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Readings for November 2015

We happened to welcome a new baby to our family near the end of the month, so I feel lucky to have completed what I did.

Xenocide by Orson Scott Card

XenocideAs I began Orson Scott Card's Xenocide, third in the Ender series, I quickly fell into the same joy which accompanied Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, the first two books in the series. Card's craft is storytelling first and science fiction second, as it should be. In this novel I particularly appreciated the mixing of religion (not just religious themes, mind you) into science fiction.

Card sets the stakes high in this novel, with the opening plot on a course to the destruction of a planet full of colonists along with two (or three?) entire sentient species. The addition of a new characters on another world - some obsessive-compulsive whose attention to detail is put work in service of an empire - adds a good counter-balance, keeping Ender's universe from becoming too in-grown.

What spoiled the book for me, to a degree, was Card reaching too deep into fantastic world-building in order to elucidate the mysterious connection between Ender's mind and that of the Hive Queen, the Pequeninos, and Jane - the ghost in the machine of the interplanetary communications network. It's not that Card's plot device is too fantastic, it's that it arose in a series in a way in which I feel it violated the reader's expectations. Card set the stage one way, and dramatically shifted it later. Probably the brightest spot coming out of this plot shift is that we get to see a bit of Mormon theology shining through: namely the implication of the pre-existence of souls.

As anyone can tell by reading the front-matter, the Ender saga is far from over. However I think I'll leave it here. It has been quite enjoyable, but it is time to move on to new stories.

Anarchy and Christianity by Jacques Ellul

I have probably read three or four works on Christian anarchism, but Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity is now my favorite. This is definitely a good read with its emphasis on nonviolence and neither seeking nor serving political power.

I have slowly been making my way through his seminal work The Technological Society. Once I complete that, I am planning on putting together a "Quotable Ellul" piece with quotes from each of these works.

Readings for October 2015

I promise, I have a bunch of longer books going. I promise.

Periodicals

  • Harper's August 2015 - I found it fascinating to read about the Parsis of India in Nell Freudenberger's article "House of Fire".

  • Harper's September 2015

Until next time.

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Readings for September 2015

In which I discover that reading on an e-reader may lead to you to forget the name of the novel you are reading.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

I was planning what to read for our family's vacation and wedding travel this May when I decided to read the next volume in the Wheel of Time saga. Luckily my wife had already bought me the paperback, so I grabbed it off the shelf and started reading a night or two before the trip. In the course of reading the first chapter I was getting the most incredible sensation of deja-vu, and upon starting the second it become clear: I was accidentally re-reading the preceding book in the series, which I completed in February 2014.

Well, that was somewhat embarrassing, because I was the one who told the wife which book to buy. The day before the trip, I walked to Powell's from work to get The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the series, and the actually correct one. And they literally had every single book in the 14-book series except this one.

With no time left, I decided to try something new: I purchased an electronic copy for reading on my wife's e-reader. That was quite the experience. I really enjoyed not having to lug around a big heavy book, and liked that I could customize the font, the size, and what headers and footers to include (or not). As I alluded in the introduction, I actually forgot the name of the novel by the time I finished it, partly due to a long break in reading, and partly due to never seeing the cover. Ultimately I won't invest more in e-books, since I don't like the terms of service and digital restrictions management which go along with them. Maybe someday the great technology will be partnered with new content without draconian protections.

Great story about e-readers! What about the book? Well, I have to say this was not the greatest read. It felt like Jordan was marking time in this book, not progressing very quickly at all. I feel like it could have easily shed 400 pages and still covered all of the pertinent plot points and character development.

But am I ready to quit the series? Not exactly. I've already invested so much in it, and in a 14-book series, you're allowed to have a stinker or two.

Readings for August 2015

In which I made progress on long books but did not finish anything.

Periodicals

  • Harper's May 2015 - You know when you think you lost an issue of a magazine, but you find it under a pile of stuff? That's pure joy.
  • Harper's July 2015

Until next month.

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Readings for July 2015

Summer reading was in full swing, but where was I?

Periodicals

  • Tin House 61 - Hard to believe this was already my 12th issue from the venerable Tin House.
  • Harper's June 2015
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Readings for June 2015

The sweet beginnings of summer reading.

The Spirit of Eastern Christendom by Jaroslav Pelikan

In graduate school our course on historical theology had us reading the first and third volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. At the time our professor recommended volume two, which though it was not part of the curriculum for the course, was still an excellent insight into Eastern Orthodoxy (which to most American Christians is vague and mysterious). I purchased the volume at the time, but never got around to reading it . . .

. . . until now. And I am glad that I did. First of all, by reading a historical theology of the Eastern Church, it helps me as a Western-centric Christian to appreciate that my scope is not the whole of Christianity. Secondly, it provides a good examinations of theological controversies, some of which are still alive, some of which are mostly settled, and some of which made me really question my position.

The most difficult part of The Spirit of Eastern Christendom is the focus on Christological and Trinitarian controversies, which occupy the first part of the work. I was familiar with them all, but some of them go into such detail that at times I was having trouble actually understanding the distinction being debated by past theologians (perhaps their parishioners felt the same way). I was a bit relieved when a few of the controversies were basically deemed unanswerable and therefore out of bounds for debate.

I really enjoyed learning about the iconoclastic controversies, and how those related to the Eastern Churches' relationship with the West, Islam, and Judaism. I also became acquainted with the rather fascinating notion that Rome was Never Wrong (TM) on theological debates, which as a protestant I find cute.

Pelikan is a great academic writer, so be warned about the density of this work. If you like historical theology, or want to learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy, this is certainly recommended.

My Struggle: Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The next volume of Knausgaard's magnum opus arrived in English translation in paperback, so I picked it up. In this volume the author retells his boyhood, from about the time he started primary school until he moved away before high school. There will be boyish high-jinks, parental angst, the beginnings of romance, and poignant observations about the nature of things.

I thought I had come to divine something of a pattern from the first two volumes, but this one broke the mold a bit, with no ill effects. It is more chronological, with fewer flashes forward and backward in time. It also lacks the meta narrative which provided the framework for the first two volumes. Volume four apparently continues on into high school, so I am getting the feeling that these will form something of a double volume of youthful recollections.

Still recommended.

Readings for May 2015

It's that season when you are finishing up an old job, going on a long vacation, and then starting a new job afterward. You get a decent amount of reading done on vacation, at least, but it is in an epic fantasy novel, and does not result in getting to add it to the reading log. So May looks pretty pathetic, but I'm turning things around.

Periodicals

  • Harper's April 2015
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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for April 2015

Potential job transition leads to slowdown in reading.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I had picked up The Color of Magic some time ago, having wanted to test the waters of the Discworld series for some time. When Pratchett passed away recently, I decided it was a fitting time to dive in.

Now this is a bit of a strange review for me, because I was not very engaged by reading this entire month. I believe that was due to being distracted by other developments in life. So this may color my review a bit.

Pratchett's Discworld is a great premise. I love the goofy universe, the characters, the magic, etc. I find Pratchett's comic writing to be superb, and I had some real guffaws whilst reading. However, for whatever reason, this was not a page turner for me. It took me quite a while to get through a short novel, because I was just not all that interested in finding out what came next.

I may try another Discworld novel, just because people I respect love Pratchett so much. But for now, I did not love The Color of Magic.

Periodicals

  • Harper's March 2015

Readings for March 2015

In which I went full Knausgaard.

My Struggle, Books 1 and 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

If you have read any literary reviews in the past years, you have read about Karl Ove Knausgaard. His six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle been written about everywhere, mostly favorably. Seeing that book one was out in paperback, I picked it up, and it was not long until I picked up book two.

This is going to sound silly, but here it goes: Knausgaard's work had to classed as fiction because it is too true to be a proper autobiography. He writes with incredible candor about personal matters, and does not spare his ego nor the feelings of those around him in what appears on the page. So in spite of the literary praise reckoning him to Proust and other superlatives, one of the most exciting aspects of readings this work is to see just what observations he makes which most would not dare to commit to writing.

Some readers approach the immense count of pages with trepidation, fearing that this is simply a tome of over-sharing, a vast catalog of "what I had for lunch" status updates. But it is a lot more than that. Knausgaard's prose and power of observation make for the most sublime reading in the midst of any topic. His characters are vivid, and the stories are compelling.

Quite frankly I loved the first two volumes. Knausgaard's struggle is stated in different ways in each of the first two volumes so far, but I felt resonance with both. He wants to do good work, and feels he is capable of doing so, but his life circumstances (arrived at through his own will) constrain him. I think that is a common sentiment, especially among those who review books.

Recommended.

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

As I was reading Colson Whitehead's newest, I got a funny feeling that I had read it before. And then I realized that I had indeed - it was excerpted in the pages of Harper's some months before. So that accelerated my enthusiasm, which is already very great when it comes to reading Whitehead.

The Noble Hustle's premise is simple: writer gets staked to play in the World Series of Poker. If you know anything about Whitehead, you know that his wit and irony is going to make for great description of that strange world. I had not read any of Whitehead's non-fiction, and it was definitely a treat.

Pick it up, read it. Learn a bit about poker and the crazed world which surrounds it. Root for the author to win it all, but don't be too sad when he doesn't. Recommended.

Readings for February 2015

With apologies for the lateness of this post . . .

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 2008, therefore this is the next installment in a very occasional series. I have a volume which combines all of the Hitchhikers novels, so I will eventually get through all of them.

This novel was, well, delightful. Just a silly, fun read, and very enjoyable. The series is compulsory for any self-respecting nerd, so this is of course recommended.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

It is my intention to read all of the Lord of the Rings again, but I cut short after the first volume to make way for other interesting new reads (to be covered in a subsequent readings post). This was my second time through, so it was interesting to see how my recollection help up. Mostly the Fellowship seemed longer than I remembered, though not overlong.

I was dismayed by one little bit in the story. I have been quite critical of The Hobbit films for adding too much to the story, including the bit where Gandalf et al confront the crypto-Sauron at Dol Guldur. I thought it was a rather silly bit of story-telling for the filmmakers to pull a fast one: "the real significance of this story is that it has the same ultimate villain as the other trilogy. It was Sauron the whole time!" Of course I discovered that the White Council's unmasking and repulsion of Sauron from Dol Guldur is actually a fairly prominent plot point, mentioned multiple times in the text of Fellowship of the Ring, not just in the appendices. So yeah, fair play on that one (though I still think all that was not necessary to make a good Hobbit film).

What, am I not going to recommend part of the Lord of the Rings? That's crazy. Recommended.

Periodicals

  • Journal of Biblical Literature volume 132 number 1

Readings for January 2015

My reading log is now seven years old. Pretty cool.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

The new novel Steelheart kicks off a new fantasy series for Brandon Sanderson. The twist is that this is marketed as young adult fiction (though I think it is being broadly read among adult Sanderson fans). I must admit I was taken aback by the "young adult" label, as this novel has more violence, particularly gun violence, than other works by the same author. Perhaps the descriptions are less gruesome? I don't know, but the older I get, the more sensitive I get to such things.

Oh yeah, the book! Hey, it's a Sanderson read. Maybe you can use this one to get the next generation hooked on one of your favorites. Recommended.

The Understory by Pam Erens

This slim novel is a treat. I was doubtful at first that Erens would be able to get me interested in her trust-fund pretender protagonist, but it all works out. Set in Manhattan and at an upstate Buddhist monestary, the reader follows a lonely soul who is desperate for human contact and determinedly trying to hang on to his rent-controlled apartment. Recommended.

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... This is the second consecutive Robert Heinlein novel I've rage quit, only to pick up and finish a year later. The last one, the Number of the Beast, should have been a lesson to me, namely that I've already read all the Heinlein novels I'll like. But no, I had to try one more time with I Will Fear No Evil (since it was already on the shelf).

The premise is decent: brain transplant. And imagine the hilarity and weighty implications if an old man acquired the body of a young woman. You can see the potential. But let me spoil a few things for you: After the transplant, the protagonist realizes he can communicate with the spirit of the former occupant of the body, s/he goes on to explore uncomfortable transformations of social relationships (e.g. business partner into lover), sleep with literally everyone who is breathing, and ends up impregnating herself with his own archived sperm donation.

Unfortunately the bulk of the novel is taken up with the copious, seemingly endless, expansive, vapid internal dialog of the protagonist. This of course serves as the primary vehicle for Heinlein's favorite authorial activity: letting the reader know about all the better ideas he has about everything, particularly in the realms of government, self-sufficiency, and sexual relationships. Just endless, ceaseless pages of the plot going nowhere, with zero character development despite all of the talking.

There is a decent twist at the end of the novel which I hope explains some of the worst features, though I am not sure of the scope. Nonetheless I'll take it on faith that this dialog between the old man and the young woman is not meant to be a faithful representation of a realistic relationship, but rather a satire of everything an old man wishes that an attractive young woman was thinking. If not, this goes from farce to tripe in a hurry. Definitely not recommended.

We Still Don't Get It by Douglas Moo

This essay arrived bundled with a Zondervan Academic catalog. It is adapted from a talk Moo apparently gave to the Evangelical Theological Society on the topic of Bible translation. I happen to agree with virtually all of Moo's positions there.

Given the publisher, you can probably guess that the product which benefits most from his praise is the NIV. As such I found it quite unseemly that Moo's talk, given to an academic meeting, had been repackaged as marketing material for a publisher. That feels like a betrayal of trust to me, and was in poor taste.

Periodicals

  • Journal of Biblical Literature volume 131 number 4
  • Harper's February 2015

Readings for December 2014

For the first time I admitted that I was not keeping up with my load of periodicals, and stopped trying to stay on top of Scientific American. It is a shame, but I have all the issues, so I can get caught up if I ever so desire. I am also way behind on Journal of Biblical Literature.

Nonetheless this was a great year for reading.

Periodicals

  • Harper's December 2014
  • Tin House #60
  • Harper's January 2015

Year-end notes

In 2014 I read:

  • 19 magazines
  • 20 books
  • 11,109 pages
  • or about 30 pages per day

Up from last year!

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Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for November 2014

I wonder if I have failed to log any books, and how many they may be.

Surprised by Scripture by N.T. Wright

Wright's latest popular work is a slim volume. I picked it up from my church library, having enjoyed his writings in the past. Overall, I have no complaints. Many of the topics discussed warrant more space, but that is not really within the scope of this book. In it you'll hear some of Wright's contrarian interpretations of scripture, some of which call for a change in practice, e.g. the ordination of women. But fear not, even at his most liberal Wright gives off a distinct air of conservatism. Maybe it's a British thing.

The Timetravelers Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Medieval England is a favorite backdrop for historical fiction, in film and in print. In reading a number of novels set in that period, I felt that I had a basic familiarity with that time and place. I happened to acquire Ian Mortimer's *The Timetravelers Guide to Medieval England" as a part of an English-themed basket in a silent auction (complete with a novel, some tea, and a London mug). The quirky title probably excited me as much as the subject matter.

Mortimer's book is the sort of popular social science that I love. He does a great job of presenting the material and giving the reader a sense of how life was different for so many of our ancestors. Perhaps my favorite example of the relative simplicity of this setting was the criminal justice system. The result of justice was typically either a fine, corporal punishment, or capital punishment. That's it.

Life expectancy was low for myriads of reasons, and Mortimer's work reminded me of the joys of modernity which I enjoy. But he also reminds the reader that medieval England, like all times, had its joys as well. Recommended.

What If? by Randall Munroe

Readers of xkcd will need no convincing on this gem. What If? is a book of "serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.". Its author is a web cartoonist who draws stick figures and is good at math. The result is fascinating and hilarious. Highly recommended.

Periodicals

  • Harper's November 2014

Readings For October 2014

I finished just one book - a great big book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

Susanna Clark's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a break-out award winner which seemed right up my alley. It certainly has its charms, and I had an overall fair impression of the work. Yet there were a few issues which will preclude a recommendation from me.

The main criticism I will level against this novel is its length. I think Clark had a big story to tell, and there is nothing wrong with that (Sanderson reader here!). She even ironically employs multi-page footnotes in the documentary style of prose. This leads to a lot of back story and world building which is charming, but leads to a bit of a long slog.

I feel the amount of exposition and detail ultimately detracts from the finished product. What ends up clocking in at over 1,000 pages in paperback could have been accomplished in about 400. I also feel that the story did not really get started for about 300 pages, which was frustrating.

(Nerd nit pic here: I hate free-energy magic systems.)

I feel like Clark could have broken this up into multiple parts, and the universe of this novel could yet produce some great fantasy storytelling. But this one was just a bit too much for me. LocalWords: Norrell

Currently on the stack

You have a book shelf, but you probably also have another stack of books. This other spot houses your queue of books to read, or maybe reference works. You love this stack of boos, and you look at it wistfully, wishing you had more time to read.

This is my current stack of books:

"Stack October 26, 2014""

That's:

  • The big Liddell & Scott Greek lexicon
  • The General Class amateur radio manual
  • Randall Munroe's What If?
  • Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You
  • The NRSV
  • THe Loeb volume Select Papyri III: Poetry

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