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.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This story is set in a Britain before the Norman Conquest but after King Arthur. It has swordfights, ancient knights, ogres, and magical dragons, but its real point is the relationship between an old couple on a journey to visit their son. Part of the point is the way the mists of forgetfulness swirl through the story, so I won't say much about the plot, except to say that you don't get tired of exploring the world, and yet the point is the relationships more than the world itself. Because of the setting and formal language, it evokes Tolkien and Beowulf, but it analyzes a marriage in a way Tolkien himself never approached. This is not epic, it is intimate. Though it's a slow build, it earns an intense, even devastating emotion as it nears the end. This is unlike any other book I've ever read, and its quiet elegance along with its natural groundedness won me over.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

In a book that covers a lifetime, I usually gravitate to the wartime chapters. In Atonement, the opposite is true, due to McEwan's ability to paint even household activities in vivid shades of meaning, and possibly due to his ability to communicate the mundane horror of war. The central character, Briony -- a writer who grows, hopes, then regrets -- is particularly compelling. A few sections of extended conversations involving submerged feelings didn't click for me (I almost put it down in Chapter 2), but that may be the audiobook's fault. Overall, it's an intimate story sumptuously told, and affecting, communicating deepest truths when exploring what drives a writer and how mistakes can overshadow a life.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Book Review: Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

For a book on data analytics, this is very readable and engaging. I'm considering giving it to my freshman science writing class because it analyzes the familiar (authors like J.K. Rowling) using simple word-counting methods to determine interesting things like trends in opening lines, adherence in practice to their own stated rules for writing (most are true to their own advice, especially after they give it!), and, as the title suggests, favorite words. There's a mildly depressing part about how the bestselling books are now written at a 6th-grade level, when in the 1960s they were up around a 10th-grade level. Well, that one is more particularly depressing for a first-time author whose own book clocks in at a tenth-grade level, but I'm not sure if it counts as good news for anybody. This is more about introducing the idea of analysis than it is about really getting into what makes writing work. But for what it is, it's engaging and makes this reader want to do some analysis of his own.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: The Hobbit

So, once again, I went there and back again, reading The Hobbit aloud because my younger two boys are old enough. They were riveted by Tolkien's invention and humor -- it seems like we laughed more this time. Also, Tolkien's writing doesn't follow a three-act shape, but is surprising in how events unfold as well as which events unfold. Alas, if only Peter Jackson had been able to hold back ...

PS: Now my youngest runs around yelling "Attercop!" and "Tomnoddy!". I couldn't be more proud.

Book Review: God Matters by Herbert McCabe

I want to teach like Herbert McCabe writes. He takes the nearly-thousand-year-old ideas of Thomas Aquinas and sharpens them to fine points, then uses them to poke holes in all manner of shoddy thinking. He is a Dominican who writes so clearly about transubstantiation and the Immaculate Conception that they make sense to even this Protestant scientist. My understanding of sacraments, Holy Week, creation, even time itself was expanded by this book. The worst part is when other scholars write a chapter or so and he argues back and forth with them. These other scholars are good, but it's like sunspots, they look dark even though they're bright because they are against the backdrop of the sun itself. I find McCabe's politics challenging and (since most of this was written in the 80's) not quite as applicable, but still, it's a genuine loss for us that we don't have him around to comment on today's events.

Book Review: The Image of the City by Charles Williams

As a collection of essays, it's hard to give this a single rating. Three of the essays are as good as anything I've read: "Natural Goodness," "The Cross," and "The Way of Exchange." I assigned the first of the three in class to talk about the Fall and the Problem of Evil; the third of the three deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who thinks relationship and narrative should affect theology (by which I mean it deserved to be taken seriously by everyone). Williams coined the phrase "holy Luck" to describe the chance events that bring people into our spheres of influence, and months later I find myself still thinking of that. His theology of "exchange" may be more relevant now than it was in the 1940's. It's not all this powerful: I find the first section and last section to be least relevant because they are very literary and focused on Williams's Arthurian writing, which I have not read. But as for the high points of this book, there's nothing higher.

Book Review: Outlines of Romantic Theology by Charles Williams

There are two rules for reading Charles Williams: 1.) The later the better and 2.) The more about Dante the better. This book proves them both. The first half is an earlier set of several chapters where he outlines his ideas about "romantic theology." It's fine, but not vintage -- he's still working out his ideas and his Biblical analysis is a distinct angle but seems too constricted. The second half is a later essay that is a distilled version of The Figure of Beatrice and it boils down his insights to a 180-proof version. Probably the most accessible and best combo of pages vs. content that you'll find for this author.

Book Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

This is a nifty little book that doesn't overstay its welcome. I expect a book like this to have good twists and a genuinely creepy atmosphere, but there's a few character moments and subtle details that make it a cut above the rest. I almost wonder if it would be better if some key information were not deliberately withheld to give it some twists near the end. A good choice for an audiobook, too.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Invisible Power and the Role of the Artist

Fascinating interview with a filmmaker in Artspace that I found inspiring for my own writing. Here's the key quote, which focuses on invisible political power:

"The current system of power is fundamentally pretty invisible to us. It resides in finance, in all sorts of new kinds of management, and within computers and the media, which involves invisible algorithms that shape and manage what information we get. I think one of the most beautiful things artists and journalists can do at this moment in time is to be sympathetic and understanding to the people who voted for Brexit and Trump, and then bring to the fore the invisible power structures that those people feel completely distanced from so that they know where power is. And do it in such a way that isn’t obscure so people like me don’t have to read it three times just to understand it. Do it in a way that really grabs ordinary people’s imaginations."

This is what science writing does, in a way -- it brings to the fore the invisible power structures that shaped our world, although because those power structures are natural and bigger than humans, there's a lot different to the implications than the ones described in this quote or this interview.

As the subtitle to A World from Dust puts it, it tells "how the periodic table shaped life." The periodic table is an invisible power structure! And chemistry is the science of finding it out.