bowers—real name George—gives most of what you need to know about his life before coming to Hollywood after WW II on pages 15-17. Born on a farm, the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s and George became Scotty in 1934 when this very good-looking boy of 11 (the book has lots of photos) began hanging around with a girl who had Scottie dogs. People would say “Here come the Scotties” (p. 43) when they strolled by, and, after the girl was gone, people still addressed him as “Scottie.” So the name stuck (and his mother never cared for George in the first place, says p. 18).

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young men (and not-so-young-men: they took a lot of older people then than they do now) had two choices: sign up or wait to get drafted. My father waited, but Scotty and a close buddy signed up for the Marines. The Marines were picky, then and now, so there was a bit of extra prestige that went along with being a Marine, even back then.

(I can’t resist telling this story about that…my father-in-law’s cousin, also age 92, told me that even after he signed up for the Navy, the Marines tried to claim him, a big farm boy from North Dakota, thinking he was with a pool of draftees when they all reported for duty. No, no, he told them, I want the Navy…and he told me “There was no way I was hitting the beach and getting killed…I wanted to stay on the ship where the food was better.” And the Marines really couldn’t touch him.)

OK, I’m only going to talk about the book now, I promise/promise.

After the Marines, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a gas station in the heart of Hollywood: on the corner of Van Ness at 5777 W Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not long before he was offered twenty bucks for certain “favors” of a sexual nature. Of a homosexual nature. Now young Scotty, like many farm boys and service members, was not naïve about such matters (which should probably include high school football players and, come to think of it, just about everyone). However, Scotty’s philosophy about such things was years ahead of his time:  “if it feels good, do it” said the 1960s. (Actually, those days it was closer to the Victorian undercurrents that stated “do what you want, but don’t scare the children or horses.”)

At the station, Scotty started pimping for his veteran friends, many of whom were in great need of ready cash. Another friend parked a big RV behind the station, which Scotty then used as a bedroom for his “customers.” Eventually, he moved on to bartending, another good occupation if sex is what you’re looking for, or peddling.

Business was booming throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, because in pre-cell-phone days, gas stations and phone booths were places you could make and take calls without the people around you paying too much attention. Even after Scotty got married and had a child, he does not want to give up his bisexual lifestyle, and he was lucky enough to have had a wife who was fairly comfortable with this relaxed arrangement.

In the book, Scotty claims to have had sex with folks are varied as Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). He also hung around with or arranged partners for Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover. And this is not even a complete list (well, it almost is).

Not much in the book surprised me, and many of the stories have already been told one way or another. Actually, I was kind of surprised that the Vatican, of all places, has one of the most extensive collections of porn in the world (p. 179). Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is cited as the source of the story, as is the claim that ex-King Farouk of Egypt was in second place. I guess, to some people then (and now?), this mattered.

The party pretty much ended with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, sex could not only ruin your career, it could end your life. The last fifty pages or so of the book are a sort of sad lament for days gone by. But at some point in everyone’s life, doesn’t it always come to that? It hasn’t happened to me yet, I don’t think…but maybe my reading and writing like this is a kind of warning…:-)

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (Villard, 1996) 408 pages

TS Russell

This is another book I heard about through that Great Courses course about the history of science fiction called “How Great Science Fiction Works” taught by Prof. Gary Wolfe. This book came out of the class on how religions are portrayed in science fiction. However, a lot of it has more to do with alien “first contact” and the events that follow, although there’s plenty exploring the relationship of God to man (and alien) to satisfy a church deacon.

Wolfe sort of warns you about the odd aspects of this book, both as science fiction and as literature, meaning that it’s not a particularly easy read. But, as Wolfe promised, the payoff is substantial if a bit tame in comparison to what goes on across the planet we live on—aliens aren’t torturing women in Africa or the Middle East in the name of religion. We are. And we are all humans.

Anyway, this book takes place along two timelines: the first contact event in 2019 (almost 35 years in the future when the book was written) and a kind of religious trial when the sole survivor of the initial expedition, Jesuit priest Father Emilio Sandoz is fetched back to earth in 2059. Due to the relativistic effects of star travel, Sandoz is much “younger” than his colleagues who have spent the entire time of his trip on earth and aged at the ordinary rate.

Not that it much matters. When the second expedition from earth reaches the planet of Rakhat and the two odd races of creatures that dwell there, they find Father Sandoz with his hands horribly mutilated and working in a brothel as a prostitute. Moreover, the crazy priest kills the one being on the planet that actually cares about him: a young child in no way involved in the priest’s condition.

So Sandoz is taken back to earth to face charges about his circumstance when found, as well as questions about exactly what happened to the other seven people who left earth with him. These good people, all chosen by the church, half of them Jesuits, ride an asteroid to incredible speeds (the details of this asteroid mass-burning for speed are not presented) to reach the stars. We know there are intelligent beings on a planet out there because a radio telescope has received charming music of classical quality coming from one of the three suns of Alpha Centauri.

Before going on, let me just say that there are no real spoilers to risk in revealing the plot; no cliffhangers to be uncovered; no plot twists to expose; no doubt as to Sandoz’s guilt or innocence. It’s all there on the book flap, and the real tension is in his former friends grappling with what transformed Sandoz from a gentle priest helping poor children in Puerto Rico into a homicidal maniac. Whatever it was, due to Sandoz’s role in society, there is not convenient villain to blame, like violent video games or our current understanding that many priests are capable of evil deeds because they are all human beings, and human beings are capable of all manner of evil deeds. This book was written before the recent church scandals that have swept away the naïve picture of the always innocent, and in some ways childish, individuals who are drawn to the priesthood.

The first question a reader might ask is this: What the heck is a Jesuit priest doing on an expedition to encounter the first aliens detected by humanity? (And these aliens are tantalizingly close: literally right next door on Alpha Centauri.) Well, in this future, based on trends of the late 80s and early 90s, only Japan has enough money to accomplish great things. In fact, they run Arecibo, the big radio telescope that receives radio broadcasts of truly wonderful music that entices humanity to get to know the obviously sensitive beings that created such marvelous tunes. (This future 2019, imagined in the early 1990s, has no Facebook, no social media, no slavish following of reality show stars, smartphone isolation, or…Hey! Can we go back?…I’m not serious: see Walter’s First Law of Reality: When Things Change, They Don’t Change Back.)

Outside of the rich Japanese, only the Holy Mother Church, not yet unburdened of years of bingo earnings by victims of abuse, has the wherewithal to mount an expedition to the aliens before the world’s governments can scrape together some cash to do the same. In the spirit of exploration, humans just jump right in instead of thinking to send a query to these other beings asking if their arrival would be a welcome one.

The priest’s presence has a lot to do with the author’s background. Russell is a cultural anthropologist, and her specialty is paleoanthropology,the study of how ancient societies lived in prehistoric times. Her studies and experiences inform the text, and make for a different kind of science fiction experience.

Readers can be forgiven if they see Sandoz and company’s encounter with the aliens as a thinly veiled retelling of what happened when the first Jesuits encountered the bloody altars on top of the pyramids of the Aztecs. The moral outrage at all this ripping of beating hearts out of the chests of sacrificial victims must have been absolutely justified to the priests who had conveniently forgotten how their minions made the streets of the Holy Land run with blood during the Crusades. But, obviously, those guys over there are savages, and we aren’t.

(As a footnote, I am not one of those people who tend to think that the Jesuits invented the Aztecs’ brutality in order to justify their own inhuman treatment of the natives after the conquest—which recent DNA studies have shown to be even worse than researchers had imagined. Aztec DNA is immediately polluted with the imported European kind, which probably had the benefit of allowing many of them to survive European diseases. But it seems that a whole generation of women in the cities interbred with no one but the conquerors. More to my point, a recent construction project in Mexico City unearthed an enormous wall consisting of layers of human skulls mud-bricked into a hundred-foot-long rampart, right at the foot of the main pyramid in the center of town. So yeah, those Aztec rulers were some evil folks. Although they say that those invited to for a brief visit to the altar on top of the pyramid were happy to be picked to keep the sun shining, and they had some really good drugs…and never ignore the effects of peer pressure, whether civilian or religious. Those who tremble before Jesus will happily skewer you outside the abortion clinic.)

The question asked about the Aztecs is the same as that asked in this book: could the same God that nurtures us good people also rule over these unrefined heathens? How can a just God, supposed ruler of the universe, allow such inequity to continue?

It’s a fair question. Unfortunately, in this book as in real life, there aren’t any easy answers. The main offense the visitors from earth commit is to treat the downtrodden peasants of Rakhat with as much dignity as their overlords. This offense cannot be forgiven, especially because being invited to dine with the overlords is an experience as fraught as being invited to enjoy the view from the top of the Aztec’s big pyramid. You don’t mess with other people’s food supply.

I will reveal why the book is called The Sparrow: it’s on page 401, almost at the very end of the book. “Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” his judges cite: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.

This book is an interesting peek into the mind of priest who can no longer believe in a just God. If you don’t expect more than that, you won’t be disappointed.