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Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ; Game Of Character; Lonely Polygamist; Chelsea Chelsea Bang ()

What We're Reading, May 4-10

May 4, 2010

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It's Jesus versus his evil twin (really) in Philip Pullman's newest. Fierce will and family love take the first lady's brother from the South Side to the Ivy League in a surprisingly affecting memoir. A big novel of a Big Love-style family, in The Lonely Polygamist. And Chelsea Handler goes off in Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang.

The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ

By Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is perhaps best known for his trilogy, His Dark Materials, which was written in part to counter the Christian themes in C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. (The Golden Compass, the trilogy's first book, was made into a 2007 film starring Nicole Kidman.) With this new book, Pullman takes on the ultimate icon of Christianity, Jesus Christ himself. In his retelling of the Jesus story, Pullman imagines that twin boys are born to Mary that night in the manger. One, Jesus, goes on to become a challenging and charismatic preacher who attracts the love of his followers and the hatred of the powerful. The other twin, Christ, is a weak and complicated man who ultimately betrays his brother and stages his resurrection. At the behest of a mysterious stranger, Christ also makes a record of what Jesus had done and said, but he embellishes the truth, making Jesus something he is not and interpreting what Jesus means for his future followers — who will become the official church.

At the beginning of this short novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, you think you know pretty well where this story is going. Pullman adds some new twists to the well-trod material and you figure that these twins will rather simplistically represent good and bad, darkness and light. But never underestimate the intelligence of Philip Pullman. He is up to something more clever here. He wants to explore how the truth can be twisted by those who seek power, how the weak can be used, how the storyteller can't help but make a story better, no matter what the consequences. And most of all, this staunch critic of organized religion wants to make a convincing case that a church can be built on lies. It's an interesting read for believers and nonbelievers alike. — Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent

Hardcover, 256 pages; Canongate; list price, $24; publication date, May 4

A Game Of Character

A Family Journey from Chicago's Southside to the Ivy League and Beyond

By Craig Robinson

Craig Robinson is a pretty well-known name among followers of college basketball. He had been head coach of the men's program at Brown and moved to a coaching position at Oregon State, a team which, at the time he took it over, was notorious for having lost every single game the previous season. But Robinson became recognized in worlds beyond basketball when he was tapped to introduce his sister, the former Michelle Robinson, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. It was there, as he writes in the book, that he decided to write this memoir — not, as some might assume, to ride the coattails of his now famous brother-in-law, Barack Obama, but rather as a "love letter" to his mother and late father, whom he credits with creating the environment that helped both children survive and thrive far beyond the South Side of Chicago, to the Ivy League, and, as the title says, beyond.

You could be forgiven if you picked this book up with some skepticism, thinking it would be a typical celebrity memoir. But you'd be wrong. In fact, the book tells a surprisingly affecting personal story, set against the canvas of a larger history. The Robinsons' story is the story of the rise of the black middle class. Craig and Michelle start out in a crowded one-bedroom apartment in an equally overcrowded black neighborhood. The siblings share a bedroom until high school. Their mother keeps house; their father works at a city job, dragging himself to work every day despite an increasingly debilitating illness. Still, there are Sunday dinners and new bicycles (which a black policeman later accuses Craig of stealing; the scene where Mom Robinson chews out the police officer is worth the price of the book) and very good Christmases. The children go off to fine schools, funded in part, they learn later, by their parents' maxed-out credit cards. The book doesn't dwell on things like the redlining that kept blacks in those overcrowded neighborhoods, or the old-boy network that confronted Craig when he went to Wall Street. But it is implicit. What is explicit is the fierce love and determination that overcame those circumstances, as well as how success came both from the kind of personal ambition conservatives applaud as well as the opportunities liberals demand. During the overheated presidential campaign, political opponents seized on Michelle's ill-advised comments about her newly awakened pride in her country to impugn her patriotism; those who read this book will better understand exactly what she was talking about. — Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More

Hardcover, 288 pages; Gotham; list price, $26; publication date, April 20

The Lonely Polygamist

A Novel

By Brady Udall

Perhaps the advent of HBO's Big Love has helped to generate a new audience for novels about polygamous life which, until now, have been few and far between in mainstream publishing. Novelist Brady Udall, born and raised a Mormon, will help even more. His second novel, The Lonely Polygamist, gives us the American family novel to the nth degree. The lonely guy of the title, Golden Richards, oversees four wives and 28 children in two big houses in a remote territory of the Virgin River valley in southwest Utah. As the novel opens, his already tentative grasp on the family reins is loosening even more, leaving him vulnerable to temptations outside his marriages and sending some of his wives and children on the path toward confusion and danger — and drawing the reader into a world of wavering belief and problematic polygamy.

Simply add up the number of wives and the children and you get a cast of Dickensian proportions. Papa Golden himself has to use a mnemonic chant to recall all the names of his children ("EmNephiHelamanNaomiJosephine ...") But though Udall mostly works in a gentle satirical tone, he feels all too deeply for Golden Richards' dilemma — how to enlarge your capacity to love in a world that demands that it be huge every waking (and sleeping) moment. The novelist's affection for his protagonist and sensitivity to his domestic despair yields characters and scenes that are precise and unfailingly rewarding. And he has that gift for writing sinuous and convincing sentences that convey his affection without compromising clarity or truth. Marriage is a traditionally comic subject, and Udall gives us such comedy multiplied by four or five (including one hilarious piece of shtick about bubble gum stuck in Golden's pubic hair). The book turns dark at times, as do most truthful novels with spouses and children running through their pages. It's a long novel — about Big Family. And Love. But my attention scarcely ever flagged. — Alan Cheuse, reviewer, All Things Considered

Hardcover, 602 pages; W.W. Norton; list price, $26.95; publication date, May 3

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang

By Chelsea Handler

Cable comedienne Chelsea Handler has written a third best-selling book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. The essay collection is written in the same acerbic voice she uses to host the Chelsea Lately late-night show on the E! television network. Handler offers cringe-worthy revelations about her childhood, her boyfriend and her father, whom she describes as "mentally retarded." The book begins with a dedication to her siblings — whom she then describes with a vehement profanity. The acknowledgements at the end of the book include a thank you note to a popular brand of vodka. The 11 chapters in between provide a steady stream of sly anecdotes that sound like they were written with a drink in one hand.

Stay away from this book if you are offended by repeated references to casual drug use, heavy drinking or obsessive sexual activity. In fact, if you're squeamish, then please stop reading this review right now. The opening chapter details Handler's third-grade fixation with the practice of masturbation. She writes, at length, about indulging herself in a grade-school classroom, on the school swing set, on after-school bike rides and even at Thanksgiving dinner. The funniest chapter features an elaborate prank played on her (now former) boyfriend, who happens to be the president of Comcast Entertainment Group, which includes the E! network. Throughout the book, profanities and stereotypes abound. The stories are indelicate and offensive. But, the book is simply pee-in-your-pants funny. Assuming, that is, you share my sophomoric sense of humor. — Luis Clemens, senior editor, Tell Me More

Hardcover, 256 pages; Grand Central; list price, $25.99; publication date, March 9
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