Summer reading was in full swing, but where was I?
- Tin House 61 - Hard to believe this was already my 12th issue from the venerable Tin House.
- Harper's June 2015
Summer reading was in full swing, but where was I?
The sweet beginnings of summer reading.
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.
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.
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.
Potential job transition leads to slowdown in reading.
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.
In which I went full 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.
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.
With apologies for the lateness of this post . . .
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.
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.
My reading log is now seven years old. Pretty cool.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 2014 I read:
Up from last year!
I wonder if I have failed to log any books, and how many they may be.
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.
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.
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.
I finished just one book - a great big book.
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
We took a vacation and had other distractions. Sadly I don't get so much reading done on vacations these days, but this too shall pass.
I found this re-read to be very stimulating. As a matter of fact, I marked up the margins with a pen and dog-eared a bunch of pages, something I feel quite certain I have not done since my college days. Tolstoy's writing requires response.
I may yet commit some of those marginal notations to blog posts, as I was planning when I first penned them. I think the primary value for me in reading this work is to reflect on Tolstoy's challenges to traditional power structures and to compare how my views fit with his.
As I often say, I am a Yoderian, meaning I support "legitimate" violence only as constrained by law in a legal system. Extra-judicial violence, especially wars of aggression, cannot conform to Christian standards. But Tolstoy is right there, questioning everything, and that has value. This book is recommended for mature readers.
If I had to choose a theme for this month, it would be cloistered anarchic hacking.
Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain is the account of his conversion to Catholicism and call to his vocation in a Trappist Monastery. I had seen this work recommended by a number of my favorite authors, so I was keeping it on my mental "to read" list (which should probably be written, due to the failings of memory). Having read it, I can easily see the source for the affection which so many have for this writing.
Merton's style is excellent. He stretches the first twenty-eight years of his life past 400 pages, but it is kept engaging. I think my favorite feature of Merton's was to write mostly directly, but then to occasionally throw in the most whimsical observations. These were usually brief and sparse, and were used to great effect in my opinion.
The story is compelling as well. I found myself rooting for Merton. But what I think I liked best in this work was the look into monasticism. I had never known much about the cloistered life (and still don't, honestly), but The Seven Storey mountain paints a vivid picture of the appeal of monastic life. At times I found myself thinking - "What good are these monks? All they do is pray!" And then immediately felt silly. This precisely exposes the rift in worldview between monasticism and modernity. If you are interested in more, then it is certainly recommended.
After completing Merton's autobiography, with all of its Catholic orthodoxy, I felt compelled to mix things up and read from the radical side of the Christian spectrum. This began with a re-read of Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You (which is still on-going at the time of writing). However, whilst in the general neighborhood, I happened across Mark VanSteenwyk's That Holy Anarchist.
First of all, in line with true anarchist principles, That Holy Anarchist is not protected by copyright and available on-line for free. So if you are interested by this review, there is nothing stopping you from reading the book (and buying it to share if you like).
I believe this is the best, most succinct primer on Christian anarchism which I have encountered thus far. It is not over-long (I read it in a single sitting), and not hard to understand. In addition to this, Mark avoids to the temptation to "theorize" Christian anarchism - he lays out the arguments but does not try to make an airtight case. In this way the book comes across more as food for thought than a forceful argument, which may be useful in attracting new readers to the philosophy.
I myself remain a Yoderian, so Mark didn't win me over. This work is recommended if you'd like to trouble your notions of Christianity and state power.
2600 31:1 - I liked this issue of the hacker quarterly better than I did the other one I had read.
Harper's September 2014
You can't always read as much as you want.
In reading The Tombs of Atuan I have completed LeGuin's Earthsea cycle. I read the whole thing out of "order", which is of course the proper way to read this series. The narrative focuses first not on Sparrowhawk, but on a young girl Tenar on a far island. Tenar has been selected as a young girl to be the figure head of her people's cultic religion. It is as a thief that Sparrowhawk comes to Atuan, meets Tenar, and begins the relationship at the heart of the cycle.
In Atuan LeGuin is trying to portray a caricature, I think, of a rotten culture. The place of worship is patrolled by spirits who exhibit malice and fear of change. The narrative becomes an account of Tenar's courage to confront the wickedness and free herself. In doing so she alienates herself, which seems fitting (and is one of my favorite fantasy tropes).
This was not my favorite Earthsea novel - that distinction will remain with The Farthest Shore until another read-through of the cycle. But, as with everything LeGuin I have read, this is recommended.
John Scalzi. Making fun of Star Trek. What more could you want a sci-fi comedic novel? Not much more, if you ask me. Red Shirts is the tale of those expendables on away missions who always seem to die needlessly. Scalzi launches from this premise into a fun plot which gets more distance than I had guessed before reading it. Certainly recommended.
In which I reach the nadir of summer reading.
I realized upon seeing this book that I had never read Dave Eggers' fiction. Yes to his autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And yes to his novel-biographies of What is the What and Zeitoun. But never pure fiction. A Hologram for the King therefore grabbed my attention, and I picked it up.
Eggers is definitely trying to capture zeitgeist in this novel. After all, the premise is that a hard-on-his-luck salesman goes to pitch technology to the Saudi King - a definite attempt to evoke the modern feeling in America. Yet I am grateful that there is more to the storytelling than an appeal to the current spirit. Timelessness is of course a requirement for any good fiction. Being timely only helps with sales.
I enjoyed the read, but not immensely. Eggers tells a good story, and makes you love the protagonist in a Willy Loman sort of way. So yes, by all means, read and enjoy the story.
Harper's July 2014
Harper's February 2014 - Playing catch-up with some missed back issues. For some reason it bugs me to miss Harper's issues.
I am OK with having a back-log of periodicals.
Brandon Sanderson's new novel Words of Radiance is a book of feats. First of all, just look at it, if you get the chance. Take in its girth. The hardback is large. So large, that it defies binding. Yet somehow the good people at Tor found a way to make almost 1100 giant pages stick together in one book. And they even had to cheat a bit, removing the headers from the pages and slamming text far North into the traditional margins.
The second feat is that of storytelling. In adding a second volume to The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson is spinning quite a yarn. A huge story with many characters and plot lines is starting to converge. And Sanderson does a decent job making the reader care about just about everyone on the many pages of the book. At times I think the restrained scope and style of LeGuin is optimal, but I also like me a good, long fantasy novel. So recommended, but remember to read The Way of Kings first if you have not already.
This is probably the most popular baseball book of the past two decades and somehow I had not read it yet. But I had the opportunity to borrow it from my father and dove right in.
I really enjoyed this outsider's look inside baseball. In following Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, Lewis does much to help explain the weird economics of Major League Baseball. Now a decade on from the book, it is interesting to look back at the players featured in the novel, as well as at the A's themselves. After a bit of a downturn, the club under Beane is back on top, and still with a very low payroll.
While I enjoy that low-payroll teams can be successful, I have been disturbed by another recent trend in the bigs: an owner can still make a profitable enterprise out of a non-competitive team. If that can be fixed, baseball will be all the stronger. Recommended.