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.