‘A Thought-Provoking Meditation on the Nature of Truth’

Literary Hill

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Truth is an elusive commodity these days. But we don’t expect equivocation from scholarly disciplines that are supposed to traffic in hard facts. And we certainly don’t expect it from the hallowed halls of Harvard.

In “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” Hill journalist Ariel Sabar is thrust into the midst of a mystery in 2012 when he takes on an assignment to write about the “discovery” of an ancient papyrus, inscribed in Coptic, that appears to show that Jesus had a wife. The fragment has fallen into the hands of Dr. Karen King, a distinguished professor at the Harvard School of Divinity.

King is a specialist in interpreting Gnostic scripture, which was sidelined by traditional Christianity, and hopes that her work will lead to a reexamination of the role of women in the early Christian church. When she announces the discovery of what she dubs “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” skeptics immediately pounce.

In a masterful piece of journalistic sleuthing that involved years of travel, research, and interviews with more than 450 sources, Sabar eventually traces the papyrus to “a sycophant with a salesman’s silver tongue” and a life-long urge “to needle authority figures.” But the reporter doesn’t stop there. Thorough, curious, and driven, Sabar examines every aspect of the case, probing the lives of Dr. King, the alleged forger, their supporters and detractors in a search for motivations.

“Veritas” is not only an incredibly engaging strange-but-true thriller, but thanks to Sabar, it is also a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of truth. Is it in the eye of the beholder? How fungible are historical facts? And can a quest for moral good ever trump the evidence?

Ariel Sabar is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the author of “My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. www.arielsabar.com   

Local photographer Cindy Vasko explores the deserted side of the nation’s capital in “Abandoned Washington, D.C.”

Deserted DC
Remember last spring when the pandemic left downtown DC deserted? Cindy Vasko does. A photographer intrigued by abandoned places, she took advantage of the empty streets to shoot pictures “at high noon” from a stopped car in the middle of a six-lane boulevard. Her “unsettling, unnatural” photos of the Capitol, Union Station, and other sites comprise an eerie chapter in her new book, “Abandoned, Washington, D.C.: Evanescent Chronicles.”

Vasko notes that DC is not “an ideal backdrop” for her form of “urban exploration.” Given the value of local real estate, shuttered buildings are generally either torn down and replaced or renovated and repurposed. She nonetheless found a variety of subjects for her lens, from an abandoned amphitheater and a derelict brick factory to the DuPont Underground and a forsaken and vandalized school.

In addition to photographs, Vasko provides brief histories of the sites she documents, such as the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, which was instrumental in stemming a 1905 typhoid outbreak. She also homes in on Congressional Cemetery, which survived years of neglect to re-emerge as a “thriving, active” historical landmark.

It takes an artist to see the inherent beauty or poignancy in abandoned sites that the rest of us may blindly pass by every day. Cindy Vasko is just such an artist and, in “Abandoned Washington, D.C.,” she gives us a rare and beautiful glimpse into her unique perspective on our nation’s capital.

Cindy Vasko is an award-winning photographer with works featured in gallery exhibitions from New York to Paris. She has published seven previous books in her Abandoned Union series, with five more in the works. https://cindyvasko.com

Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko show happy children from all over the world going “Back to School.”

School Days
Here’s something we’ve been missing: pictures of smiling schoolchildren. In “Back to School,” Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko have teamed up to produce a beautiful story book of photographs showing kids from all over the world absorbing knowledge in a variety of ways. Here’s a cheerful classroom in Cuba, a homeschool session in the Australian Outback, and rows of students learning their numbers in Rwanda. On one page, a group of Chinese children eagerly cluster around a computer, and on the next, a little girl in Germany mixes liquids in a chemistry lab.

The book explores the various venues where children are taught and how they get to them (including, in Mongolia, on a camel). It illustrates lessons in reading, math, languages, and science, as well as emphasizing how schools can help students develop their artistic and musical skills, participate in sports, and make new friends. And, perhaps its most important message: “You learn how to be a good citizen in your community, nation and world.”

“Back to School” provides a wonderful opportunity to introduce children to their global peers. It is intended as a read-to book for preschoolers or for children 4-8 years old to read on their own. Part of the proceeds from sale of the book will be donated to the Global Fund for Children. www.globalfundforchildren.org

Maya Ajmera (www.mayaajmera.com) is the president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public and the publisher of Science News Media Group. She is also the founder of Global Fund for Children and the author of more than twenty books. John D. Ivanko is an award-winning photographer and author of fifteen books.

Christopher Chambers has created a memorable homeless detective in the noir mystery novel “Scavenger.”

Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Dickie Cornish is the most unlikely of detectives. He’s a big, shambling man with a stutter. He’s also homeless and a drug abuser. But he has a gift: “a jigsaw puzzle brain” that enables him to solve problems. Dickie, with his ability to “help folk figure shit,” is “a celebrity among the emaciated and the infected.”

In “Scavenger,” Christopher Chambers brings to life not only an unforgettable character but also the gritty DC streets he inhabits. As Dickie emerges from the tent on the National Mall where he lives, he faces “another day of petty cruelty,” looking after a pair of women who spend their nights in a filthy ladies room and queuing up for a job on a junk crew that cleans out the homes of people who have been evicted.

He is on a job in a creepy apartment whose walls are covered in strange Mayan glyphs when he discovers a stash of gold Mexican coins and an embossed card with a cryptic message on the back—in handwriting he thinks he recognizes. Then he finds two of his closest friends brutally murdered and himself jailed as a suspect. Rescue arrives in the form of a man in a gray suit who offers him a proposition: money and freedom in return for finding a woman. Dickie is, as he whispers to himself, “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

In “Scavenger,” Chambers has created a deeply realistic noir mystery with a social conscience. He not only delivers a punch-filled plot but also delves beneath the tattered surface of a broken man to reveal his thoughts, his feelings, and his soul. Dickie Cornish may well haunt your dreams.

Christopher Chambers is a professor of Media Studies whose previous works include “A Prayer for Deliverance” and “Sympathy for the Devil” (an NAACP Image Award nominee), as well as a graphic anthology and stories. He is also a regular commentator/contributor on media and cultural issues on SiriusXM Radio, ABC News, and HuffPost.

Karen Lyon is the Hill Rag’s Literary Editor, President Emerita of the annual Literary Hill BookFest, a Contributor to Folger Magazine and writes the monthly Literary Hill column. You can reach her at [email protected]

For the second year in a row, Hill Bookfest will bring the vibrant literary culture of Capitol Hill straight to you, wherever you are. Join in here at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 2 for lively panel discussions, writing workshops, poetry readings and even a surprise or two from some of your favorite authors of fiction, history, fantasy, children’s literature, politics, mystery and more. Learn more: www.literaryhillbookfest.org