Monday, December 9, 2019

Book Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I recognize that this book is well-written and (generally) well-structured. (I would have liked a little more emphasis on the mystery, what we do not know.) It's one of the few books about artistic genius in which the genius itself is convincingly portrayed, well enough for suspension of disbelief. But I didn't enjoy it and was sort of relieved when it was over, so I have to give it two stars on the subjective, sentimental systems Goodreads has set up. Maybe I was jealous of the genius playwright Lotto, or thought that the character of his wife, Matilde, was too focused on hidden layers, the 90% of the iceberg, although that's part of the point of the book. It's nicely ambiguous and decadent and I think there's people into that sort of thing, but to me it felt like a highfalutin' soap opera in which I didn't identify with any of the characters. It's supposed to be about a fabulous-looking marriage but I didn't sense any true love anywhere. When I character says "I love you beyond love" I simply do not believe it. All the desires come from within and not from without, which I think is unrealistic. There's a few passages where the character complains that all this love stuff is in the air and force-fed through culture, and the closing passage about what really makes a marriage is touching, but it's like the end of American Beauty -- it doesn't redeem all the actions in the book in which, sure, people defend their own and stick up for their spouse in various ways, seen and unseen, but it doesn't seem to amount to anything. It's never boring and it's got nice turns of phrase and descriptions and surprises galore. It's just not enough to make me like it, much less love it.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Book Review: I See Satan Fall Like Lightning by Rene Girard

This is late Girard, published around the turn of the millennium. It feels prescient to our current age of memes and social media mobs as ever. The guy was onto something. This is the book to read if you want to come at Girard from a foundation of theology. He starts with the Ten Commandments and the Gospels rather than from indigenous myths, or literary analysis of Cervantes and Stendhal, or individual psychology as in other books. He ends up at the same challenging point of unveiling societal violence and underground (or above ground) idolatry throughout history. A section on prophecy and a section on self-righteousness and self-deception are particularly incisive, but that just means I copied down full pages rather than sentences. I'm not sure how it would feel to start on this book, but it challenged me as much as ever and I'm still digesting it now. Near the end when it feels like Girard can really draw parallels and drive the point home, he seems to hold back and go vague rather than specific, especially in his description of the prevalence of victimization as power play. Maybe that's left for us all to figure out. I wish he would have gone a little further but he went so far that such a wish seems unrealistic. Start with this book if you want to read Girard starting from the Bible. Read Violence and the Sacred if you want to start from comparative anthropology; Things Hidden From the Foundation of the World if you want to start with literature and human origins (my favorite); and if you don't want to read a book listen to the 5-part CBC interview (or read the transcript). Girard helps me understand Genesis especially as a scientist, but really everything up to and including Revelation. Wherever you're coming from, he'll challenge and perhaps annoy you, but I think he's far more right than wrong.

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I'm not going to say much about this book because I want you to discover it like I did. It starts out like 40 Years a Slave but soon becomes a different movie that I like much more (South Carolina) ... then another kind of movie that I understand needs to be theme but that I like less (North Carolina) ... and then yet another kind of movie that returns to the surprising genre elements that I liked so much. Along the way, it becomes clear that this isn't just about America and race 200 years ago, but it's about America and race today. If I could divide it up into different sections, half of it would get five stars and half four stars, but since I promised myself five stars would be hard to earn I'll give it four. But it's a strong argument for four and a half stars, and I understand why the recommender I got this from ranked it as the best book of the past decade. I don't think it's quite that, but it's awfully close.

Book Review: Muse of Nightmares

Muse of Nightmares continues the story of Strange the Dreamer but it seems to miss a beat in doing so. I still think this is one of the best fantasy worlds, with its Gaiman-esque evocatively wonderful details and fascinating combination of alchemy and psychology. The conflicts all make sense, and there are no paper villains here. There are discoveries on hand, a solid unifying motivation and mechanism for the magical events, and a satisfying conclusion. But I was disappointed with the plotting. The first book was paced incredibly well, and held back on detail perfectly to maintain suspense and surprise. The second book spends the first half cleaning up the plot lines from the eventful end of the first book, with some implausible resolutions, and only seemed to pick up when a new "villain" appeared. There's none of the suspense and longing (even though the ending of the first book seemed to allow for it) and too much consummation before it's earned. It's too bad, because if it had been able to keep up I would have maintained my previous line that I like this world more than Harry Potter's. Now they're about equal in my estimation -- but that's still very, very good.

Book Review: Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

I read Godric and Brendan by Buechner long ago, but I think Son of Laughter is his most revelatory historical fiction. Told from the perspective of Jacob, son of Isaac (Laughter), son of Abraham, it surprises you as it tells the same story you've heard all your life (if you're like me). I especially like Buechner's character and cultural descriptions. The chapter "The Red Heifer" is the best explanation of why people sacrificed animals (goes along with Girard, by the way) and the chapter on Jacob wrestling with his Rival is a kaleidoscope shifting through all the interpretations of this enigmatic struggle, somehow cohering with the text in a way I can only describe as awesome. My quibbles are that the characters other than Jacob are a little too much the same: Abraham and Isaac, all the women, and Jacob's brothers seem too much alike. But this book is really more about the whole story and so it's fine if some characters dissolve into archetypes. The overall impact is that all the characters feel like real people and the story of Israel gains another dimension. It feels like Israel could have happened this way, and it's a down-to-earth miracle as much as the Christmas birth in a cramped stable thousands of years later.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade

This was a deeply affecting book. Chris Arnade had a Ph.D. in physics and a Wall Street analyst job, but he left it and went on several road trips through America. At every town, he got out with his camera, walked around and talked to people. Often he ended up at two places he previously avoided: McDonald's and church. He talks about how important these places are to back row America and why so much of the country has been left behind. There's only six chapters (going from memory): 1. McDonald's; 2. Drugs; 3. Church; 4. Place; 5. Race; 6. Respect. Each person Arnade talks to, and Arnade himself, is a broken and biased reporter, but the sheer generosity of his ear and scope of his travels makes this book worth reading. Arnade challenges the status quo from beneath, and he changed the way I see my city. Of the chapters, the one on race may be the weakest, because Arnade has the least personal connection to that. But this isn't about Arnade, it's about the people whose voices he transcribes, and that is the reason to read this book.  One thing is clear: the average academic consensus is wrong in many ways. Why was it assumed throughout my life that place doesn't matter? I was supposed to move across the country for college, then for grad school, then post-doc, then job. Because of my sense of place I resisted that somewhat, only moving across the country for grad school, and then staying in place. I therefore understand the people who stay in their hometowns to take care of family even when neoliberalism and neoconservatism both assume they should just move to where the jobs are. And a quick glance at this blog shows I have always seen the point of church, while Arnade discovered it empirically, as the faith of the poor wore away at his academic atheism. There is a sense of futility upon finishing this book, but as someone who appreciates church (and McDonald's) I also find a distinct, strange hope, even an encouragement for the light shining through the cracks.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Book Review: Exhalation by Ted Chiang

My head was delighted by this collection, but my heart was slightly disappointed. All the big ideas are here, as they always are in Ted Chiang's work. You won't find a better treatment of the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics and parallel universes anywhere, this is how it would work. And there's a lot of heart, too. One story about raising digital creatures unexpectedly resonated with my own experiencing parenting teenagers. Every story is a notch above average -- it's like other authors have their ideas in standard definition but Chiang's grasp of the science and its implications is high-res. But there's no story that stands out as much as "Story of Your Life" in its sheer scope, originality, and depth. I didn't develop a deep emotional connection to any of the characters in this collection. I was most excited by "Omphalos," a story in which a 19th-century scientist follows a chain of discoveries and surprises in a world like ours that was created only a few tens of thousands of years ago. But for all the prayers we read from the central character, I don't feel like her faith is quite recognizable or tangible. It's not "high-resolution" like the science is. This is the same issue I had with Chiang's previous collection: he deals with science so well, and characters so well, that his slight shortcomings dealing with the deep nature of faith stand out all the more. The conclusion of "Omphalos" throws up unnecessary walls, describing certain aspects of science as problems to faith when a robust theology like JRR Tolkien's theory of subcreation would not only endure the problems but use them to strengthen the role of faith. It's hard to talk about this without spoilers, so I'll leave it at that. There is a five-star story here about parrots by the Arecibo observatory, but it's too short to lift the whole collection to the level of Chiang's previous collection. I am sure that I'd give this four stars if I hadn't read Stories of Your Life and Others, but since I gave that one four (while considering five), I'll have to give this one three (while considering four).