Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Book Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

On the surface, this is a story about a new doctor caught up in World War I. You need a bit of a strong stomach to get through some of the medical descriptions, especially in the first half of the book, which are described well (perhaps a little too well!). The story's told from the perspective of the young doctor Lucius, and his baptism by fire in the medical profession is intense. But the story is really about the attachments he makes as a doctor to those around him, and how those attachments are broken, and his quest to reattach. Lucius is awkward and endearing at times, but there's not enough tragedy or inner pain to his awkwardness, except in a few scenes late in the book. He doesn't seem to notice his own brokenness enough. There's a love story with some beautiful scenes, and its trajectory is different and poignant, sweeping you along in the last third of the book, but it was paced oddly and I feel like I never got to really appreciate the best parts. There's a lot of mystery and things left unsaid, which sometimes feels like a romantic mist but other times becomes just an inert fog. Part of the problem may be that it's not as good as an audiobook, which is how I experienced it. This book is different from your usual wartime novel, and the closest analogue I can think of is All the Light We Cannot See, but this is more literary and less inventive than that (although possibly better written in terms of descriptive language). This is a complex, puzzling, unique book, like a good indie movie that you enjoy the characters, setting, and story, but doesn't quite come together for you.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

This is better than Harry Potter.

It's imaginative, epic, well-paced, romantic, and psychologically realistic about loss and isolation as well as longing and fulfillment. It's got alchemy (that feels like authentic Medieval alchemy), expert foreshadowing, likeable characters with pressing burdens that make them all the more likeable, and a philosophy where the old stories hide the highest truths. Not to mention it's got the best twist of an ending since the end of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, I realize that was 1990).

Even though it's got complexity and bitterness -- it is a story about a misfit, orphaned librarian, a God-slayer, and a cloistered royal family of teens -- in the end analysis it's intensely sweet.

Only the secondary characters fall short of the rest of this world's exquisite detail and I-didn't-expect-that-but-yes-it-had-to-be-that-way surprises. Against the backdrop of excellence they stand a bit dim, like sunspots, and pull this down from five stars. My comparison to Harry Potter also falters in audience: this one's decidedly narrower, for older teens and up, so it's not exactly putting the "Y" in YA lit.

But my goodness, what a story.

I won't say anything else except to note that there is a sequel, for which I scrupulously avoided all information except the title, and I wish I had avoided that. Want to avoid spoilers from the sequel? Go read this now.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Book Review: The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

This book was both shorter than I expected and even better than I expected. I came for Morrison writing about Flannery O'Connor and for the insights into HOW a writer writes and a thinker thinks, and I was not disappointed. I found that Morrison's thoughts on "othering" coincide eerily with Girard's thoughts on scapegoating (and O'Connor's as well). I'm always delighted to find examples of literary convergence like this. One final note is that Morrison talks about her own works in a way that does not assume the audience's familiarity, so you can use this as an entry to her writing if you like. All these great writers are essentially saying the same thing.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Book Review: The Message by Emmanuel Carrere

I keep wavering on this book, and I think in the end I’ll take the optimistic, glass-half-full attitude and consider Emmanuel Carrere to be a “second friend.” I take this term from how CS Lewis described Owen Barfield:

“But the Second Friend is the man who disagrees with you about everything. … He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it. How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?”

I’ve always found too much to agree in with Barfield to argue with him this much. Barfield introduced me to Coleridge, and that is worth all of Barfield’s flaws in itself. But Carrere fits the bill. Carrere is fascinating and frustrating, and his greatest assets are his compelling style and transparency. I think he’s transparent enough that you can see where he’s fooling himself. I know them’s fightin’ words but the whole book is a fight – Carrere struggling with an angel – and I disagree with many of Carrere’s conclusions. Because he includes his “methods section” and “background information” (to use the terms from scientific literature), I think I can even trace our disagreements back to how and why.

First, a note about genre. The Kingdom’s Amazon blurb represents it as a work of fiction but that’s not right. At least the first third is memoir, as Carrere recounts his life as a writer of books and screenplays who once had a three-year Catholic revival phase. Now, decades later, Carrere looks back on the man he used to be and tells us his historical theories about how the New Testament was written. Much of the book focuses on the life of Luke as a writer of his own gospel, Acts, and (in Carrere’s theory) the Epistle of James (because of course he has to have His Own New Theory about biblical authorship). This leads to some valuable insights, even inspiring ones, as Carrere projects the process of his life’s work onto the historical person of a 1st-century lower-middle-class physician.

But Carrere projects his own doubts onto Luke as well, and he clearly goes too far in putting himself at the center of this story. He even suggests at one point that Luke put his notes from his “religious phase” into a trunk and tries to forget about them, exactly like Carrere did with his own three years of religious notes. At this point, we’re not talking about Luke anymore.

Carrere has a strong voice that carries the reader along. He’s nothing if not confident. He assumes he knows what words mean and what people are like and walks the line between funny and glib, between self-mocking and sneering. Too often, he confidently assumes the worst and imports a modern view that comports suspiciously close to that of Imperial Rome, confirming my own suspicions that Roman empires and modern empires alike both have a visceral, unconscious antipathy to the gospel message that they cannot see themselves.

Like Lewis’s Second Friend, Carrere gets a lot of things right, and I found a few historical nuggets I didn’t know before. Carrere gets how Christian worship and Eucharist are ordinary things filled with glory and grace that run counter to default human behavior. But he can’t seem to extend this insight to ordinary events, like those in the life of a writer putting pen to paper.

A long passage struggling with Paul’s injunction to “Pray without ceasing” ultimately ends in a shrug, because Carrere insists on his own definition of prayer rather than realizing glory of God can fill ordinary space and time without me even being aware of it. My awareness is not the point of prayer, so I can even pray without being aware of it. God’s faithfulness is what matters, not human attention or thoughts, even with something as intimate and human as talking to God.

Carrere’s self-centered narrative ends up in some odd places. In Carrere’s telling, Paul becomes a masochist because he never mentions his Roman citizenship till after he’s been scourged (never mind that the Sermon on the Mount points directly to this type of behavior). Phrases like Jesus referring to himself as the “Son of Man” get stripped of their deep allusions to Jewish scriptures as Carrere insists that the phrase means “simply man” (um, not in Daniel 12 it doesn’t). Likewise, Paul’s constant Jewish allusions are downplayed – because they aren’t important to Carrere, he assumes they weren’t important to the Roman or Galatian church. Carrere follows the age-old academic argument of putting a wedge between Jesus and Paul, and between James and Paul, and between Old Testament and New Testament witness, and even at a late point between Luke and Paul, no matter how central Paul is to Acts!

I shake my head most at Carrere’s blithe insistence that early Christians were expecting the world to end like we 21st-century modernists expect the world to end. This puts a wedge between the early Christians’ expectations and reality when people in the church start to die. This was a crisis but not the earth-shaking crisis that Carrere assumes. Like with prayer, Carrere is overly literal about end of world and adopts an attitude that presents itself as modern but literally predates atomic theory. When Paul says don’t marry because the time is short, that’s about receiving what God gives and being content, not about expecting everything to end – the return of Jesus is a beginning of a new age, not an obliteration of all material. Obliteration is the return of a Gnostic Jesus! Several times Carrere indicates that his biggest influence is Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus is 150 years old now, and it shows in sections like this. Everything old is new again.

By taking a hard line on what the “end of the age” (note: NOT “the world”) means, Carrere is forced to put a wedge between 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, proposing that the second contradicts the first, and predictably he puts a wedge between Galatians and Ephesians, between John of Patmos and John the Beloved Apostle, etc. etc. The differences are real and probably do reflect some authorial differences, but maybe not. Just look at 1st and 2nd Corinthians and note that the style differences between these (even within these!) are at least as wide between these other letters, and no one seriously doubts that these were all written by Paul. Personally, I’m getting bored of the academic wedge strategy, which seems to be more avoidance mechanism than actual theory.

Two of the best parts of the book are in the Epilogue for opposite reasons. The first is the final scene in which he truly gets a glimpse of the Kingdom in all its ordinary glory (I won’t spoil it). The second is much scarier. Carrere starts to imagine why good Roman emperors would nonetheless harass and murder Christians. He says it must have seemed like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which your friend is not your friend anymore, and implies that your friend is not even human anyone. He’s right. This is entirely plausible and a chilling window into how very good people can be led to do very bad things. Once you alienate your friend for following Christ and convince yourself they’re not the same person anymore, you don’t have to feel bad for turning them into a human torch. This is how it happens, and with this wedge between the human and the Christian, Carrere plays the role of the good Roman citizen with his confident allegiance to Empire uber alles.

All these wedges end up convincing me that the center does not hold in Carrere’s world. The Christian community is different views living together, Jew and Gentile, men and women, all one in Christ. We have a model of that community in the canon itself. The different views of the authors of Scripture are jarring and puzzling at times, and yet after all the exertion and juxtaposition, I’m convinced that the differences are not the most important thing: Christ is.

John, Paul, Mark, and Luke are indeed contrasting voices but the question is whether they relate in harmony or dissonance. As a reader of the community of scripture, I can choose to embrace each author, learning to love and live together, or I can try to place wedges, saying one must be right, and I have to choose between them. The canon itself shows you can’t do it alone and that when there’s a conflict you don’t have to chase it down or wedge it out, but you can stand your ground, contemplate, and turn the other cheek as a reader. Accepting the different voices of the canon is itself an act of following the Sermon on the Mount and emptying yourself.

Carrere slices away everyone else and is left with himself and Renan. Dante’s vision of the embraces of Paradise (after the isolation of the Inferno and the steep hike of Purgatorio) includes Carrere’s vision but goes beyond it, showing that the Kingdom is far more expansive, hopeful, and ultimately compelling.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review: The Obelisk Gate

N.K. Jemisin's middle book in The Broken Earth Trilogy continues to build a world that may be second to none in what I think of as science-based fantasy. I thoroughly enjoyed its fast pace, vivid characters, and surprising moments. I also found it to have a more accessible overall structure with two mostly parallel stories rather than the three mostly disparate stories in the first novel. As for the surprises, I didn't expect to have a whole new "power system" introduced in this one, and I would have preferred to know more about the first "power system" rather than to have a mysterious new one revealed step by step. The first system (orogeny) was especially resonant, because it appeared to obey the Laws of Thermodynamics and felt like a solid science. But the second system (literally called "magic"!) feels as false to me as the first system feels true. It's vitalism and dualism and undercuts the realism of the narrative. For all that, it means that the introduced elements feel like things I've seen before, where the first book felt empirically solid and new. I'd be curious to know if there's others from other walks of life who felt the opposite, because I think this is colored by my scientific profession through and through. Also, the third book may reveal scientific elements to the "magic" that would make me change my mind. I'm eager to finish this off, nonetheless. The fact is that expectations have been lowered a bit, but they're still very high.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Book Review: The History Manifesto by David Armitage and Jo Guldi

A lot more academics call for better public engagement and more creative academic thinking than actually do better public engagement and more creative academic thinking. The History Manifesto practices what it preaches. As an academic (far) outside the field of history, I was able to digest this short book easily and to grasp the authors' description of the movements of thought in the field -- the history of history.

They argue that in the latter half of the 20th century, long-term history gave way to focused microhistories, and that long-term history is coming back. They don't argue that microhistories should go away, but that the tools developed for such deep-dives into archival materials can now be applied to longer spans of time and bigger datasets. Microhistory in massive parallel, if you will.

I think they're right, and I especially appreciate the well-chosen examples of what they're talking about. As a chemist who constantly strays into geological and biological history, I am all for the parallel movement in natural history (although I was hoping to find a little more inspiration for my own natural history thoughts than I did here). If anything, their critiques of evolutionary biology should be more intense.

The only thing that tugs at me is a sense that they already know where their field will lead -- that the conclusions of new history will take down the ideas of those rival laissez-faire economists who always show up as dramatic foils in this narrative. Awareness of your own biases is crucial when designing these new historical studies and this book is more about inspiring new methods than in cautioning on the wrong turns that can be taken when implementing new methods. They're basically arguing that "cliometrics" should return as a data-driven historical field of study (while arguing that the ones really qualified to interpret such data must be trained historians) but they also honestly present the fact that the first studies to use this term back in the 70s were embarrassingly flawed. Why were they flawed? I would like to dig down more into how these flaws can be prevented from happening. Most of all, I want to be surprised by the data, so "knowing the result before it starts" is something to avoid.

The only reason I can even make a critique like that is because this book genuinely talks about important and foundational issues, and that's the sign of a good book.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

I read this book on the recommendation of an online review in which the reader said she was "haunted" by the book. Although it's not my usual genre I wanted to see what was so "haunting" about it. I'm not haunted but analytical: I file it away as genuine data for what it's like to be a 38-year-old woman adrift in longing and void, and how we're returning to a world haunted by pagan ghosts. It's well written: the narrator is a spot-on character with a strong voice, as the plot veers through comic and tragic episodes, as well as philosophical and downright carnal episodes. The transposition of Greek mythology into the modern day in the form of a long-lived elemental man-fish whom the narrator falls in love with is done well, and I appreciate how it affects the narrator's thesis-writing on Sappho. The story is always conscious of how this is derivative from and a critique of the Twilight genre. Its central theme is solid: the modern tragedy of complete freedom from everything (including meaning). But it's a theme that the conclusion doesn't quite live up to, verging on after-school special resolution mechanisms. And I feel like this reveals that I'm just not the target audience here, but all the sex scenes started to get boring, which I think/hope was intended? You know, NOT for kids. This spells out modern (er, post-modern, double er, post-post-modern) problems precisely, but it's asking so many questions that it never gets around to the answers. I was much more "haunted" by the similar-but-different story Fire Sermon, and got a much bigger picture of the problems of modern love and technological app-romance from Why Love Hurts. But this book more or less does what it sets out to do, and I always have to admire that.