book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature

Book Reviews, March 2016

The book reviews for this month are another varied bunch–a historical mystery, some short stories about a party, a coming of age graphic novel, and a book about the Bible.  The last one goes longer than usual since I had a lot to say about it as it relates to my recent wrestling with modern scholarship on the Bible.

  • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) is an intriguing mystery from British history.  The Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg and bored out of his mind.  Friends visit him and bring him books to read, but it isn’t until he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that he engages his deductive skills.  He wonders what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, Richard’s two nephews who most everyone believes that Richard himself had killed in order to secure the throne.  Grant has trouble reconciling the awful crime with the face of the man in the portrait, so he sets out to figure out the mystery of what happened to the two boys once and for all.  It’s a fascinating historical whodunit (and often funny), tracing various historical sources with a detective’s eye for evidence and motive.  I especially liked how it emphasized mythmaking in the historical record and how those myths can come about.  I was able to follow the historical characters and events, but I have some familiarity because of the many British literature courses I’ve taken.  I now wish I had paid even more attention to the history bits in those classes.  My only complaint is that the front cover of the book had the blurb: “One of the best mysteries of all time,” which raised my expectations too high.  I enjoyed it plenty, but it probably never could have lived up to that statement.
  • Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf is a collection of stories that serve as a good companion to her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway.  From the introduction to the book we learn that the stories were written at the same time as or just after the writing of the novel, the latter of which was especially unusual for Woolf.  She usually moved on to something different when she completed a novel.  But she was interested in what she called in her writing diary “party consciousness,” that something about the gathering together of so many people under one roof that was both more artificial and more real than everyday life.  In the course of seven stories we encounter a guest whose speech would fill a book and others who stand on the fringes hardly able to utter a syllable.  There are misunderstandings and miscommunications as social opposites are introduced to one another.  One woman worries the entire night about having worn the wrong dress that is not the current fashion.  She had thought to wear something unique, but instead ruminated on the decision the entire party.  Another man thought that he was so above the other party goers and their frivolity that he could barely deign to converse with anyone, and when he did it was with only the utmost condescension.  I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book, but I have to say that it works best as a companion to the novel.

this one summer

  • This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, is a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  Rose and Windy are like most kids: they want to grow up.  They talk about their soon to be developing breasts.  They go to the tiny convenience store to buy candy and rent classic horror movies, which they watch to feel older.  The 18 year old guys who clerk at the store don’t care that they aren’t old enough to be renting R-rated movies.  Those guys are fascinating to the girls, but the girls can hardly put into words how they make them feel.  The guys have their own drama with the young women their own age in town, which Rose and Windy watch as well, trying to figure out what is going on.  And in her own cabin, Rose’s parents are having conflicts that she thinks she gets, but like most everything else, she misunderstands what’s really going on.  It’s a beautiful story.  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.  I would definitely recommend this book.
  • Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is an essential book.  I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  In three main sections, Enns looks at supposed problems in the Old Testament that his incarnational analogy help resolve.  The first is the matter of the close parallels of material from the Old Testament with Ancient Near Eastern literature.  For example, the epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that possibly predates the account in Genesis.  The law code of Hammurabi of Babylon has laws that are similarly worded to laws in Exodus.  Enns points out that the Bible is part of the cultural context in which it was given, meaning that the law codes should be similar and it should have similar myths concerning origins (myth here meaning a story to explain who we are and where we come from, not that it is made up).  The second section deals with the diversity of the Old Testament.  By diversity, he means that there are multiple voices speaking, sometimes in tension.  For instance, in Proverbs sometimes the wisdom that is expressed in one verse contradicts what one finds in another verse (e.g. Proverbs 26:4,5 “Do not answer a fool..” vs. “Answer a fool…”).  It turns out that the wisdom of Proverbs is situational.  Another example that is even more forceful is the difference of the historical account in Chronicles with the similar accounts in Samuel and Kings.  The account in Samuel and Kings emphasizes the centrality of worship, and the kings are evaluated on their ability to centralize worship in the temple (i.e. get rid of the high places and Baal and Asherah worship).  The texts were likely written during the exile in order to explain why they were in exile.  It was because they didn’t follow God and get rid of idol worship that they were handed over to foreign powers.  But in Chronicles, which in the Jewish Bible is placed at the very end after all of the prophets and not directly after Kings, the point is to explain how they can be God’s people after the exile.  It is from the point of view of those who returned back to the land and began again with Ezra and Nehemiah.  Chronicles emphasizes the unity of the people and elevates the stature of figures like David and Solomon making them into heroes (much like American history often elevates the Founding Fathers, glossing over their failures).  I first encountered this multi-voiced history of Kings and Chronicles in Josh Way’s excellent podcast on the Bible (click here to listen or read the transcript).  Enns points out that diversity in Scripture is to be expected because God is speaking to different situations throughout Israel’s history, accommodating himself to wherever they find themselves at that point.  The third section concerns the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.  The gospel writers and Paul use the Old Testament verses in ways that we wouldn’t normally consider proper if we heard them used in the pulpit on a Sunday.  They seem to wrench things out of context at times in order to make their own point.  One example includes Matthew’s insistence that Jesus going to Egypt with his parents to avoid Herod is a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea.  But the context of the passage in Hosea is looking backwards to Israel being delivered from Egypt, not a forward looking prophecy about the future messiah.  Matthew appears to be quoting out of context.  But he is merely using similar methods that were used at that time, the Second Temple period.  The writers in the New Testament are showing how passages in the Old Testament point towards Jesus, even if they are not direct prophecies.  Enns introduces the word christotelic, in that the history of Israel in the Old Testament is leading towards and is fulfilled in Christ.  My version of the book (the second edition) had a helpful postscript that reiterated his points and dealt with some of the reactions and arguments that his book elicited when it was first published ten years ago.  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.
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book reviews, comics, history, literature

Book Reviews, December 2015

This is my final installment of book reviews for the year, soon to be followed with a year end wrap up of the best books I read in 2015. Watch this space!  In the meantime, listen to this song from Hamilton, the musical about the founding generation of America, as you read a relevant book review (the first one, anyway).

  • Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a look at six episodes of the early days of the American Republic.  One advantage of the episodic structure is that it allows Ellis to advance the thesis he mentions in the last chapter, namely that “all seamless historical narratives are latter-day constructions” (216).  In fact, “Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible” to those who have been designated Founding Fathers.  Ellis prefers the designation “brothers,” presumably because while the various players came together on certain matters, there was an inherent “messiness” to the founding of a new country, and they fought each other on many issues, even the very meaning of the revolution.  In telling the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, or the composition of Washington’s Farewell Address, or the correspondence of friends and rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Ellis highlights the conflicting ideas that animated the early tenuous years of the country.  There was nothing that they could all agree on, except perhaps the need for freedom from Britain.  But the nature of freedom was certainly something that they still disagreed on.  In the chapter called “The Silence,” Benjamin Franklin in 1790 lent his support to ending the slave trade, even though the Constitution had provisions that it would not be ended for at least the first 20 years after ratification.  The congress hotly debated whether they should even discuss the matter since it was supposedly already a settled question in the Constitution.  But how could the same ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration live together with the enslavement of large portions of the population?  The congress managed to put off the question for decades, leading to compromises as the country expanded until it all came to war in 1861.  I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the American Revolution and the early days of the country (or who likes the musical Hamilton).
  • Killing and Dying: Six Stories by Adrian Tomine is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.  Tomine explores the themes of identity and unrealistic dreams.  The title story tells of a father’s love and grief, and his difficulty with being supportive of his daughter’s desire to do stand-up comedy.  It’s a haunting story of perceptions: who is dying and who is killing keep changing throughout.  The collection leads off with a farcical tale of a misunderstood artist who dreams of a new artform called “hortisculpture,” a combination of plants and sculpture that is as ugly as its portmanteau namesake.  Tomine plays with the presentation, telling the story in four panel chunks as if it were a newspaper comic, complete with full-page Sunday installments on schedule.  The format and the subject matter let him poke fun of himself for the self-seriousness of an artist.  Two of the shorter pieces, “Translated, from the Japanese” and “Intruders,” are very meditative and text-based.  The former never even shows its characters, instead showing the settings as we read a letter from a mother to her son about a transitional moment in their lives.  The latter narrates the inner monologue of a soldier on leave coming to terms with his past, but this time using a nine panel grid to tell the story.  It’s a fantastic collection of stories; every one stuck with me.
  • March: Book One, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the powerful first part of a trilogy of comics based on Lewis’s life and the civil rights movement.  The story concerns Lewis’s early days in rural Alabama and his start in the civil rights movement in Nashville while he was in college.  He was involved with the nonviolent sit-ins at the downtown stores in Nashville that protested segregation.  All of this narrative is framed by the contemporary Lewis reminiscing about his past while he gets ready to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009.  This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.  By being able to see faces and settings, the story came alive in the same way that a documentary would, but there wasn’t footage of many of the scenes he was telling.  I would highly recommend this to anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights movement.  One word of caution: the book does not shy away from the harsh language used against African Americans.  The n-word is used multiple times, so use discretion if giving the comic to a younger reader.
  • File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) and illustrated by Seth is a fun collection of mysteries in the kids’ series All the Wrong Questions.  Snicket is also the author of the previous A Series of Unfortunate Events, and this one features a similar humorous style of writing, full of wordplay and literary references.  All the Wrong Questions is narrated by the young Snicket who is trying to solve a mystery in the spooky town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, but File Under departs from the larger mystery to have Snicket solve some smaller conundrums that he stumbles upon or that are brought to him.  Many of the familiar denizens of the town including Jake Hix, the Bellerophon brothers, Moxie Mallahan, and his clueless chaperone S. Theodora Markson, as well as many others, make appearances in the various suspicious incidents.  The answers or conclusions to the mysteries are provided at the end of the book much the same as they would in an Encyclopedia Brown or similar mystery book, and the clues aren’t so difficult that a young reader couldn’t figure out the solutions to at least some of them (confession: I only figured out a handful myself).  Snicket’s style is educational as it entertains.   The characters provide useful definitions of difficult words throughout the stories, such as inane (“pointless and dull”) and preternaturally (“extra”), and phrases like “shadow of its former self” (“not as good as it used to be”) and “well-bred” (“doesn’t mean anything at all, but which some people use to make themselves feel better than others”).  The literary references were also fun, especially for an English major like me.  In one story alone, “Twelve or Thirteen,” there were mentions of a stolen portrait of Gary Dorian, an Ethan Frome Festival sled race, and hidden within the list of sledders the name of the poet William Carlos Williams.  This is a good kids’ book and series, one that even an adult can enjoy.
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book reviews, faith, history, literature, parenting, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2015

In July I read a wide variety of books.  Let’s get straight to the reviews!

  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link is a collection of strange and beguiling stories.  The stories feature pyramids and ghosts and pocket universes and automaton boyfriends and superheroes and my brother.  Yes, I was shocked to find my older brother named in the third story, an epistolary tale about secret identities.  So maybe it wasn’t my brother after all, but someone pretending to be him.  Either way, it was unnerving to find his name there.  It’s not like I have a common last name like Smith or Jones.  The first story “The Summer People” was one of my favorites (and can be read here for free online).  In it, a girl in the country takes care of a mysterious and magical cottage behind her house that is home to playful strangers (sprites? elves?) that no one can quite see. When she comes down sick, she ropes a friend from school into helping her.  It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.  Another favorite came near the end called “Two Houses,” in which a group of astronauts tell ghost stories to each other while they travel to distant stars.  The central story within the story features an art installation of two houses, one a house transported piece by piece from the southwest United States to the English countryside (in a twist from the castles or bridges disassembled and transported to America) and the other an exact replica of the same house.  Terrible murders had taken place in the first house and there were bloodstains on the carpet, and these stains were copied in the second house.  It was impossible to tell which house was the original and which the copy, which was haunted and which had imagined ghosts.  It was a great story.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Neil Gaiman and anyone who likes stories that are a little strange and exciting.  It was another book I found from the Girl Canon list.
  • The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber is a useful book for parents.  Lieber’s main argument is that kids need to learn about money from parents before they are on their own and making decisions about student loans and everything else, and he has lots of ideas on how to go about it.  How we handle our money is a reflection of our values, so talking to kids about money is a way to teach them about patience, generosity, and perspective.  One idea I found especially interesting was that he advocates separating allowances from doing chores.  He thinks kids should get an allowance even at an early age (by 1st grade, which seems pretty early to me), and that it is a way for kids to practice with money.  The cover of the book shows three jars with the signs “Give,” “Save,” and “Spend,” which is his idea for what kids should do with the allowance.  This allocation system sounded familiar from my upbringing that involved a set of envelopes.  Lieber likes clear containers so that a child can see the money accumulate as they save money to give away or to spend on a larger item.  The act of waiting is hard for a kid, but a crucial lesson to learn.  He argues that kids should still do chores because they are part of the household and everyone is responsible for its maintenance.  Parents don’t get any money for doing the dishes or cooking or vacuuming, so neither should the children.  He says that if kids have trouble doing their contribution of chores, there are plenty of privileges that can be taken away to help motivate them instead of withholding an allowance.  Another area that he advocates parents involve children is in charitable giving.  He provides lots of ways that kids can be involved in the conversation, including their own giving.  The main drawback to the book is that it is clearly written for people at the median of wage-earners and above.  Many examples are from affluent families, though often the principles could be applied across the spectrum.  I suppose that is the audience for a book about teaching kids about money.  I found out about the book from an article in Slate.  It was worth checking out of the library.
  • God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Marriage by Matthew Vines is an important argument for Christians and churches to consider.  My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, recently decided to allow same sex marriages at their General Convention, a move that came soon after the Supreme Court decision that declared all states must recognize same sex marriages.  But many other denominations and churches will continue to wrestle with what to do about LGBT individuals and same sex marriage.  Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.  He takes the Bible seriously, stating early on that he believes “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for [his] life” (2).  One thing I especially appreciated about the book is that he never presents strawmen to knock down.  The book is thoroughly researched, and he’s read the books of non-affirming scholars and teachers (especially Robert A. J. Gagnon, among others) and presents their arguments fairly when disagreeing with them.  Here’s a quick summary of his arguments.  He first presents a utilitarian question: does the church’s current stance produce the good fruit that Jesus says a good tree will?  Then he provides a history lesson showing that sexual orientation is a modern concept that the biblical writers were not addressing when they wrote about same sex behavior.  Next comes a look at celibacy in scripture and history where he notes that it has always been a voluntary decision, not forced on an individual.  A large portion of the book is devoted to understanding the six passages in the Bible that concern same sex behavior, focusing especially on the historical context.  After that, he examines marriage and shows that its essential feature is the covenantal bond, not the sex or gender of the partners.  Lastly, he writes about how everyone, including LGBT individuals, are created in the image of God, without dismissing the doctrines of sin and grace.  All in all, it is an impressive and comprehensive argument on same sex marriage.  I would highly recommend this book to all Christians, especially evangelicals.  Even if they read it and still disagree with his conclusions, they will still come away knowing that those who are affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians and same sex marriage have good reasons for their beliefs. [see comment below for my discussion of the “refutation” of Vines’s book]
  • Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson is exactly what its title would make a reader expect: a biography of George Washington Carver in poetry.  And it works.  While I would be unlikely to pick up a prose biography of Carver (not because he led an uninteresting life, quite the opposite, but because there are too many biographies of interesting people that I will never pick up), I decided to read this volume because I knew and liked Nelson’s poetry (her much anthologized sonnet “How I Discovered Poetry” is a particular standout).  By telling his life story in brief moments told from many different points of view allows the reader to enter the scenes and the thoughts of Carver and the people in his life.  Though it is marketed for children (my used copy is a Scholastic school market version), there is nothing about it that is only for children.  Carver was a generous man, giving away formulas and secrets that he could have kept to get rich, such as a blue pigment that was deeper and richer than any known for thousands of years (“Egyptian Blue”).  He received “[o]ffers to pay / for answers the Creator gives / him for nothing” (“The Year of the Sky-Smear”).  He is, of course, famous for his work with peanuts and crop rotation, but he was interested in most everything in the natural world.  The poem “Ruellia Noctiflora,” spoken from the point of view of woman who meets Carver unexpectedly in the woods, shows how he could see the world differently than others: “Where he pointed was only a white flower / until I saw him seeing it.”  In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.  It reminds me of Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices, which I enjoyed more than the prose history of David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard (both tell the stories of those who lived and died during the horrific blizzard of 1888 on the Great Plains).  I would recommend Nelson’s volume of poems for anyone who is remotely interested in Carver and anyone who likes good poetry.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is a good, but not great, gothic romance from the same author as Rebecca.  It shares a similar setting as Rebecca, a large estate in Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of England, and it also shares a similarly mysterious woman at the center of the story.  In  Rebecca the mysterious woman was the absent title character: she haunts the novel from beginning to end.  In My Cousin Rachel, the title character Rachel is very much present throughout the novel, but her thoughts and motivations are unknown to the narrator, her cousin Philip Ashley.  Rachel is Philip’s cousin by marriage.  Philip is a young man who lives with his older cousin Ambrose Ashley as a ward since his parents died at an early age.  Ambrose, himself a bachelor at the beginning of the novel, raised him as his own son.  But soon after those first pages of the novel, he travels to Italy for his health during the winter and meets and marries Rachel.  Not long afterwards, Ambrose dies under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that he had a brain tumor, but Ambrose had sent cryptic letters back to Philip that point to Rachel somehow being the cause of his illness.  Philip begins by hating Rachel because she has taken away Ambrose, but when he finally meets her (still quite early in the novel), he finds her very difficult to hate.  As readers, we worry for our naïve narrator Philip until we eventually pity him.  I was worried that I might end up disliking the book, but du Maurier wraps it all up satisfactorily by the end.  She uses the technique of foreshadowing rather explicitly in the first chapter, but it wasn’t clear to me until the end what she had done, so I had to reread the first chapter afterwards to see how she had done it.  It was rather like a Möbius strip, circularly leading back from the end to the beginning.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Rebecca or gothic romance in general, with tempered expectations.
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