Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review: The Evolution of Desire by Cynthia L. Haven

I was drawn into reading Girard by the first section of this book, which I read on Church Life Journal as part of my daily regimen of blog reading. On the strength of this and other mentions of Girard from authors as diverse as Richard Beck and Amos Yong, I read The Girard Reader and then Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. When I started, I wondered if Haven's comparison of Girard's theory to Schliemann's discovery of Troy was unfair. After reading these three books, I think it is unfair -- in its generosity to Schliemann. Girard's accomplishment is the greater of the two.

Haven's book must be the best introduction to Girard for a general reader. A few quibbles: It gets a little too bogged down in the politics of the conference Girard helped organize that introduced Derrida to America, and it could hold Girard's feet to the fire a little more than it does. I feel like Girard's Wikipedia page is more critical than this book. The thing is, I think Girard's theory more or less endures all the criticism thrown at it. But before this book existed, I would have doubted that someone could write it. Yet here it is. I'd like to know what someone thinks for whom this is the very first exposure to Girard, and maybe I'll give it as a Christmas gift? Friends, you've been warned.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book Review: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard

So, over the past few years I kept hearing about Girard, but until I read The Girard Reader this summer, I didn't really have a beachhead into his thinking. Now I've read what some consider to be his central work and, yeah, there's something here. I don't take back what I said before about the fact that Girard thinks like Darwin thought. The same powerful bottom-up mechanism is here, just on the level of human society rather than on the level of biological diversity. I'm still troubled by all the times Girard has to say "this has been hidden but now I'm revealing it to you" -- but the fact is that if you go back to the texts, there it is. This is an illuminating way to read the texts before you. This book isn't tailored to my interests -- I'd prefer more on human origins and less on Freud -- but Girard is one of those thinkers who will be haunting my thoughts for a very long time. Again, stay tuned.

Book Review: Energy by Richard Rhodes

Energy is written at a good level of detail and zips along nicely with an important focus: how do we turn the world around us into motion and light? Energy is really a chemistry topic, and I enjoyed this book as "chem lit." Rhodes opts for an engineering level of explanation at points where I think a chemistry level of explanation would be more unifying, and the focus on personalities rather than techniques leads to several sections feeling more like vignettes than a connected plot. My favorite section was on the discovery of electricity, and the sections at the end on current energy tech misses a few opportunities to take stands more clearly. But overall, the historical sweep of this book connects a lot of dots.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider is a cut above the previous detective novels that it's related to for a few reasons: The shape of the plot is more surprising, as first as horrific but contradictory evidence accumulates and then as a major event sends things in a slightly different-than-expected direction. Also, the sci-fi/horror elements are more vivid than in Mr. Mercedes, and they contrast well with police and legal details. There's just more going on. The best parts of this book are in the middle, with the exponentially spiraling nature of evil and the deep empathic stab of guilt and grief. King does these feelings as well as anyone, and it makes up for the occasional gratuitous gross-out or stereotype. The ending is atmospheric but ultimately superficial compared with the emotional depth of the middle act. Near the end it's just too obvious where this is all going, and it could come together and pay off more satisfyingly. Still, the moments that remind me why I read anything new by King, they're all here and this was a fitting Halloween read.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Book Review: What are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

I'm of the opinion that any collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson is worth it, and I'm glad that she's consistent enough to be repeating her familiar (by now) themes. In this collection, she rehabilitates New England Puritans and Oliver Cromwell where in previous ones it was John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. She also writes some gorgeous prose about recent scientific discoveries in cosmology and immunology, and then turns around and upbraids the selfish-gene crowd for their shallow philosophy and straw-man depictions of religion. These comprise at least two-thirds of the book and are worth the price of admission easily. Mixed in there's a few essays I disagree with, possibly more strongly than anything else she's written, mostly because she has a few blind spots that she shares with most of academia. Perhaps I have a different perspective as someone who writes for scientists rather than about them, and also as someone whose ears are a little too full of wax to hear the great command "Fear not" as much as I should. It doesn't worry me, I'm sure I'm more wrong than she is about these things. I'm happy to have Robinson goading the scientists with her academic, historically grounded Protestant humanism, and I hope she keeps these coming. Which historical figure gets rehabilitated next, I wonder?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

I'm a sucker for a realistically weird universe. One of my favorite things about Orson Scott Card's Ender universe is how people age realistically at relativistic speeds, and The Expanse has maintained its scientific footing even as it got more, well, expansive. The Fifth Season has the same ring of truth to it, with a greater element of mystery revealed. The character moments are creative and the characters themselves compelling. But it's the science in the science fiction here that really makes me pay attention: geology and thermodynamics are faithfully recreated, and that's very hard to do. My only complaint is the structure of the book -- like Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plan comes together, and it does in this book, but too close to the end and without the same kind of clues that sustain the science mysteries. Part of the problem may be that I was listening to an audiobook for the first half (then switched to print), but I found that element too confusing for its own good. Also, I have some philosophical issues with how people behave, but I'll withhold judgment on that till the end of the series. Which I'm ambivalent about getting to. I'm very eager to find out where this story goes, but I also need to pace myself because it's a heavy, intense read. There is a part of me that I have to hold back, and that's the sign of an excellent story.

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Usually when a story reflects many of my favorite things I see it as more than the sum of its parts, but this time it's less. Every Heart a Doorway is like Harry Potter without the anglophilia and with more murders and more group therapy. It's too dark for YA but too short and story-like for grown-up fantasy lit. I did like the yearning at the center of every character and the magical cartography that connects the worlds has promise. But in the end I'd rather read one of my favorite books again than read this a first time. I'm still undecided as to whether I'll continue, maybe it gets better? I genuinely hope so.