Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn is book 4 of the Expanse series, and so much happens in each book that I've learned not to even read the synopsis of the next one till I finish the last one. I'm not sure if this is the best yet but it's certainly in the running, and it's a complex debate because each book is so good. My spoiler-free high points were where evolutionary convergence saves lives (that's a big thing of mine, taking up about a chapter in my own recent book) and how the epilogue turns a satisfying denouement into a harrowing harbinger of future chaos in a way that makes perfect sense but I never saw coming. My only wish is to have the characters be a little deeper: part of this is that the plot is so break-neck and inventive that there's not much time for character, One emotional arc in particular (Elvi's) is so much less than it could be. But I only detect that upon introspection after the fact: while reading/listening, these books are the most substantial fun I've had since the heydays of Michael Crichton's best work.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

I always read books in order, but I would recommend reading the notes at the end first for this book. That's the only place where you find out that this is not really a new Crichton novel, but an old one, about as old as I am (mid-70s from what I can tell). Knowing that would make me more impressed at how developed his style is for such an early work: how fluidly it reads and how rapidly it unspools the plot. It would also be clear why Crichton shelved it, despite its completeness. There's just not quite enough here to justify its publication, despite all the action. Crichton is edutainment, with the emphasis on the "-tainment," but his best books bring out things you never knew and never thought of before. There's nothing here that rises to that level, although cameos by some famous characters are fun. You learn a little more from this than you do taking a ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but it is pretty fun and it's an ultrafast read. I anticipate in a year I'll have trouble remembering if I actually read it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Book Review: The Discarded Image

There should be a genre for "Books that are Like Sitting in that Professor's Class." If so, this would be a prime example of the genre. If you want to hear C.S. Lewis speaking about the subject he knows best -- the medieval mindset -- sit in this class, and find out not really what the medievals thought, but more how they thought and what they saw when they looked up into the sky at night. As I was reading this book, I attended a concert of 14th-century Gregorian chantels in Notre Dame. I thought it'd be Gregorian chant, like in that 90's radio song, but rather it was lively music with words as densely packed as the Hamilton concert. It felt more like music by my favorite band than echoey "church music." This sense of life and feeling intensely comingled fits exactly with Lewis's explanation of medieval literature. It's really that mind-opening. At the end, Lewis goes out on a philosophical limb a bit, and makes a very good point about how we see the things we want to see, but honestly, takes it too far. Still, given the liveliness of the period that is so scorned by others, I understand why he wanted to push back. And I'll even go so far as to say he's right, although the way in which he's right is better described by Owen Barfield (speaking at his best) than by Lewis himself. Regardless, this is what education and learning is about, and at the very least, it'll help medieval music concerts feel like present-day music to you, and will give you "medieval-colored glasses" through which to contemplate the world around you.

Book Review: The Spaemann Reader

I picked up this book to read one essay, Spaemann's classic on Nature. Then I read another essay about how art imitates nature. Then another about the end of modernity. And then I just gave in and read the whole thing (I did skip one about Rousseau, I have to confess). This is the kind of philosophy that draws me in because it says interesting and true things about big questions. I found out later that Spaemann may be Pope Benedict's favorite philosopher, and maybe that's a good way to choose who to read. He's definitely high on my list now. Also found out later that Spaemann was quoted extensively in Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern, which I found to be similarly engrossing. So there's a little network of interesting thought, some of it under the umbrella of phenomenology, but whatever it's called, it's good stuff.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: The Fountain and the Furnace by Maggie Ross

Sometimes the right book hits you at the right time. This book, by an Anglican hermit and centered around the experience of tears, was that book for me when I read it a few months ago. I didn't even want to review it publicly because it spoke so deeply, but then I realized that it might help someone else who is receiving the gift of tears. So, if you're that person, check out this book, its words are still rippling through my heart.

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I knew too much about this book before I started. The general premise is fascinating, and the world-building -- at least the world-building's initial premise -- has always stuck with me. Unfortunately, I read the book, and that's pretty much all there is to it. The book meanders around among several characters, and it ends up settling on a female character that I never found convincing in the least. Part of the problem may be the terrible audiobook version I listened to (it sounded a bit like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons trying to do a female voice), but my overall experience was slogging through internal monologues and business deals I didn't care about to get to some interesting speculation about reality and history and contingency. Then something would happen that wasn't really explained and it would switch to another character. I still have hopes that the TV series could expand on this world with better characters, plots, and politics, because it's a fascinating world. Finally, everyone depends on this Oracle fortune-telling mechanism in a way that just didn't seem realistic, but in the end that dependence may actually make sense. Still, I'm not sure and too many things are left unexplained for me to say I enjoyed this book. I can't even make this review coherent ...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

For a Tolkien fan, this is a lesser piece in the puzzle, but still very interesting. Kullervo's story is a story Tolkien translated and poeticized from a much older original. What's most rewarding is not the story itself but how its tragic themes are developed by the young Tolkien and how they grow into his later work. I found the essays at the end to be even more valuable than the story itself, because here Tolkien analyzes the old story, and it contains an insight about how we worked out puzzles through writing. For example, he was always bothered by why a man would steal a golden cup from the dragon in Beowulf, enraging the dragon and setting part 3 of the story into motion. So that motivated him to write a story about an unassuming hobbit conscripted to steal a cup from a dragon's hoard. That one insight made the book worthwhile for me. But I just told you, so should you read this? Probably only if you are a Tolkien completist or are interested in the process of translation.