I was reading long novels, and did not complete any this month.
- Harper's January 2018
I was reading long novels, and did not complete any this month.
In which expectations are challenged.
Gene Wolfe's There Are Doors tells the surreal story of a man's inter-dimensional quest to regain his true love. Here's what I love about Gene Wolfe: the obvious twist in this type of story is that the protagonist is crazy. Well Wolfe addresses that in the first chapter by telling us that the protagonist is indeed a mental patient. But that's not the whole story.
Wolfe's style of narration is perfectly suited to this sort of story. He always has this dreamy style of writing which requires the reader to pay close attention, and leaves you questioning what exactly was described. I love it, and I recommend it.
I absolutely loved Leni Zumas' The Listeners. When I saw that she finally had another novel published, I sought it out immediately. However I must admit I was a bit put off when I learned that abortion was a major theme of Red Clocks. Luckily I decided to stick with it really enjoyed it.
Zumas is really skilled at story telling, and her characters are very compelling. Plus, this book is set in a fictional Oregon coast town, which is not too surprising given that Zumas works at Portland State University. So what's not to like? Well, the theme of the novel is fairly difficult at times. And there was no Juno-esque cheerful ending per se. But it was a significant read and I recommend it.
There is a an elephant in the room, and that elephant is Sanderson's massive new novel Oathbringer. I have this giant feat of printing and binding, and have indeed already begun reading it. But in order to get myself ready to re-enter the world of the Stormlight Archive, I decided to read the novella Edgedancer.
What's great about smaller Sanderson works is that they can wander a bit from the style and tone of his showcase series. So the main character of Edgedancer, a slippery young girl named Lift can embody a humor and irreverence which is refreshing in the context of the overall work.
It's a short book. It's entertaining. I recommend it.
This is another one of my library serendipities. I saw The Fly Trap displayed in the lobby of my local library and was immediately struck by the oddity of it: the funny title, the Swedish author, the simplistic jacket design. I had to get it.
So Fredrik Sjöberg wrote a thin volume about flies, and the history of a certain entomologist (René Malaise). But it is so much more than that. Can you believe that this funny little book is full of poignant moments and thoughtful observations on life in general? And it is actually a pretty fascinating primer on hover flies and entomology.
I certainly recommend it.
Another month, another Wheel of Time novel. A Crown of Swords is fine. I'll likely do a full-series retrospective and or review. What can I say? It's a fun series, if that is what you are into.
In 2017 I read:
I had the opportunity to participate in a discernment process for someone considering ministry in the Episcopal Church USA. As a part of this process, we read Listening Hearts, which I gather is a somewhat popular choice of books for this purpose. My comments below don't reflect on this book, which seemed fine to me. But it did prompt a lot of thinking on my part.
I can see some value in the discernment process, whereby a committee of people in a local congregation help an aspirant decide if that person should pursue ordained ministry. But I am simultaneously troubled by the level of control it places over people who are seeking to serve God in their churches. There is definitely an opportunity for bias and personal feelings to interfere, and it could serve to preserve the power of those already serving by filtering people with alternative viewpoints from entering the clergy.
I don't want to over-emphasize ordained ministry. I think working outside of those offices can be very effective, as with the prophetic office. After all, who could imagine Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist being vetted by their local congregations? Would Jesus have come away with the recommendation of a discernment committee? So there is a safety valve outside of formal processes. But the discernment committee structure definitely risks squelching the voices of willing servants who might upset the apple cart or not seem to be the right sort of people for ordained ministry.
All this being said, I can't stand in total condemnation of the process of discernment as practiced in my denomination. But after participating in it, I'm not sure I would agree to do so again.
I had never heard of Mark Greif, but I was struck by the title Against Everything. I had not been reading as much non-fiction recently, so the idea of a book of essays really hit the spot. I found the essays contained in this volume very entertaining reads. I enjoyed them to the point that I considered picking up some n+1 to find out what else Greif has produced.
Greif's topics are varied, and his comment is insightful. I was never bored in reading these, nor did I find his writing predictable.
Criticism and essay are truly important forms. They are a crucial part of the balance in literary life. I recommend this volume.
Holy smokes. I really enjoyed Sword and Citadel. Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun definitely figures into my favorite "genre" series of all time. And part of that is of course that Wolfe demands a lot from his readers, and his writing is literary.
Severian is simply one of my favorite characters in fiction, and he is a perfect guide to the strange world of Urth. Absolutely recommended.
I have decided to keep expanding into Wolfe's writings, which I'll detail in a coming month.
Have you ever read a novel because of a song lyric? David's Bazan's lyric in the Headphones cut: "Wise Blood":
If you think you've been redeemed Then I wouldn't want to be
The above always resonated with me. So when I saw Wise Blood the novel on staff display at the local library, I snagged it.
I was not disappointed when O'Connor's iconic line-turned-lyric is spoken in the opening pages by Hazel Motes, the iconoclastic atheist protagonist. Motes is always taken by strangers to be a man of faith, before he embraces the role as a sort of anti-minister. If this sounds remotely interesting to you, then it is recommended.
When summer reading isn't so much.
Greetings from the world of not very long (relatively speaking) Sanderson novels. I say this of course as someone who has Oathbringer in all its heft on the shelf. But The Bands of Mourning is in the more restrained Wax and Wayne series in the Mistborn cycle. Sanderson here is really pushing the magic-meets-technology motif in this story, and I think it mostly works. The steampunk framework assists with that, but it remains to be seen if this can hold together. But yeah, if you like the series, it's recommended.
I am working my way through Rodney J. Decker's Reading Koine Greek. I was struck by a line in the section introducing verbal aspect. Decker provides examples of perfective, imperfective, and stative aspect in the Greek New Testament (translated into English), and then follows them with:
Note that you cannot distinguish these aspects in English. That is why you are learning Greek.
Put aside for a moment the fact that is indeed possible to indicate Greek verbal aspect in English translations (which is evident even in the given examples). I was struck by just how gnostic this sounds.
I recall when I was first learning the language I had some similar motivations: I wanted to learn what the Greek text says to maximum precision. I was always thrilled when I came upon little insights into the text based on grammatical details. And many of these little revelations present themselves early in the study of Greek. So a Greek student can indeed come to believe they have a bit of special gnosis when it comes to the text. After all, one cannot distinguish verbal aspect in translation.
However, as I gained some age and experience I began to realize that such insights based on minutiae are not significant in the grand scheme of things. I believe that skillful translation to English (or any other language) conveys everything that the authors intended to communicate. So an emphasis on analysis based on a technically detailed understanding of Greek grammar is misplaced. It is fun for us language nerds, but it hardly justifies the entire pursuit of this language.
This raises the question, "what is Greek study for?" I may explore this in a future post. At this moment I would say the most important reason for study is to produce and maintain Bible translations (though not necessarily dozens of them, as in English) for the edification of the church. Following on to that is the never-ending work of textual criticism, which also requires a detailed understanding of the language. Everything else (reference works, commentaries, scholarship and criticism) hang from these in my current estimation. Studying Greek is also fun for its own sake.
Now don't read this as a knock on Decker's work. I am quite enjoying working my way through this textbook, and will post a full review upon completion.
After getting a taste of Wolfe in The Land Across, I finally decided to get to his magnum opus in Shadow and Claw, which are the first two volumes of The Book of the New Sun. I was by no means disappointed. Wolfe is an excellent writer. He is up there with LeGuin in bridging the literary/genre divide. The prose is carefully crafted, and that makes for a great reading experience - though you must read carefully!
How to summarize this novel? Severian is an apprentice torturer who puts his guild to shame and is sent away on a long journey into the North. His world is Urth, which is really our Earth, but many millennia in the future, after mankind has attained and then lost interstellar travel. The setting is excellent, the characters are compelling, and the story is riveting. I reached the end of this book being quite excited that I already had the concluding volumes Sword and Citadel.
I recommend this to you, if you love yourself. A note of caution: some have accused Severian of not being a wholly trustworthy narrator. And there is a transition between the two volumes in this book which is a bit jarring, but do not despair at any confusion which arises.
You know what I like? A book which has 40% of its page count taken by end notes. If you like that sort of thing too, then Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson may be just the book for you. I picked this up from my church library and really enjoyed it, though it was a bit of slow read due to Johnson's dense scholarly language (again: love it).
The basic topic of this work is the Greco-Roman religious context of early Christianity. I have read quite a bit on the Jewish context of the church's beginnings, but honestly knew very little about what "paganism" was really all about. Johnson helpfully distills ancient Greek and Roman religious practice in to four broad categories. He then points out where both Judaism and Christianity may have rubbed shoulders with the religion of the empire during their development.
Spoiler alert: the conclusion is not "Christianity is a thin veil over paganism", as cover-story pop scholars will be disappointed to hear. I heartily recommend it, but I suggest you have some experience in reading academic texts in Christian history.
When I heard the next Colson Whitehead title had been published, I was ecstatic. However I must confess that when I heard that Underground Railroad had been selected for Oprah's Book Club, I got worried. Could it be that one of my favorite authors had become a commercial sell-out? How could an author as special as Whitehead gain traction with the wider audience such an endorsement bring?
I was wrong to despair. Underground Railroad is a good book, and more importantly, it is a good Colson Whitehead novel. It even won the National Book Award. Yes it got the Oprah nod, and I hope that the increased sales and publicity keep Whitehead clothed and fed long enough to pen many more books.
Another spoiler alert: the twist in this novel is that there is a literal underground railroad. As in, there's a ladder hidden under a trap door in someone's barn, and beneath there is a train platform, where a locomotive pulls in and carries runaway slaves to points further North. But that's not really what the book is about. You'll read about the horrors of slavery and the triumph of humanity in spite of that horrid institution. Recommended so that you too can run away with Cora to freedom.
This was my third read-through of Tolstoy's great work of Christian anarchism. It is stimulating to use this book as a way-point to see how my views have developed over the past decade or so. It is also a useful correction for the natural march to conservatism which middle class life brings. Tolstoy's vision may not be achievable or entirely consistent, but it is a challenge which I must consider.
Take The Kingdom of God is Within You, put it in a blender with Ellul's The Technological Society, Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, and you'll get a taste of the intellectual storm which has been spinning in my mind and heart these many years.
Yes, recommended, though once again, not for neophyte Christians.
Vikram Chandra is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Sacred Games. He's on the informal list of authors whom I periodically check up on in the book store to see if they have anything new. Well recently I did find a new work, Geek Sublime, which was serendipitously filed in the literature section rather than in the proper non-fiction section (where I would have never seen it).
What's this book about? Well, that's not exactly straight forward. It's a reflection on beauty in computer programming. If this isn't your field, you may have never heard of "clean code" and "elegant solutions", but for people who make a living instructions machines and have an aesthetic taste, these are valued.
This concept is presented beside a primer on Sanskrit poetry. Wait, what? Why? Well, Sanskrit has a reputation of being a more formal than natural language (due in part I believe to being held in a static form by tradition, and the nature of its grammar - though I cannot comment directly on either of these). The surprise is that this formal language has produced some beautiful poetry - hence the comparison with "the beauty of code."
Do you like computer programming? Are you curious about Sanskrit poetry? Recommended for you.
A Failure of Nerve was assigned reading for my church vestry. It's looks like the type of pop-psychology nonfiction book I would typically steer clear of. Basically Friedman addresses the topic of leadership and its various dysfunctions. His primary emphasis, and one that I have taken to heart, is that we should never discount emotional aspects of social systems.
In reading I found there was a lot which felt true, but which I did not particularly like. Friedman treats the leadership mandate as a given in the text, and so labeling all resistance "sabotage" does not feel right to me. I also came away with the impression that "if this is what good leadership is, sign me up for anarchy." Well, I take it a bit too far here, so forgive me. I would not particularly recommend this work.
I first encountered "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" in video game form. I am not sure if Harlan Ellison's seminal short story of the subjugation of humanity to technological society was made into digital form ironically or not. The game is an oldie, having been published in 1995. But it looked really compelling, and seemed to have a cult following. But I put off buying the game, even for cheap.
In reading Neil Gaiman's non-fiction anthology I learned a bit more about Ellison, and decided to finally read the story which was the source for such an intriguing game. Alone Against Tomorrow is the anthology in which it is published. Hoo boy, what an read.
I don't mean to sound dramatic, but the stories in this collection really gave me a sense of dread about the balance between humanity and its technology. They were so good, and memorable. I recommend it if that is what you are into.
Have you ever experienced a library serendipity? I just so happened to have been reading a review of a new novel by Javier Marías entitled Thus Bad Begins in Harper's when I found the same on a the new fiction shelf at my local library. Of course I had to check it out!
And I don't regret it. First off: the novel is in translation from Spanish, but I did not feel any bad effects from this. And I got to learn a lot of perspective about Spanish history, a topic which is often overlooked for American students learning the broad brushstrokes of Europe. But enough about that.
What charmed me about Thus Bad Begins is how squarely it sits in the center of what a literary novel should be. It looks at relationships and events and gives us a glimpse not only of the characters, but of ourselves - as is an end of all good fiction. In this case the story centers on the chilly relationship between a film director and his wife, and the observation of that relationship by the director's young assistant, who narrates. There is a good progression of the story, with the necessary intrigue and surprises to make it worth reading.
It is a novel which is not pretentious about it, and for that I'll give a positive recommendation.