Saturday, August 09, 2008

Books Books Books

For reasons that may or may not be obvious to you, I've lately had far more time for reading books than writing about them. This is probably a good thing for everyone. For the sake of posterity, I wanted to jot down a few brief thoughts about the most recent.

"The Great Awakening" by Jim Wallis. I really admire Wallis, and have tremendous optimism that he will help us find a way forward in America that allows us to transcend bitter partisanship and hold on to our souls. He gets pigeonholed as a "liberal Christian", but as with all labels that one is profoundly inadequate to describe the man. If you want to be brief, it's much more useful to call him a 19th-century evangelical, as he tongue-in-cheek refers to himself, or as a red-letter Christian, a term that I've embraced for myself.

This book follows on "God's Politics," and is more optimistic and encouraging than that book. God's Politics was written during the darkest days of the Bush presidency when an American theocracy bent on war was ascendant, and Wallis was a lonely voice in calling for a return to our core national and theological values. "The Great Awakening" is far more encouraging because, written only a few years later, it includes incredible stories about how the tide is starting to shift in America. He can point to increasingly compassionate young Christians who are expanding their mission to truly serve the world, and talk about people in our government who seem to "get it" when talking about values.

All in all, it's a really thoughtful and engaging read. If you follow Sojourners or the God's Politics Blog on Beliefnet, a lot of the material will seem familiar, but it's still refreshing. The book should be especially valuable to those who wonder what Christians are doing to make the world a better place.

"Small Gods" by Terry Pratchett. In so many ways the opposite of the above book! It's one of the most thoughtful and critical looks at faith that I have ever read. I was slightly reminded of His Dark Materials in that the book's blasphemy doesn't come from denying God; rather, the atheistic (I'm pretty sure) author accepts God (or in this case, Gods) as being real within the framework of the story, and then shows how horrible they can make the world.

In Small Gods, while deities bear some blame, the fault definitely rests with the institutions. The subversive argument Pratchett makes here is that, as a church grows larger and more powerful, its God becomes less and less important. People begin to worship the church rather than worship God. The book does carry through some cliches - most notably, religious leaders whip their followers into a frenzy and start a holy war in order to expand their influence - but it's done in a much more interesting fashion than I'm used to reading.

"After the Quake" continues my march through the Murakami canon. This has been on my radar for a while now, most especially since I got to see the theatrical production in Berkeley last year. As I've discussed before, Murakami's short stories are just as wonderful as his novels, while certainly being their own thing. This collection had the touches that I love in his stories, especially the sense of brushing up against an incomprehensible supernatural reality, but they also carried a sense of... yearning, I guess, a sense of searching and wondering and unfocused desire. There's a beautiful story about a man who builds bonfires out of driftwood on the beach. Nothing particularly exciting or shocking happens in the story, but it's a wonderful and quiet exploration of his character, the woman who befriends him, and her loser boyfriend. They stand around the fire, watching it burn, and he quietly talks about a recurring dream he has which explains why he does not own a refrigerator. In the hands of a lesser author there wouldn't be a story there, but Murakami draws out the tentative impulse towards companionship, when the most solitary and lonely people find ways to make connections, and use their passions to bring light and warmth into the world.

Another odd little story concerns a man who may or may not have been immaculately conceived. He follows the man who might be his father through a warren of an industrial block, loses him when he emerges into a hidden ballfield, and ends the story dancing by himself on the pitcher's mound. Again, in terms of plot there isn't much to recount, but within a handful of pages Murakami has done the impossible and caused us to feel like we KNOW this man - the burdens he inherited from his strange mother, his slightly skewed social mores, his mix of indignation and longing. He feels abandoned but cannot reconcile his anger with his desire to know what's happening.

This is as good a point as any to mention that, while the earthquake is tangentially mentioned in each story, it never plays a crucial role in the plot. Rather, what Murakami is interested in is catching the sense of the national psyche in the wake of this horrible destruction, and so the emotions evoked by these stories can very accurately be seen as echoes of Japan's response to the quake. At least, that's my thought as a know-nothing gaijin.

I have to admit that the two stories which were adapted for the play, "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" and "Honey Pie," are the best. I might be biased - the play was wonderful, and that surely colors my reaction - but they also benefit from being among the longest stories in the book, and so have even more time to develop and grow. I was utterly shocked by how faithful the play was to the source material. I haven't seen a script, but I think that the dialog was more or less taken verbatim from the book. In a weird way, I think that the play even gave these stories a little more space to breathe. In particular, I was surprised by how brief Honey Pie felt when I was reading it... the play didn't add anything to the story, but by intercutting it with Super-Frog and making each story a meditation upon the other, I think Frank Galati really expanded the psychic space that these works occupied.

I did discover something sad while reading this collection, though - I'm not really a visual reader. When reading those two stories, I easily and immediately projected the play's characters onto the book's, borrowing from real images when constructing the fictional ones. For the rest of the book, while I greatly enjoyed the stories, I just didn't have the same level of visualization... I felt like I knew the characters, but couldn't picture their faces, or imagine the sound of their voice. I feel like this is a shortcoming of mine as a reader, but it's probably too late to do anything about it.

"The Runes of the Earth" by Stephen Donaldson. I have a really tough time placing Donaldson. The brief way to describe his work is "Fantasy for grown-ups," though that doesn't really prepare people for what they're about to encounter. I can't say that I enjoy him as much as Tolkien or Martin, or even early Jordan, but I have incredible respect for him. He's a very careful author, one who focuses on his characters, as opposed to most other great fantasy authors who focus on their world.

Not to say that his world is lacking. The Land is a rich invention, and Donaldson's skill is evident by the way he can break your heart when it is desecrated. But even The Land doesn't feel as fully realized as Middle-earth; rather, its power comes from the reactions it creates in his heroes. If Covenant wasn't a leper, not only would he be less interesting, but so would the Land. Many fantasy novels use characters as stand-ins for the readers, so they can gape in wonder as the author describes this fantastic world. Here, the characters are truly transformed by their world, and form passionate bonds with the Land and one another.

It has been... gosh, probably 15 years or so since I finished the second trilogy of Thomas Covenant. They were excellent books, but not the sort of thing I would want to read again. Like I said, I admire him more than I like him. Since then I had read the two-book cycle "The Mirror of her Dreams" and "A Man Rides Through," which I enjoyed a great deal, even though I spent most of the time screaming at the heroine not to be so stupid.

Anyways, after an extremely long absence, Donaldson has returned to the Land and to his core readers, offering the "Final Chronicles" of Thomas Covenant. The result is... interesting.

Like I said, I don't really want to re-read the old Covenant books, but I am tempted to do so now, just to see whether Donaldson's prose has always felt this awkward. I wouldn't be shocked if it has, and it wouldn't be the first time that I discovered a beloved childhood series was actually pretty bad. Still, the whole experience just felt odd. It isn't exactly like Donaldson is being a bad writer, more that he's after a very specific voice, and that voice happens to be stilted.

Not to be mean, but virtually every dialog in the book reads something like the following:

"Linden Avery, you do not understand the way things are. Falooble stands between Lord Foul and the minions of Akarata.

"If you want to save us, you must accept this quest."

Linden paused, thinking on what had been said. Every sentence offered more questions. Who was Falooble? And what was Akarata? But there was no time to find the answers. Perhaps there would be time later. She decided to try a different tack.

"Why did you call out to Baranaga on the plains of Senefele?

"I must soon learn the answer, for I am Linden Avery, the Chosen."

And on and on and on. Way too much of the book is spent with characters spitting proper nouns at one another and Linden failing to understand what is going on. With all that, though, it isn't really a bad book. There's a great little kernel of a mystery that pulls the story forward, and in the final third of the book things actually start to happen and get exciting. But still, I feel like the book grinds to a halt whenever people open their mouths and start declaiming to one another.

That said, this first book was enough to hook me. It was a quick read, and I'm hopeful that Donaldson was able to get all the exposition out of the way. I hope to pick up Fatal Revenant soon, and if that book's even decent, I'll continue through.


  1. Bro- Having recently reread everything, no, the prose in his latest work is a bit more stiltled than even his worst. Want a real guilty read? Try his Gap series. Brilliantly written, darkest characters ever.

  2. Thanks! "My name is hadesscorn, and I read Stephen Donaldson so you don't have to!" I'm glad to hear my memory isn't failing me.

    I'm now about 1/4 of the way through Fatal Revenant, and it seems to be getting better. The writing still feels kind of stilted, but the story is getting more interesting... things are actually HAPPENING, and he's doing a much better job of showing mystery as opposed to just talking about it.

    The Gap series has intrigued me for a while, though you're the first person I know who's actually read it. I'll need to add it to the queue, though I'll probably save it for later.