book reviews, faith, history, humor, literature

Book Reviews, June 2015

The June installment of short book reviews has humor, a look at evangelical Christian purity culture, and two more World War II novels, one of which has an appearance by a certain famous detective.

  • Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg is an extremely silly book.  Imagine characters like Captain Ahab or Miss Havisham or Hermione Granger or Hamlet with smartphones sending snarky, funny, and/or weird texts to other characters from their respective stories and you have the premise of this book.  The jokes originated on the-toast.net, which Ortberg co-created, though it appears that many are exclusive to the book.  It’s pretty humorous, though I found myself nodding in appreciation to the jokes more than laughing.  I can really only recommend the book to English majors (or other readers of classics), as it is hard to imagine enjoying the book without a familiarity with the characters and plots.  Also, the gag can be a bit repetitive; it’s better one or two at a time, which is why it probably worked so well online.  For a sample, check out texts from Miss HavishamMoby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, or J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst is an immersive historical novel set in Europe in the run up and first days of the Second World War.  The protagonist is André Szara, a journalist working as a foreign correspondent for Pravda on the European continent.  He gets entangled in the world of espionage, and only near the end of the novel is he able to figure out completely the role he has played in the dealings between Russia and Germany in peace and war.  He is a survivor.  Historical novels can fall into a Forrest Gump trap by having characters happen to be at famous historical events, and this one is no different.  Szara is on hand for Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg of Poland.  In my experience, spy novels also run into trouble when they try to include a romance, which they often do.  And again, this one is no different.  Szara has two different affairs over the course of the novel that seem unrealistic.  The sad thing is that Furst handles the romance better than most, but it’s harder for me to overlook anymore.  I’d recommend this book to someone who likes spy novels because it’s definitely above average for the genre, but it’s probably not a gateway book into the genre for the common reader.
  • Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson is an interesting, if frustrating, book about purity culture within evangelical Christianity.  Purity culture includes things like complete abstinence before marriage and all of the behaviors that go along with it like purity pledges, purity rings, and purity balls (i.e. father-daughter proms essentially).  The book argues against purity culture primarily because it shames women and men for any type of sexual encounters before marriage, instead arguing for everyone to research and develop their own sexual ethics.  The book is essentially an advice book, which I found frustrating because I didn’t know that’s what kind of book it was before I read it, so I had some expectations that weren’t met.  But let me first mention the things I liked about the book.  Foremost, I liked how Anderson emphasized consent regarding sexual relationships.  It is one of her guiding sexual ethics that she came back to again and again throughout the book, as well as devoting an entire chapter to the subject.  The chapter on the history of purity culture was fascinating, but brief for my tastes (one of my hopes had been that there would be even more historical analysis).  The book also had a good description of gender as a performance that we enact based on social cues and pressures, with an accompanying and thorough explanation of what transgender means.  I suspect that many in her intended audience would find this part informative and helpful.  Her intended audience seems to be unmarried Christians who are still part of the purity culture.  In many ways the book functions as the anti-I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an advice book on the other end of the spectrum but still within Christian belief.  Aside from historical analysis, I was also expecting more grappling with Bible passages.  Anderson spends a chapter shooting down and problematizing the way that purity culture interprets key passages.  But I was expecting her to put forward more of her own interpretation and theology of sex (part of my expectation was based on the inside flap of the jacket which describes Anderson as a “theologian”).  Her main biblical advice is “do no harm,” or basically follow the Golden Rule to love our neighbors.  This is all well and good, but it’s not a guide that is particularly or exclusively Christian.  I think this book is a good start to the conversation, but not the last word, nor would Anderson herself want that as she hopes her readers will research and figure things out for themselves.
  • The Final Solution by Michael Chabon is a fun detective story, featuring an old man who has retired to the English countryside as a bee-keeper.  The character is never named, but he is clearly meant to be Sherlock Holmes in his dotage.  He no longer has a Watson to chronicle his adventures, so Chabon does not even try to recreate the style of the earlier stories.  Instead, Chabon writes in his own mellifluous, if sometimes flowery, style a mystery that is worthy of the detective.  It takes place during World War II and concerns a murder and a missing parrot.  I don’t want to say much more than that so that others can enjoy the book.  Though I do have to say that I guessed early on the significance of the numbers that the parrot repeats (perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but I still felt pleased with myself).  In my experience, it’s seeing how Sherlock Holmes (or any detective, really) arrives at his conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves that gives the most pleasure.  But in this case, there are some mysteries that the old man cannot suss out.  I would recommend it to any Sherlock Holmes fan.  It’s a fun little novel.
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2 thoughts on “Book Reviews, June 2015

  1. Patrick Nowak says:

    The fact that you used the words “dotage” and “melliflous” in the same book review is thoroughly impressive.

    With regard to the book on sexual purity I’m curious if you found yourself generally agreeing or disagreeing with the authors premise. Also, what inspired you to read the book in the first place?

    • Thanks! 🙂 It seemed appropriate for a review of a Chabon book (and a Sherlock Holmes book, for that matter).

      I was interested in the book on purity culture for a few reasons. First, I discovered Anderson’s blog while reading some other Christian feminists and thought she had some interesting things to say. Then I found out that she is from the same South Dakota city where I’m currently living (though I haven’t met her). I requested that the public library purchase her book in part to support a local author and because I was interested to read it. As I mention in the review, I was expecting it to be more of an analysis of purity culture, which interests me to understand a part of the evangelical culture we grew up in. I think the strongest wave of purity culture arrived soon after we were in high school, so we missed some of the elements, though certainly not all. The campus pastor at my Christian college encouraged everyone to sign a purity pledge during chapel. I thought the exercise was kind of ridiculous (my quietly rebellious streak showing) because I don’t really like public displays of spirituality. I realize that many others feel differently. And also research does show that public commitments can help people to keep their pledges, so signing a purity pledge might help someone to stay pure when they are finding it hard to do so.

      Anyway, as I mention above, I agreed with many things in the book, but I also found myself perplexed and not really knowing what to think about others. For example, one chapter had celibacy in the title, so I figured it would present a positive case for some people choosing celibacy (her overriding theme was that individuals should choose for themselves what sexual ethic they will follow). Instead, the chapter ended up arguing against abstinence education. Now I agree with her that abstinence education is ineffective and inadequate in preventing teen pregnancies and STDs. Students should learn about sexual health and safety. Ignorance does not serve them well. But I was hoping that she would address the idea of chosen celibacy as a life option (not forced celibacy like Catholic priests and nuns) and what might be positives and/or negatives of such a choice. Instead, it never came up in the book. She was much more focused on the topic of sex before marriage.

      So as for her main premise that everyone should choose for themselves, I found it dissatisfying. While I agree with her that the Golden Rule should be followed in our relationships, I was expecting some more guidance. She points out many instances of purity culture followers taking verses out of context and distorting their meaning. I appreciated the corrective, but I expected her to offer alternative explanations or principles beyond the Golden Rule. I’m not entirely sure what I think are the principles from the Bible that should be followed. I’m still thinking through the issue. So, as I said, I found the book a good start on getting me thinking, but there’s a lot more for me to figure out before I can say here’s what I believe.

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