A Handful of Mini-Reviews

Working from home plus “attending” an online conference (T4G20) kept me busy all of last week, but it’s time for a few mini-reviews to help catch up with what I’ve read (presented in order read):

The Bondage of the Will: Luther, Martin, Packer, J. I., Johnston ...Title: The Bondage of the Will
Author: Martin Luther
Translators: J. I. Packer & O. R. Johnston
Genre: Classic Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 320
Rating: 3 of 5

Martin Luther’s response to Desiderius Erasmus’s The Freedom of the Will is a classic of Protestant theology. It demonstrates that a belief in “total depravity” and “saved by grace alone through faith alone” are the dividing line between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

While I tend to agree with most of Luther’s conclusions, I felt like his arguments were a mixture of straw man, ad hominem, and sound exegesis. Stylistically he comes off as a bully who swings back and forth between bombast and smug sarcasm. I admire some things about Luther, but his polemical writings could have used a dose of Christian charity.

Title: Notre Dame of Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: John Sturrock
Genre: French Classic
Pages: 496
Rating: 3 of 5

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really understand the attraction of this book. A large part of the “action” of the story (when Hugo isn’t off on one of his rabbit trails or swooning over Gothic architecture) is two skeezy older men (one of them a supposedly celibate priest and the other engaged) lusting after and attempting to seduce/rape a teenager, and/or purge their obsession with her.

Quasimodo the deaf, deformed rage monster is tragic and memorable in his devotion to Esmeralda, but for me it wasn’t enough to balance the boring digressions and lecherous behavior that dominated the story.

The Plague: Camus Albert: Amazon.com: BooksTitle: The Plague
Author: Albert Camus
Translator: Stuart Gilbert
Genre: French Modern Classic
Pages: 278
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This tale of a modern city quarantined during an outbreak of plague had been lurking on my mental “I should read that someday” list, and this seemed like an appropriate time (or is it an inappropriate time?) to give it a shot. I have to say, Camus has a pretty good grasp on the dark and depressing side of human nature. While the plague in his book is far more deadly than COVID-19, there were some interesting parallels to what is currently playing out around the world.

As a pastor, I found the priest’s second sermon in the book fascinating. It’s basically an appeal to acknowledge the sovereignty and goodness of God in all circumstances (unfortunately followed up by a nonsensical application of rejecting the care of doctors).

Overall, the book was a depressing, largely hopeless slog, which is probably not surprising given its author and subject matter.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's CourtTitle: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court [Audiobook]
Author: Mark Twain
Narrator: Nick Offerman
Genre: American Classic Satire
Pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Ron Swanson (I mean, Nick Offerman) is the perfect narrator for this classic tale of a practical, no-nonsense factory boss transported to the court of King Arthur. The Yankee has a bit more braggadocio and showmanship than Ron Swanson, but in their intensely practical outlook and ingenuity they’re the same.

Twain’s biting satire brutally (but humorously) mocks courtly medieval romances along with the concepts of monarchy, aristocracy, state religion, and more. It can be mean-spirited and overly cynical at times, but it’s entertaining and thought provoking at the same time…and Offerman’s narration will delight fans of Parks and Recreation (it bumped it up from a 4 to a 4.5 for me).

The Toll (Arc of a Scythe Book 3) by [Neal Shusterman]Title: The Toll
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 3)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi with YA vibes
Pages: 637
Rating: 3 of 5

I have mixed feelings about this final book in the series. The convoluted political and religious corruption and intrigue from the previous books escalate and play out in a satisfactory way. A few plot points seemed to come out of left field, but that may have been my own current crop of distractions causing me to miss things rather than any plotting problems by the author.

What really bugged me was that I felt like the series as a whole and this book in particular got more and more overtly preachy in favor of ideas like consequentialist/situation ethics, non-binary gender ideology, and euthanasia. Overall, an interesting series from a philosophical viewpoint quite different from my own that suffers a bit from preachiness.

Benevolent Big Brother

Title: Thunderhead
(Arc of a Scythe: Book 2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-Fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 512
Rating: 4 of 5

*WARNING: There may be mild spoilers for the first book*

This series continues to impress, for the most part. In this installment we get to find out a lot more about the Thunderhead, the benevolent, “nearly all-powerful” AI that watches over humanity (except for anything to do with the Scythedom). Our two protagonists continue in their arcs: Citra now a full-fledged junior scythe and champion of the “old guard” and Rowan a vigilante hunting down scythes who he deems unworthy. We also get a new protagonist who is a protege of the Thunderhead and whose storyline dips into several subcultures mentioned in the first book.

There was a hint of “middle book syndrome” here, but nothing too bad. A few parts seemed to drag slightly since the overall novelty of the world is worn off a little, and the frenetic burst of action at the end didn’t resolve as fully as the first book did.Overall, it was still an excellent book with plenty of intrigue and interesting speculation.

On a personal theological/philosophical note, I am annoyed by the (not uncommon) sci-fi trope that scientific progress completely eliminates the need for religion/Christianity, and whatever faiths are left are full of hateful luddites and nut-jobs (at best). Only in one brief paragraph does anyone seriously wonder what comes after (permanent) death. I find it hard to believe that the whole world has simply decided that immortal souls don’t exist or if they do that it’s not worth thinking about.

Death in a Time of Immortality

Title: Scythe
(Arc of a Scythe – Book 1)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Sci-fi Dystopia with a hint of YA
Pages: 464
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I saw several rave reviews for this book and somewhat reluctantly decided to give it a shot. The dystopian elements appealed to me, but I am not a fan of YA fiction. While there are a few YA vibes (teenage protagonists, teenage anger/petulance, star-crossed romantic tension) it wasn’t overdone, believably fit the situation, and avoided what I consider to be the two worst YA tropes: all adults are idiots & love triangles.

In the future death has been eliminated, and a benevolent AI (the Cloud having gained sentience) oversees society in a way that ensures peace and prosperity for all. The population is kept under control by the order of Scythes who are completely above the law (“separation of Scythe and state”) and “glean” (kill) a certain number of people per year. The story follows two high-schoolers chosen as Scythe apprentices.

As you would expect, this book delves into some pretty disturbing subject matter. Each scythe has their own approach to gleaning, and the story deals with a deep ideological divide within the “scythedom.” As I’ve said before in books that feature excellent world-building: I don’t want to say much more since learning more and more about the world as the plot unfolds (and in the journal entries that begin most chapters) is half the fun. I highly recommend this book as a thought-provoking, grim utopia/dystopia.

On a personal philosophical/theological note, I find it interesting that many people (not just authors) seem incapable of imagining immortality and universal peace without assuming stagnation, boredom, and/or something sinister behind the scenes. Books like this seem to have an underlying assumption that it is impossible to be truly happy/fulfilled without the presence of death and/or suffering. On the one hand, I agree that living in a world riven by death and suffering is an essential part of making us who we are meant to be…on the other hand, I believe that there is coming a time when death and suffering are gone forever and that will not be a time of stagnation but of joy and creativity able to find their fullest expression without hindrance (cf. Romans 8:18-28).

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!

Ender’s Hunger Games

Apocalypse Five (Archive of the Fives Book 1) by [Rourke, Stacey]Title: Apocalypse Five
Author: Stacey Rourke
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Pages: 252
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/12/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Smoosh together Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, tack on Children of Men for good measure, and you have this book. I’m not sure if I have ever read such derivative sci-fi. It went straight past cliché and into aping popular franchises while stopping short of actual intellectual property theft. There were a few clever twists on the concepts involved, but not enough to raise this above a “seen it all before and the other guys did it better” 2.5-3 stars plot.

The physical descriptions knocked this the rest of the way down to 2 stars. There was way too much “flexing pecks” “chiseled abs” “ebony locks” “tangle of lashes” “mahogany stare” etc. for me. And only about half of those descriptions came in the (frequent) lusting-after-each-other scenes!

Between the Harlequin Romance-esque vocabulary and painfully derivative plot this book did not work for me at all.

(There were also way too many misused/misspelled words – repel instead of rappel, alude instead of elude, toe-head instead of towhead, etc. – but hopefully those are due to my reading a proof copy and won’t remain in the published edition)

Whimsical Dystopia

Title: Ella Minnow Pea:
A Novel in Letters
Author: Mark Dunn
Genre: Dystopia?
Pages: 208
Rating: 5 of 5

In my experience, novels that are considered epistolary, experimental, or dystopian have a good chance of being pretentious self-indulgence and/or derivative drivel. Ella Minnow Pea delightfully combines all three of these into a whimsical dystopia (who knew there was such a thing?).

The small island nation of Nollop is most famous for being the home of Nevin Nollop, the man who came up with the pangram The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When a letters falls off of the monument to the miraculous sentence, the ruling council outlaws its use in spoken or written language…and other letters soon follow. This is obviously the will of Nevin Nollop speaking from beyond the grave, and those who break the law face dire consequences!

These absurd decrees and their effects upon society are discussed and reflected in the letters (as in epistles) that comprise the novel. The letters are to and from the 18-year old Ella Minnow Pea and her family and friends. The author’s skill in avoiding more and more letters (of the alphabet) as he writes is truly impressive. The one complaint I have about the novel is that, in the beginning, the characters all have nearly the same voice and vocabulary, making it hard to tell them apart.

The story as a whole serves as a nice commentary on censorship, totalitarian government, and speculation-based but fanatical ideology. Unlike most dystopias, this book is mostly light, hopeful, and just a little bit silly. It is currently my favorite fiction of the year, and you should go read it if you haven’t.

 

In other news, the reason I haven’t posted anything in longer than usual (and I know I’m already pretty sporadic) is that I’ve been up in Michigan interviewing for a new job, and things are looking very positive. There are still a few hoops to jump through, but there is a very good chance that within a month or two we’ll be moving to somewhere closer to family, better for my wife’s health, and more financially stable!

Eerily Prophetic

Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Pages: 180
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is the second time I’ve read this book (the first time was 9 or 10 years ago), and I noticed a lot more relevance this time around. The ideas of banal/violent interactive media turning people into inane loners and of government-imposed destruction of independent thought naturally growing out of popular-level boycott/censorship of anything deemed offensive by anyone seem eerily prophetic of the direction our society could be headed.

Bradbury’s dreamy-repetitiveness, synesthesia-filled descriptions, half-mad metaphors, and other poetic touches definitely add to the reading experience. However, to be honest, I can only enjoy his style for so long before I need to read something a little more straightforward.

One thing that makes this stand out from other classic dystopian novels is that there is at least a hint that the age of lonely ignorance does not have to last forever if people are willing to stand together against it in their own small way. It’s not a light, happy book by any means, but it’s not quite as grimdark as the likes of 1984, Brave New World, or A Clockwork Orange.

If you are a lover of books this is a must read. Ray Bradbury’s love of literature shines through the whole work as he provides a moving reminder of the dangers of technology-obsession and the suppression of potentially-offensive and/or contradictory ideas.

Authors, Try Harder

Title: Humans, Bow Down
Authors: James Patterson & Emily Raymond
Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi
Pages: 373
Rating: 1.5 of 5

It took just three days for the robots (hu-bots) to seize power and slaughter most of humanity. The remaining humans either serve as “reformed” slaves in The City or live as “savages” (mostly drug and alcohol addled delinquents) on The Reservation. Our story follows one such delinquent (first person narration) and one hu-bot detective (third person limited omniscient narration) tasked with finding her after she and her thuggish meathead friend steal a car (or is there another ill-explained reason?! Dun-dun-DUN!).

Whether this whole robots slaughtering/enslaving/ghetto-ing humans is a somewhat localized situation or global is unclear. The author seems to want to convey the impression that it is global, but all the action centers on a very small geographic area and there is little or no reference to what might be going on anywhere else in the world (Other cities and reservations? Mad Max style anarchy? Uninhabitable wasteland? Isolationism to contain the robot threat within North America? Who knows!). A similar lack of precision prevails throughout the book – characters suddenly know a crucial piece of information, survive an unsurvivable situation, have a radical changes of heart, or suddenly become central to the story with very little explanation or reason for doing so (other than it is needed to advance the story). Shoehorn in a transgender hu-bot and a hint of lesbian romance (to get the proper token diversity, I suppose), sprinkle on some glaring errors (e.g. referring to a speedometer as an Odometer, having a character call her best friend by the wrong name, etc.), narrate the entire thing in the present tense (which I personally find grating), and you have this very disappointing book.

A Forgotten Dystopia

Image result for It can't happen hereTitle: It Can’t Happen Here
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Genre: Classic / Dystopia
Pages: 458
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I’m a fan of dystopias. I find the classic dystopias like 1984Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World to be far scarier than anything in the horror genre. They are usually a great blend of satire and science fiction that provide timely warnings about the various forms that despotism can take and/or how it can come about. When a news article brought this book to my attention after it rocketed up the Amazon sales chart I was excited to give it a read. On Amazon it is currently billed as “The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal” to give it that added “ripped from the headlines” boost. First I’ll address the actual book and then the “it’s all about Donald Trump!” aspect.

There are reasons that It Can’t Happen Here has not garnered the fame of the three classic dystopias I mentioned above – and it’s not due to some right (or left)-wing conspiracy of suppression. It just isn’t as timeless or believable as they are. Rather than setting it in the distant future, Sinclair Lewis placed the action in 1936, only a year or so after the publication date. This leads to a lot of references to contemporary politicians, authors, etc. which have not necessarily aged well. Also, the rapidity and ease with which the president/dictator transforms the US into a totalitarian fascist state after his election  (seemingly a matter of days!) seemed completely unbelievable to me. There were aspects of the book that hit the right notes for a dystopia once the fascist state was in full swing, but I was mostly unimpressed (and didn’t care much for the hero: a liberal, moderately socialistic newspaper editor who has little use for God or marital fidelity).

In regards to the similarities between President Trump and President/Chief Windrip, the perceived parallels are largely in regard to how/why they were elected. See, for example, this quote describing Windrip’s idealistic supporters (alongside the “bullies and swindlers” who also support him):

…they were the men and women who, in 1935 and 1936, had turned to Windrip & Co., not as a perfect, but as the most probable savior of the country from, on one hand, domination by Moscow and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth, whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality, the humor and art of the comic strip – of a slave psychology which was making America a land for sterner men to loot. (p. 422)

In this and other quotes it becomes apparent that Windrip was elected as “a strong man” and “savior” by angry, white, working-class people afraid of a foreign enemy, opposed to the perceived immorality and weakness of the younger generation & intellectual elites, and upset that people of different ethnicities are taking their jobs. This is certainly one portrayal of why Donald Trump was elected as well (whether it is an accurate one I leave up to your opinion…I despise getting into political debates).

A couple other potential parallels to Trump are Windrip’s inflammatory speeches about Mexico and the mutual hatred between himself and the press. Most of the details of their background, political policies, and assumption of power are completely divergent.

Overall: a moderately interesting book that doesn’t measure up to the classic dystopias and does bear some passing resemblance to our current political situation.