Saturday, July 30, 2011

Naked, by David Sedaris


Another excellent book by Sedaris, though I am still troubled by the undercurrent of contempt and condescension in his writing. The book is somewhat self-effacing, in that he is fairly frank about his ridiculous sense of his own importance, at least in his youth. But the ridicule of others is so pervasive throughout the book that it is sometimes difficult to tell if he's really left the stage of sneering behind. This book delves a little deeper into Sedaris's own troubled past--particularly his obsessive compulsive tendencies--which certainly paints a more complete (and sympathetic) picture of the author. But he writes about others, even his family and his partner, with such a lack of affection that he ends up seeming like a complete narcissist. Which I suppose is a requirement if you're going to write your own memoirs and your name isn't Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln. But still. I think I would really love Sedaris if he seemed to actually care about others--any others. Bragg and Lamott and Reichl all seem to really care about and enjoy and appreciate so many of the characters they write about. Sedaris's sarcasm and wit, though amusing, end up robbing his writing of the emotional resonance readers crave.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris


David Sedaris is an excellent writer. There is no doubt about that. The man can turn a phrase and tell a story, and his unique perspective on the world results in some very amusing descriptions. The man can write, and reading good writing is always a pleasure.

Still, I can't seem to quite get on board with Sedaris the way I can with, say, Rick Bragg or Ruth Reichl or other "memoir" writers I truly love. And I'm not sure I can pinpoint the precise reason for this disconnect. Sedaris isn't as warm and affectionate a writer, to be true, and there's a slight undercurrent of anger and contempt in his work--an undercurrent that is unsettling and even disturbing at times.

Perhaps I am not being fair. Perhaps in his way, Sedaris is just as devoted to his family as Bragg. Perhaps he has a passion comparable to Reichl's love for food. But I just don't see it.

I guess that may be the difference--his work seems to lack joy. He has a killer sense of humor, and a sharp wit, and writes well, but he doesn't seem happy. He doesn't really write about things that he loves. Not that I am expecting a schlock-fest. But a little genuine joy goes a long way. Page after page of neurosis and sarcasm and wry wit gets old if you can't really see the heart behind it. Occasionally, a glimpse of real emotion peeps through, but I guess I'm a bigger softie than I realized, because without more heart, he'll never be one of my favorite authors.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Dark Descent, Volume 1: The Color of Evil, by David Hartwell (ed.)


I confess, I approached this collection with a skeptical eye. In my mind, the horror genre is composed of slashers and gore and torture porn--disgusting descriptions that repulse the discriminating reader while scintillating the low-brow Philistine who wants nothing more than to leer eagerly at ever more graphic tales of death and dismemberment. It seems I may have been mistaken. Certainly, every genre has its slums--after all, libraries are full of terrible science fiction, lurid overwrought romances, trite fantasy, and stultifying mysteries. However, it turns out that horror, at its best, is not all that far removed from more "respectable" genres. Indeed, many of the stories in this volume could easily be classified as science fiction or fantasy--and many science fiction stories are sufficiently spine-tingling to warrant inclusion in a horror anthology.

The editor argues that horror is a genre best expressed in short stories. I am no expert, and I've read few if any full length horror novels, but I will agree that these short stories are, by and large, quite good. As with any anthology, there are weaker entries--to my mind, "Mr. Justice Harbottle," "John Charrington's Wedding," and "Larger Than Oneself" were rather underwhelming--but the majority are quite solid, and several are excellent (most notably "The New Mother," "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Summer People," and "The Autopsy").

This was also my first foray into the world of Lovecraft, and I was not disappointed. I look forward to many Lovecraftian reading adventures in the future.

Though I still lack the stomach, or the enjoyment of raw terror, to be a true horror fan, I confess I am eager to read the rest of the collection. And I may be a little slower to turn my nose up at "lesser" genres in the future.

[NOTE:  The separate volumes of The Dark Descent are difficult to track down, but the complete set is available from Amazon at the link above.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien (Christian Encounters Series), by Mark Horne


A decent--if unimpressive--biography of Tolkien, ostensibly focused on his religious beliefs and the impact they had on his life and work. Based on this account, however, it seems that Tolkien, though a Christian, was less affected by his faith than by his relationships--with his wife, his children, and his various friends and colleagues. Horne portrays Tolkien as a gifted man (to the surprise of no one), but also conveys the idea that, as with many geniuses, he was irritatingly idiosyncratic and at times quite infuriating to those around him. The end result is a complex and full-bodied picture of a literary legend.

I was honestly surprised by the lack of information on Tolkien's faith, though that may not be the fault of the author. Horne identifies Tolkien as a Catholic, but his loyalty to that faith seems to have largely resulted from what he perceived as his mother's martyrdom and his close relationship to the priest who served as the guardian for Tolkien and his brother after their mother's death. It seems that it was this relational loyalty, rather than any particular theological conviction, that lead him to pressure his future wife to convert to the Catholic faith prior to their marriage.

However, I was encouraged to read about some of Tolkien's more annoying attributes (geniuses--they're just like us!), and was struck by his wife's patience with the man--first converting to Catholicism (a faith she never fully embraced) and then living and moving in academic circles (another source of discomfort for her) and enduring the 12 year wait for Tolkien to finally finish his three-part opus. While Tolkien may have referred to her as the Lúthien to his Beren (a romantic idea, to be sure), it had to be frustrating to deal with the day-to-day challenges of living with the man. This welcome glimpse into the reality of Tolkien's life and personality invigorated an otherwise unexceptional biography.

[NOTE: For more information on Tolkien, his life, his work, and the effect he's had on fantasy literature, I recommend The Modern Scholar's audio lectures Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, by Michael D.C. Drout.]

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, by C.W. Ceram


An excellent and informative book. Ceram's unquenchable passion and unflagging enthusiasm for his field are quite contagious. Presumably all archaeologists chose their field because they care deeply about it; however, this excitement does not always translate in their dry and often lifeless writing.

Furthermore, Ceram is no snobby academic--he is most delighted by significant contributions from non-traditional and amateur archaeologists. Not that these amateurs are poorly educated--he reiterates time and again their brilliance and dedication to learning about the cultures they studied. But in many cases, these impressive educations were self-wrought. Ceram tells of doctors and lawyers and businessmen who taught themselves a variety of foreign and ancient texts and otherwise equipped themselves to pursue lost cultures that fascinated them. It is, in fact, rather surprising that Ceram is a German, as he clearly relishes the self-made man/underdog stories that are so strongly identified with the American dream.

It is not surprising, however, that Ceram was employed as a journalist--he does not write in an esoteric style, but with all the joie de vivre of a man who loves his job and wants others to share in his enjoyment. And the stories themselves are far from boring--before archaeology was a precise, toothbrush-wielding science, it was any man's game, and an impassioned amateur was just as likely to stumble across an incredible find as anyone else. In light of Ceram's artfully told tales, the exploits of Indiana Jones seem much less improbable.

The book is admittedly rather long, but worth the time and energy. Plus it totally counts as educational reading, and makes an impressive addition to any library.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A generation of fragile narcissists

Meanwhile, rates of anxiety and depression have also risen in tandem with self-esteem. Why is this? “Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”
In early adulthood, this becomes a big problem. “People who feel like they’re unusually special end up alienating those around them,” Twenge says. “They don’t know how to work on teams as well or deal with limits. They get into the workplace and expect to be stimulated all the time, because their worlds were so structured with activities. They don’t like being told by a boss that their work might need improvement, and they feel insecure if they don’t get a constant stream of praise. They grew up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for participating, which is ludicrous and makes no sense when you apply it to actual sports games or work performance. Who would watch an NBA game with no winners or losers? Should everyone get paid the same amount, or get promoted, when some people have superior performance? They grew up in a bubble, so they get out into the real world and they start to feel lost and helpless. Kids who always have problems solved for them believe that they don’t know how to solve problems. And they’re right—they don’t.”
 ~"How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," by Lori Gottlieb (for The Atlantic).  See also "Failure Is Not an Option," by Collin Hansen (for The Gospel Coalition) for application to a child's spiritual development. 

The Seeing Stone (The Spiderwick Chronicles #2) by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi


Another excellent story. In this entry, Jared and his siblings continue to wrestle with the consequences of keeping the "Field Guide", as unwitting "bad boy" Jared must effect a rescue of his twin. He faces new enemies, makes new friends, and struggles to control the anger that has plagued him since his father left. Simon's love of animals proves both inconvenient and awesome; Mallory's skill with a blade comes in handy, too. Mark Hamill continues to impress (and I continue to long for the Gaiman drawl). I will definitely be listening to the rest of the series.

The Field Guide (The Spiderwick Chronicles #1), by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi


An excellent little book. The audiobook is particularly good (Mark Hamill is a surprisingly capable reader, and his voice has matured enough that I was only occasionally reminded of Star Wars), Given the eerie nature of the story, I couldn't help wishing Neil Gaiman had provided the narration, but that's hardly an indictment of Hamill; I wish Gaiman narrated everything, including my life.

Black has created a wonderful world of fantasy creatures, and I look forward to reading more of her works. Also, she incited a raging case of house envy, in that I very much want a house with a secret library. Great book for kids--it deals with issues of divorce, injustice, frustration, innocence, trust, honesty, fear, and change. It would be a great springboard for conversations about these difficult issues, particularly for children facing upsetting new circumstances in their lives, whether personal (like a divorce) or situational (like moving to a new town). Plus, it's a short, easy read (or listen, as the case may be).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, by Francis Chan


A decently written and unobjectionable book, but I'm still not really sure I get the point. It's a book about the Holy Spirit, sure, and Chan is clearly disturbed by the degree to which the Holy Spirit is ignored or misunderstood, but I felt like he never really got anywhere. The opening chapter convinced me that churches tend toward one extreme or the other and that both approaches are wrong (though this was something I had already been struck by), but I wasn't really sure about the purpose of the chapters that followed.

I did appreciate his willingness to challenge both the Pentecostal and more staid evangelical churches, and I don't think he said anything that was actually wrong. I just kept thinking he would get somewhere and never felt like he did. (Also, a few of his arguments included unsupported leaps that were less than convincing to me.)

Still, he's not a bad writer (or he had a good editor), and I'd be willing to read more of his stuff.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mary Emma & Company, by Ralph Moody


Another excellent read from Ralph Moody. I think I liked this one more than Fields of Home and very nearly as much as Man of the Family--largely because the Moodys are once again trying to make a living at odd jobs in a new situation. Ralph exercises his ingenuity and incredible work ethic, his mother works to provide for her family while also protecting their education and childhood.

I think I particularly like the way his sister Grace is portrayed. As a girl, she doesn't have the same ability to get the jobs Ralph gets, but she seems to be every bit as bright and hard-working as he is, and she gets her own sort of odd jobs and helps tackle family projects with gusto and creativity to match Ralph's. Although she doesn't get to go to school (education being less important for girls) she is presented as Ralph's equal, and they work well together.

In Little Britches, Ralph excelled at everything he tried and he was lauded by everyone he met. In this book, as in Man of the Family, he has to overcome obstacles to provide for the family, and his incredible talent, rather than being superfluous and suspect, is necessary--without it, the family might not have made it.

Here, too, Ralph encounters a new kind of injustice, in the form of a school teacher who has it out for him from the first. The teacher gets him into trouble with the law on more than one occasion, and for actions that were accidental or justifiable. Yet he bears the injustice with good grace--he addresses the police officer respectfully and answers honestly (in fact, it seems that the police officer ends up liking and respecting him in the end). He doesn't talk back to the teacher or complain about the injustice done him. He just buckles down and tries to stay out of trouble. In our current climate of whining and complaining about fairness and rights, his submission to authority is an excellent example.

All in all, this continues to be an excellent series--entertaining to be sure, but also convicting. The Moodys set a compelling example for children. If and when I have my own kids one day, I fully intend to read them this series. Hopefully they like it as much as I do.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Beatitudes: An Exposition of Matthew 5:1-12, by Thomas Watson


An extremely thorough (if long-winded) exposition of the Beatitudes. I still think I like Willard's interpretation better in The Divine Conspiracy. Watson (like Spurgeon and so many others) sees the Beatitudes as a list of godly attributes--aspirational qualities. Specifically, that the process of salvation and sanctification begins with being poor in spirit and progresses through the other Beatitudes. Willard, on the other hand, treats the Beatitudes as an "in spite of" list. To him, Jesus is saying that the poor in spirit--the "spiritually bankrupt"--are now blessed in the gospel, because access to and friendship with God is no longer limited to the religious elite. I've always felt that the "poor in spirit means knowing you are poor in spirit, i.e., being humble" was a strained interpretation. And Willard interpretation fits better with the anti-legalistic gospel message--the kingdom of God is now available to all people. Even the wretched "poor in spirit."

Still, Watson has some good things to say (and his conclusions are biblically sound, even if I'm not sure these particular verses support those conclusions). It's not up to Watson's usual writing, at least based on the few I've read (The Godly Man's Picture and All Things for Good). Watson is usually one of the more readable of the Puritan writers, but this book took some slogging. Also, it is an absolutely terrible edition--the whole thing is chocked full of typos (for example, "of" spelled "ov"--ugh) and egregious spacing errors (three small words spaced out over a whole line for no apparent reason--I know full justification is partly to blame, but that's just ridiculous). It's a shame the publishers didn't put a little more effort into making this edition more presentable.

Still, Watson (as always) has some very challenging things to say, and I will continue to read his work.

Hell House, by Richard Matheson


Confession: This book has a lot more graphic content than I tend to be comfortable with, and that is likely affecting my review.

Matheson sets out to tell a story of a "haunted" house to end all haunted houses. He wants to shock his audience with the horrors--physical and psychological--that are inflicted on the paranormal investigators . . . and he succeeds. I was pretty darn horrified, if I do say so myself. I understand what he was trying to accomplish--after all, in order for a "haunted" house to be truly scary, it needs to do terrible things to its visitors--but I'm not entirely sure the result was worth it. I can believe that a house is scary and possibly haunted without having all sorts of sickening and, well, horrifying things described to me in graphic detail.

Matheson clearly believes in the existence of evil. Although he keeps the reading guessing about whether the house is haunted by an actual dead entity or just some para-psychological energy source (without a "mind" and a "will" of its own), it is clear that--regardless of whether the house is well and truly haunted--the original owner was a genuinely evil man, in a very real and quite scary way. However, Matheson does not appear to think that the other characters in the story possess an innate capacity for evil; rather, their "evil" actions are the result of external forces.

He definitely keeps the reader engaged, and he's not a bad writer, but I'm still not convinced I needed to hear the details in order to appreciate the ideas he was trying to get across.

I'm not unwilling to give Matheson another try, though. It may be that I should just steer clear of books that are clearly part of the "horror" genre.

[NOTE: I listened to the audiobook, which was well done, but which may have also exacerbated the graphic nature of the book. It may that it's less obvious and overwhelming when read in book form.]

Friday, July 1, 2011

Where There's a Will, by Rex Stout


Decent enough mystery--a will, a femme fatale, a couple murders, some very unusual bequests. Not the most sparkling gem in the Wolfe universe, but still not a bad way to kill a couple hours.