The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 81 pp., $19.99
A widow whose only child has been killed, Mary seeks solitude and tries to make peace with the horror of how her son, Jesus, died. But she’s not alone; two men, followers of her son, come to see her. They feed and care for her, but in exchange they want her testimony: stories of her son’s life, his death, and — this is what they’re writing about to share with the world — his divinity. In Colm Tóibín’s spare, quiet novel, Mary herself isn’t a follower of Jesus. Her religious life, told in some of the book’s most glowing passages, centers on memories of silent Jewish Sabbaths; after the crucifixion, in Tóibín’s telling, she visits the Roman temple to gaze at the statue of Artemis. “My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit,” she says, recalling young disciples who made her uncomfortable with “their awkward hunger, or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them.” Now that their leader is gone, the men working on their gospels frighten her with “the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief.”
Some readers will hate this book, it goes without saying, and not just because it turns biblical stories into modern fiction. Tóibín treats Mary utterly seriously but not reverently (there’s even some deadpan humor, as when she attends the wedding at Cana, skeptically watches as the crowds declare that her son has turned water into wine, and wonders “if some of the men standing in front of our table had not had enough wine” already). Mostly, though, it’s a tale of unfolding anguish — a child who cannot be saved, the roots of his destruction ineluctably twined with his gifts. Swept up in the political and religious tumult, Mary wants only to return to a simpler life, to escape if not avert “the fierce catastrophe of what was happening.” What mother wouldn’t want to keep her beloved child by her side, rather than surrender him to a world where “the talk was of nothing except power and miracles”?
Inventing the Christmas Tree
by Bernd Brunner
Translated, from the German, by Benjamin A. Smith
Yale University, 99 pp., illustrated, $18
“The search for the first Christmas tree is a quixotic quest,” Bernd Brunner writes at the start of this lovely little book; he still spends a few pages examining the earliest claims, from Latvia, Estonia, England, and elsewhere, before concluding that the holiday tradition, drawing from diverse sources, coalesced in Germany around the turn of the 16th century. Early trees were both magical and useful, festooned with edible treats and — somewhat less practically — candles. Christmas trees faced early criticism: In Germany, Catholics disparaged them as Lutheran heresy, while many Americans regarded them skeptically well into the 19th century. (Brunner quotes an 1883 New York Times article damning the holiday tree as “a rootless and lifeless corpse.”)
Still, within a few decades America boasted a booming Christmas industry, including ornaments, lights, and other tree decorations. (Brunner argues that the American adoption of this German tradition paralleled the country’s embrace of its German immigrants.) Today, we harvest 35 million trees each Christmas, most of them grown in Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington, New York, and Virginia. With its charming illustrations and sometimes shocking details (a tree in Nazi Germany could sport “red balls with swastikas that read ‘Heil
Hitler’ ”), this is a lively addition to the holiday bookshelf.
The Immanence of God in the Tropics
By George Rosen
Leapfrog Press, 160 pp., paperback, $15.95
In one of George Rosen’s stories, a white American missionary couple grow fond of a Kenyan boy, although ultimately they are incapable of helping him. In another, a middle aged man visits Mexico and studies Spanish, in part because he finds that “sentences in his own language were finishing more badly as he got older, his words throwing out wildly inappropriate threads leading to unintended locations.” A third man, a white Brit married to three Kenyan women, faces school bills for his dozen children — seeing oxen working a sugar-cane press he “felt the same yoke on his neck, the same slow walk in endless circles.”
Set in East Africa, New England, and Mexico, Rosen’s stories are simple, haunting fables of misunderstanding. His men yearn for ease, power, love, money, mostly fruitlessly. Seeking some understanding of the divine — trying to fashion a translatable God to replace local beliefs — Rosen’s missionaries are the most lost souls of all.