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.

Book Review: Muse of Nightmares

Muse of Nightmares continues the story of Strange the Dreamer but it seems to miss a beat in doing so. I still think this is one of the best fantasy worlds, with its Gaiman-esque evocatively wonderful details and fascinating combination of alchemy and psychology. The conflicts all make sense, and there are no paper villains here. There are discoveries on hand, a solid unifying motivation and mechanism for the magical events, and a satisfying conclusion. But I was disappointed with the plotting. The first book was paced incredibly well, and held back on detail perfectly to maintain suspense and surprise. The second book spends the first half cleaning up the plot lines from the eventful end of the first book, with some implausible resolutions, and only seemed to pick up when a new "villain" appeared. There's none of the suspense and longing (even though the ending of the first book seemed to allow for it) and too much consummation before it's earned. It's too bad, because if it had been able to keep up I would have maintained my previous line that I like this world more than Harry Potter's. Now they're about equal in my estimation -- but that's still very, very good.

Book Review: Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

I read Godric and Brendan by Buechner long ago, but I think Son of Laughter is his most revelatory historical fiction. Told from the perspective of Jacob, son of Isaac (Laughter), son of Abraham, it surprises you as it tells the same story you've heard all your life (if you're like me). I especially like Buechner's character and cultural descriptions. The chapter "The Red Heifer" is the best explanation of why people sacrificed animals (goes along with Girard, by the way) and the chapter on Jacob wrestling with his Rival is a kaleidoscope shifting through all the interpretations of this enigmatic struggle, somehow cohering with the text in a way I can only describe as awesome. My quibbles are that the characters other than Jacob are a little too much the same: Abraham and Isaac, all the women, and Jacob's brothers seem too much alike. But this book is really more about the whole story and so it's fine if some characters dissolve into archetypes. The overall impact is that all the characters feel like real people and the story of Israel gains another dimension. It feels like Israel could have happened this way, and it's a down-to-earth miracle as much as the Christmas birth in a cramped stable thousands of years later.