Archive for the ‘Book notes’ Category

London by Edward Rutherford

August 14, 2017

I just finished London, a historical novel by Edward Rutherford. Writing in the tradition of James Michener, the author tells stories of one location and the intertwined families who live there through history. I enjoyed the book for its portrayal of the many historical figures who people its pages. Someone who knows modern London (which I don’t) would also enjoy reading about the development of the city itself. Other books from Rutherford you might like include Sarum, about the English city of Salisbury, and Russka, set on a fictional Russian estate.


What’s a cult?

August 14, 2017

Some people throw around the term “cult” in a way that defines its meaning down to “a religious group I don’t like.” Writing for the International Cultic Studies Association, an attorney and a counselor have produced a scholarly and balanced treatment of the subject.

Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy meet The Hunger Games

July 18, 2017

I recently read Stephen King’s The Long Walk. Although it’s one of the “Bachman books”–early King novels published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman–it already shows the darkness and the fluid prose of his later and better known works.

The premise is simple: each year in a near-future United States, a hundred teenage male volunteers gather on May 1 at the Canadian border with Maine. At 9:00 a.m. they start walking south along the highways. Whoever drops below four miles per hour for more than a few seconds gets a warning from armed troops who shadow the walkers in a half-track. Whoever slows down after three warnings is shot dead. The contestants can work off a warning by walking one hour without getting another one.

They keep walking day and night until they die. They eat and drink as they walk. They learn to empty their bladders while walking backwards at the required speed. They empty their bowels on the roadway, hoping to finish the job quickly enough to get only one warning. As they pass through towns, cheering crowds greet them with encouraging signs and shouts.

Why do the walkers put themselves through all this? For the Prize, only vaguely defined as “anything you want for the rest of your life.” The boys group together and break apart over the miles, discussing their lives and their motives for competing. They sound more educated and introspective than real-life teenage boys; the characters give the author a chance to ruminate about life.

The Long Walk has ample literary connections. It shares with Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a New England setting and a business-as-usual attitude toward horrors grown familiar. It also works as a precursor to The Hunger Games, with teenaged characters competing until only one survives. It shares a brooding, hopeless tone with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Although the book is not King’s best work–it gets slow in the middle when nothing happens for a while–it’s certainly worth reading.


Give Me Back My Legions!

July 11, 2017

Harry Turtledove usually writes alternate-history novels, but Give Me Back My Legions! (2009) deals with real history. The title echoes the words of the Roman Emperor Augustus when he learned of the disastrous defeat of his forces in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (a/k/a Teutoburg Wald) in Germany in AD 9.

As in his other fiction, Turtledove tells the story from the viewpoints of various characters, mainly the Roman general  Publius Quinctilius Varus and Arminius (Hermann), his German opponent. The writer produces the kind of historical fiction I like best; he sticks closely to the known facts, inventing as little as possible. For Turtledove fans, and for fans of ancient European history, this book deserves a reading.



A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ

September 22, 2016

I’ve just bought Andrew Klavan’s new book The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, and I’ve read about a fourth of it so far. A successful novelist and screen writer, Klavan does not write the kind of inspirational autobiography we’re used to . . . and that’s a  great, good thing.

King Arthur as he might have been

August 11, 2016

This summer I’ve been reading Canadian author Jack Whyte’s historical novel series A Dream of Eagles (The Camulod Chronicles in the USA), a retelling of the King Arthur stories. Whyte treats the story as sober history, placing Arthur in the chaos of Britain after the Romans left, and avoiding much of the later portrayal of the Camelot of the High Middle Ages.

Whyte’s characters are true heroes: possessors of the old Roman virtues, fierce in battle yet very human. Being cheap, I’ve lucked out so far and found library copies of the first eight electronic books. Just now I’ve bought the ninth and final one; I suppose I owe the author that much revenue at least.

Go Set a Watchman

February 21, 2016

Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, died the day before yesterday. Imagine my surprise when I found that my local public library had an electronic copy of her second novel Go Set a Watchman available. I’m barely into the book, but it’s excellent. LATER: I won’t say much more here, because the whole plot turns on an enormous spoiler. But now I can see why this novel, written first, couldn’t get published at the time. And yet it works perfectly as a sequel. Once you read Mockingbird and fall in love with the characters, Watchman lets you find out what happened to them in later years. I’m glad someone persuaded Harper Lee, rightly or wrongly, to publish. May she rest in peace.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

February 21, 2016

I have known about this title for years but read it only recently. It sounds like a humor book, but it’s really a police procedural, a dark comedic treatment of the life of Detective Meyer Landsman. The work is set in an alternate world where the United States nuked Berlin, the Arabs chased the Jews out of Palestine in the late 1940s, and many refugee Jews live on a reservation in Alaska. I found the plot a little hard to follow, and the descriptions a little flowery, but overall enjoyed the work.

Hard-wired for religious belief?

February 19, 2016

Based on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 1), and also based on observation, I’ve long believed that we humans come by our belief in God or the gods as part of our “wiring.” A new book challenges that belief. In Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Cambridge), Tim Whitmarsh argues that both theism and atheism have venerable pasts.

In one way this is nothing new. We’ve known for a long time that some of the ancient Greek philosophers did not believe in the gods. And religious faith seems to remain the default setting among the vast majority of humans. But if Whitmarsh is right, we cannot oversell that conclusion; the truth could be more complex than I, for one, have believed. (Isn’t it usually that way?)

And those on the other side of the aisle might need to adjust their rhetoric too. Atheists often picture religious belief as a product of early stages in human evolution, with atheism winning ground every day until all enlightened people will eventually disbelieve in the divine. The presence of atheists in the ancient world shows that model as too simplistic.

That’s all I’ll say because I haven’t read the book. A good summary of it appears on the University of Cambridge web site.

Pre-historical fiction

February 8, 2016

I’m reading Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), an author best known for his Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars). Shaman describes the life of a hunter-gatherer band of early humans through the eyes of Loon, a young boy who trains to become a shaman. I’ve read one or two of the Mars Trilogy, also Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and so far I’ve enjoyed this one best.

Robinson writes leisurely, descriptive prose that moves the story slowly. He creates a sense of the land where the humans live, and he describes plausible habits of language and culture. One example: Robinson shows Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans living on the same land and sharing a complex relationship. The Cro-Magnons naturally call themselves People, and they call the Neanderthal Old Ones or Lunkheads. The two races sometimes visit one another’s camps, and at least once in the novel some People help out an injured Old One. But if the Old Ones catch you alone in the woods, they might kill you and eat you.

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