Hilarious Cynicism

Title: Emotions Explained with Buff Dudes
Author/Artist: Andrew Tsyaston
Genre: Comic Strips
Pages: 112
Rating: 5 of 5
(Thank you to the artist and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I’ve occasionally chuckled and bothered my wife with a “come look at this!” when comics from Owlturd floated past on social media… but apparently I’m too lazy to actively go out looking for them, so having 100+ pages of them gathered in one place was awesome! As the title/cover suggests, this collection mostly features personifications of emotions, life, personality types, etc.

The humor is fairly cynical/pessimistic which appeals to me, even though it probably shouldn’t (as a pastor I may have seen human nature at its worst a little too often). I think that I laughed the hardest at the Type A / Type B personality comparisons as they were pretty spot on for my wife and me. I’ll leave you to guess which of us is which.

Overall, this was the funniest thing that I have read in a long time. If your sense of humor tends toward the cynical, you must read it!

A Guided Tour of Atheism

Title: Seven Types of Atheism
Author: John Gray
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley – this in no way affects the content of this review)

I believe that it is important to understand where other people are coming from in terms of differing culture, beliefs, and worldview. It can help foster respectful dialogue rather than talking past each other or yelling at each other. To that end, I picked up this overview on atheism.

Just as no major religion is monolithic in its belief and practice, those who espouse atheism have a wide variety of arguments, beliefs, ethics, worldviews, etc. John Gray gives a guided tour of seven kinds of atheism, describing major proponents and beliefs of each category and pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. He strongly criticizes most versions, mostly alleging inconsistency via partial dependence on a monotheistic or even Christian worldview. He speaks favorably only of what he calls “Atheism without progress” (George Santayana & Joseph Conrad) and “The Atheism of Silence” (Arthur Schopenhauer & Benedict Spinoza).

Obviously, the seven categories are Gray’s own generalizations, but they were helpful in getting an overview of a huge topic. As far as persuasiveness, some of Gray’s argumentation is pretty shoddy. For example, he summarily dismisses certain topics touched on by some atheists philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche & Rand) as “silly” without any further explanation, and his main argument against Christianity is little more than “there are much more likely explanations of who Jesus was than the one offered by Christianity.” Overall, this was a helpful overview, and that is what the author stated as his primary goal, so I guess he was successful in spite of occasionally lackluster arguments.

Wise as Serpents & Innocent as Doves

Title: How the Nations Rage:
Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 272
Rating: 5 of 5

Over the last few election cycles I have grown increasingly troubled by the manner in which many professing, Bible-believing Christians participate in the political process – as if the platform of their preferred party had equal authority with Scripture; as if showing love, gentleness, and respect to their neighbor is not an obligation when politics are involved; and as if their hope for the future depends on “the right people” being in office passing the “right legislation.” None of this seems spiritually healthy or consistent for a citizen of heaven who claims Jesus Christ as their Lord, example, and ultimate source of hope (Philippians 3:20-21).

I have been trying to find a book that offers an informed, biblical overview of how and why Christian should participate in politics. Until this week, my search uncovered mostly partisan books on what and who the authors thought Christians should vote for (and why “the other side” is mistaken, hypocritical, and/or just plain evil). This week I finally found a winner: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman. The author states that, “The primary goal of this book is not to help Christians make an impact in the public square. It is not to help the world be something. It is to help Christians and Churches be something” (p. 33).*

Rather than pushing a partisan agenda, Leeman warns us to “…be leery of being too captivated by any political worldview. Your tight-gripped principles should come from Scripture, not ideology” (p. 157). He reminds Christians that our primary identity is who we are in Christ according to the glorious Gospel of grace, lived out in fellowship with the local church. One of his goals “…is to encourage us all to stop letting our political parties set our political agenda. Even more, we should not conflate our parties with our faith. Parties are good servants, but bad masters; useful instruments, but awful identities” (pp. 116-117).

He deals very practically with how Christians should approach and advocate for issues that are important to them – both issues that directly relate to clear biblical principles and ones about which individual Bible-believing Christians might disagree because they are based on logical arguments, inferences, pragmatic concerns, etc. rather than a single principle. An important part of this is the discussion on how we treat those with whom we disagree. For example: “If you participate in social media, does your tone edify or convey care? Or does it lambaste and belittle? How will it affect your evangelism? Our arguments should seek to persuade rather than to score points” (p. 165).

I have another whole page of quotes that jumped out at me as I read this. However, rather than include them all, I will settle for urging you to read this book for yourself. As with any political or theological book, you probably won’t agree with everything in it (e.g. I thought he put a little more weight on Genesis 9:5-6 than it could legitimately bear), but it provides a much-needed biblical perspective on government and our participation in it. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, be guided by God’s Word, not a party platform or the combative, contemptuous attitude that prevails in today’s politics.

 

*all quotes are from the Nook eBook edition

 

The Love of Money…

Image result for Nostromo Signet book coverTitle: Nostromo
Author: Joseph Conrad
Genre: Classic
Pages: 448
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This is my third Joseph Conrad book, and I don’t know if I’ll bother with any more. He creates memorable, believable characters and situations, but his message/theme is always the same and is just plain depressing. He basically finds different ways to say “Society is rife with exploitation and everyone is vain, greedy, cruel, violent, and/or cowardly” while describing any action in the most dully dispassionate way possible and unexpectedly throwing in flashbacks or sudden leaps forward.

In Nostromo we follow the political travails of a fictional South American country, focusing especially on Nostromo, the vain Italian expatriate who is foreman of the dockworkers. He is constantly flattered and used as a tool by the European aristocracy but never really admitted to their society. Most of the conflicts, personal and political, revolve around the local silver mine as the story illustrates that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

The narrations is surprisingly dull for a book about violent revolution. It focuses primarily on the pettiness, vanity, and greed of individuals and skips quickly over any large-scale action, mentioning it fairly dismissively in flashback form. Four hundred forty-eight tightly-packed pages of this was a bit much, and I was thoroughly tired of it by the end. If you’re interested in Conrad, I’d recommend Heart of Darkness over this one… all of the vivid bleakness with a fraction of the page count packs a much bigger punch.

And one final thing: I am using this as my Classic with a single-word title over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

Title: Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Author: Unknown
“Translator”: Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Ancient Narrative Poetry
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

Last year I read a version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Herbert Mason that amounted to a heavily edited retelling. I found it disappointing because there was no way of knowing the actual extent of the author’s editing and personal interpretation (a review of that version can be found here).

The main text of this version was similarly functional (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word), as Stephen Mitchell is working off other people’s word-for-word English translations rather than consulting the ancient languages himself. However, he is careful to note where his text becomes especially interpretive. In copious endnotes he carefully cites which specific versions of the epic he is working off in a given section and provides a woodenly literal translation of difficult passage where he resorted to heavy paraphrasing or speculation. To me, this made all the difference in the world…I now feel like I have read a valid translation of Gilgamesh, not just some scholar’s “here’s what I think you should get out of this” paraphrase.

Along with translation notes, Mitchell offers commentary on the cultural setting, comparison to stories found in Genesis, and similar background. I question some of his interpretations at this point, but found much of it to be helpful as well.

If you’re not the kind of person who is into scholarly footnotes, I think that this is still a great version for reading the poem itself. You get a feel for the broad Gilgamesh tradition (including some of the bemusing and inconsistent bits “smoothed out” [i.e. omitted] by Mason) and Mitchell’s phrasing captures the great emotional depth in the timeless friendship and loss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a way that doesn’t come across well in a woodenly literal translations. Don’t expect a happy story. Mitchell aptly refers to this as “the epic of the fear of death,” and to me its despair over human mortality offers a sobering contrast to the “living hope” found in Christianity.

**Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the lengthy introduction Mitchell practically tells the whole story of the poem mixed in with his cultural commentary, so depending on your preferences you may want to read the poem and then come back to the introduction (or skip it entirely since a lot of the most important info is repeated in the endnotes in more concise form).

The Befuddled Company

Title: Port of Shadows:
A Chronicle of the Black Company (Book 1.5)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Note: if you haven’t read at least the first 2-3 Black Company books, this review might not make a whole lot of sense. There are no spoilers, but I am assuming that you have a basic idea of the characters & world (I would recommend skipping this your first time through the series)

This book takes place between the original books one and two, so the original gang’s all here. It was great to see Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, the Captain, and the rest back in action…sort of. Unfortunately, they spend almost the entire book befuddled by sorcery and obfuscation, so they don’t act entirely like themselves. To be honest, this mental confusion and being kept more-than-usually in the dark about what is really going on seems to be a lazy way for the author to gloss over any continuity errors.

The writing style and plotting differ a bit from the other books in the series. There was quite a bit more profanity/vulgarity, more time spent just sitting around waiting for things to happen (i.e. less action), and way more self-pitying introspection from Croaker.

There were some fascinating new characters, including a new Taken Sorceress who is at the center of the action. Interwoven with the Company’s story is a tale from the distant past, which gives some background on the Senjak sisters (aka the Lady’s family). This was probably the most interesting plotline in the book, but parts of it seem to contradict already-established lore. Cook acknowledges this and in a fourth-wall-bending epilogue offers some possible interpretations but chooses to not definitively resolve much of anything. It was a rather unsatisfying ending to a ho-hum book.

If you’re a fan of the Black Company this is probably worth reading for some insights into the Lady’s character. Croaker, on the other hand, is so whiny and muddle-headed throughout that any character development on his part comes off as the result of sorcerous mental illness.

Agree with Me or You’re a Fascist

Title: How Fascism Works:
The Politics of Us and Them
Author: Jason Stanley
Genre: Politics
Pages: 240
Rating: 2 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for give me a free review copy via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This could have been such a helpful, insightful book. The word fascist is hurled at political / ideological opponents so often that it has started to lose its meaning. I hoped that this book would provide a historical perspective on fascism by examining actual fascist governments and drawing some parallels to the more egregious / worrisome trends in US & European politics. The chapter titles in the table of contents were promising:

  • The Mythic Past
  • Propaganda
  • Anti-Intellectual
  • Unreality
  • Hierarchy
  • Victimhood
  • Law & Order
  • Sexual Anxiety
  • Sodom & Gomorrah
  • Arbeit Macht Frei

Ironically (given the book’s subtitle) the author used his book divisively: to laud his left-wing political views and demonize virtually all distinctively right-wing views. He uses the term liberal democracy inconsistently throughout, disengenuously equivocating between the meaning of representative democracy as opposed to autocratic or oligarchic government (which most readers would agree is a good thing) and American left-wing political views (which he treats as equally self-evidently superior if you are a right-thinking person). Virtually all American right-wing political views are presented in straw-man form, defined in such a way that they fit his definition of fascist politics.

I was expecting there to be a pretty heavy smear-job on President Trump and his cronies (much of it richly deserved…the man’s demagoguery and autocratic tendencies are frightening), but for this to turn into “let’s find a way to define virtually everything the Republicans are and do as fascist politics” was massively disappointing. The absurdly biased portrayal of all things conservative and constant hymns of praise to all things and all people left-wing buried some good historical research and valid parallels under an avalanche of partisanism.

If you want a more historical, less partisan view of the rise of fascist politics, I would highly recommend Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller (Review Here). It was written during World War II (based on interviews with Germans before WWII), so you will have to draw your own contemporary parallels…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Analyzing the “Culture Wars”

Title: Pagans and Christians in the City:
Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
Author: Steven D. Smith
Genre: Philosophy/Theology & History
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/15/18 (thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley! This in no way affects the content of the review)

This book takes as its starting point a statement by T. S. Eliot to the effect that people are better off living in a Christian society than a pagan one. A hefty chunk of the book is taken up with defining what is meant by “Christian society vs. pagan society.” The author comes down on a basic definition of “transcendent religion (acknowledging or at least open to a God and objective ultimate good beyond the universe and in eternity) vs. immanent religion (finding ultimate good in this world and lifetime).

He purports to show how these incompatible views have constantly fought to be the dominant view undergirding society. He starts with the early Christians in the Roman Empire and then jumps to modern Western civilization in general and the US in particular. He examines how each view shapes society, what kinds of conflicts arise (and why), the meaning of religious freedom for each side (I found the historical and legal issues related to this to be especially interesting and relevant), and a host of other implications.

When someone talks as if they have discovered the key to understanding a massively complex issue, I take it with a grain of salt, but overall this was a thought-provoking book. The hysteria and paranoia that frequently underlie “culture war” discussions is replaced with calm, relatively even-handed description of both sides of most arguments. I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s sometimes vague conclusions (I’m deeply suspicious of trying to “Christianize” society, especially via politics), and the book is pretty lacking in the “how shall we then live?” element, but there’s a lot to chew on here. If you’re looking for an academic analysis of the “culture wars” without the usual hysterical rhetoric, this is worth reading.

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).

Peril in the North Country

Title: The Winter Riddle
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Humorous Fantasy
Pages: 338
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/1/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I discovered Sam Hooker’s writing a few months ago with his Black Spot Press debut: Peril in the Old Country (review here). I enjoyed that book so much that I jumped at the chance to read this one.

Stir together a mirthfully unhinged monarch who is best friends with Loki, her sister who is the Winter Witch, Santa Claus (seen wielding a war hammer on the cover…so you can expect someone a little different from the “right jolly old elf”), battle-loving Vikings, and various other mythical/magical beings and you just know this is going to be good! Our protagonist is the Winter Witch who just wants to be left in peace to do witchy things – but what fun would that be for our story? When she helps Loki play a prank on himself, things quickly spiral out of control…and that’s about all I can say without spoilers. Along the way there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and some genuine character growth that didn’t feel preachy or moralizing.

Apparently this is a reworked version of the author’s previously self-published first novel, and I think it shows a little bit. The pacing and plotting weren’t as even and tight as in Peril in the Old Country, but it was still a rolicking good tale.  And this one didn’t end on a major cliffhanger, which is a big plus for me! Pacing issues aside, this is definitely worth reading if you enjoy humorous fantasy, and I am looking forward to whatever Sam Hooker writes next.