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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book Review: The Evolution of Desire by Cynthia L. Haven

I was drawn into reading Girard by the first section of this book, which I read on Church Life Journal as part of my daily regimen of blog reading. On the strength of this and other mentions of Girard from authors as diverse as Richard Beck and Amos Yong, I read The Girard Reader and then Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. When I started, I wondered if Haven's comparison of Girard's theory to Schliemann's discovery of Troy was unfair. After reading these three books, I think it is unfair -- in its generosity to Schliemann. Girard's accomplishment is the greater of the two.

Haven's book must be the best introduction to Girard for a general reader. A few quibbles: It gets a little too bogged down in the politics of the conference Girard helped organize that introduced Derrida to America, and it could hold Girard's feet to the fire a little more than it does. I feel like Girard's Wikipedia page is more critical than this book. The thing is, I think Girard's theory more or less endures all the criticism thrown at it. But before this book existed, I would have doubted that someone could write it. Yet here it is. I'd like to know what someone thinks for whom this is the very first exposure to Girard, and maybe I'll give it as a Christmas gift? Friends, you've been warned.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Book Review: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard

So, over the past few years I kept hearing about Girard, but until I read The Girard Reader this summer, I didn't really have a beachhead into his thinking. Now I've read what some consider to be his central work and, yeah, there's something here. I don't take back what I said before about the fact that Girard thinks like Darwin thought. The same powerful bottom-up mechanism is here, just on the level of human society rather than on the level of biological diversity. I'm still troubled by all the times Girard has to say "this has been hidden but now I'm revealing it to you" -- but the fact is that if you go back to the texts, there it is. This is an illuminating way to read the texts before you. This book isn't tailored to my interests -- I'd prefer more on human origins and less on Freud -- but Girard is one of those thinkers who will be haunting my thoughts for a very long time. Again, stay tuned.

Book Review: Energy by Richard Rhodes

Energy is written at a good level of detail and zips along nicely with an important focus: how do we turn the world around us into motion and light? Energy is really a chemistry topic, and I enjoyed this book as "chem lit." Rhodes opts for an engineering level of explanation at points where I think a chemistry level of explanation would be more unifying, and the focus on personalities rather than techniques leads to several sections feeling more like vignettes than a connected plot. My favorite section was on the discovery of electricity, and the sections at the end on current energy tech misses a few opportunities to take stands more clearly. But overall, the historical sweep of this book connects a lot of dots.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider is a cut above the previous detective novels that it's related to for a few reasons: The shape of the plot is more surprising, as first as horrific but contradictory evidence accumulates and then as a major event sends things in a slightly different-than-expected direction. Also, the sci-fi/horror elements are more vivid than in Mr. Mercedes, and they contrast well with police and legal details. There's just more going on. The best parts of this book are in the middle, with the exponentially spiraling nature of evil and the deep empathic stab of guilt and grief. King does these feelings as well as anyone, and it makes up for the occasional gratuitous gross-out or stereotype. The ending is atmospheric but ultimately superficial compared with the emotional depth of the middle act. Near the end it's just too obvious where this is all going, and it could come together and pay off more satisfyingly. Still, the moments that remind me why I read anything new by King, they're all here and this was a fitting Halloween read.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Book Review: What are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

I'm of the opinion that any collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson is worth it, and I'm glad that she's consistent enough to be repeating her familiar (by now) themes. In this collection, she rehabilitates New England Puritans and Oliver Cromwell where in previous ones it was John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. She also writes some gorgeous prose about recent scientific discoveries in cosmology and immunology, and then turns around and upbraids the selfish-gene crowd for their shallow philosophy and straw-man depictions of religion. These comprise at least two-thirds of the book and are worth the price of admission easily. Mixed in there's a few essays I disagree with, possibly more strongly than anything else she's written, mostly because she has a few blind spots that she shares with most of academia. Perhaps I have a different perspective as someone who writes for scientists rather than about them, and also as someone whose ears are a little too full of wax to hear the great command "Fear not" as much as I should. It doesn't worry me, I'm sure I'm more wrong than she is about these things. I'm happy to have Robinson goading the scientists with her academic, historically grounded Protestant humanism, and I hope she keeps these coming. Which historical figure gets rehabilitated next, I wonder?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin

I'm a sucker for a realistically weird universe. One of my favorite things about Orson Scott Card's Ender universe is how people age realistically at relativistic speeds, and The Expanse has maintained its scientific footing even as it got more, well, expansive. The Fifth Season has the same ring of truth to it, with a greater element of mystery revealed. The character moments are creative and the characters themselves compelling. But it's the science in the science fiction here that really makes me pay attention: geology and thermodynamics are faithfully recreated, and that's very hard to do. My only complaint is the structure of the book -- like Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plan comes together, and it does in this book, but too close to the end and without the same kind of clues that sustain the science mysteries. Part of the problem may be that I was listening to an audiobook for the first half (then switched to print), but I found that element too confusing for its own good. Also, I have some philosophical issues with how people behave, but I'll withhold judgment on that till the end of the series. Which I'm ambivalent about getting to. I'm very eager to find out where this story goes, but I also need to pace myself because it's a heavy, intense read. There is a part of me that I have to hold back, and that's the sign of an excellent story.

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Usually when a story reflects many of my favorite things I see it as more than the sum of its parts, but this time it's less. Every Heart a Doorway is like Harry Potter without the anglophilia and with more murders and more group therapy. It's too dark for YA but too short and story-like for grown-up fantasy lit. I did like the yearning at the center of every character and the magical cartography that connects the worlds has promise. But in the end I'd rather read one of my favorite books again than read this a first time. I'm still undecided as to whether I'll continue, maybe it gets better? I genuinely hope so.

Book Review: Faith, Hope, and Poetry by Malcolm Guite

Years ago I read Break Blow Burn by Camille Paglia, and I think it's taken about a decade to find a book like that, and even better. Malcolm Guite has the same strategy as Paglia: step through history reading excerpts from poems. But Guite's findings are more meaningful to me (and I don't have to put up with things like Paglia pushing Revenge of the Sith as an incredible artistic vision). Also, Guite introduced me to poets I never heard of but who nonetheless spoke to me as if they were living around the corner from me. John Davies is the best surprise, who may eventually become one of my favorite poets. Of course, the Coleridge chapter is fantastic and somehow as illuminating as Guite's full-length work on the Rime. Finally, Guite brings it into the present day by bringing a depth to Seamus Heaney I never knew, and introducing me to Geoffrey Hill's Lachrimae Amantis, a poem that immediately sank deep into my heart. So, yeah, this is a perfect book for the Christian who wants to know more about poetry.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Book Review: The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben

I was surprised by how cheap this book was, much cheaper than most philosophy hardbacks, so I actually ordered it rather than got it through the library like usual. Then I found out why it was so cheap: it's the size of a box of Pocky! I'm glad I do own it, because I started marking it up with my green pen instead of using my traditional Post-its for "stuff to remember." By the end of the book almost everything was green and I could write in marginalia like a medieval monk. I would eat this book (slowly) if I could.

The Adventure is not easy reading because Agamben's focus here is on medieval romantic literature (which I don't really know) and he connects it to writers like Heidegger and Goethe (whom I haven't really read), and then it's all translated from Italian so that there are some issues with specific words (I had to keep reminding myself that "demon" comes from "daemon" and is not necessarily a bad thing in classical lit!). Reading this book is like going on an adventure yourself. At first, you're bushwhacking through the trees and dodging wandering trolls, but then -- then you get to the mountains.

In the second half of the book, the questions are fascinating: Agamben asks why Dante never uses the term "adventure" in the Divine Comedy, and why in an early representation of the grail myth, the grail wasn't really important at all. That last point bowled me over because Agamben explained one of the central plot points of my favorite movie of all time (The Fisher King) in a way I had only grasped intuitively. That revelation was extremely meaningful to me.

Finally, at the top of the mountain is one of the Big Questions: What Does It Mean to Be Human? That's the exact question I'm asking right now and to find it at the end of this book was like opening a treasure chest (and, yes, finding it full).

This is one of the few books that I immediately flipped through and read my highlights again upon finishing, and that I have kept in my reading stack for reiteration and review. Word for word, it is one of the most efficiently mind-blowing books I've ever read.

Book Review: I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

My wife said I should read this, and it would be a fast read. It was indeed a fast read but it wasn't an easy one. Channing Brown has a voice that needs to be heard. In the last chapter she ties everything back to love, the solid three-dimensional love of the cross, against a world that "sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate." That's solid theology. I'm not here to critique or review this book. I'm here to say to you like my wife said to me: you should read this book and hear this voice. We need it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

With its long but searingly memorable title, I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. I wish I had read it before I went to Burundi (Rwanda's sister country), but it's valuable enough at this late date. Unfortunately it's not as deep an exploration of the problem as it could be. Gourevitch is insightful and hits the right level of description in his narrative, so the problem isn't the writing. The problem is the problem itself, and a few shades of issues with trust and blame: Gourevitch takes people at their word and events at their appearance just a little too often. He actually compares Paul Kagame to Abraham Lincoln at one point, which does not age well considering that now, twenty years later, Kagame is one of the many "President-for-Life" leaders in East Africa, and is definitely on the oppressive end of even that spectrum. Gourevitch veers too much toward demonizing Hutus and lionizing Tutsis. Considering that the fault for the events of the mid-90s clearly lies with the Hutu Power movement (and considering he was writing then), I understand why he'd do that, but again, it doesn't age well into the tangle of 2018 East African politics. I found this review by Rene Lemarchand to be shorter, more confusing, but also closer to the truth. Rwanda and Burundi are textbook cases of the singularly human tendency to cycle and amplify vengeance, and I'm frustrated with my own attitude that takes as a victory the mere fact that genocide hasn't happened on a large scale in two decades. Gourevitch touches on the human soul just a bit at the end of the book, and again, I don't blame him for not having an answer. This book is a window into the tangle of hate, power, and need, and that is service enough. But if there is an answer, it lies in costly forgiveness and in the choice to pour out your own life rather than cling to your own vision of justice. It's a mess. Who will rescue us from this world of death?

Book Review: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz

Here a sociologist and feminist deconstructs why so many people are so obsessed with romantic love, and so depressed and insecure when disappointment ensues. Illouz contrasts the social structure of Jane Austen with Internet forum talk of today (she has a gift for zeroing in on telling online snippets and a soft spot for the New York Times's Modern Love column). She concludes that, for all we've gained, we've lost a lot as well. What's particularly interesting to me is how Illouz's conclusions line up with those of other critics of modernity who start from very different points. It seems like a case of convergent evolution to me. Illouz concludes that modern structures hurt women more than men and create incentives for men to hold back from commitment. Her case is rooted in biology (but don't worry, not in a hand-waving ev-psych way). She's right that, at some point, our most important personal question has changed from Rene Decartes's "Do I exist?" to Bridget Jones's "Will anybody love me?". Illouz suggests that an ethical reformation will protect women from this bruising, technocratic economy of radical choice. The closest parallel I can come up with is another book that impacted me deeply with its wide-ranging secular critique of modernity: David Bosworth's The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America. When all these different authors from all these different vantage points come together in a critique of libertarian reductionism and modern malaise, I'm left asking the authors, well, we're all here. Now what? I have some ideas if anyone's interested.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? by Susannah Gibson

This is a book about what happened when science discovered the creatures inbetween the kingdoms of life, and inbetween life and death: polyps, Venus flytraps, and fossils. It's really about fitting nature with words, and what happens when the words are old wineskins that cannot contain new wine. Yet the author's focus is on nature, not on the human minds observing nature, which are far more interesting. The human-mind debates about God's action and nature of creation are so simplified as to almost evaporate away. I enjoyed the descriptions of the experiments the scientists did, but the author takes an Epicurean view of "what it all means"* as such a foregone conclusion that the history ends up as static as the old fossils described in Chapter 4. Just as the old experiments challenged the old scientists, the new experiments of the unity underlying the different kingdoms should challenge us in the opposite direction: polyps, Venus flytraps, and fossils all use essentially the same amino acids, sugars, and genetic code. That means something. But this book is all description and no challenge or extension. It assumes an opposition between God and matter that isn't necessary, and then assumes because we know a lot about matter that we have no need for God. That's fine for Laplace but I'd like to think about what it means for us today. It means so much more than this book gives it a chance to mean.

*Greenblatt's The Swerve is quoted admirably. See my review of that book for what I think of that!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Book Review: The Girard Reader edited by James G. Williams

I finally decided to read Rene Girard, and all I can fit into a one paragraph review are statements, so let’s just make them bullet points:

n  Girard thinks like Darwin. I don’t mean that he’s as important a thinker as Darwin was, but that he has a simple but effective mechanism that may tie the social level together the same way Darwin’s mechanism tied together biology. Girard’s scapegoat mechanism functions like Darwin’s variation + selection. (One could argue both are Malthusian.)

n  It’s highly significant that Girard came to his Catholic faith through his academic work. It’s hard to find these stories, but it shouldn’t be. They’re surprisingly common.

n  This particular selection answered most of my questions. I was curious about the implications for the creation of humans and also how this fits with scripture. I would have liked a little more on the former is all, but otherwise this Reader is remarkably balanced. The sections on literature and Freud/Nietzsche were less relevant but the inclusion of the interview at the end is perfect – in fact, I read it first and recommend you do the same.

I’m still digesting Girard but I only get rocked by a new (to me) thinker about once per year, and this is Girard’s year. You’ll hear more about Girard in my future scribblings, of that I’m sure.

Book Review: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

I had put off reading this, because if there’s one thing I didn’t necessarily want to read from Helprin, it was a war novel. Not because it wouldn’t be well written – because it would be too well-written, or at least too affecting. Helpin specializes in intense, over-the-top decriptions, lush to the point of irrationality, but always beautiful even in their ugliness. Helprin’s great at writing chases, in which I feel as if I’m running with his characters, but when he writes about fights, I feel as if I’m the one being hit. I just didn’t want to read a whole novel like that. I was wrong.

A Solider of the Great War is about World War I, and takes its structure from Dante’s Inferno, so here we have Mark Helprin describing the events that traumatized J.R.R. Tolkien (for example) for his entire life. Yet, Helprin is Helprin, so there’s more beauty than horror (and even beauty in the horror). Only one short section takes place in the dead marsh-- I mean, the trenches. Around that you visit Sicily, Venice, the Alps, and again and again, Rome herself, which comes alive almost as much as New York City in Winter’s Tale (almost!). By the end it all comes together, so that this may have the best overall structure of Helprin’s “Dante trilogy.”

As in all of Helprin’s books, he is second to none at describing how men fall in love. For that alone he deserves to be read. An important subtheme is believing in God, or rather, how believing in God is not really the right term, since faith and hope are far more than assenting to propositions, it’s immersing yourself in the gift of God’s world. And again, as with all Helprin’s work, there are flaws. But I can’t help it, I love this book. Right now it’s my third favorite Helprin behind Winter’s Tale and the Kingdom Far and Clear trilogy. I’ve convinced myself it’s gotta get five stars. So sue me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book Review: Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin

It's rare that when finishing one book I immediately turn back to that same author for more, but I'm doing it in this case: my next book is Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War. I want to get more of Helprin's prose in my head. But the reason I'm breaking my own rule and getting more of the same author is that I found Digital Barbarism to be unsatisfying on a few levels. Helprin's argument for copyright extension works beautifully for the type of work he does: literature to last the ages. He makes a compelling and fascinating argument on those grounds. However, he's so busy fulminating that he only occasionally sets his argument in the context that it comes from. This is no doubt by design, because he's writing literature to last the ages, right? But the context it comes from is a society that has lost the distinction between software and literature, and between background music and Wagnerian opera. Helprin's arguments about the rights of the sole creator fall apart when, as with software or a movie, there is no sole creator. Much of the friction between him and his online adversaries can be attributed to this category mistake. The problem is that the people he's arguing with would never read one of his books in the first place, so the argument is destined to fester. Argument aside, like everything Helprin writes, this is a jewel box of words, and so it's worth it just to hold them up to the light and admire them. Just make sure you pay for them. Unless you got this from a library, like, uh, I did.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Data Talks for A World from Dust

I wrote A World from Dust for my physical chemistry students, and since its publication I've used it in class. The students read three chapters of AWfD and we work through two chapters of Atkins -- and I didn't design it this way, but the chapters actually work well together, in order. The order of topics in physical chemistry texts matches the order of topics in the natural history of the universe. Who knew?

So, to highlight the connections and to bring in recent peer-reviewed research papers, I schedule a "Data Talk" after each unit. I recorded those this quarter and posted them on YouTube, so to introduce people to what a "Data Talk" is and how it works, I recorded this little video. Here's a link to the intro video and the rest of the Data Talks in a YouTube playlist:

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

This book is unwieldy and frustrating at times and challenging and troubling and ultimately wondrous. I don't think it quite comes together. How can it bridge Arthurian legend with modern academic politics and a critique of technocracy, medieval god-planet-angels, gender psychology, and the Tower of Babel? But I like books that burst at the seams and that I want to argue with, so, yeah, I really liked this book. The Fisher King's advice on marriage is not complete ... but I'll maintain that it's not entirely wrong either. I took the whole book too seriously in the past, but this time I took it as satire, which made the academic committee meetings funny and horrifying, as funny in this vein as Jane Smiley's Moo. But how can you help but take a story this dark seriously? What's particularly thrilling is to see the ideas of the other Inklings in the mix: Barfield is name-dropped specifically, Tolkien's Numenor is part of the story, and the whole things has that awkward not-quite-real mystical quality of Williams. It doesn't quite work but it's a glorious, provocative mess. It's five-star parts mixed with three-star parts, so I end up giving it four.

Book Review: The Seven Pillars of Creation by William P. Brown

I almost didn't read this book. In fact, I got it from the library and returned it previously, because I didn't want to read yet another book about Genesis 1-3. That was a mistake. This book starts with Genesis but its focus is spread throughout the canon. The whole point of the book is that there are five other accounts of creation beyond the two at the beginning of Genesis, and we need to read them all together. The other five are Job, Psalms (104 in particular), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and 2nd Isaiah. Brown's book stands out for several reasons beyond just its canonical breadth: he writes fluidly and poetically about both Scripture and science, mixing them expertly so that you not only think but feel that these are two sides of the same story. Brown is also content to let the accounts clash, and in the last chapter when he brings the seven accounts together the sparks fly. My favorite chapters are on Job and 2nd Isaiah, but the main point is that all these are more than the sum of their parts, and there's no better way to show how big the theology of creation is than to actually step beyond the first three chapters of the Bible.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

All Life Starts with Light

All Life Starts with Light

It’s always a little startling when the pastor turns to you in the middle of the sermon and asks a question. When 500 people are attending the service, it gains even more of an edge.

That’s what I get for coming late and sitting in the front row today.

So, when Richard turned to me from the pulpit, in the middle of his discourse on the book of Ephesians, and said, “Ben, isn’t that right?,” at least I was paying attention. I tried to respond with a gesture that conveyed the nuance of the situation, nodding mostly yes, shaking a little no, but overall confirming that it’s the right idea, with a stately and contained mien. My wife says I quivered and grimaced, but I know what I meant.

Everyone else moved on at that point, but since I have a blog, I have unlimited verbal bandwidth to expand my expression with too many words. Here it is.

Before fixing me with his gaze, Richard had said that “All life starts with light.” He’s completely right, then he’s a little wrong, then where it matters most he’s right again. I’ll explain in three parts:

1.)    Yes, every thing started with light: When the universe was created, everything was packed into the space smaller than the size of a city block. And here, “everything” means each and every thing, atoms and energy, from neutrinos to neutron stars. Packed into such a small space, it was so hot that nothing held together and matter itself was melted. Instead, everything was photons and neutrino radiation. Only after space itself expanded could these waves of light cool down and condense into particles. Every bit of matter in you and around you right now was originally light.

That was the first event in the universe, when light was allowed to be light.*

2.)    But at first life got by without light: All this matter took an unimaginably long time to form anything that we could call “life.” Once it was created, life spread through the ancient waters and skies as tiny microbes that Moses never named. The oldest forms of life we can find didn’t live off sunlight, but squeezed energy out of various chemicals lying around the planet. They ate the earth, not the sun. These chemicals only gave energy for a meager existence, but it was all the microbes needed. But without an external source of energy, the earth would slowly run out of juice. Photosynthesis changed all this. Once life started to pull down energy from sunlight, it flourished in new ways and began to change the world (or at least its chemistry).

Even today, whole ecosystems can survive without light. Deep-sea vents give food and energy to weird red and white worms, crabs, and fish far from the reach of the sun. Near these vents, the creatures that are big enough for us to see must have drifted down from above and taken up residence by the dark, bubbling waters, eventually transforming from ordinary creatures into sub-oceanic bottom-dwellers, like Gollum wasting away under the mountains until even the memory of the sun is forgotten. Still, they have their own hidden glory and can eat and make chemicals beyond any human skill. They are so wonderfully weird that they would fit in well to a modern retelling of Job 38-42.

3.)    Complex life starts with light: It took a billion years for the gift of photosynthesis to be fully realized, and another two and a half billion years for it to have its full effect. The net effect of photosynthesis is a trick verging on alchemy: it turns sunlight, water, and exhaust (CO2) into fresh air (oxygen) and sugar. From our human perspective, oxygen and sugar are definitely part of the good life. Our bodies and brains require huge amounts of each in order to think these thoughts and speak these words. Nothing else on the periodic table can do what oxygen does for us each day. Every breath you take and each bite you eat, something good in it comes from the sunlight pouring over our planet. This torrent of free light energy has persisted day in and day out for an unimaginable length of years. All of this is grace.

So, yes, Richard, the energy of life starts with the energy of light. Now we can even build small devices that, at the far extent of our effort and knowledge, might mimic the light-catching and energy-giving life of the everyday leaf. When we do this we’re still depending on the live-giving gift of light.

 When Paul says to live in the light, and when John says that light was the life of men, those connections are the same as before. Jesus is the light of the world. He made the sunlight and plants to give sugar and life to our bodies. He gave words of life that give sweetness and growth to our souls. There is not a firm line of distinction between the two modes of grace, and each reinforces the other.

Therefore, when the pastor asks you to confirm in front of everyone that all life starts with light, you can nod your head with confidence. Each muscle movement, however awkward, is fueled by the light.

(*By the way, don’t take this too far. This doesn’t mean that if you read the Bible carefully enough that you would come up with the Big Bang model for the creation of the universe. Rather, this means that we can work out each account on its own terms and then juxtapose them. When I set the Big Bang next to the Biblical account, the accounts make sense together and clash in interesting ways. It’s like playing two chords together on a piano to make an unresolved harmony pushing forward through time.)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

I always appreciate sci-fi with a strong chemistry component, and this has chemistry in spades. As a sequel it's primarily more of the same rather than new ground. Weir's biggest mistake is to try to write a protagonist that he doesn't really understand, and to make that protagonist make choices early on that most reasonable people wouldn't make. There's a gift one character makes to another early on that I thought, "surely that will be used later on in the book," but it's actually just a weird gift. Not sure if I wanted it to be the clichéd item that would save someone's life or not, but there's some sort of missed opportunity there. There's also an undercurrent of reducing humans to just one more complex organism that runs throughout sci-fi, but again, that's par for the course. Mostly, you visit Weir's moon colony as a tourist, and it's a fascinating place, but it runs no deeper than that.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: God in the Dock by CS Lewis

I remember seeing this book on a shelf growing up and thinking that CS Lewis must really be into sailing if he even saw God in a dock on a lake or something. The title makes a lot more sense when you realize that the "dock" is courtroom stand and Lewis is talking about how God has moved from judge to defendant. This unintentional mistranslation is one of the themes of the book, and of Lewis's whole career. What's Narnia but a translation of classical and medieval ideas into a mythical land? Or the space trilogy but a mashup of Dante and Milton with pulp sci-fi? As an audiobook, this gets repetitive at times -- I heard several of Lewis's arguments several times over -- but it's interesting to analyze. Lewis sometimes sounds like an old curmudgeon (there's even a "get off my lawn" episode talking about the punishments for some kids who stole stuff from his shed), but in a sense this is the unvarnished Lewis, and unvarnished is still pretty shiny. Lewis's ability to unthinkingly translate Aristotle into the argument of an ordinary personal letter is one of his great gifts. What I want to emulate is not so much about the specific arguments (those are up and down as need be) as about Lewis's openness to bring the past into the present as an active mode of thought through this act of translation, and to challenge modernity with the timeless parts of the thinking of the past. Just because someone's curmudgeonly doesn't mean they're wrong, after all.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: Mariner: A Theological Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ever since reading Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern, in which Coleridge provides a solution to the problem of modernity, I have been wondering about this Romantic poet, even to the point of checking out a few biographies from the library. But none of them "took" and I left off, until I found out that Malcolm Guite had just written the book I was asking for. This is a biography and an analysis of Coleridge's most famous poem melded and focused through a theological lens. Guite's most provocative thesis is that Coleridge's life fit the contours of his poem, and that the problems Coleridge faced were the same problems of addiction, environmental degradation, and randomness that we face today. This book is everything it should be, and it shows that Coleridge influenced all sorts of later thinkers, even providing a chapter in CS Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We need more thinkers like Coleridge, the world needs more books like this, and I needed this book at this time. If this book accosts you like the Ancient Mariner does the listener in the poem, take heed ...

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Review: Perelandra

I read Perelandra too early 25 years ago. This month, by happy confluence, I listened to it after I had listened to Milton (and as a 43-year-old rather than a college student). That opened it up so that it no longer seemed long at all. In fact, if anything, it felt too short, and not talky enough. The protracted chase and fight at the end seems needless. It also feels much more problematic to me -- Lewis's extended justification of it feels belabored. (Not that I have a better idea.) The best is at the end, in a part I don't even remember reading before, with a song and dance and a great blessing of creation. Like the party at the end of Prince Caspian, which also comes after questionably protracted conflict, this concluding sequence is the true point of the book, and I entirely missed it previously. This has probably changed from my least favorite of Lewis's fiction to ... not my most favorite, but most appreciated in a new way. It's also the most genuinely imaginative of Lewis's work, and as a book about creation, the fact that it is so creative itself is entirely fitting.

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

This novel is better than most at combining sci-fi apocalypse with a realistic faith community. I'm still not sure it's good enough. The three-act structure of the book as it skips across centuries gives it a lot to say, and leaves a lot unsaid. The focus on an Abbey that preserves knowledge after nuclear catastrophe is a good one, but only in the third act did I start to feel that the faith of the monks was a genuine point of interest on the part of the author. There's not many false elements, either, so I can't complain. I found the details of the preservation and re-emergence of science to be the most interesting part of the book, but the narrative only hints at it, and I disagree with both the pace and the order in which knowledge is regained. One mysterious character is very strangely depicted and feels like a missed opportunity. For all its shortcomings, if standard sci-fi even had half of the respect for other modes of knowing that this book does, the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

This is an excellent history of the words "science" and "religion." The way we use them today is not more than a couple hundred years old, yet we constantly talk as if science and religion were always around in the way that we think of them. They. Were. Not. Peter Harrison shows how the ancients thought differently from us, and how and why it changed to the concepts we have today, as the verbal maplines were redrawn. This kind of study across cultures and nations is immensely valuable, and Harrison brings out the value and application to our current seeming standoffs over these terms. What struck me most on this reading is how "scientists" were deliberately created by secondary scientists like Huxley and Spencer, not through intellectual need so much as through political maneuvering and propagandizing. I don't use that last word lightly, but there's no other word for what Huxley and company did to Darwin's legacy, and how the Galileo story was distorted into the dark parable that scientists repeat today. (Don't get me started on Bruno.) Harrison writes in an easily accessible mode, because it seems that much of what he describes is at least known as open for debate among historians, but people outside of history, especially scientists, keep repeating the same old stories using the same old words. We need to both recover the old meanings and forge new ones. As a chemist who wants to do natural history, this book is especially encouraging, because it helps explain why natural history is no longer in vogue -- and how, perhaps, it can be again.

Book Review: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

I picked up this book because I read a review in The Atlantic that described it as "weird" in its intimate combination of faith and longing, the same way an early review called my own science book "weird." If by "weird" you mean it takes faith seriously, and takes its flawed and yearning characters seriously, well, I wish that wasn't so weird but here we are. The book is a paradox. Its dissection of middle age is both harrowing and beautiful. It's not easy to read but I finished it in two days. The drawback for me is that the faith of the narrator is depicted in isolation, and she doesn't seem to miss the community of church. That makes her faith ring false in a few ways, in a book that otherwise rings true. This book delves to the very bottom of the individual psyche, and I found it compelling in both the lyrical and ugly parts. But then again, I'm weird like that.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: World Without Mind by Franklin Foer

As "what's wrong with the world" screeds go, this is above average. Foer grounds his complaints against Google/Facebook/Apple/etc. in both his personal and our national history. His personal history was as editor of The New Republic who clashed with the new tech-billionaire owner over how to preserve journalistic integrity in the 21st century, and who was ultimately fired. Mostly this leads to substantial insights rather than sour grapes. The national history was the real surprise for me. I didn't know that Lincoln was a tech addict (to the telegraph); that Western Union was a precursor to today's tech monopolies; or that Rutherford B. Hayes was likely put into office by Western Union's machinations. I would have preferred to hear more about the technocrat angle, which is detailed early on but seems dropped later. The line from Leibniz to Locke to Comte to Herbert Hoover is fascinating -- all were technocratically minded and (in my view) all failed in particular ways. Foer criticizes the mindset but I'm not convinced that he gets to the root of the mindset. Foer's solution includes increasing journalistic professionalism (this is a problem in the sciences as well, I'm sure) and creating a version of the EPA to safeguard privacy (how exactly would this work?). A lot of good connections and caveats here, and it points to a way forward, but I think it needs to go a little farther and deeper to be truly effective.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

This book illustrates the perils of trying to mount an emotional defense of rationality. Despite the size of the book, its pace is fast, because Andersen attempts to give all examples of what he calls the "fantasy-industrial complex," which in his telling ranges from the Puritans to Disney and Oprah. Half the chapters are four-star chapters, while half are two-star chapters, but it averages out to two stars because in his conclusion (which is far too short relative to the rest of the text), Andersen blithely tosses out the typical, stale view of non-American history as it was taught a few decades ago rather than the version being debated now, and that takes what could be a stirring call to reject illusion and turns it into just another screed. This is particularly frustrating because Andersen's central concept of the fantasy-industrial complex is really onto something, and it deserves a better book than this. I can say this with confidence because a much better (and shorter) book than this actually exists: The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America by David Bosworth. A comparison of Andersen and Bosworth is instructive: Andersen aspires to be H.L. Mencken, while Bosworth aims for Emerson. Andersen has particular blind spots when it comes to race, sex, and economics, while Bosworth is more balanced in his targets. For example, Andersen gives Big Pharma a pass while Bosworth focuses a chapter on that industry in a much shorter book. It would be a fruitful project to compare the two authors, because their politics, aims, and scope are very similar, but Andersen manages to alienate this reader while Bosworth welcomes. It doesn't help that Andersen accepts the standard historical stories uncritically, while authors like Marilynne Robinson (for the puritans) and Peter Harrison (for the Greeks and the Enlightenment) show that reality is much more interesting.  Maybe I should do to this book what Jefferson did to his Bible and paste together all the four-star chapters? It would be a decent book against the excesses of religion (both that of the institutional church and the Oprah institutions), and I think centering the book on the damage of the Satanic Panic of the 80s would make all the points Andersen should make. It's a shame that Andersen's own biases turn what should be a surgery into a shotgun blast. My frustration comes from this book being so close to being so right on, but it goes sideways in too many ways.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: On Purpose by Michael Ruse

Is this what philosophy books are like? If so, I want to read more of them. Here Michael Ruse takes on an important question (purpose), gives a historical overview and spends the last few chapters working through specific issues and giving his own take on what makes for purpose. Ruse truly listens to all and sees the light in each of his subjects, and in the end commits to a particular standpoint: in his case, the Kantian view that purpose is a useful heuristic. At one point he likens purpose to the imaginary number i: it's necessary for accounting for life's goal orientation, but it's not "real" in the same sense as integers. Maybe I'm more along the line that purpose is like the number pi: impossible to describe with ratios but possible to know in other ways, and to calculate to impressive precision with dedication. The discussion of the area most near and dear to my own heart, purpose in biology and natural history, ends up ambivalent for me. He pulls out the old standard arguments (the carbon resonance level for stellar fusion, the possibility of silicon-based life) but at the end of the day his rebuttals to these specific examples seem to miss the point, and it seems like we go down a long road to end with a shrug. Nevertheless, Ruse makes a welcome companion even and especially where I disagree. What's most impressive about this book is its accessibility, which welcomes all, and which makes me recommend it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Like all Mark Helprin books, this is a mix of lyrically soaring passages describing emotion and place with loving detail, with occasional clumsy exaggerations or outbursts of ugliness that seem deliberately added in precisely to highlight how well-proportioned and lush the rest of the writing is. Of Helprin's books, Winter's Tale with its magical realism still has the best overall combination (which makes it one of my top 10 books), but Paris in the Present Tense is in most places just as satisfying if more subdued.

What Helprin did for New York City in Winter's Tale, he (almost) does for Paris in this book: he makes it a character in its own right, and in a sense the book is not really about the aging cellist Jules, but about the 21st century City of Lights.

Sometimes I'd literally catch my breath at Helprin's descriptions, especially of music. This is a beautiful story about a musician at the end of his life, who has lived for music, not fame or fortune, and the best kind of unheroic hero.

Despite the fact that I like the bigger story in Winter's Tale more, I actually think this may be a better book if it was even more subdued and interior: a detective subplot comes across as needless overplotting, and there's more than a little time spent decrying anti-Semitism, with an anxiety about its widespread nature that seems more like old people worrying than an accurate depiction of Europe today.

But then again, I'm not there so I don't really know. What I do know is that Helprin is a welcome throwback, and he is such a generous author that the reader is inclined to be just as generous back and to forgive him all dissonances. Let this book wash through you like the symphony -- and the worthy successor to Winter's Tale  -- that it is.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My Answer to "Is Design Detectable?"

The Henry Center's Creation Project just asked a bunch of scientists and philosophers a simple question: "Is Design Detectable by Science?". My answer starts like this:

As a chemist, I turn naturally to the evidence of the past that is amenable to geochemical or biochemical analysis, and integrate that with other lines of evidence. This evidence tells a story with order and even direction.

Geology, Biology, and the Story of Data

The rocks give a timeline showing how the environmental chemistry of the planet has changed radically over billions of years. In the oldest layers, geologists detect rocks that can’t exist in today’s world with its high oxygen levels: rounded, previously exposed pebbles of iron pyrite and uranium. Those rocks went away as time elapsed, and then, we detect rust-orange iron-oxygen compounds worldwide, called “Banded Iron Formations.” These formations tell a story with a direction: the oldest earth was oxygen-free, then oxygen filled the air and reacted with the rocks. Eventually, after the rocks had reacted, oxygen could fill the ocean. The geologist Robert Hazen has threaded these data into a story of “mineral evolution” over time in his book The Story of Earth.Robert Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet (New York: Penguin, 2013).

These pieces of data from the geological environment coincide with other pieces of biological data, which show that oxygen can increase biochemical complexity. In old genes, at the time of the first great oxygen increase, DNA sequencing detects a burst of newly invented oxygen-using genes.Lawrence A. David and Eric J. Alm, “Rapid Evolutionary Innovation During an Archaean Genetic Expansion,” Nature, 469 (2011), 93-96. Biochemical models project that oxygen metabolism allows the most complex biochemicalOnce enough data are collected, the question becomes whether the story being told about the data is true—that is, whether the story is something real that we are uncovering, or merely a collection of arbitrary dots connected by imaginary lines like so many constellations. networks, so that increased oxygen supports increased metabolic complexity.Jason Raymond and Daniel Segrè, “The Effect of Oxygen on Biochemical Networks and the Evolution of Complex Life,” Science, 311 (2006), 1764-67. In the presence of oxygen, life could build more complex things.

The end of this essay can be found here:

Book Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find

Upon completing my Flannery O'Connor reading/listening tour, I can state with confidence that O'Connor's writing got better as she aged. These stories are fantastic but in general pale in comparison with her second published collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. The exception is the title story, which is as good as anything she's written. Also, a few of the stories deal with themes like race and immigration better than the later stories (although I'm always a little ambivalent when she writes about race -- this may be my biggest problem with her writing -- she critiques racism, but she doesn't seem to critique it enough and is too resigned to it). O'Connor writes characters like the grandmother in the title story that are absurd and oblivious to their own absurdity, and you can never escape the fact that you yourself are caught up in the same mess. The shortcoming of this collection may be that most of her targets are easier and more distant from the reader, and easier for this reader at least to rationalize as "them" rather than "me." Regardless, even if this was all we had, it would still be clear that O'Connor is a great writer. The good news is she gets even better.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth by Philip Ryken

I was mildly disappointed by this book. I was expecting a book by a Tolkien scholar when this is a series of three lectures and responses by a university president. It is certainly the best book by a university president I've read this year! But the best parts must be the extended quotes of Tolkien in each chapter. Ryken has done an admirable job of collating these quotes and especially of using the appendices to bring out details of Tolkien's thought that are not obvious from the main narrative of Lord of the Rings. However, there's just not enough value added to the mix for me, although as an avid Tolkien fan I admit I'm hard to please.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor

This collection of stories would be worth it for "The Lame Shall Enter First" alone. I have never encountered a short story that does what that one does. Part of its effect is its placement in the middle of this collection, because you have to expect O'Connor to do what she does, and then you're devastated by it anyway. It's a bit like yelling at the screen in a horror movie -- you know they're going to walk down that dark hallway anyway, and your knowledge that something bad is going to happen makes the event all the more wrenching when it does happen. The opening story that shares its title with the collection is also terrible and excellent, and "Revelation" provides one of O'Connor's most indelible images. Only the final story or two are not worth five stars in my book. Also, as with the novels, it may gain power as an audiobook. My one complaint about Wise Blood is that it was not challenging or transformative to the reader -- this collection is both of those things and more.

Book Review: Bells in Winter by Czeslaw Milosz

This collection of poems is shorter than Road-Side Dog, and the poems are longer, but I gravitated more toward the barrage of epigrams and pith of the previous collection. This one seems more "normal," like what one would expect of poetry, but it also may have demanded more close reading from me. By saying "more normal," I'm setting the norm to Nobel-Prize-winning poetry, so take that as you will. Just not as many post-its in this one than in the previous one. Two poems stand out: "Ars Poetica?," one of the best descriptions of inspiration I've encountered, and "From the Chronicles of the Town of Pornic," for its strong sense of place and groundedness in history.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Book Review: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I can't help but compare this to O'Connor's other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, and I can't help but like that other novel more than this one. But this one is still very good. It takes me a while to put my finger on why I didn't fall head over heels for this one. There's too much humor in it, with so much ridiculousness that it's hard to find normalcy in the proceedings. No "straight man." But once Hazel Motes actually gets down to preaching his Church Without Christ, and starts attracting competition, then some of the best passages in the book pop out with sudden clarity. This book is closer to most readers' experience than the backwoods preacher of The Violent Bear It Away, and it may be more accessible as a result, but I feel like it's less focused and easier to evade its gaze by saying "It's not ME she's writing about, it's that other guy over there." So it's less of a personal challenge, but it's still a fine indictment of modern default deism and a literary exemplar of gothic, faith-infused writing. Not to mention, at least in the audiobook (which brings these things out), it's laugh-out-loud funny. Props to Bronson Pinchot's audiobook rendition for an incredible dynamic range of voices and emotions.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book Review: Beren and Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the sixth recent book in which Christopher Tolkien has edited his father's previously obscure work into a tidy, marketable package, sort of an in-progress zoomed-in Silmarillion. The first book (IIRC) was The Children of Hurin, and then there were four reworked/retranslated myths (the Death of Arthur, Beowulf, Kullervo, and Sigurd and Gudrun). Now, Christopher has produced Beren and Luthien, which is Tolkien's favorite story, as evidenced by the fact that Tolkien's own gravestone identifies him with Beren and his wife with Luthien. It's fascinating to watch the story evolve through four different versions over the years. There's a few moments that are more heartfelt than anything else Tolkien has written. Also, it's clear that Tolkien's magic was first and foremost musical -- there is a wizard duel which is described as singing songs! (Dueling Banjos will never be the same after that.) I have to admit that when I reached the end and found there was an appendix with yet another version of Beren's story, I sighed a little, but it was probably the best written of all the poems, having been written after Lord of the Rings was finished and full of vivid words and images. So this kept surprising me and drawing me under its spell, and it's my favorite of all these books. Looks like Christopher Tolkien saved the best for last.

Book Review: The Great Shift by James L. Kugel

Reading this book feels like listening in on one side of a conversation in which you support the speaker and want to interject but really shouldn't. I've admired James Kugel's translations of Hebrew poetry before, and so I was eager to read this book as a more interpretive, big-picture work. Kugel asks why the Biblical stories in which God speaks and works miracles seem so distant from our modern experience, He explains that it might be US who changed, from pre-modern to modern selves. I deliberately omit post-modern because Kugel seems to be speaking to the "default" modern reader. This is reasonable because most academic non-fiction is addressed to precisely that reader: the good student who wonders about these things but doesn't study them in depth. Because he's explaining ancient religious people to modern irreligious ones, there's not much time to address other parties (like, say, me!), but I'm fine with filling in the blanks and extending the conclusions myself. Then, at the very end, Kugel brings in a Flannery O'Connor quote that shows that 20th-century believers do actually exist, shaped by the same texts into something like the ancient believers. And the book stops. It's done all it should do at that point, but there's so many more questions: What does the Great Shift really mean? What can continue to Shift ... or can Shift back (e.g., Owen Barfield's recovery of original participation)? At the end of the day, and despite Kugel's protestations to the contrary, I think we can participate in ancient belief as we move into the future, because the object of belief is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Great Shift opens a door to that possibility by showing how it used to be, which (to me at least) implies that it might be again.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

This memoir by a writer about her marriage and family is a short slice of reality, compact and yet inclusive of two decades of sharing life with someone else. Shapiro is married to another writer, and the theme of the memoir is the interplay of similarity and difference. The audiobook is compelling because you are hearing her speak to you herself, and the last vignette (which is a scientific experiment of sorts, now that I think of it) is particularly vivid. I feel like I'm missing out a bit by not having read Shapiro's earlier memoir, but I'm not sure if that's the case. This would be a good book club book, because it doesn't interpret itself that much, but it would be fruitful to discuss it with friends -- it's incomplete like real life and gives you as much to think about as living does. Seems like that's what a memoir should do, and this book definitely does it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor

This is no book that you sit back and peruse. This book reaches out and grabs you. Its protagonist is a young runaway caught in a fractured family who has been raised to be a backwoods prophet but won't have any of it. The most shocking part is that, by the end of the book, after a lot of horrible and/or funny things happen, you end up seeing the world through his eyes. A motif in the book is that the prophet will "burn your eyes" and that is exactly what happens to the reader (even if you are technically listening to it as an audiobook). There's a few weird bumps along the way -- the prophet's attitude toward baptism seems awfully Catholic for a backwoods preacher, and the ultimate baptism cuts the reader to the heart with its callous nature -- but even those are probably intentional. I took away two core messages from this reading: that which destroys also creates, and we delude ourselves with our tests and programs while our own reactions and sins betray a deeper meaning. O'Connor points to a true third way, neither right nor left but radical all the same.

Book Review: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Revisiting an old favorite in mid-career rather than early career, and as an audiobook rather than on paper, was a good way to spend my reading/listening time. Walker Percy feels more current than ever, probably because his hero Kierkegaard remains current as well. On the audiobook, Percy's ear for Southern interaction, and his humor, come through in ways that I never got before. His protagonist, Binx Bolling, remains an enigma and reminds us that some who wander are lost, and you can't help but put yourself in his place. Percy's quiet but intense critique of modernity is engaging, disturbing, and ultimately comforting -- this is certainly his best book, and after all these years of being a fan, I feel like I'm getting him for the first time.

Book Review: Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

[Spoiler-free] Much like Episode VII of Star Wars, Book 7 of the Expanse reboots the series for a third trilogy. As realistic sci-fi, this is as good as it gets, fast reading, interesting politics, and characters you care about. I still feel like the authors are a little too nice to their characters relative to the rest of the universe, and some of the characters (protagonists and antagonists) that take over the narrative aren't compelling in the way of the older characters they eclipse. But, the main point is that stuff happens, and it's exciting, and you don't really know what will happen next. Some threads finally start to tie together and pay off, which is nice, and the last line in the book is one of the best ever. It's matinee serial sci-fi for the internet age, and I for one dive right in.

Book Review: He Came Down from Heaven and the Forgiveness of Sins by Charles Williams

These two works are good Charles Williams non-fiction, which is to say, erudite but readable, provocative but fundamentally orthodox, and peppered with Dante, Shakespeare, and Biblical references that are poetic in their own right. Even the fragments that Williams drops in to the conversation, possibly without thinking, are slightly unusual. These were most helpful in thinking about Original Sin. There's a striking discussion of how the Germans should be forgiven, written by a Brit in 1942. And occasional digressions of less value, such as an attempt to interpret the Temptation of Christ with Christ as forgiveness, which I don't think quite works. Still, if you want to make progress thinking your own way through the Big Questions, the non-fiction of Charles Williams is more valuable than the writings of any of the other Inklings. You have to be an active reader, but he is an original and profound thinker who points the way to ideas that we're still catching up to, and yet at the same time points to orthodoxy at the same time.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book Review: Road-Side Dog by Czeslaw Milosz

Turns out I'm a poetry reader, I just didn't find the right poet. These poems by Milosz are more epigrams or anecdotes than poems at times, but there's always an edge forcing you to sit up and pay attention. Milosz manages to walk the fine line between cynicism and openness, and explores the paradoxes of belief without ever seeming didactic or trite. Although this is work from late in his career, it has a lightness (and a darkness) that seems to float -- it seems new. Read this slowly and chew on it, and it will last you all day.

Book Review: Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

Tad Williams is my irrational favorite of all fantasy authors. Since I have a seven-year-old who is obsessed with cats, I decided to revisit his first novel, sort of a cat-based mixture of Watership Down with the Hero's Journey. It's definitely a first novel -- pacing and plotting of the characters into the action pose a few problems, although I know personally how hard pacing is to manage in a book-length project -- but it did the trick. The seven-year-old is satisfied and liked it more than other fantasy novels we've read. Myself, I enjoyed the coda in particular, which achieves a refreshing twist on the proceedings along the lines of the Lord of the Rings's coda.