Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Book Review: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

Here's another Stephen King tetralogy of short stories (OK, long stories), and as he continues to grow as a writer, these are becoming more and more my favorite way to read his work. The first one is creepy and technologically relevant, the second one is weird, messy, and exuberant; the third one is familiar and unsettlingly topical (with a monster who masquerades as a journalist that feeds on fear, which is not exactly what that profession needs right now); and the fourth one is about writing, which somehow is far better as a story than as a novel like King used to write. Each one actually says something. King still likes to gross you out and scare you, but that's never really the point. The point is about how to be human, even what it means to be alive and the mysteries at the edge of ordinary lives. Although there's not one that stands out (maybe the second just because it's so weirdly mixed up?), this might be the best four-story collection he's done.

Book Review: Conversations with Rene Girard: Prophet of Envy

Cynthia Haven has provided the world with the best, most accessible biography of Rene Girard and with this book, the most up-to-date collection of his interviews. Most of the interviews in this collection are more recent than the Girard books most Girardians have read, and so they touch on topics post-9/11 and show Girard applying his thoughts to the 21st century. He has no trouble doing so, and each interview is insightful and challenging. I'm surprised at how little repetition there is relative to most books like this, but I think that's because Girard did his best thinking in dialogue. It's probably best to be familiar with Girard's ideas before starting this, but that's what Haven's biography is for. I'm glad I bought this in physical form because I started scribbling notes and ended up in further conversation with Girard. Few books are provocative enough to require self-annotation but this one is.

Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

I don't actually enjoy much theology. Only about 10% of it has the "snap" that makes it worth it, but when it has that "snap" it's the most important reading in the world. Cone has that "snap." His writing is also elegant and trimmed to make its point and move on. This book shows a parallel that few white people see (although Girard saw it and he is duly cited here). Then it critiques a prominent theologian (Niebuhr), shows how this worked in the lived-out history of another prominent theologian (MLK), found it in the arts, and found it in the words of women. This is not just a crucial piece of theology that needs to be understood, it is an expansive example of how to include all voices and all fields in your argument. The most important book I've read this year.

Book Review: Miracles by Luke Timothy Johnson

This book takes you through the Bible looking at where and when miracles occur. Several points recommend it: It starts with the music (the Psalms) and focuses on the Gospel miracles in detail. I was good to read Johnson in his own words to justify his interpretative strategy of looking away from history and toward the present and future. In Johnson's definition, the miracle of persistence of life in the community is the primary miracle, which is a nice change of perspective. It correlates with Walker Percy's statement about the remarkable persistence of the Jews as one of the two primary miracles he sees today. I wish it came together a bit more at the end but just the action of walking through the texts from Johnson's perspective was very worthwhile and changed the way I look at miracles and prophecy. Miracles are about endurance, faithfulness, and music being embedded deep in creation. They can be quiet and hidden but they are fundamental to life.

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.