Colm Tóibín: The Testament of Mary (review)

colm-toibin-the-testament-of-mary‘The boy became a man and left home and became a dying figure hanging on a cross.’ (location 952-58)
So a book about the mother of Jesus and how she doesn’t believe him to be the son of God? How could I possibly pass on that?
This book tells this well-known story of Jesus’ life from a new perspective, the point of view of his mother, which makes it so fresh and new – and I just loved it.
When we meet Mary, she’s living on her own, having lost both her husband and her son. She is regularly visited by a couple of Jesus’ disciple and otherwise just keeps to herself, staying out of trouble, and mostly lives in her memories.
Through her memories, we are shown Jesus’ life from his childhood to his death, the lovely times they had at the Sabbath when he was still and child – and the not so lovely time they had at the wedding at Kanaa for instance. We see Lazarus returning from his grave to lead a life that’s not so much a miracle as a zombie existence. We see Mary’s relatives shun her because they are afraid to be associated with her son through her. And we see Mary desperately trying to save her son, failing at it and then hoping desperately that he will be saved some other way. And of course, that hope is crushed and she even has to flee his crucifixion to save herself, leaving her son to die on his own.
I’ve read several reviews saying that Mary felt like a modern woman. I don’t know about that – it’s easy to say that since we haven’t always had the same view on children, parents and the relationships between them as we do now, that Mary’s love for her son isn’t right for her time. I don’t know if that’s true or not. For me, this is a story about mothers through the ages, about how a mother and child sometimes grow apart. The child makes some life choices you don’t agree with – but you always love them. The mother may also do things she’s not proud of but it’s not for lack of love and as mothers, we never feel we are as good as we can be – or as good as we should be. And so it is with Mary. She loves that boy.
So while I’m not sure whether Mary is too modern, there’s still a lot of modern themes. While we are used to hearing about this charismatic man who influenced his peers and a lot of other people around him to a better way of life, it’s definitely not that story we see here. This feels more like a story of peer pressure and what happens when you’re running with the wrong crowd. It also deals with retelling – and remaking – history. Even though Tóibín doesn’t deal with how the Bible was collected through a selection and voting process, he shows the disciples as misfits who exploits Jesus and uses him to create an idea, a faith – and how Mary tries to preserve her memories of what actually happened the day her son was killed and not give in to the disciples who keeps coming back and tries to persuade her that her memories are flawed.
And that of course is true. Memories are always flawed. But I think a mother remembers how her son died. And remembers too what she did that day.
I really really liked this short novella and I was so impressed with the amount of raw emotion and thought-provoking content, Tóibín was able to put into just 114 pages. I’m pretty sure that this novella has a lot of potential to rub some people the wrong way but I strongly recommend this one to just about anyone since it’s just a wonderful novella about so many aspects of the human existence, showcased through the story of one mother and her love of her only child.

First line: They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world.

  • Title: The Testament of Mary
  • Author: Colm Tóibín
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: 114 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

I read this for Rick’s Novellas in November challenge.

Related posts:

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader (review)

pidab4370cda966432@large‘Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.’ (location 38-44)

As most people probably can guess, I like to read. And because of this, I also like to read about other people reading. So when I heard about a book where the English Queen finds a mobile library while searching for her corgis and then feels obliged to borrow a book, I was hooked. She borrows the book and when she returns it, she takes another book out – and ends up promoting a boy from the kitchens she met at the library to help her with her reading lists and with acquiring new books.
And then she starts to read. And read. And read. And suddenly she starts getting bored by her official duties, she starts bringing books with her when driving anywhere, she starts cutting meetings and audiences short – she just wants to read.
And then everyone starts working against her. Her employees hide her books and they get rid of the boy who was helping her. And some even suspects her of suffering of a beginning senility: ‘/…/ the dawn of sensibility was mistaken for the onset of senility.’ (location 647-53). But a love of reading is not so easy to stop and so she keeps on reading until she has read a lot and starts feeling a need to not only be passive but be active. Do something herself. Like writing…
I loved how Bennett shows how she grows as a reader – and as a human being. How at the beginning she finds some books difficult and for instance has trouble understanding the differences in and importance of social status in Jane Austen’s novels because she is so high above everyone else that the subtle differences between the characters in Austen’s novels are lost on her. At first. But she learns. ‘Books did not care who was reading then or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.’ (location 233-45)
Oh, and it was funny. When someone recommends Harry Potter to her, her answer is a very brisk ‘One is saving that for a rainy day.’ (location 336-42) And when her staff sends her off on a long trip to Canada and makes sure her books are not packed, she meets Alice Munro who kindly enough gives her some of her works. Which she loves, of course, which is quite fitting in this, Alice Munro’s year of winning the Nobel Prize.
Even though this is not a biography and the characters are not truly the persons they are based on, this book still made me think favorably of the English Queen. And I guess that’s what’s the issue with books like this, loosely based on real people. Even though it’s fiction, it reflects on the people the characters are based on. In this case, it’s favorably – in other cases it isn’t always.
I absolutely loved the ending. And it really makes me want to read Proust!

‘One reads for pleasure,’ said the Queen. ‘It is not a public duty.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘it should be.’ 
(location 349-55)

First line: At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet, and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

  • Title: The Uncommon Reader
  • Author: Alan Bennett
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year: 2007
  • Pages: 120 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

I read this for Rick’s Novellas in November challenge.

Related posts:

Thomas Steinbeck: Cabbages and Kings (review)

CABBAGES AND KINGS, Steinbeck - Cover‘The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.’ (p. 55)

So when I was contacted by Post Hill Press and asked if I wanted to read some new novellas by John Steinbeck’s son Thomas Steinbeck, I was interested just because of the name. And then I read the synopsis and thought it sounded kind of like fantasy and thought that could be really interesting.
Of course, Thomas Steinbeck is his father’s son and of course, he didn’t write fantasy. He writes realistic fiction, set in the early 20th century and dealing with people in trouble.
Titus Gatelock is a man whom no one really knows. He never cares what anyone says about him and even when people start saying that he was a bandit and that he was part of a famous train robbery, he just smiles and shakes his head and says, ‘There’s real history and real truth out there everywhere, but when it bumps heads with a whopping good yarn that everybody enjoys, then the truth is sure to cross the line in last place every time.’ (p. 1-2)
But Titus is a good man. He does good things for the people around him and he’s almost a second father to the two boys living close by, Lobosito and our narrator. These two boys strike up a strong friendship despite the differences in their circumstances. The narrator’s father own a ranch, Titus is a tenant on it and he hires the mexican man and woman who are Lobosito’s parents to help him out. But the friendship between the boys never wavers, despite them making different choices with their lives they always stay close and work together towards a common goal. Especially as time gets rough, banks falter and people start starving. And it’s clear from the way Titus and the boys’ parents behave that they don’t have this from strangers.
There are several great things in this novella. I loved how Titus gets the two boys to dig a lot of holes for apple trees while making them believe they were digging for treasure – and then making them believe that they themselves come up with the idea of planting apple trees. And the pig, oh my, the pig. Titus has a pig, a heavy cast iron thing which he paints – and others paints – in various garish colors – thereby naming it The Speckled Pig of Destiny. That pig was amazing!
So this was a really good read. I went into it not really knowing what to expect but when I had finished and had read the last page, I was really impressed. I can’t compare Thomas to John, in part because what I love most of John’s work, are the long novels (East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath) and this was only 59 pages – but mostly because it’s not really fair to do so. Even though this book takes place close to Salinas Valley where John was born and which he used as a setting for some of his books. And the type of person the author seems to be based on his work, seem to be impressive for both father and son. Suffice to say, that I think it’s definitely worth reading both Steinbecks.

‘My only responsibilities are to treat my fellow creatures with appropriate respect, do the best work I can do for those requiring my services, and treat all people as honestly as I would lie to be treated myself. And lastly, if possible, harm no one on my journey through life. Nothing else is anyone’s business.’ (p. 22)

First line: Titus Gatelock was well known to just about everybody around King City who possessed a horse, a mule, or any close approximation with “four legs and a whiny”; though this commonly used phrase would be highly misleading in the case of Mr. Gatelock.

  • Title: Cabbages and Kings
  • Author: Thomas Steinbeck
  • Publisher: Post Hill Press
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages:  59 pages
  • Source: Review copy – kindle
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

I read this for Rick’s Novellas in November challenge.

Related posts:

Meike Ziervogel: Magda (review)

9781907773402frcvr.inddLately my cultural life has somehow gotten a common theme. And not a nice theme. Recently the latest – and maybe last – movie by the Danish director Niels Malmros has gotten a lot of attention in Danish medias since it’s a very personal movie about his personal life and how his wife killed their infant daughter 29 years ago. His wife suffered from manic depression which had turned into a psychosis. It seems to be a strong and powerful story about love and how you don’t need to forgive someone if you never blamed them in the first place. This has caused other similar stories to appear. On top of that, I just read a book where a mother kills her baby – and now I’m reading Magda; a book about Magda Goebbels and how she killed all six of her children. I wouldn’t mind a happier theme soon!

I never knew about Magda Goebbels and what she did before watching Der Untergang. In this movie, there’s a very powerful scene where we watches Magda kill five of her children in their sleep by giving them poison and then forcing her eldest who wakes up and realizes what’s going on, to also ingest the poison. And when I then heard that Meike Ziervogel had written about Magda, I definitely knew I had to read that book.
Magda is just a short book, a 115 pages novella. In this short span of pages, Ziervogel both deals with Magda’s childhood and difficult relationship with her mother and the father who left, as well as Magda’s love life and her first meeting with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The story is told both from Magda herself, from her mother and in diary pages from Magda’s oldest daughter, Helga. We get to experience what life was in the Führer Bunker in the final days in Berlin in World War II and what it’s like to be a teenage girl experiencing first love in rather unfortunate circumstances as well as a mother’s dread for what will happen with her children after the war if they are named Goebbels.

While this for me definitely was a powerful read that left my lying awake after finishing it and being slightly disturbed by Magda’s action and wondering what – if anything – she could have done otherwise and reflecting on what I would have done in the same situation – and what a mother must feel, killing her six children, the book was not as good as I had hoped. I think it would have benefitted from more pages – there was simply too much story, too many details, too many viewpoints and too much sadness for 115 pages.
I also couldn’t help comparing it to Beloved and the far stronger story of a former slave who kills her daughter to save her from becoming a slave. The action is the same. Magda  even does it in a much kinder way – but still I feel more for the mother in Beloved, maybe because you were forced to become a slave, you were not forced to become a Nazi. And I know that’s not completely fair or even true but I think that’s why. Or maybe it’s just because that Magda, while being a very good read, just isn’t as good a read as Beloved. Still, I recommend reading both as they are both interesting and thought provoking.

First line: Magda enters Joseph’s study without knocking.

  • Title: Magda
  • Author: Meike Ziervogel
  • Publisher: Salt
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 115 pages
  • Source: Kindle
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

I read this for Rick’s Novellas in November challenge.

Related posts: