Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Review: St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton

I read this book not because I wanted to know more about St. Francis (that was a bonus), but because I wanted to observe how Chesterton structured his biographical sketch. It's cherry-picking at its best, because you know going in that it's cherry-picked. Chesterton, as always, is best at the big picture and worst at the details. I found Chesterton's sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas to be better, but there were many memorable bits in this one: Chesterton's theory for why the Dark Ages were so dark, his ability to show the real point of the miraculous so you don't get sidetracked arguing what doesn't really matter, and his argument that Francis's mirroring of Christ goes both ways are all worth the price of admission. This seems to be less dense than his other work, which makes it faster reading but also leaves you chewing on his statements a little less . Good middle-of-the-road Chesterton and what it was lacking (slightly) in content it made up in inspiring me to write my own biosketches someday. Maybe you can write your own too?

Book Review: Gwendy's Button Box

This one was over too soon. King and Chizmar (although it must have been King because he started the story) tell a story about a box that is the perfect blend of mystery and power. You want to press the buttons and find out what happens, but you're also afraid of it -- although I want more detail. The central character is believable and grows up convincingly through her interactions with others -- although I want more detail. The whole story is an entertaining contrivance, without much weight to it, like the button box itself. It's also well-crafted -- I had no idea it was co-written till it I found out through an interview at the end. If this is the product of King co-writing, then he should co-write more.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book Review: Real Artists Don't Starve

It's a little hard for me to review this book because it's a little too familiar. As I've worked on writing over the past few years, I've collected stories about original artists and how they made their art (Neil Gaiman's 8 Rules for Writing are still stuck next to my computer). I read about the Inklings and Jim Henson, and Van Gogh and Michelangelo. In this book, I see many of those same stories collected and put together in an engaging, easy-to-read package, and I'm glad to see how much I've forgotten. Goins also adds some other stories I hadn't heard before, especially from the music business. One of the problems with a book like this is that ultimately it's a lot of things that worked for other people, and the exact same thing is never going to work for you. But as far as mildly myth-busting books go, this is a good one. Artists need patrons, and marketing isn't an inherently bad thing. This book is a welcome collection of reminders of those things we should already know but have somehow forgotten.

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.