Tag Archives: religion

Book review – Terrorist by John Updike

John Updike is lauded as one of America’s greatest writers. He was a prolific creator of novels, short story collections, essays and literary criticism. He is one of only three people to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

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And I’m almost ashamed to say that Terrorist, written in 2006 and one of the last works before his death in 2009, is the first Updike novel I have read. But it won’t be the last.

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Terrorist is eerily prophetic. It takes place a few years after the 9/11 atrocities invaded the minds of previously complacent Americans, but its characters and plot foretell with uncanny accuracy the constant jihadi threat facing Trump’s USA and the wider western world 10 years later.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a US-born teenager, whose Irish-American Catholic mother Teresa had a brief relationship with an Egyptian, Ahmad’s now long-gone father.

They live in the ironically named town of New Prospect, the New Jersey equivalent of Trump’s mid-West rust-belt, where once vibrant businesses decay, people struggle to find work and neighbourhoods have become increasingly multicultural.

Ahmad is in his last year of High School. He is bright but has no immediate ambition, other than to drive a truck. He knows that his God – Allah –  will show him the right way forward. And, thanks to instruction of the Qur’an since he was 10, by Imam Shaikh Rashid at the local mosque, he knows not to succumb to the siren call of Joryleen, a sexually aware black girl in his class at school. As much as he is tempted.

Jack Levy is a world-weary careers advisor, who sees the potential in Ahmad. Jack’s wife Beth is fat and has become lazy, and he embarks on an ill-fated affair with Ahmad’s promiscuous mother.

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There is almost an overload of religious education in the first third of the book. We read swathes of the Qur’an with Ahmad and see how Shaikh Rashid begins to foment Ahmad’s radicalisation; Jack is a Jew, but struggles with his own faith and guilt; Teresa is clearly a somewhat lapsed Catholic.

At the age of forty, she has parted from a number of men, and how many would she want back? With each break, it seems to her in retrospect, she returned to her single life with a fresh forthrightness and energy, like facing a blank, taut, primed canvas after some days away from the easel.

As the plot develops and the characters’ lives intertwine, Updike’s powerful prose entraps you, like a fly in an arachnid’s web.

“What is freedom?”, Shaikh Rashid asks, his eyes opening and breaking the skin of his trance, “As long as we are in our bodies, we are slaves to our bodies and our necessities. How I envy you, dear boy. Compared with you, I am old, and it is to the young that the greatest glory of battle belongs. To sacrifice one’s life,” he continues, as his eyelids half shut, so just a wet gray glitter shows, “before it becomes a tattered, exhausted thing. What an endless joy that would be.”

Terrorist eases into being a conventional, taut thriller, but thanks to the author’s mastery of language and storytelling, it is so much more.

And it has also made me fear that there is no obvious solution to the threat of constant attack by so-called radical Islamists, who see death and destruction of Western infidels as the only Straight Path to follow in life.

Movie review – Midnight Special

Are you one of those people who likes certainty in life….or do you thrive on being surprised?

If you find that elusive, magical holiday nirvana one year, do you return again and again….or do you constantly look for somewhere new, and hopefully even better?

It was time for another Screen Unseen at the Odeon tonight. They gave the usual cryptic clues on Facebook, but what really gave it away was an email from them yesterday saying: we can’t wait to welcome you at ODEON Guildford tomorrow for MIDNIGHT SPECIAL!

So not a great surprise when the credits rolled and Midnight Special was announced by the British Board of Censors. Note to the marketing guys at the Odeon……get your Screen Unseen email distribution sorted!

I’m not normally a science fiction fan, and for the first hour or so the film plays out as a conventional thriller and then as a road movie, a father abducting his son from a weird cult at a remote Texan ranch.

But gradually the other-worldly pieces fall into place: the 8 year-old boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has mysterious powers. His adoptive father Calvin Meyer (Sam Shephard) is the persuasive leader of the cult, and they believe Alton is their prophet. The FBI – and other US security forces – become involved when some of Alton’s messages replicate confidential state information.

The plot descends further into sci-fi realms as Alton’s real father Roy (Michael Shannon) reunites him with his mother Sarah (played by an unglamorous Kirsten Dunst), and spooky things start happening to the moody landscape of Texas, Louisiana and Alabama.

The dramatic dénouement is reminiscent of Close Encounters, ET and War of the Worlds.

It didn’t float my movie boat, but the cinematography alone was worth the (cheap) ticket price. The writer and director Jeff Nichols elicits good performances from the boy and from Adam Driver, as enlightened Fed agent Paul Sevier, in particular, but overall it wasn’t an out-of-this-world movie experience for me.

Does that mean I won’t risk another Screen Unseen? Of course not. I’ll be there. As long as they don’t spoil the surprise again….

 

Muslim madness

Gill and I went to Paris late in 2015, just two weeks after the so-called Islamic State terror squads had wreaked havoc there through a series of murderous attacks on soft civilian targets, one normal Friday evening.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

Now further atrocities have been committed in Brussels, by IS suicide bombers linked to the Paris attacks.

These incursions strike at the heart of Europe, developed western economies and non-Muslim religions. But two other unrelated attacks, since the Brussels outrage, have shocked me even more.

Asad Shah, a shopkeeper in the Shawlands area of Glasgow, was by all accounts a kindly man. He was also a Muslim.

Asad Shah

Last Thursday he was murdered outside his shop, shortly after posting a message to his customers on Facebook: “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”

Tanveer Ahmed, 32, from Bradford in Yorkshire, was accused today of murdering Mr. Shah. Police Scotland had previously described the incident as a religiously prejudiced attack and said both men were Muslims.

The implication is clear: one Muslim took deep offence at another extending the hand of friendship to Christian friends during their own religious festival.

On Easter Sunday, in Pakistan’s Lahore, the city’s minority Christian community was celebrating at a funfair. Suicide bombers detonated their deadly loads and killed at least 72 people, including 29 children and many women.

Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar said it carried out the attack against Christians celebrating Easter. Ironically, many Muslims were also killed.

It seems that the so-called Islamic State and its far-flung acolytes will not rest until all non-Muslim religions are eradicated.

I fear the war – for that is now what we face – is only just beginning.

Movie review – Spotlight

Why do so many people cling to religion, like a Titanic passenger to an over-crowded lifeboat? Whether it’s for personal strength, gentle spiritual guidance – or just a habit – I’m afraid I really don’t get it.

Whether I believe in God, or not, is another ball-game, but time and time again, His earthly representatives let Him down, and betray the very people they exist to help.

The institution of the church – in its broader form, across religions – fails so frequently that its message has long been lost, for me and for many others, I fear.

Spotlight is the latest film to shine a dazzlingly bright light on the earthly failings of a disconcerting number of religious representatives. And I’m afraid it paints a terrible picture of the Catholic Church yet again, as so many before. PhilomenaDeliver Us From Evil, or The Boys of St. Vincent are just a few from a depressingly long list, all rooted in fact.

Spotlight is the name given to the Boston Globe’s specialist unit of investigative reporters. They choose stories to dissect in forensic detail, over a protracted period, before potential publication.

In 2001, encouraged by the newly arrived editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the team pursue the story, initiated a few years earlier by another Globe journalist, of sexual abuse by a local Catholic priest against a child.

But what makes the story of real interest for the editor and for the Spotlight team is the potential cover up of the abuse, led by Boston’s powerful Cardinal Law (Len Cariou).

What follows is a real insight into the journalistic world, as the team dig deeper into the story, interviewing victims, priests, lawyers, police and anyone connected to the expanding web of connected horror.

They discover a systematic cover-up of child abuse by up to 90 Catholic priests in Boston alone over the previous 20-30 years. But what appals them – and us – is the devious collusion of the city’s authorities – the Archdiocese, lawyers, police – that allows confidential settlements to be made, and for the perpetrators to be moved to another parish, where they repeat the abuse.

The movie is told almost as a docudrama,  focusing as much on the mundane journalistic and editorial challenges as the underlying horror. It’s perhaps an unusual role for both Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, head of the Spotlight team, and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, the most passionate and driven member of Spotlight. But they convince, with Mark Ruffalo earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll complete the conscientious Spotlight team.

Stanley Tucci deserves a special nod. He plays Mitchell Garabedian, an Armenian “outsider” living in Boston, a lawyer who has been quietly supporting past and present abuse victims, long before the Boston Globe scoop breaks.

The movie is a tribute to what the Spotlight team achieved through their painstaking work, so thorough and shocking that it led to similar stories of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the Catholic church in dozens of other cities throughout the world.

And in a painful twist, Robby realises he had all the pieces of the jigsaw in the Globe’s possession 5 years earlier, and let the story slip, allowing even more innocent young victims to be abused.

Religion, eh….who needs it?

 

Extreme Bucket List

One of the silly little Christmas prezzies I got Gill was a pack of cards.

But not a normal deck. These cards contain a list of 500 Totally Extreme Awesome Out There & Radical Things To Do. “The ultimate list of 500 EXTREME things that just have to be done at least once. WARNING! Not for the faint-hearted.”

The original idea behind this blog was to share the spirit of a vibrant post-work life with you. With that in mind, have a crack at some of these ideas from Gill’s special cards. Some of them really are radical, extreme and out there. Gill has already done some of them. I’ve done others. Some are impossible….whatever your age. Some are just stupid.

Here are a handful to inspire/scare/appal you:

12 – hike Corsica’s GR20, Europe’s mountain trek  (we’ve done a couple of very small bits, does that count? Doing the whole thing is a real challenge, but one that was always on our list. We’re not getting any younger though….)

497 – meditate every day for a year (Gill doesn’t slow down enough to meditate for 5 minutes, so a whole year would be a real stretch)

256 – take the bullet train in Japan  (I’ve done that one – on business in the 1990s – but Gill can keep it on her list)

372 – start your own business   (Gill started and ran South Minster Kitchens for 14 years)

398 – stand in a supermarket, pretending to do market research, preferably with an accent (I like this one: fun, easily achievable….and totally humiliating. Sainsburys in Godalming, you’ve been warned)

344 – mentor a youth (do Gill’s nephew Ben and nieces Jess & Lucy count? She’s always telling them what to do. Sorry, helping to steer them in the right direction)

44 – press to impress with extreme ironing – it really is a sport (unlikely…..Gill doesn’t even know where the iron lives. That’s my job)

480 – go to a train station and take the next train to its destination (love this one too. Also, go to an airport and take the next flight out…wherever it’s going)

479 – start a religion (an interesting challenge, but dangerous. The ones we’ve got already don’t seem to co-exist very peacefully)

211 – climb Kilimanjaro  (woohooo…we’ve both done that one already. A painful tick)

154 – learn kung fu at Wudang Shan – but you have to become a monk first (I told you some of them are just ridiculous)

55 – ride on the outside of a tram in San Francisco (great excuse to book a trip to the West Coast)

345 – go to a naturist camp (no offence Gill, but if we’re doing this challenge, let’s do its sooner rather than later)

85 – climb Mount Everest (that might have stayed on the list….until a few days ago)

79 – walk hot coals in northern Greece (now this is timely….we’re going to Thessaloniki and Halkidiki in April. I think Gill should take up the challenge. Well, they are her cards)

457 – throw a tomato at an electric fan (ha! While it’s going, presumably. And preferably in someone else’s house, Gill)

OK, you get the idea. Fun, crazy, ridiculous, impossible…but also strangely inspiring. And the clock is ticking…..

Good luck, and enjoy the card game with a difference.