Friday, December 07, 2007

A recent book to be surprised that this agnostic was interested in: Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper. I think all Christians who have the urge to preach to non-Christians should read this book. Jim Henderson is a Christian, former church pastor and co-founder of Off the Map, which "helps Christians learn to communicate better with non-Christians, or as some of my more outspoken 'lost' friends put it, 'Off the Map helps Christians learn how not to be jerks.'" (I've got to support any organization with that aim!) Matt Casper, on the other hand, is a very well-spoken, outspoken atheist. And for this book, the two of them attended various churches and discussed their views of what went on in their services. (Off the Map runs a web site where anyone can do the same,

"Casper the Friendly Atheist" says a whole lot of the things I always want to say when Christians try to preach to me, and Jim asks for his reasons, leading to some really interesting discussions. Jim is a somewhat unusual Christian in my view (which perhaps is why he's willing to take a nonbeliever to church without trying to convert him) -- he makes a distinction between simply having faith in Christ and actually performing behavior that Christ would approve of, and he seems to believe that faith is not enough, that Christians need to do good on this earth and not just by trying to forcibly save people's souls.

The two visit Saddlebrook, the California "mega-church" of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life; the "Dream Center" and "Mosaic" in urban Los Angeles; another mega-church outside Chicago (Willow Creek); a medium-sized Presbyterian church and the more urban Lawndale in the Chicago area; a sort of casual church in the home of a friend of Casper's; offbeat "emerging churches" in the U.S. Northwest; Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church and T.D. Jakes' "Potter's House" in Texas. This is, as Jim points out, more types of churches than most Christians ever attend. So followers of Jesus might be interested in Jim's feelings on their own in this sampling of how Jesus is worshiped across the United States. (For that matter, non-Christians could find that interesting from an anthropological point of view as well; I certainly did.) But the person who wants to spread the "good news" of Christ -- well, honestly I think that person should let us non-believers alone to run our own lives. But for those who really don't feel they can give up on trying to "save" us supposedly "lost," considering the issues that come up between Jim and Casper will definitely reduce the likelihood of driving away the very people you want to attract. And that goes for attracting believers searching for a church that feels right to them, too.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I've been busy packing, moving, and going on summer family visits for the past few months and have let the blogging lapse, but here I am again, finally. There are lots of things I want to mention.

I pick up pretty much anything written by the incomparably funny Daniel Pinkwater, and have done so for more than 20 years, even though I'm rather older than the intended audience for most of his books. His latest, The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization is no exception; I bought it as soon as I saw it. It's set in the late 1940s, which is mostly obvious from the choice of a train for the rich Wentworthstein family's move across the U.S. and the type of movies discussed, but it's just as wacky as other Pinkwater works, with an Indian shaman named Melvin, a ghost who enjoys sniffing people's meals, and a brief appearance of the fat men from outer space who show up in multiple Pinkwater novels. Schoolboy Ned has been given custody of a sacred stone turtle and is being chased across the country by an incompetent villain who wants to take it; luckily he meets new people who are on his side and their adventures are fun and ridiculous without seeming particularly unreal, like all good Pinkwater.

It was a much greater surprise to find so much fun in a history of 20th-century architecture, Tom Wolfe's 1981 From Bauhaus to Our House. Not only the subject, but the author didn't sound like easy reading to me; I had great difficulty managing to get through Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, even though normally reading about 1960s counterculture greatly interests me. But From Bauhaus to Our House was quite short, so I was willing to give it a try, and it turned to be a hilarious look at the people behind "glass box" architecture. Its point of view is obvious from the first sentence: "O BEAUTIFUL, FOR SPACIOUS SKIES, FOR AMBER WAVES OF grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?" I suppose a lot has taken place in architecture in the 26 years since the book came out, so this is no longer completely current, but that doesn't make it any less applicable -- the buildings from the decades described are still looming over us. Wolfe manages to make reading about concrete cubes way more pleasant than looking at them.

Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World by Liza Mundy was very interesting in a completely different way. It doesn't just go through the technology of in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, donor eggs and sperm, and other relatively new ways of making it possible for people to become parents; it goes through the personal issues involved. How can a baptism ceremony acknowledge an egg donor? Should medical personnel be able to choose who they will help with fertility technology (single parents, same-sex couples, people they feel are too old?) Or how much help to give -- balancing the risk of in-vitro fertilized embryos not implanting in the uterus with the risk of too many implanting, which makes it harder for any of them to survive to an age to safely leave the uterus? I never thought of most of these risks, but I'm not planning to have children. Since I seem to be in the minority here, these are definitely issues that should be widely thought over, and Mundy makes it interesting to consider.

Stuff I've only Read BzzAgent Excerpts of:
  • When I read an excerpt from Jen Lancaster's Bitter is the New Black I found her rich self extremely annoying. However, the excerpt of her new book of personal essays, Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly, Ex-Sorority Girl's Guide to Why it Often Sucks in the City, or Who are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me? wasn't nearly so bad, even with the memory of not having liked the author as I saw her in her previous work. Anyone who is as annoyed by Rachel Ray as I am can't be all bad! Lancaster's living a life I have a lot more experience with -- riding the public bus, putting off medical checkups (though it's the dentist, not the gynecologist, who scares me) and so I find her snarky remarks much funnier now.
  • The beginning of Leslie Kagen's Whistling in the Dark is mostly concerned with setting up the situation of ten-year-old Sally: Milwaukee in 1959, jerk of a stepfather, mother entering the hospital for surgery, Sally and younger sister Troo are largely reliant on each other -- and a neighbor girl has recently been found dead. That summary is far too blunt to convey Sally's viewpoint, a realistic 10-year-old who doesn't always understand what adults are telling her and gets just as much of her information from children's gossip. I'm really curious to find out what happens.
  • The excerpt from Patrick Rothfuss' fantasy novel The Name of the Wind I read was actually chapters 13-17, but it's mostly a flashback to when the character Kvothe was twelve and so is a sort of beginning. There's only a few sentences in the setup of the flashback to indicate why we should be interested in Kvothe, although obviously the two characters he's telling the story to are very interested in his past. However, the look at Kvothe's growing up and the tragedy that happened when he was twelve make him seem a sympathetic character, and the rest of his life as told in the whole book and the two upcoming ones could certainly be worth reading.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Another set of excerpts from BzzAgent:
  • J.D. Robb's Innocent in Death. Apparently this is the twenty-somethingth book in a series of crime mysteries set several decades in our future. I'd never heard of this series before but I might have to read more than just this excerpt; I like the science-fictiony aspect of the setting as well as the mystery. This future isn't overpoweringly different from the current world; Detective Eve Dallas is here investigating the sudden death of a history teacher in a private school who turns out to have been poisoned, and little differences such as "a tube of Pepsi" are the greatest reminders in the three chapters I read that this isn't modern-day New York. But writing a consistent slightly-different setting takes as much or more skill than creating a place where nothing at all is the same, and like all long-running series, the characters are what draw the reader in. The detective, her husband, the ex-girlfriend of his who turns up when they're out to dinner -- they incite as much curiosity as the murder investigation and I want to see how it all turns out.
  • Steven White's Kill Me didn't really grab me at all from the excerpt. In what I read, we see an unnamed man come to see Dr. Alan Gregory, a psychologist who is apparently a regular in White's books -- but nearly everything is told from the point of view of his "anonymous rich white guy" patient, who likes skiing unbroken slopes (even after getting caught in an avalanche) and driving fast cars and has a friend become a vegetable in a diving accident. It wasn't enough to give me any clue about what was going on. The Amazon reviews filled me in that the guy will be creeped out enough by his friend's condition and his brother's death from Lou Gehrig's disease that he will hire a group called the Death Angels to kill him if his own health and quality of life ever goes that far downhill. And he then he finds out he has both a possibly fatal health condition and some new reasons to want to stay alive. I suppose I can see where that could make an interesting thriller, but the supposedly-exciting scenes of the avalanche and avoiding car accidents and so forth in the excerpt didn't thrill me.
  • J.R. Ward's Lover Revealed didn't grab me either. Partly this is because it's book 4 in a series, and it doesn't seem like a series that one can pick up in the middle. I couldn't keep track of most of the characters, other than the protagonist, Butch O'Neal, apparently a human in the weird situation of working with vampires, and his ex, Marissa, herself a vampire and an unmated outcast in her own society. Everyone else swirled together; this might not have been the case if I had read their stories from the start.
  • George Saunders' In Persuasion Nation is a collection of short stories, so what I read was two stories, both of which I enjoyed, just as I enjoyed Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil before. All of Saunders' work that I've read is absurdist and satirical and wickedly funny, whether it's a story about a device that makes babies seems to talk ("I CAN SPEAK(TM)," in this collection) or a country so small that only one of its citizens can actually fit into it at a time (Reign). Lots of pointed fun.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

There isn't really just one version of the Robin Hood story. The one I'm most familiar with is Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood from 1883. In retrospect, it seems a little self-consciously archaic, with its thees and thous (but at least they're used correctly, unlike most people trying to fake archaic English, while still being easily readable to modern people, unline actual English of the period). However, having grown up with one version of the story can make it very difficult to accept a different variant. While reading Jennifer Roberson's Lady of the Forest, I kept having "But that's not how it's supposed to be!" moments. The major one is the origin of Robin himself. Pyle has Robin as an ordinary yeoman who's particularly good at archery and becomes an outlaw when he's goaded into shooting some deer which turn out to be the King's and thus off-limits to all others. Roberson takes the tack familiar to viewers of the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where Robin was born a nobleman and comes back to England after fighting in the Crusades to find that England is a harsh and unfair place, so he takes the side of the ordinary people, even if it means breaking the law to do so. I don't know if I prefer the version where Robin is of ordinary birth because it's most familiar to me, or because it doesn't seem to me that it should take a nobleman rebelling to lead a band of outlaws -- the idea of the yeomen being able to stand up for themselves appeals to me more. I guess what appeals to others is the self-sacrifice of a nobleman in abandoning his birth status and all the opportunity that might come with it -- more in Roberson's version, where Robin's father is alive and the family castle is intact, then in the Prince of Thieves version where the father has died and the castle is in ruins when Robin comes home from the Middle East. But stealing and giving the loot to those who truly needs it is self-sacrifice enough for one character, I'd say.

Other characters in Roberson's version differ from the way I expected them to be enough that it irritated me -- it just seemed wrong for Guy of Gisbourne to be an insecure knight in love with Marian, rather than the cold-blooded hired killer sent after Robin Hood, or for Friar Tuck to be an idealistic young monk who can't even ride a horse instead of an independent friar who carries a sword and threatens to use it on Robin at their first meeting. And I'm not sure whether to trust Roberson or Pyle on one issue -- Pyle specifically has Friar Tuck perform a marriage, while Roberson just as specifically has Friar Tuck state that as a friar rather than a priest he doesn't have the authority to perform a marriage. (I'd be more inclined to trust Roberson, who seems to have done so much historical research, if it weren't that her book has an abbot and an educated woman talk about "adultery" when the subject is actually "fornication.") In a way, though, this difference says a lot about the difference between the the two approaches to the stories -- Pyle focuses on the simple lives of people in the forest and Roberson deals with the never-ending manipulation of nobles and gentry to get themselves status, money, power, or they woman they want to marry.

And a woman is the focus of the novel, and its sequel Lady of Sherwood, as the titles indicate. Marian doesn't even appear in the earliest Robin Hood ballads -- she is a late addition, but a story without romantic love is unpopular these last few hundred years. Here, Marian is the only surviving child of a widowed knight who has died on Crusade, which makes Marian a ward of the King of England. She is a grown woman without control over her future; the only other major female in the first book, the Sheriff of Nottingham's daughter Eleanor, is a grown woman too, but with no more control because her father has the power to manage Eleanor's future as he wants to. As a woman, I became frustrated on these characters' behalf to see the men around them treat them like chess pieces. Robin is the exception, but Robin's father, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne all have other plans. Again, this is more of a reflection of nobles' lives. Ordinary people -- the Saxons who were there before the Norman Conquest killed of many of the Saxon leaders -- didn't come across Normans under normal circumstances. When they did, the results were often unpleasant: pressure to pay higher taxes, or worse. (Perhaps this is why Roberson is careful to establish Robin and Marian both as of Saxon ancestry -- though being a Saxon doesn't make Robin's father any more pleasant or less manipulative.) Roberson's books spend some time on the concerns of others' lives, but they are instances like Will Scarlet, who here became an outlaw for murdering the Norman soldiers who raped and killed his wife. Pyle's version shows a few of the more pleasant sides of life outside the castles -- I expect both approaches have some truth to them. I found Lady of the Forest and Lady of Sherwood well-written and interesting, and they did make me think about the older versions too, but I doubt they can replace the stories I grew up on completely in my affections.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Another set of excerpts from Penguin and BzzAgent.
  • The first excerpt, from Unwound by Jonathan Baine (who turns out to be filmmaker Gorman Bechard), was a bit difficult to look at as part of a novel for me; it seemed nearly complete in itself. So I can't quite vouch for whether the book is a twisty-turny thriller later on, though the Amazon reviews seem to imply that it is; what I read is the semi-normal setup that has to exist before shocking turns of events can shock anyone. The setup is that author Peter Richardson has flown to another city to see the premiere of a play based on his popular book "Angel," the story of a teenage prostitute, and meets a girl named Dina who seems to have taken on the persona of Angel and everything about her is created from his own fevered dreams, so of course he is attracted to her to the extent of cheating on his wife. It sounds like it could turn into "Fatal Attraction," but one Amazon reviewer says it's "not Fatal Attraction at all. Not even the same genre." I don't know if I am curious enough to see how it comes out.
  • The next excerpt is from Jim Butcher's Proven Guilty, the most recent in his Dresden Files series. Weirdly enough, these stories of Harry Dresden keep getting compared to Harry Potter (BzzAgent's blurb for Proven Guilty starts off "If you loved Harry Potter, but wish he had a little more edge and a few years on him, this is your kind of book.") Yes, Dresden and Potter are both good guys who can do magic in a modern world where some magic is evil. But I've read some of the earlier books in the Dresden series -- they have more in common with hard-bitten detective stories than the teenagers-in-a-boarding-school-fight-evil (though still lots of fun) Potter novels. The Sci-Fi Network's Dresden Files show is probably most like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer's spin-off Angel would probably not make anyone think of the Harry Potter movies either. But this doesn't mean the Dresden books aren't good.

    Proven Guilty is book eight in a series, so it might not be the best place to start, but some backstory is given as to the war going on between the White Council of good wizards and the Red Court of blood-drinking vampires (no, that isn't redundant; this universe also has life-force-sucking vampires). Harry Dresden is a wizard and a consultant for people who need a sort of detective in magical matters, and he hasn't always been on the White Council's good side, to say the least, but as of the time this book starts he's their Senior Warden for the Chicago area and int the excerpted five chapters, has been charged with looking into some black magic going on there. And he's been asked to talk to the leaders of the Faeries and see what their positions in the war are. And someone's tried to run his car off the road. So there's a lot on his plate -- and that's without his half-brother, the life-force-sucking wizard, and mental visits the dark angel trapped in a coin buried under his basement. There's guaranteed to be a lot happening in the rest of this book, and I expect I'll read it -- but I think I'll borrow my stepmother's copies of the earlier books I haven't gotten to yet before I do.

  • The last book excerpted was Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers--And How to Fight Back by Anya Kamenetz. I myself have generally lived within my means even though I didn't earn much, but I can see how a medical or other emergency would screw up my finances completely and I don't like the picture. The excerpts were the chapters on marriage/family choices and worker organizations, which I found very interesting as sociology but not completely applicable to my life; I don't know how the rest of the book would strike me. It is written in a very readable style, though, unlike what one might think of books dealing with economic and political subject matter, and whether or not you agree with the suggestions for solutions, definitely makes the reader think.

And finally, a book I chose myself and have read all of: The Golden Key by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott, who are all fantasy authors in their own right but who I've never read anything by. Their work together, however, was seamless; a fascinating novel set in a sort of alternate Italy where some Renaissance-equivalent art masters can work magic with their paintings, and since paintings are how contracts and treaties are recorded, they have a lot of opportunity to do so. The book covers centuries of history of the city-state of Tira Virte, its ruling dukes and their official painters, and the women they love, since both ruling and professional painting are limited to men, and the twists and turns of the plot were unexpected but completely believable. The characters are also believable and well-drawn, and I enjoyed this book a lot and recommend it to people who don't like "sword-and-sorcery" fantasy, as this is something very different.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

This Christmas, one gift from my dad was the science fiction novel Variable Star. The names on the cover are Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson, but the circumstances of authorship are a little unusual, since "Grand Master" science fiction writer Heinlein died more than 15 years ago. The outline and notes for this novel were found in Heinlein's papers after the death of Heinlein's wife Virginia, and Spider Robinson, a well-known sf writer who was once called "the next Robert Heinlein" in a review that has probably been quoted on every one of his book jackets, actually wrote the book. My father, a dedicated Heinlein fan since childhood with no special preference for Robinson, said he found the book depressing -- not because of the events in the book (though some of them admittedly are depressing) but because it wasn't Heinlein. And it isn't Heinlein, though there are references and turns of phrase that will certainly recall his work. (The plot, however, is definitely 1950s/early '60s Heinlein, as well as many of the characters -- I can see echoes of Citizen of the Galaxy, Time for the Stars, Space Cadet, and even the much later Friday in it.) I enjoy both authors quite a lot, and I enjoyed this book. But if both men get credit for this novel, then John W. Campbell's name should be on the cover of Heinlein's Sixth Column, as the magazine editor Campbell gave Heinlein the plot outline for that book (which first appeared as a serial in Campbell's magazine, Astounding Science Fiction) with a request to write it. If Heinlein gets solo credit for that one, then Robinson should get sole credit for this book -- but Heinlein did not keep Campbell's contribution a secret and Robinson would not want to hide Heinlein's. However, the reader who looks at this as a Robinson work will probably enjoy it more.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I read a lot of history and a fair amount of medical books, so the combination of the two is something I particularly seek out. So I was particularly pleased to see one in the latest set of book excerpts I was provided by BzzAgent, Molly Caldwell Crosby's The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History. I knew a little bit about yellow fever from the section on it and Walter Reed's proof that it was carried by mosquitoes in Microbe Hunters, but Crosby's book gives a lot more historical surroundings for the disease. She opens in 1878, an extremely virulent year in the Americas for a disease that affected those of European ancestry far more than those whose African ancestors had developed the ability to deal with the virus, and affected those moving into the South more than those who had grown up there. The description of the great Mardi Gras celebration inaugurated that year gives a deeper understanding of what it was like for the people living in that time and place and the doctors faced with the epidemic. And the situations described once the epidemic hit Memphis resemble something from a horror novel. It is, however, a story I want to finish, rather than just reading the excerpt.

Bill Lamond's Born to Lead: Unlock The Magnificence In Yourself And Others was the next excerpt in the set, and it was definitely not my cup of tea. It is mostly aimed at women, to help them lead and accomplish things (the introduction says "You have a new assignment -- to save the world by ensuring that it goes on for your children and grandchildren.") through "a new style of leadership" that "combines the strengths of the feminine and masculine models to become whole." I've got no problem with any of those concepts, and I am a dedicated believer in women's equality. I just wouldn't normally choose to read a book about learning to lead and act -- I see myself as a member of the "geek" subset of humanity, where male and female stereotypes have less hold on our behavior and the difficulty in dealing with society is more likely to be learning to speak non-geek than crossing the gender divide. I agree with most of what Lamond says; it's just not all that new to me. This is a book for someone who hasn't read stuff about models versus reality, or about how gender differences may or may not be culturally prescribed.

Elliot Perlman's The Reasons I Won't Be Coming is a story collection; the excerpt I read was the story "I Was Only In A Childish Way Connected To The Established Order," narrated by a middle-aged poet who has had some psychotic episodes that landed him in a mental hospital -- but he doesn't sound all that abnormal to me. Stuck in a life where he doesn't fit in, certainly, but comprehensible and sympathetic. I read reviews on which praise Perlman's ability to create distinctive voices in his work, and this story definitely fit the bill there; I believe I will have to seek out more of his work.