Sunday, November 27, 2011

If you can't go home, you can always go to Florida and paint!

by Mailynne Robinson
325 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008

I was kind of disappointed with Home, the follow-up novel to Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning Gilead.  Gilead happens to be my favorite book, so I suppose just about anything after that is going to be downhill somewhat, but I felt like this book was missing a lot of the charm that the first one held, and a lot of that was because of the shift in protagonists. 

Now, before I continue I have to say that this book was very well-received by critics, so it's most likely a case of it not being to my specific taste.  I can tell that the prose is, again, beautiful, and the characters endearing in their own tragic ways, but the overall effect was overwhelmingly melancholy to me for the most part, and I generally put the book down feeling worse than when I'd started reading.  Which is fine sometimes, but I kept hoping for a more hopeful bent like Gilead often offered, only to find the hope in Home was usually shot to pieces pretty quickly. 

Home follows the day-to-day existence of Glory Bouhgton, a minor character from Gilead, and her brother Jack, a fairly major character from the earlier book.  It takes place concurrently with Robinson's earlier novel and occasionally crosses over, covering or referring to scenes from the other book. Glory and Jack are caring for their aged father, the Reverent Robert Boughton, who is in his last days, in their childhood home of Gilead, Iowa.  The house is empty and depressing, and Glory's life has led to a pretty significant amount of disappointment and disappointment.  Jack, the family's black sheep, arrives at home, and it is the first anyone in the family has seen or heard from him in twenty years.  And while the first part of the book is somewhat slow-moving, I actually really liked about the first sixty to seventy percent of the book.  There are some great scenes and a lot of genuinely touching moments.  (I'll say that it helped a lot to have Gilead in the back of my mind throughout; without that foundation, I would likely not have made it through the early stages of this book)  After a while, though, it seemed (to me) like things sort of screeched to a halt, and I felt the story was just going around in fairly dismal circles until it came to the end.  By the time things wound up, I was pretty much ready for everyone to move on, and I felt the book ended with a resounding, "Eh." 

Again, it's probably because I loved the first book so much, and while I wasn't looking for a copy of Gilead I found the more consistently somber tone of Home a bit of a downer.  The book is at its strongest in the relationship between Glory and Jack and (when they occur) the scenes between Jack and the Ames family.  I also thought it really handled Jack's crisis of faith (and Glory's, to a lesser extent) extremely well. Essentially, Jack seems to be an agnostic who really wishes he could believe in God, and it leads to some great dialogue and even better ideological food for thought.  (The porch discussion with the Ames' about predestination, a small moment in Gilead, is a magnificent scene here)  Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of wonderful moments throughout this book.  In the end, however, it just left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Duma Key
by Stephen King
611 pages
Scribner, New York, 2008

Stephen King is the master of making you either forget or not care that the premise of the entire novel makes absolutely no sense.  Such is the case with Duma Key.  (And The Talisman.  And The Dead Zone.  And many elements of the Dark Tower series. And others, I'm sure!)  I liked Duma Key a lot.  And I acknowledge that, when you sit down and explain the whole story, front to back, it sounds kind of stupid.  But that's why you read the novel and not a silly synopsis. 

Duma Key is a thriller, summer blockbuster style. In a way, it's a variation on the age-old haunted house theme.  It's got some very Stephen King-y moments (like the anger management dolls, sudden horrific apparitions, everyday objects that are for some reason suddenly terrifying), so if you just don't like his other books, you won't like this one.  In a lot of ways, though, it feels different from the other King books I've read.  For one thing, it's written in first person, and you'd be surprised how much of a difference that makes.  For another, it doesn't start out trying to creep you out with supernatural hoodoo.  (Unexpected: hoodoo is a-ok with the spell checker)  Yeah, pretty crazy and supernatural things are happening to the guy, and there's some foraying into the Ominous, but while you know eventually everything will go wrong, it really does look like things are going pretty well for this guy...


Seriously, though, when this story turns on its head, it really turns quickly and completely.  And it's a change from a lot of other King I've read, where things start out creepy and dark and evil and then they pretty much stay that way. 

My friend who recommended this one said it's one of King's better novels, and from what I've read I'd definitely agree.  It's also the first book I've read that got me sorta creeped out.  I actually hesitated before flipping on a light switch in a pitch-black room after reading a few chapters one night, and that doesn't usually happen to me. 


 Now, of these two, Home is obviously the better book.  But Duma Key left me the most satisfied of the two.  Then again, I've always suspected I have bad taste. 

I'm currently reading a John Piper book, and after that it's the Month of Christmas Books!  I didn't get too many suggestions, so I just did a quick catalog search for "Christmas" in the Houston Public Library.  I've got a western, a romantic comedy, a murder mystery, a heartwarming tale, and something with no description whatsoever on the way.  I'm excited.  Let's have some Christmas, folks!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Always Playing Catch-Up

But, what ya gonna do?  Aside from, you know, "stay on top of things," that is.  Because that is clearly not an option. 

I was pretty excited about Scary Book Month for October.  I even started with Stephen King and Peter Straub.  Got just over 350 pages into it and then...I lost it.  Which is awesome, because it's a borrowed copy.  I set it aside to take with my to my church leaders' conference (which is all kinds of funny in and of itself) and then I just couldn't find it again.  After four days of not reading The Talisman, I realized I didn't really miss it much and wasn't too concerned about what was going to happen next.  This, despite the fact that the last line in the book that I had read was, "And then all hell broke loose."  So maybe I'll finish that one one day.  Probably not anytime too soon, though.  I mean, it wasn't bad, but I just never really got into it.  I didn't particularly care for the boy or his mom, I found the fantasy world-jumping to be a little tedious, and while I was a little bit interested in the story about the boy's father, it wasn't enough to keep me plodding through the random episodes involving evil trees or donkey-faced mutants or abusive bar owners.  The book just never really felt like it was going anywhere, and when there are over 700 pages to read I like to be fairly certain nearly halfway in that I'm going to enjoy the rest of the journey. 

Since I lost Talisman, I bought a book at the airport book store to keep me company on the flight to Chicago.  At the conference, I picked up a few book titles I wanted to check out, and eventually Scary Book Month was dead before October 10th.  I guess this doesn't bode too well for Christmas Book Month, but I do love a good theme so I'll give it a go anyway. 

As for the books I actually have finished lately:

Pirate Latitudes
by Michael Crichton
384 pages
Harper Collins, 2009

Did you know that Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park, Congo, Timeline, and lots of other things that turned into action movies) wrote a pirate adventure novel right before he died?  And that they found the completed manuscript in his desk drawer when they were going through his things? 

Sound a tad sketchy?  Yeah, but no big deal.  Bottom line, we got a pirate novel from Michael Crichton.  It's exciting, the characters are good, and the thing moves along at a good steady clip.  You have all of your pirate story cliches, including a sea monster battle, but nothing ever feels too forced.  It's more coherent than certain largely-successful Hollywood pirate stories, that's for sure.  I will say I wasn't too crazy about the last portion of the story. It kind of goes from being an adventure story on the high seas to a gruesome revenge plot, and parts of this last storyline seem really forced or just unnecessary.  Okay, fine, I'll just say it: (SPOILERS)

When the guy  hits his pregnant wife and then forces his best friend to have sex with her while he watches, and the other guy, sorry.  Totally unnecessary, doesn't advance the characters at all, we've already had plenty of evidence that he's an evil jerk--for no apparent reason, by the way--this did NOT need to be included.  Also, since I'm spoiling, the entire town's sudden shift to this suddenly power-mad secretary from earlier in the book is kind of ridiculous.  So yeah, the book could have ended with them coming home, or at least the ending could have been thought out quite a bit better.


On the whole, this book served its purpose.  It was entertaining, it was about pirates, it was a quick read, and it passed some time.  So, good on 'ya one last time, Michael Crichton. 

Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?: A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism, and Christianity
by Preston James and Greg Claflin
165 pages
InterVarsity Press, 2006

This is one of those "a Christian and an atheist have a debate" books, though "debate" is not really the right word because it never feels like either is trying to "win."  Rather, both the Christian James and the Naturalist Claflin (lead singer of Bad Religion) use their email exchange to clarify their own positions while getting a clearer picture of the other's stance.  While the tone is very respectful throughout, both men stick to their guns throughout the discussion.  The exchange is very natural and realistic because it appears to be presented without an ulterior motive despite the fact that the book is published by a Christian publisher.  (That said, the final email in the book is from James, and was one of his stronger entries.  We never see how Claflin replied.  Then again, since the book wasn't really designed to come to a neat and tidy conclusion, it did have to end somewhere, and one can surmise this was the point where the discussion began to become a bit repetitive)  Both Claflin and James approved the the book (though there's no direct comment from Claflin about the book itself within its covers) and both sides end the discussion in pretty much the same place they began it. 

The back-and-forth is quite engaging.  I read the book in about a day.  And I appreciated that it didn't become the typical Christian apologetics book where the atheist comes up with the same stock arguments that are easily shot down by the wise believer.  In fact, James gets flat out beaten on certain points at times, and this book makes no pretense about it.  James also comments that his dialogue with Claflin forced him to think more critically about his faith than many of his doctorate-level classes.  And therein, I think, is the value in a book like this.  Claflin presents some legitimate heavyweight arguments against not just Christianity, but faith in general.  Again, he's not seeking a fight with James or anybody else, but he's very certain of his beliefs and he articulates those beliefs well.  Similarly, James knows his stuff and never gives the cliche Christian responses that so often leave non-believers frustrated with these discussions.  Both sides end up conceding on points, and it's honestly a lot of fun to "listen in" on the discussion.  Ultimately, however, if you're looking for a payoff, you're not going to get one here.  You'll get a lot of book recommendations, but the discussion just suddenly stops, and then the book is over.  You get a footnote that the two continue to keep in tough and are at a friendly standstill, but as for this book itself, it just feels like it cuts off in the middle of a question.  Which isn't a diss on the book, just a warning to anybody who goes in expecting any sort of conclusion :-)

Ordering Your Private World
by Gordon MacDonald
181 pages
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985

I don't have a whole lot to say about this book.  It was recommended at the ministry conference I was attending for folks who feel like they have trouble balancing everything in their lives.  Well, that's-a me!  This book was pretty good, but most of what it has to say isn't really a new concept to me.  It did give some good tips on prayer journaling, time management, and that sort of thing, and it does a great job of identifying the symptoms of what an unhealthy life looks like (hint; mine.  Actually, a lot of folks I know and love, too).  It wasn't really earth-shattering, though.  I'd like to find an old copy for sale sometime because there are lots of great quotes to underline and keep at the front of my mind.  Also, I did take away a few things I want to start practicing in my own life.  So it's a good book.  Just not one that leaves you with a lot to say.

Oh, although this was really frustrating: he talked about keeping a Sabbath, and actually keeping it as an actual holy day.  He mentions he and his wife protecting one day a week to use as a day of spiritual retreat, and then he goes on about all the many things they do, together and alone, during their Lord's day.  And I'm thinking, "That's awesome, but what do you do when you have young children who are in constant need of your attention and supervision?"  And toward the end of that chapter, he writes (paraphrase, but an accurate paraphrase), "Obviously, when our children were younger and required more of our direct attention, this sort of routine would not have been possible." 

Fan-freaking-tastic.  So, Kim and I can start having positive, refreshing periods of rest and about twelve years.  Yeah, I actually got really frustrated when I read that, because there seemed to be no suggestion for what to do if you do have little ones hanging off you most of the time. 

That's my only gripe with this book, though. The book itself was a lot more than the 181 pages I listed, but the last 1/3 of it was study guide, and since it was an ILL request and due back at the library I just sorta skipped the study guide.  Don't have enough time in your life to read a book about ordering your life AND handle the study questions?  Might be part of the problem. 


Anyway, I'm just about done with Home, the sorta-sequel to my favorite book, Gilead, and then I've got another King book from the library (hopefully a bit more focused than Talisman was), and then I plan to do a month of Christmas-related books.