Artemis

Artemis-Book-Cover-Andy-WeirAs you may have already read, Artemis is not The Martian.

This is not entirely bad, but I think that most who loved Andy Weir’s first novel will be at least a little disappointed in his second.  Remember how you felt when you read The Pelican Brief after you read The Firm?  Or Red Storm Rising after The Hunt for Red October?  Or The Burden of Proof after Presumed Innocent?  Or The Hotel New Hampshire after The World According to Garp?  Or Dune Messiah after Dune?

When an author has done something truly surprising with a first novel, then I suppose we have to expect a little bit of reversion to the mean* on the second.**

Artemis still has some of The Martian‘s engineering geekiness (not as much); and a good bit of Mark Watney’s snark (in a young female voice); but it entirely loses the grand heroic aspect of the earlier book.  The Martian showed the spunk and resilience of the engineer-hero placed in initial conditions beyond his control.   Artemis‘ heroine, Jazz Bashara, creates most of her own trouble and so the effect is very different.  Add to that the difficulty of writing a female lead, far more (and more diverse) characters, a more elaborate plot, and balancing new economic and social themes, and, well . . . okay, a little reversion to the mean is to be expected.

Still a fun book, and I enjoyed it.

It should be easier to follow than The Martian, too.

*”Reversion to the mean, also called regression to the mean, is the statistical phenomenon stating that the greater the deviation of a random variate from its mean, the greater the probability that the next measured variate will deviate less far. In other words, an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event.” Wolfram MathWorld, “Reversion to the Mean” [link].

**Actually The Firm was Grisham’s second book, coming as it did after A Time to Kill which was wonderful (after the horrifying first chapter), but not genre breaking, and not well known before The Firm. Frank Herbert had publications before Dune, but nothing even close in stature.  Garp was John Irving’s fourth book. It is not always first and second books.

An Old Friend

The ManticoreSometimes it is nice to revisit a novel you have not read in a long time:

“The procedures of the law are much discussed, and people know about lawyers and courts and prisons and punishment and all that sort of thing, but that is just the apparatus through which the law works. And it works in the cause of justice.  Now, justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due.  Every law student has to learn that.”

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972) (p. 62 in the Penguin ed.).

Some people find the re-reading of novels to be odd, but it seems to me not unlike listening to a favorite piece of music, or viewing a well-loved painting, or returning to a known hike, or visiting an old friend.  You do not return for an identical experience, for you yourself are different.

Another nice passage, this one about about advocacy from David Staunton’s legal mentor: 

“I think you’ll make an advocate,” said he.  “You have the two necessities, ability and imagination.  A good advocate is his client’s alter ego; his task is to say what his client would say for himself if he had the knowledge and the power.  Ability goes hand in hand with the knowledge: the power is dependent on imagination.  But when I say imagination I mean capacity to see all sides of a subject and weigh all possibilities; I don’t mean fantasy and poetry and moonshine; imagination is a good horse to carry you over the ground, not a flying carpet to set you free from probability.”

p. 227.

Listening, not arguing

current reading 2Recommended to me by my brother-in-law (the polymath), an old* piece from Nick Carr on the values of reading:

In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.

Nicholas Carr, “The Dreams of Readers” Rough Type (Jan. 9, 2014) [link] (Carr is quoting Norman Holland in the internal quotations.)

That seems to me to be exactly right.  If we read properly, we are not immediately arguing with everything. We can listen to an author in a way that we too seldom listen to the people in the room with us.  This is easier with novels than with history and easier with either than with newspaper editorials, but (I think) always easier with the written than the spoken word.

utopia is creepy*Obviously, if I am just now reading blog posts from 2014, I am never going to catch up.  Fortunately, this piece seems to be included in Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations (2017) [link]. That can be my next book of essays after The View from the Cheap Seats, which I continue to dip into when I am between books.

R!-town

The-Real-Town-Murders-by-Adam-RobertsAdam Roberts’ new novel The Real-Town Murders (2017) is more like the author’s Jack Glass (2012) than The Thing Itself (2015), in that it is plot-driven and accessible rather than idea-driven and deep. Roberts entertains with insight and ironic disapproval,* producing a very enjoyable blend of SF and whodunit, with most of the social commentary safely hidden under the hood.

Recommended.

*”And the government departments are still there, of course, because that’s how the inertia of history works. They still have legally mandated and budget-supported real power. So they mostly use that power in a series of jockeyings for position.”

RLW 1947-2017

Robert Wears was my friend.

I am sorry, I know most of you called him “Bob,” but I met him through his wife Diane, and to me he was always “Robert.” With my wife Katherine, we four were members of a book club for the last 20-plus years. We have met more or less monthly, and read well over 200 books together.

I did not know him in his professional life, I was not a member of his family, we shared no school ties, we did not go to the same church. I interacted with him medically only once, and in that moment, as he visited me in the hospital before my abdominal surgery, he gave me permission and I threw up on him. Continue reading RLW 1947-2017

On “book lust”

ScreenShot164David Bentley Hart writes a nice piece on “book lust” (that’s what my wife and I have always called it) in First Things: “From a Vanished Library” (April 2017) [link].*  In this piece Hart reminds us that

I learned from the experience [of losing my library], in the end, that all vanity is vanity, all lust is lust, and all excess is excess, no matter what the objects of one’s desire. The aesthetics of bound volumes is unique and exquisite; but there are more important things.

In the end the article was somewhat deflating as I have not read a single one of the books in his “catalogue of suggestions.”  But it is good to remember that books, marvelous as they are, can be distractions from the common purpose of every human.


*Coming across this piece was particularly poignant (and ironic) as my church gave me two first editions as a (sabbatical? retirement?) gift after teaching Genesis, ExodusLeviticusNumbers, DeuteronomyJoshuaJudgesRuthSamuelKingsDanielEzra- Nehemiah, and Matthew (with some help, and a few detours) 2003-2017.

The Last 1956 Cessna 182

dogstars

Just finished Peter Heller,The Dog Stars (2012) which was a very enjoyable apocalyptic novel in the tradition of The Stand, Alas, Babylon, The Road, Station Eleven, or I Am Legend.  The novel is written entirely in internal monologue (not always grammatical, sometimes profane), which is a little confusing at first, but ultimately very satisfying.

Recommended.

The Nightingale

nightingaleKristen Hannah, The Nightingale (2016).

This month’s book club offering is a lively story of two sisters who live in France during the Nazi occupation.  Although it is longer on emotional than historical detail, it is definitely one of those novels that make you wonder how well you would hold up under the pressures of that situation.  The book was similar in tone and gravity to something like The Winds of War, thus not as serious as All the Light We Cannot See, or as literary as Brideshead Revisited, or as witty as Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

I like the cover design very much.

Recommended.

Losing track of Jesus

finding-godI seldom write “bad” reviews, feeling that (1) writing a book would be a hard feat to pull off and (2) I don’t want to encourage people to spend money on a book simply by making the cover pop up on their feed.  This is not exactly a counterexample to those feelings, just a warning that this is not the book I thought it was when I started it,* and I am not recommending it.

Mike McHargue, Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost my Faith and Found It Again through Science (2016) describes the author’s path from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism to . . . well, it’s hard to say exactly.  Notwithstanding the subtitle, McHargue does not claim to have found the same faith again, but something quite different.  He ends up with a faith which is uncertain about the Bible, uncertain about the resurrection, uncertain about hell, uncertain about whether a personal creator God actually exists.  His faith at the end is not in any way orthodox.

“What I’ve learned to do is be certain that I am uncertain. To revel in the fuzziness of my understanding of the world. And to look with great anticipation toward the next moment I’ll figure out that I’m wrong about something. And that lets you get on this trajectory where you just become more and more and more open.”

I think that to his credit, he would agree with what I wrote in the paragraph before the quotation.  He seems to be trying very hard to be honest about his life, and that is the best part of the book.  He describes the anger that church Christians expressed when he decided (based on The God Delusion and other books) that he (a deacon and a Sunday School teacher) had become an atheist.  He eventually describes the similar anger he felt from his online atheist/anti-theist community when he began to travel to his new faith.  The turning point is a mystical experience which he has on a beach – as troubling to him as it is overwhelming.  He describes this openly, though it does not fit with his self image (“science Mike”), and it does nothing to persuade the skeptical reader.

The problem, quite frankly, is that by the end of the book McHargue has created a God that is smaller than he is.

He seems to feel (and who hasn’t felt this way?) that when he reads something shocking in the Bible (the commands in Joshua to utterly destroy the Canaanites, for example), that he is qualified to decide that that, at least, cannot be part of God’s character.  Part of what Christianity would have traditionally called God’s holiness is trimmed away because it does not fit well with what we (McHargue and I, as 21st century educated Americans) think is “acceptable.”

But the God of historical, orthodox Christianity is first and foremost a God who requires obedience to a standard we do not find entirely agreeable.

McHargue hasn’t yet found his way back to that.  Then again, maybe the God of all grace is not done with him.

*I thought it would be more like Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic (2013) [link], which I do recommend.