The Dia de los Muertos Book Tag

Jyvur Entropy created this tag with Anna Book Critter, and I got it off Jyvur’s blog.

For a tag, you are given a series of prompts around a particular theme, and you answer the prompts, usually with the names of books you’ve read.

Para que lo sepas, I had to restrain myself from naming one of my own books for almost every one of these prompts. After all, the Scattering Trilogy is multigenerational; life-affirming; about rebirth; includes a fair amount of food, etc. Anyway, that’s en mi opinion. But I will do this tag like a normal person and name books by other people.

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The Day of the Dead is all about remembering and honoring past generations.

Name a book with an intergenerational cast or a strong focus on family.

Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck. Buck is a master at sliding seamlessly through time in her stories. In the opening scene, Madame Wu is sitting in her chamber on the morning of her fortieth birthday. Her maidservant comes in to comb her hair, and suddenly we are in this same bedroom twenty-four years ago, on the morning after Madam Wu married Mr. Wu, and the same maidservant has come in, and she is nervous as a cat around her new mistress, because she knows that she just had sex for the first time. Now, twenty-four years later again, the servant is much more at ease with Madam Wu, but she does not know that her mistress has decided that as of her fortieth birthday, she will stop living to keep the Wu household running smoothly, and start living for herself. She just has to get through the party.

Dia de los Muertos is an important Mexican holiday. Name a book that takes place in Mexico or includes Mexican culture. 

I’ve been slo-mo bingeing on books about the archaeology of Mesoamerica. Of course, with books like these, which are about as old as I am, you need to supplement them with current articles, since new discoveries and analyses keep being made.

This holiday is often celebrated with vibrant, colorful imagery and sugar skulls. Name a book with a cover as visually-interesting and colorful as a sugar skull.

I will never stop promoting the art of Trina Schart Hyman.

Food is an important part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration. Food is set out on altars for the spirits of departed family members.

Tell us a book where food really makes the story!

The No. Ladies’ Detective Agency books. These are written from multiple perspectives, but arguably the main character is Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. Ladies’ Detective Agency, the only female-run detective agency in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is fat (“traditionally built”), and while not unusually greedy, she does enjoy her food and thinks about it fairly often. She always likes to visit the formidable Mma Potokwane, who runs an orphanage, because although Mma Potokwane is sure to ask for some kind of favor for her orphans, she always serves Mma Ramotswe a generous piece of cake, sometimes two.

“Some people very clearly and obviously would like to eat more cake. It might as well be printed on their forehead: Greedy person.” Ah yes, that would be me.

Dia de los Muertos is not only celebrated in Mexico, but also in Central and South America. Name a book that takes place in Central or South America or has a Central or South American author. 

I’ve read a lot of missionary stories, but Bruchko is one of the most remarkable. It takes place among the Motilone, who live in the jungle somewhere along the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

In addition to sugar skulls, flowers and butterflies are also symbols of this holiday. Tell us a book with flowers or butterflies on the cover

Nailed it.

The Day of the Dead is about celebrating life. Name a book that celebrates life. 

The book of Job, in the Bible.

You think I’m kidding? No, listen.

Job isn’t about Job patiently putting up with suffering, proving what a good person he is, and then God rewards him. That’s the caricature, but it’s almost the opposite of the real theme of the book.

The consensus in Ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature was that, since God is just, if anything bad happens to anyone, it must be their fault. This is still, by the way, the essence of human wisdom in many parts of the globe, especially in Hinduism. It is also many people’s instinct when we see a horrible disaster befall someone, to find some way that the unfortunate person brought it upon themselves, or “how this could have been avoided.” It makes us feel a little more in control.

The book of Job exists to subvert this universally accepted bit of “wisdom.”

Job starts out as a model of the good person in the Ancient Near East. He has seven sons (the perfect number!), and three daughters; he offers regular animal sacrifices to God. And he’s rich, as he should be. Everything is making sense, see?

Now we take this model Good Person and visit all kinds of punishments on him. And this must be an expose, right? It must be Justice Falling At Last!

Job’s three “friends” show up, and they proceed to preach some very reasonable, theologically sound sermons just like you could hear in any of the wisdom literature of the day. God is just. He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Therefore you must have deserved this somehow. If you say you haven’t, you are defying God! Beat that!

Their logic is flawless. And God sides with Job against them. “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

If that’s not life-affirming, I don’t know what is.

It is also a day of remembering loved ones who passed on. Name a book that was either given to you or reminds you of a loved one who passed away. 

Let me tell you about Alice.

I can tell you all about her now, because she’s with the Lord. No privacy risk or anything like that. I’d post a picture if I had one, but I don’t.

By the time I knew Alice, she was in her late eighties. (I was in my late teens.) She mentored me for a few years before she got dementia. She was a sweet, little old German-American lady, with a sly sense of humor. She could do impressions, but used this skill judiciously. Once she said to me, “You want to know why I never married?” And then, for an answer, she quoted the King James verse, but with different punctuation: “I would not have thee, ignorant brethren.” Props to you if you get that joke.

The “brethren” that she “would not have” were certainly missing out, because Alice was a treasure. Perhaps they overlooked her good qualities because of a facial deformity. She had been bitten on the cheek by a horse as a child, and it wasn’t until she was an adult that she was able to afford corrective surgery.

Anyway, one day when I was at Alice’s house, I picked up the book The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. She encouraged me to borrow it. I expected it to be a dry, academic read, because it was on a lofty theological topic. But no, it was written for the layperson, and was very accessible. A page-turner, in fact. To this day I associate that book with Alice.

El flor del Muerto – The flower of the dead. Marigolds are used in massive quantities on the Day of the Dead. These flowers represent the sun and rebirth. Also believe to guide the spirits back home. Name a book about rebirth. 

The Great Good Thing, by Andrew Klavan. Unfortunately, I have lent my copy out, so I can’t show you a picture. This is the story of how Klavan grew up as secular Jew on Long Island, ran away from home, lived as a hobo for several years, became a hard-boiled noir crime writer and a Hollywood success, and then became a Christian at the age of 50. He is now a Christian, Jewish, hard-boiled noir crime writer who also writes YA and fantasy.

If you want to read a novel about rebirth, try Identity Man, also by Andrew Klavan.

Colors are used as a form of symbolism in the decorations and sugar skulls. Some of the colors used in association with Dia de los Muertos are yellow (unity), white (hope and purity), red (blood and life), purple (mourning), and pink (happiness). 

Take a photo of some book spines in the Dia de los Muertos colors!

And a happy Dia de los Muertos to all who celebrate ❤

P.S. Disclaimer about Memorializing Our Dead

If anyone feels uncomfortable with me doing this tag, because, you know, skulls and dead people and paganism, I get it.

Let me reiterate a point I have made before, that pagan practices (especially old ones with deep roots) often fulfill basic human needs that every society needs to fulfill, such as celebration, marking the seasons, etc. In this case, the basic human need is to continue to feel a connection to, and to honor, our loved ones who have died. In a way, it’s part of the mourning process. Modern American society is terrible at this, sorry to say. The only formal time to remember the person is during the funeral and burial, after which the mourners are expected to basically stop talking about the person except to very close friends or relatives. Bringing them up, or continuing to visibly grieve, causes that sin of all sins, social awkwardness. This is pretty harsh, and it does not match well with the way that grieving goes for most people.

There are ways to provide for ongoing grieving, honoring, and remembering that are not ancestor worship. For example, in Indonesia, the Muslims have memorial services at 30 days, 100 days, and a year after the death. The people groups of Kalimantan (pagan and sometimes Christian as well) have a second, larger, funeral ceremony, usually a year later, when they dig up the person’s bones and re-inter them in an ossuary with the bones of the family. The Christians will have about a week or so of viewing services while they wait for people to gather for the funeral; then the graveside service; then that night an additional “comfort” service. Most of these take place at the family’s house, and they mean the house is filled with people, songs, and food. The family is not left alone. The people who attend don’t have to say or do anything special beyond “we share in your grief.” They just have to be physically present. This is also a better social rule than having to come up with something to say.

Christians will also have a vigil at their relatives’ graves on the night before Easter. This might sound creepy – and maybe it is – but sometimes when facing something as awful as death, we have to embrace the creepy and it will actually haunt us less.

So all that to say, while I am not recommending pagan worship, and while Christians are definitely forbidden from trying to contact the dead, I think having something like a Dia de los Muertos is a good idea on a psychological level. And yes, I did get teary-eyed when watching Coco.

Evangellyfish: A Book Review

It’s been a busy week, so instead of the usual exciting rants about prehistory, I’m forced to cross-post this review from Goodreads.

The Amazon Blurb

Chad Lester’s kingdom is found in the Midwest. His voice crawls over the airwaves, his books are read by millions (before he reads them), and thousands ride the escalators into the sanctuary every Sunday. And Saturday. And Wednesday, too. He is the head pastor of Camel Creek – a CEO of Soul. And souls come cheap, so he has no overhead.

When Lester is (falsely) accused of molesting a young male counselee, his universe begins to crumble. He is a sexual predator, yes. But strictly straight (and deeply offended that anyone would suggest otherwise). Detectives, reporters, assistant pastors, and old lovers and pay-offs all come out to play.

John Mitchell is also a pastor, but he has no kingdom to speak of – only smalltime choir feuds. He is thrilled at the great man’s fall, but his joy quickly fades when the imploding Lester calls him – and a lover or two – for help. How low can grace go? Whores, thieves, and junkies, sure. But pastors?

My Review

This book is sort of like one of those treats from Mexico that are, technically, candy, but they also contain chile powder and a ton of citric acid.

In other words, it’s funny, shrewd, and a quick read, but also super misanthropic.

The narrative voice is Douglas Wilson’s own, which is to say, full of sardonic psychological observations, bon mots, and silly but deep metaphors. The plot is P.G. Wodehouse-esque.

My biggest problem with it, and the reason I gave it only four stars instead of five, is that almost all the characters talk kind of alike, both in the dialogue and in their internal monologues. And the way they talk is also very similar to the narrative voice. This isn’t realistic, and it sometimes makes the characters harder to keep track of in a comedy of errors that has a very large ensemble cast. Also, they sound too educated. What teenaged daughter says to her father that Costco was “a perfect madhouse”?

As for the expose part of it, I have been in the evangelical world my entire life but I have never been in a mega-church — at all, really, but certainly not a mega-church like this one, where the pastor originally wanted to run for governor, has never been to seminary, doesn’t read the Bible, seduces all the women he “counsels” and then pays them off, has bestselling books written by ghost writers and sermons written by same. If this kind of thing is truly widespread, that explains why Wilson is always chiding evangelicals. And why, perhaps, I shouldn’t take his chiding personally, as it is apparently not directed at me. 

Those Creepy Fates

Left to right: Broken Top, South Sister, North Sister

There is a trio of mountains in Oregon called the Three Sisters. In fact, the town of Sisters, OR, is named for them. In this picture, you can only see two of the them (the third is hiding behind).

I use this picture for my illustration because, while there is a lot of great art portraying the Three Fates, it’s a little hard to find a picture that I can use without copyright infringement.

I recently read, with my kids, The Black Cauldron. My imagination was captured by the three swamp-dwelling little old ladies (if human?) who guard the Cauldron: Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. As far as I can tell, Lloyd Alexander made up these ladies and imported them into his story. Though triple goddesses are a recurring feature in Celtic mythology, they are not really the same as the three fates and it’s even a falsehood that they always came in the form of maiden, mother, and crone, as you will see if you read the scathing 1-star reviews of the book The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

The Greek fates are named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho spins the thread of a mortal’s life, Lachesis measures out its predetermined length, and Atropos cuts it. Norse cosmology also has fates, called the Norns … in some versions three, named Past, Present and Future; in some versions a large but unknown number, according to this article. Evidently the idea of fate personified as three or more women (or woman-like beings) goes way back in Indo-European cosmology. It shows up as late as Macbeth’s three witches.

I had ignored the Fates for some time (as one does); but reading The Black Cauldron made me wonder whether you can write a fantasy that draws on Indo-European cosmology and not at least tip your hat to them.

By their very nature, the Fates are creepy. Lloyd Alexander does a great job of making this feeling come through when he introduces Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch. The heroes of the book, on first seeing the fates’ house (and by the way, the word ‘fates’ is not used), think it is abandoned because it looks so run-down and blends so well into the swamp shrubberies. There’s a loom set up inside the house, on which is a tangled mess of a weaving. (Don’t touch!) Then the ladies show up. Rather like Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings, they seem cavalier about things that ordinary people regard as matters of life and death. Orddu keeps offering to turn the travelers into toads (“You’ll grow to like it”). Orgoch is excited about this because if they were toads, it’s implied she could eat them. Orgoch, the only one of the three who is clad in a black cowl, seems to want to eat everything. As Orddu says, “It’s hard to keep pets with Orgoch around.”

The three ladies light up when they hear that the travelers know Dallben, who it transpires they discovered as a foundling and raised. They refer to him as “little Dallben.” (Dallben is over 300 years old.)

The travelers stay the night in an outbuilding belonging to the three ladies. Taran, the main character, wakes up in the middle of the night and sneaks up to the window of the dilapidated cottage, which is now alight. He returns, reporting, “They’re not the same ones!” Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch now look young and beautiful, and they spend all night working on their weaving. The next morning, however, they appear looking just as they did before, and with the same apparent disregard for human life.

Lloyd Alexander has set a really high bar with this fictional, Welsh version of the fates, and I’m not even sure I could approach it. Here is an article that dives more deeply into an analysis of the fates and of all of Prydain, the fantasy world in which the book is set. Be warned, the article assumes you are familiar with the whole series.

“We Are Human Like You”

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Today I want to share a passage from Acts chapter 14.

This incident took place in the town of Lystra, in what today is Turkey. For context, this means it’s in the same general culture area as Troy, Gobekli Tepe, and according to the map in my NIV study Bible, it is just about 150 miles inland from Tarsus, the town where Paul grew up. Of course, when he was growing up there, surrounded by Roman and Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic paganism, Paul was Saul: good Jewish boy, overeducated, one of history’s geniuses, fire in his eyes, very purist about the Torah. Since his childhood in Tarsus, Paul has had a number of very formative experiences and is now a very different person. He is still familiar with the local pagan mindset, but now he has a much more inviting attitude towards them.

I post this passage because the appeal that Paul and Barnabas make to the people of Lystra about the Creator is similar to the attitude taken toward Him by Ki-Ki, the shaman in my book The Strange Land. What can you say about the Creator to a people who know nothing about Him except what they can glean from the human experience? Here it is.

[Paul and Barnabas] fled [Iconium] to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news.

In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Acts 14:6 – 18

God Knows Your Address

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Hope that’s not too creepy.

Addresses: Not So Easy

A pastor friend used to say this all this the time: “God knows your address.” Then, for a while, my husband started saying it all the time. I was always kind of underwhelmed by the saying. I was thinking, True, but … I’m supposed to be impressed by this? When the very hairs of my head are all numbered?

But for mere mortals, addresses aren’t always so easy.

When introducing yourself in Indonesia, your address is part of the standard introduction formula. Instead of, “Hi, my name is Jennifer Mugrage, and I’m from Idaho and I’m a writer,” you would say something like, “Hi, I’m Ibu Jeni, I am already married, no kids yet, and my address is ___________.” Instead of profession and region, you give marital status and street address.

The addresses are a little different too. Assuming that you share a city with the person you are meeting, you give number, street, and neighborhood, for example, “Number 18 Banana Alley, in Lower Kiputi.” In some neighborhoods, your house might not be a on street exactly, but on a little alley or down a flight of stairs. You give the nearest street plus neighborhood and do your best.

I was in Indonesia for some time before I found out why people give their street address when introducing themselves. The person you are talking to is supposed to memorize your street address on their first hearing, then later find it and come visit you! If you don’t come visit, you are at fault. And no excuses … after all, they told you their address.

This Herculean intellectual task is far beyond a mere language learner, whose brain is already overloaded with new words and who half the time can barely find her own apartment.

God is Savvy

So this week, it was brought home to me that we when say God knows your address, we are saying that despite His reputation, God is not some fuzzy-headed mystic. He is practical.

Check this out: at the end of Acts chapter 9, Simon Peter ends up staying in the coastal town of Joppa. He gets there sort of by accident: he’d been helping someone in Lydda, which was nearby, and then people in Joppa heard about it and asked for his help too, so he came. And then he stays in Joppa a while, with a tanner who is also named Simon. This was not where Peter normally lived. He was from Galilee originally, and it appears that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter had been staying in Jerusalem. But now he is staying in Joppa.

At the beginning of chapter 10, we meet a Roman centurion (Roman: no nonsense!) who is “devout:” that is, interested in Jewish ethical monotheism. He gives to the poor and prays to the Jewish God, but he’s a not a convert. This man, Cornelius, lives in Caesarea, which is also on the coast but a few days’ journey north of Joppa. One day, while praying, Cornelius is visited by an angel. “Cornelius! Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

Wow! That is a very practical angel. Not only does he know Cornelius’s name and prayer habits, but he gives Cornelius, not a vague “word” that could mean anything, but an address.

In those days, people didn’t have last names generally. It would be [Name] of [Birthplace]. So “Simon who is called Peter” was pretty specific. Simon was a common name and there were probably many Simon of Galilees, but this Simon has an alternate name. And then the address. The angel gives city (Joppa); person that Simon Peter is staying with (Simon the Tanner); and then, though there is not more than one Simon the Tanner in Joppa but just in case you need more details when asking around, “his house is by the sea.”

In the ancient world, these are pretty good directions. It’s like giving street, number, and apartment number. It appears that Simon the Tanner’s street didn’t have a name, but his house was by the sea. And the messengers that Cornelius sent seem to have found the place with no problem.

God knows your address. Hope that doesn’t freak you out.