The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Readings for June 2018

New month, new books.

Void Star by Zachary Mason

Void Star seemed risky to me. After all, it invokes "artificial intelligence" in the back-cover blurb, and being a "near-future techno thriller" based in San Francisco sounds like the set up to being possibly terrible. However that was not the case, with Zachary Mason delivering a very good read.

The style and voice of this novel is fantastic. From the level of sentances on up, I felt it was finely crafted. The impression it gives is perfect for the story. And it does get the near-future noir mystery just right - not that there is a single "right" way of doing it, but it avoids the many hackneyed wrong ways of doing it.

I truly enjoyed this novel, heartily recommend it, and will look to read another of Mason's in the future.

Readings for May 2018

April showers bring May showers.

The Man Upon the Stair by Gary Inbinder

The Man Upon the Stair bills itself as "a mystery in Fin de siècle Paris." I'm not too proud to admit that I had to look it up to discover that meant "turn of the century." In my general quest to expand my reading horizons, I decided a mystery was on order. This particular title with its setting seemed a bit more interesting than your generic mystery fare.

Sadly I cannot say that this novel left a great impression upon me. The mystery tropes are all there and I enjoyed being led through the twists and turns of the plot. Also the setting was pretty fun. However the issue for me was that the there was not a sense of urgency motivating the characters. There did not seem to be a great significance to the crime nor the mystery surrounding it. I often wondered, "what is everyone so bothered about?" as the characters scrabled all around Paris and indeed France in search of clues at all hours.

Not recommended.

Readings for April 2018

In April I went on a solo trip for work, which resulted in copious reading time in airports, on airplanes, in hotels, and in university common spaces.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

S.A. Chakraborty found some fertile ground for new fantasy storytelling: the world of djinn, ifrit, and other Arabian mythologies. Chakraborty combines these with some new twists for a fairly fresh fantasy entry, The City of Brass. You heard that correctly: there are no dwarves, elves, nor halflings in this story.

While I greatly appreciated the novel world of The City of Brass, I cannot say that I was overly captivated by the story. It was an enjoyable read - I kept a fairly brisk pace, never stalling out. However I cannot say that I feel particularly motivated to pick up the upcoming sequel. That being said, if this sort of setting sounds captivating to you, definitely give it a shot.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Being a fairly short novel undertaken on a fairly long travel day, I had the rare pleasure of completing Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane in a single day. Gaiman's whimsical storytelling is (or should be!) well known, so it comes as no surprise that I put the book down only when required to do so by the TSA.

The novel has a nice, simple hook: a man travels to his childhood home and is met with a flood of memories. This is likely something that many have experienced. Now imagine that the memories flooding back are both unbelievable and disturbing - to the point where one must ask, "how could this ever have been forgotten?" That's the situation the protagonist finds himself in, and the weaving of the story around the premise is excellent. Recommended.

Fasting by Scot McKnight

Fasting is a part of a series of books on ancient practices in the Christian church. I was amazed by just how much I did not know about the history of fasting in the church. McKnight's exposition is skilled, and with it resonated the inspiration to explore fasting in action. Recommended.

The Root of War is Fear by Jim Forest

You may recognize Jim Forest as a Catholic Worker volunteer and Dorothy Day biographer. In this book his role as a correspondant of Thomas Merton's comes to the foreground. The subtitle "Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers" seems apt, as this is not an biography of Merton, nor is it a systematic study of his writings per se. What we have is a reflection on Merton's writings (and private correspondance) on peace. Forest was of course active in various peace movements, so this is seen as rather directly applicable to real actions in Forest's life.

I learned a fair amount about Merton's life above what I had gleaned from A Seven Storey Mountain, and was enriched by seeing the private side of their correspondence. Anyone who knows much about my reading interests must correct assume that this book is heartily recommended.


  • Harper's December 2017
  • Tin House #63
  • Harper's February 2018

Readings for March 2018

I was reading long novels, and did not complete any this month.


  • Harper's January 2018
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for February 2018

In which expectations are challenged.

There Are Doors by Gene Wolfe

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.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

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.

Readings for January 2018

Edgedancer by Brandon Sanderson

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.

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

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.


  • Harper's November 2017

Readings for December 2017

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

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.


  • Harper's September 2017
  • Harper's October 2017

Year-end stats

In 2017 I read:

  • 10 periodicals
  • 16 books
  • 8 comics
  • 6,847 pages
  • or about 19 pages per day

Readings for November 2017

Listening Hearts by Farnham, McLean, Gill, Ward

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.


  • Harper's August 2017
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for October 2017

Against Everything by Mark Greif

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.


  • Harper's July 2017

Readings for September 2017

Sword and Citadel by Gene Wolfe

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.

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

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.


  • Harper's June 2017

Readings for August 2017

When summer reading isn't so much.

The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

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.

Greek γνῶσις

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.

Category: language Tags: Greek

Readings for July 2017

Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe

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.


  • Harper's May 2017

Readings for June 2017

Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson

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.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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.

Readings for May 2017

The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy

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.


  • Harper's April 2017