Aftermaths & Alternates

current reading 2Alan Jacobs is doing something fun on Snakes and Ladders:

Unscoured (July 1) [link]

Chapter 43 (July 2) [link]

this sickness is not unto death (July 5) [link]

Enjoy!


Sarah Willard had two nice posts last month “Shepherd My People” (June 17) [link], and “Here is your War” (June 6) [link], both (of course) at Blind Mule Blog.


Mockingbird always has a nice selection of thoughtful articles, essays and reviews, including “Just another Late Night in Washington (Review of movie Late Night)” (July 3) [link].


Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood is a fascinating historical piece on eugenics and abortion. The opinion is available in full at the always well-curated SCOTUSblog (through casetext.com) [link] and is edited to look like a free-standing essay in First Things [link].

Herman Wouk 1915-2019

I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.

TheCaineMutinyHis novel The Caine Mutiny (1955) has long been one of my favorites, and I have had opportunity to teach it to several high school classes.the caine mutiny I was disappointed to read a recent piece by Professor Joseph Bottum* which seems a modern example of “damning with faint praise,” suggesting that Wouk was a good “middlebrow” writer, whose work (some of it, anyway) has stood the test of time better than others in his . . . league(?).

I think, that if Bottum were pressed, he would say that he was praising Wouk, just not “over-praising him.” But when Bottum says “In general, . . . he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry,” it is hard not to hear that as a snide, uncharitable comment.**

In my view, The Caine Mutiny succeeds as a novel because it draws us in to care about a handful of deeply flawed people who actually grow in self awareness. Willy gains maturity, of course, but so do Maryk and Keefer — and May. The fact that Wouk does this in a long, believable, narrative, with deft humor and across many sub genres,*** is really quite impressive.

I hope that Bottum’s review does not dissuade a single person from reading (at least) The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s accomplishment should not be disparaged for being accessible. That seems fair, doesn’t it?


*Joseph Bottum, “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019: Remembering a master of middlebrow,” The Washington Free Beacon (May 25, 2019) [link].

**Not convinced? How about this: “No doubt, [Captain Queeg] is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn’t get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they’ve just had a deep thought. All they’ve had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose. Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow.”

***By which I mean, non-technically, that The Caine Mutiny is a war novel, a romance (modern sense), a comic novel, an adventure story, a legal thriller, and (yes) a morality tale neatly woven into one narrative.

Current reading

current reading 2Lore Ferguson Wilbert reviews a new book for the Gospel Coalition that sounds like it would be an excellent read for a married+single church study:

Allberry argues that although sex is part of intimacy in marriage, it isn’t as foundational to intimacy as friendship—and friendship is available to the unmarried as well as the married. This concept, if truly believed and adopted, would free many unmarried Christians who worry they’re missing out on intimacy because of their singleness. And, if God does give the gift of marriage, this understanding of foundational intimate friendship could help address the complications many marriages have around sex.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert, “The Book on Singleness I’ve Been Waiting For,” The Gospel Coalition (Feb. 27, 2019) [link]. The book is Sam Allberry, 7 Myths about Singleness (Crossway 2019) [amazon].


The NYTMag describes a newly discovered Rembrandt in Russell Shorto, “Rembrandt in the Blood: An Obsessive Aristocrat, Rediscovered Paintings and an Art-World Feud,” The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 27, 2019) [link]. Very interesting! (Thanks, GLBH.)


I am unclear why First Things is publishing a review of a poor novel from the 1980s, but I have an idea, and the review is worth reading, even if the book is not.

I think Justin Lee properly discounts a certain kind of Protestant literature, and correctly critiques Frank Peretti’s novels:

Peretti’s art fails, and it does so for the simple reason that his representations of angels and demons are not strange enough. His novels just aren’t scary because they fail to be true to the irreducible particularity of human life, which means we don’t see the dangers as real. In the end, readers are left only with what propositional meanings can be gleaned from the surface.

Justin Lee, “The Art of Spiritual Warfare,” First Things (March 2019) [link].

This article really doesn’t do what one expects from a book review, which is to direct the review reader to an interesting book (or warn her off a book not worth her time) or (in the case of a current book) to identify strengths and weaknesses.

I think this is not really a book review, though, but a too-brief attempt to answer the really difficult question “Why can’t Protestants and Evangelicals produce great novels like Catholics and Anglicans?” For that it is worth reading.

Anticipation!

I am re-reading one of my old favorites, Reamde, by Neal Stephenson () [amazon], because I heard the other day that Stephenson was writing a sequel. I understand perfectly well that either Cryptonomicon (1999) [amazon], or The Diamond Age (1995) [amazon], or even Snow Crash (1992) [amazon] is a cooler favorite,* and indeed I love all Reamdethree of those, but as I am reading Reamde for the third time, I realize that because of the excellent dialogue and complex, multifaceted narrative, combined with Stephenson’s normal dry comedy and dizzying excursions into technical detail, this is really my favorite.

FallIn any case, Stephenson has written a sequel of sorts Fall; or, Dodge in Hell which is coming out on June 4, 2019 [amazon]. He also has a novella, Atmosphæra Incognita which sounds like a re-telling of the Tower of Babel being released on July 31, 2019 [amazon].The River

In a similar vein, I just received a review copy of The River (2019) by Peter Heller [amazon], which I hope will be as entertaining as The Painter (2015) [amazon] or The Dog Stars (2013) [amazon]. I also have the newest Adam Roberts The Black Prince (2018, adaptation of a script by Anthony Burgess) [amazon] on the shelf beside my bed.

AgencyWith William Gibson still on track to publish Agency (a sequel to The Peripheral) in September 2019 (though the date keeps on being moved) [amazon], I now have new work by a number of my favorites. I am still waiting on Neil Gaiman, Emily St. John Mandel, David Mitchell, and Donna Tartt.

*seveneves (2015) is also very good, while Anathem (2008), The Mongoliad (2010–2012) and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (2017, with Nicole Galland) are also entertaining. I could never quite mesh with The Baroque Cycle (2003-2004).

Reading, 2017

This was a full year of reading for me, 38 volumes of (more-or-less straight) fiction, another 28 science fiction novels, and 28 volumes of non-fiction. Some could slide from one category to another, I suppose (is Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology science fiction?).

InterpreterofmaladiescoverI read three books by Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, Bethany, Jack Glass); three by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, The Abolition of Man, The Weight of Glory); three by Neil Gaiman (Norse Mythology, The View from the Cheap Seats, and with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens); three by Peter Heller (The Dog Stars, Hell or High Water, Celine), and four by William Gibson (The Peripheral, Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties).

The best new finds in fiction I read this year included Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (The Last 1956 Cessna 182); Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, (R!-town) and Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (a marvelous series of short stories).

Undoing ProjectTwo excellent new non-fiction offerings were Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project and Philip Allen Green, Trauma Room Two.

TraumaRoomTwoI think that Martin Luther King, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, and Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem should be required reading, but I had read neither of them before 2017 (see Jerusalem and Birmingham).

In 2018, I am hoping for some new fiction from Donna Tartt and Neil Gaiman (no novels since 2013); William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandel and Stephen Carter (no novels since 2014); and Mary Doria Russell and David Mitchell (no novels since 2015).* Indeed I have Agency, Gibson’s next, on pre-order from Amazon.

But there are lots of great books out there already.

*David Mitchell wrote From Me Flows What You Call Time, but that won’t be published until 2116, so I need something in the interim, I think.

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.

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.

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.