Monday, June 27, 2011

C. S. Lewis explains life, the universe, and everything

Book: Mere Christianity

Author: Clive Staples Lewis

Published: 1952 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 227

Three months ago, I found a copy of this book in a PUT YOUR UNWANTED THINGS HERE box on Winthrop University’s campus. I fished the book out and brought it home with me because a few hours earlier, a very dear friend of mine had recommended it to explain his faith.

It seemed like either his God or my Coincidences thought I should read it, too, so finally, after staring it down in my dorm and making sure it moved out with me and inching it higher on my to-read pile, I read it this past week.

To avoid exposing the weirder emotions I had while reading this, I’m reverting to that Internet hermit’s favorite: the list analysis.

What I Liked
  1. The way the words flowed. Lewis wrote most of this book first as radio essays, which keeps the sentences short and easy to follow. His big ideas stay fairly clear
  2. How he explained the “three-personal god” through a dimensional model. He talks about how 2-D squares are made up of 1-D lines, how 3-D cubes are made of 2-D squares, and how each level builds on the next to create something more than the sums of the first levels. “As you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways—in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.” It’s the clearest explanation of the Trinity that I’ve ever heard.
  3. His definition of faith: “…the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Yeah. Moods DO change a lot. They ARE pretty unreliable as barometers of what we’ve anchored our lives to.
  4. His hate the sinner not the sin approach to forgiveness. It’s not a unique view, but it’s my favorite (as applied to humanism, my preferred moral code).
  5. His distinction between begetting and creating. I’d never thought of a difference before, but begetting means producing something of you from a part of yourself so it’s like you, and creating means making something that imitates you but isn’t like you. …Yeah. “A man begets a child, but he only makes a statue.” That.
  6. I’m sorry if this is blasphemous, but Lewis's Time and Beyond Time chapter made me think of Dr. Who. "Time isn't a straight line. It's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly...timey-wimey...stuff." ("It--got away from me, yeah...") That’s not a bad thing. That’s an excellent way of explaining how God could possibly do a quarter of the things he’s supposed to attend to: time is not linear for him (or David Tennant). He’s all time at the same time.
What I Didn’t Like (mostly from the first half of the book, which I found infinitely more frustrating than the back end)
  1.  How each question of logic was answered with such black and white choices. These are the only two possible explanations in the universe, and of course that one’s ridiculous, so option B is the only sane choice. …But why? Lewis rarely gives a clear reason why anything’s ridiculous except that it is. Throw in some laws of physics, theories of psychology, something please.
  2. He does chase his own tail sometimes when he says he’s going deeper into a subject. Not all the time, by any means, but enough to notice.
  3. The little flairs of condescending phrasing (“Now, don’t worry if you can’t wrap your head round this…”). I don’t know if these are left in from when people were listening to him and couldn’t go back and reread his words, but they still bother me.
  4. His stance on women. If I ever get married, it will be an equal partnership. End of story. I’ll defer judgment to my partner only when I know he knows something about whatever he’s supposed to decide, thanks. If we disagree, we’ll get an informed expert third-party opinion (Wikipedia).
It was interesting. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gritty reboot: flimflam edition

Book: Matchstick Men

Author: Eric Garcia

Published: 2002 (Villard)

Pages: 228

I can sum up this book in five words: gritty reboot of Paper Moon. That, my friends, makes a very enjoyable read.

Seriously, it’s a little eerie. Both books are about con men who are estranged fathers of young daughters who end up coming with them and show precocious knacks for helping with jobs. Even a couple of the cons are the same, most notably the one where the con man (or girl) goes to pay for something cheap with a twenty-dollar bill. The clerk gives back $19.50 or whatever in change, but just before the con man (or girl) gets out the door, they say, “Oh hey look, I do have the exact amount,” and give the clerk that in exchange for the twenty-dollar bill. If they keep the clerk chatting or flirting hard enough, the con nets the $19.50 in change the clerk doesn’t think to ask back.

It works stupidly well in both books.

I like both of the girls, too. They’re written as bright stubborn things who use their wills to get what they want done in matter-of-fact ways that betray fierce loyalties to their dads as the first grownups who’ve shown them any kind of respect.

The biggest differences between these books are the settings, the group dynamics, and how that affects the outcomes. In Matchstick Men, Roy has a partner he works with long before his daughter comes into the picture. This is important to the natural progression of the twist ending that, by the end of everything, seems inevitable.

I can’t get over how smooth that twist is. It’s the best I’ve read in many a book. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Go read. Or watch the movie. This is one time I’m comfortable with recommending both adaptations equally.

Same for Paper Moon, actually. So…bumping around through the Depression stealing cotton, or twitching around a modern city processing art forgeries? Colorful Southern expressions or flinty Yankee curses? Ryan O’Neil or Nicholas Cage? Both. ALL.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Notes on my people

Book: Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd

Authors: various (edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci)

Published: 2009 (Little, Brown and Company)

Pages: 403

This was another book that had me before I opened the front cover. As soon as I read the subtitle, I wanted to read the whole thing.

It’s a collection of stories, I think written especially for this, about being a nerd. All kinds of nerds are represented, neatly classified into their own subgenres and lovingly drawn as real people who just want a little bit more in life than their peers.

Since this is a YA collection—it is, isn’t it? It was on the YA shelf at my library and has a big YA sticker on its spine, which I realize doesn’t have to mean doodly-squat, but it’s the best classification system I have access to—all of the protagonists are high school age or younger. Almost all of them have those high school problems that seem so vitally important until you get away from them; yet I got caught up in everything and didn’t once feel the urge to scream 
“It won’t matter!”

Because these guys are wrestling with nothing less than their identity. And I know how they feel. It does matter.

Now for the less philosophisin’ stuff. I didn’t like the geek references that were thrown in for no better reason than “Hey! Look! TV show/movie/book we all like! Inside joke about that!” There was a couple. I didn’t especially like the cheerleader-learns-from-nerds setup of the second story, but not because it was written badly; it just used too much of popular versus non-popular high school cliché.

“The Truth About Dino Girl” appalled me. Its setup was good—geeky girl loves popular girl’s boyfriend, popular girl finds out and makes mild fun of geeky girl, tells her boyfriend. Geeky girl is mortified. Very, very understandable. But then she retaliates with just pure cruelty. I’m torn. Points for making the geeky girl worse than the popular girl unexpectedly, but points taken away for how unnecessarily vicious it was. One big reason that outcasts make good protagonists is their finely honed sense of justice, which is completely skewed here.

But I really liked how the authors in this collection showed how varied and interesting geeks and geek interests are. Yes, we’re weird kids, but we’re better people because of it.

Also, comics by the guy who does Scott Pilgrim.          

Monday, June 13, 2011

False titling

Book: Absolute Truths

Author: Susan Howatch

Publication: 1995 (Knopf)

Pages: 560

Religion. Hoo boy.

You need to know this is a touchy subject for me. I’m not religious, but a few people I love are, and that divide’s made things difficult.

It’s made me want to understand other people’s views on religion and why they think and feel the ways they do. I know your basic Southern-kid-who-went-to-church theology, but I want to learn about the human side of it. Unfortunately, this book kept me at arm’s length.

Despite spanning over 500 pages, the story never gets anywhere. It’s about a senior clergyman in the Church of England—a bishop who’s sort of like the CEO of this small town’s church system, although I never got a clear picture of the whole infrastructure so that metaphor might be off—who has to juggle his job, his God, and the death of his wife as intermingling factors he has to deal with at the same time to get some peace.

Cool! Ripe for some heavy philosophical discussion and reflection! I mean, we all know it’s going to end in a deeper appreciation of God because that’s just how these things work, but still—interesting journey is still worth the trip! Yes?

No. Not when everybody lectures instead of speaks; not when the protagonist has such a talent for drowning the truly scandalous (interesting) bits in wordy paragraphs that start with sentences like, “This is too irredeemable for me to even consider to put on paper, suffice to say”; not when the rest of the prose reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel only without the murder or quirkier human details. 

I had such high hopes at page 39, when the bishop’s wife asks him, “What happens to the people who just can’t fit into this neat, orderly world designed by the Church?” YES. What DOES happen to them?

I still don’t know. He just says that surely it’s in his favor that he has no idea what it’s like to be a homosexual, and then dodges the rest of her questions until she gets too exasperated to keep asking. And the big, scandalizing secret about his adopted son’s father (who had an affair with the bishop’s wife right before she became the bishop’s wife)? He was actually a good man instead of a bastard.

OH MY STARS AND GARTERS. THAT…wait, that’s not worth any of this massive pile of angst you’ve put yourself and your reader through. There are a couple more anti-reveals like that instead of a satisfying wah-bam climax. Shhffft. (That’s my frustrated sound, blown through pursed lips while scowling.)

No absolute truths are ever revealed. I call out Howatch for false titling. 

However, this is the last book in a series. Each novel is self-contained but interlocking, and I think maybe the one that describes the great spiritual crisis of 1937 might be more interesting, because that is alluded to CONSTANTLY as the start of everything. Except that book’s also narrated by the same protagonist. If it was narrated by the bishop’s wife, I would totally give that one a chance. Her name is Lyle and she’s awesome but she dies of a brain aneurysm.   

Friday, June 10, 2011

Return your books or you won't go to heaven.

Book: Library Mascot Cage Match: an Unshelved Collection

Authors: Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum

Publication: 2005 (Overdue Media)

Pages: 120

When I walk my books into the library instead of using the book drop outside, I get distracted by stuff like this.

It’s a collection of the comic strip Unshelved (which is online and updates five days a week; your move, xkcd), so there’s no overarching plotline except that library life is crazy, so to sum up why I love this, just read the dialogue of this particular strip.

Patron: Those teenagers are talking on the pay phone!
Dewey (teen librarian): Sorry, that’s allowed.
Patron: And playing games on the computer!
Dewey: Also okay.
Patron: Now they’re tearing up library books!
Dewey: No they’re not.
Patron: How did you know?
Dewey: We can sense it. Part of our training on Dagobah.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Old Kentucky home

Book: Girl Trouble

Author: Holly Goddard Jones

Publication: 2009 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 322

You shouldn’t look to literary fiction to cheer you up about the human condition; it’s not going to work. Jones’s stories, all set in the fictional Kentucky town of Roma, pile common yet life-shattering pains onto regular people and make them work things out for themselves. Just like in the real world.

A high school coach has to deal with getting one of his players pregnant, a divorced woman has to deal with her husband rebuilding on the land they use to live (where she got raped in their cheap starter house), a young college-bound man has to deal with loving his buddy’s girl and not his own girlfriend, a young girl has to deal with her budding sexuality around a couple who lost their own child. There’s a trend of violence and sexuality playing off each other, on purpose but mostly accidentally, and a trend of the town elders being just as clueless, only in different ways, as their children.  

I like how ordinary her characters are. It makes them feel like real people and gives the circumstances universality they wouldn’t have if she wrote about what she calls the two Kentucky stereotypes: rich mint-julep-sipping horse breeders or feral hillbillies. I have no empathy for either of those, but I can identify really well with young people who are trying to get out of town without screwing up enough to keep them home all their lives. They fail, and it breaks my heart a little. Their parents help the best they can or know how to, and most of the time it’s not enough.

Taken individually, each story feels slightly generic in its treatment of conflict that’s been dealt with so much before in fiction. Taken together, it all gets a little heavy in a This Could Happen to You and You Would Have No Idea How to Handle It Any Better way.

These are depressing stories told well.

Attack of the shit-weasels

Book: Dreamcatcher

Author: Stephen King

Publication: 2001 (Scribner)

Pages: 617

Over the past few summers, I’ve made it a soft, unofficial goal to read all of King’s non-Dark Tower books. Dreamcatcher is one that I’ve put off a couple times for stories that looked more interesting. I wasn’t terribly eager to slough through bastardized Native American mythology or another The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. (That book was good. Let a good thing stand on its own, King.)

But this book isn’t like either of my expectations, and that was enough to keep me reading. 
Aliens and weasel-larvae who chew through humans’ intestines to spread a reddish-gold virus that grows worse than kudzu should be really, really interesting. Except the aliens have been here doing diddly-shit since the 1940s, the weasels provide way too many excuses for fart jokes, and the virus can’t survive Maine winter so it dies out without anyone’s help.

Hear that “wamp-wahhh” sound? That’s what an anticlimax sounds like.

My two main problems with this book as a writer: 
  1. The dreamcatcher. It’s unnecessary. It feels like King thought he needed something specific and physical to hang all the metaphysical  stuff on, but he already had that in Duddits. Saying “This is all in the Dreamcatcher” Is actually way more confusing than just admitting, “Okay, dudes, we’re in Duddit’s mind and have to finish this quickly so shit gets done before he dies. 
  2.  The women. I’m only complaining about this because I know King can write good women characters but doesn’t do it enough. In this book, every single woman is either stupid or mean. Sigh. 

There was still good stuff in here. King can write buddies like he’s taking dictation from bull sessions; he’s particularly great at getting the casual but still newly obscene rhythms of young teenage speech. I’ve gotten a few of my favorite swears from him: “Jesus Christ in a chariot-driven sidecar” is one, and “bitch-kitty” always seems to sum up a pounding headache. I love his leaders gone crazy, who always pump their deranged messages like evangelical showmen. I liked that the ending to this book is both hard-earned and neatly sewn up. That’s a really difficult balance, especially for a full science fiction showdown.

I also found this quote: “Pride was the belt you could use to hold up your pants even after your pants were gone.” It has nothing to do with any of the major themes or plot threads, but it’s great, and true, and therefore I can’t hate this book.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lack of squishy armchairs

A few days ago, I went to my hometown’s Boarder’s and started paging through a book about submitting writing to publishers to decide if it was worth its $3.95 sidewalk discount price. Sort of an exercise in futility, since I didn’t actually have $3.95 and couldn’t convince my mom it would be an investment in my future after I laughed at how obvious most of the advice was. But I kept digging deeper into it, convinced I would miss something important during my 2pm speed-read and equally convinced there was nothing there and I’d be cheated if I paid money for it.

Bookstores drive me crazy. There’s just so much crammed into such a relatively small space—millions of words covering thousands of ideas bound up in hundreds of neat packages stacked together waiting patiently to unleash their power. It’s amazing.

I love the journal sections, too. I’ll pick up each one that has a pretty cover and flip through it like I’m expecting messages already scribbled in there. All those blank pages beg to be filled with ideas instantly so they can start being read.

And it makes me nauseous. I want to read everything at once, so I end up overwhelming myself, paralyzing myself with indecision. I already have so many novels—but I love them, they’re my favorite thing to read—so all the more reason to get something else—but do I get something I know I’ll agree with? Something I can argue? Something entertaining, light, serious, easy or hard or middlebrow but profound? True or not true or just true in the author’s mind? Gah!

Not having money to spend doesn’t help me from wanting. It does help my ultimate decision, though: nothing. I’ll buy nothing but enjoy myself all the same by grabbing a Poets and Writers, turning to its classifieds and scoping out which writing contests have reasonable deadlines and no entry fees. Doing this will also help me decide that chain bookstores need more squishy armchairs.