Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown

Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling get a bad rap. "Christian" critics of Harry Potter who think The Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory are idiots. If Gandalf can represent Christ, so can Dumbledore.

It's the same deal with Dan Brown books. While Robert Langdon has an admittedly areligious bent to his professed world view, he is constantly confronted with situations his atheism can't explain. Yes, there are evil church figures in the books, but there are also legitimately pious ones. Are Brown's critics claiming that religious history doesn't contain figures who behaved in non-exemplary ways? It's not anti-religious or anti-Catholic to explore that dynamic.

Brown gets it from both sides: the culturally conservative who don't want depictions of religious shortcomings, and the culturally elite who look down their nose at the literary value of the books. Give him a break. Being an author requires writing skills and storytelling skills. What Brown lacks in writing, he more than makes up for in storytelling. Yes, any one particular paragraph might be somewhat silly when pulled out of context, but the novel is read in context, where the story is pulling you along.

This book gave me incentive to look up the sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Theresa, which was decidedly less PG-13 than the text led me to believe. I guess in the 1600s, it was the equivalent of "Showgirls." I'm glad I live in the 21st century.

I know a woman who started reading this book and thought it was so evil she threw it away. I laugh at that woman when I think about that. I came away from reading it with a stronger affirmation of my faith.

Rating: five out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

I read this book so there would be a buffer between the spate of church books I read and Angels and Demons. It just seemed a little weird having them next to each other, so I read this one in a day or so.

I read this book in seventh grade, and I didn't remember much of it, aside from trying to cross the street when the super-fast cars are trying to run Guy down. In terms of believability, I'm not sure I agree with top-down dystopia novels like this and 1984; I find the bottom-up dystopia of Brave New World a much more-likely scenario.

In terms of bottom-up, the interactive entertainment systems seems like a pretty good forecast of where the future opiate of the masses will be found. I didn't like the resolution, that everything will be okay because we have hobos who've memorized the destroyed books. What's the point of having books, so hobos can tell each other stories? Their preservation is trivial unless they are preserved for a purpose. In that sense, the top-down book burning needn't happen if we have a bottom-up ignorance of books, and that seems to be where we're going.

Rating: four and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Mortal Messiah, Book 1, by Bruce R. McConkie

The best biography of the Savior is James E. Talmage's Jesus the Christ, but it deals primarily with the mortal ministry of the Savior. McConkie has expanded the scope, writing a biography of Christ from the creation to the end of the world.

That alone is fairly ambitious. In my opinion, McConkie goes beyond "conscientious" into "overkill" range, with the inclusion of every possible piece of information applicable to the life of Jesus. This book contains a 180-page section of succeeding chapters with titles like "Jewish Worship in Jesus' Day," "Jewish Sabbath in Jesus' Day." Et cetera. The frequent detours from the actual thread of the Savior's actions makes it hard to stay engaged. Luckily, it appears I'm past the worst of it. From here on out in the series (two books down, four more to go), it should be clear sailing.

Rating: five out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Book of Mormon, by Joseph Smith, Jr., trans.

Scripture doesn't get reviewed.

Rating: Not on the monkey scale.

The New Testament, by St. Paul, et Al.

I'm sticking with my aversion to review scripture. If it passed muster with its Editor, it should be more than okay with me.

Rating: I'm not assigning monkeys to scripture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

I really, really like this book, until the very end. What the hell?! I have not yet read Jude the Obscure, which is on my list for next year, but I know it is renowned for its dissatisfying ending. I am willing to bet this book can give that one a run for its money.

Everything was going so well. It was a cleverly devised plot. It had a lot of interesting implications that probably would have never otherwise occurred to the reader. I was even willing to overlook the fleeting Wizard of Oz references, giving Fforde some latitude for a plot device that will appear in a later book.

First I was a little disappointed when the plausible scientific explanation for so many of the strange occurrences was passed by in favor of the fanciful "evil metal" explanation. Okay, whatever. But then it all went to hell in the last five pages.

Again, it's a book that's a victim of its series. If it was a one-off novel, there's no way it would have ended how it did. But there needed to be some unresolved conflict to draw the reader into the next book, so the last five pages quickly introduces a very irritating one.

I know, I can't have it both ways. I didn't like Thursday Next in First Among Sequels because there was no series-long dramatic element to see wrapped up, but then Shades of Grey has one and I hate it. But the series already had an element to carry through. And it was just horribly mean to take a girl as defensive as Jane, finally have her cast aside her reservations, and literally within a handful of pages screw her over for it.

Rating: the first 384 pages: six out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Rating: the last six pages: one out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Prophetic Book of Mormon, by Hugh Nibley

This book challenged me a lot, and I really like it for that. The first half was basically what I was expecting: archaeological and textual evidences of the Book of Mormon. It was the second half that really pushed me. Nibley argues for some radical interpretations of Book of Mormon teachings, and he has quite a bit of evidence to back it up. Particularly, his essay "Freemen and King-men in the Book of Mormon" argues for a quite unorthodox view of Book of Mormon teachings regarding money and authority.

The first part that really spoke to me was when he writes, "This is an extremely important lesson driven home repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, that righteousness does not consist in being identified with this or that nation, party, church, or group" (337). This argues against the point of view often heard in Sunday School lesson comments, that want to take a lesson about, say, repentance, and talk about how much "the world" needs to repent, instead of how much we as individuals need to repent. Church isn't supposed to be a pep rally where we come away feeling superior to the rest of the world. This is my problem with "mainstream Christianity," which thinks because they like Jesus everything's cool.

In light of the War on Terror, the rest of the essay is really provocative. "If the 'bad people' more often provoke war, the 'good people' have equal responsibility, since they have the greater light" (337). In response to the question, "How do you distinguish the righteous from the wicked, then?" Nibley responds, "You don't; that is not your prerogative" (340).

Who is free to do as he will in a state of war? Once the shooting starts the options vanish. That is why people rush into war--because they think it will put an end to their problems. (356)

Nibley councils that we build up a secret combination "by playing the game its way."

Once you have been warned ... that things are being run by such elements, then you know very well that if you aspire to power and gain, influence, status, and prestige; in other words, if you aspire to success by present-day standards, you can only achieve it by doing everything their way. One ceases to uphold those elements only by rejecting a whole way of life, regardless of the risk or inconvenience involved. (368-9)
Quite the tall order, but very intuitive.

Three months after finishing this book, I still think about this essay regularly. Do I have the mettle to reject a whole way of life? How would I go about getting that?

Rating: seven out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mostly Harmless Econometrics, by Joshua D. Angrist and Jőrn-Steffen Pischke

Nothing made me despair of my chances as an economist more than reading this book. Following two courses in statistics and two courses in econometrics, it still was mostly worthless combinations of letters to me. I feel like this book undid much of the econometrics knowledge I had previously accumulated. Like Billy Madison's closing speech, I'm now dumber for having read this book. And like Billy's principal, I award the authors no points, and may God have mercy on their souls.

Rating: one and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mike at Wrykyn, by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse got his start writing school-boy novels and stories. His book Mike tells the story of Michael Jackson, who begins school at Wrykyn, then has his father move him to Sedleigh, where he meets Rupert Psmith. Psmith proved more popular, so Jackson takes a back seat to him in follow-up novels. In fact, to accommodate Psmith fans, Mike is usually split in half these days, with the second half published as Mike and Psmith. The first half is often forgotten. When it is published, it usually appears as Mike at Wrykyn.

I read the first half of the Google Reader edition of Mike, and I'm claiming I read Mike at Wrykyn. As far as I can tell, they are identical.

Lots of Wodehouse fans go in for the Blandings or Jeeves stuff and act like the early stuff isn't worth their time. Others read it as a sort of signal of their fandom. I just read it because it's entertaining.

As with Mike and Psmith, a lot of this book would have been boring and unintelligible had I not previously read Cricket Explained by Robert Eastaway. With that book's knowledge under my belt, I enjoyed the entire thing. Mike is a transition book, with Wodehouse changing--mid-book, as it were--from a schoolboy novelist to a comic novelist. Not that there's no comedy before this, and not that there're no schoolboys following this, but the transition happens when Mike transfers schools.

Rating: five and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde

I still don't know what I think of this book. I really liked some aspects; others were more than a little annoying.

First the good: it was interesting, in an understated way. The writing was more subtle than the Thursday Next series, which never lets you forget it's a fantasy. Not that that's a strike against that series; it's just a different feeling from the Nursery Crime series, which tries to pass as much as possible for a non-fantasy world (with living nursery rhyme characters).

Mary Mary's refusal to be ashamed of being from Basingstoke led me to find out from Wikipedia that the city has a public relations campaign built on the slogan "A Place to Be Proud Of."

Now for the annoying: Jack Sprat's home life seemed to offer very little for the amount of space it took up in the book. I understand the idea, as one review I read put it, that it was supposed to be a twist on the usual "detective with a dysfunctional personal life" plot element, but the mystery part of the story is what drives the reader, and it was put on pause a lot so we could read about Jack eating supper at home. Sort of a yawner.

Overall, enjoyable enough that I plan to read The Fourth Bear, although I get the general feeling that the Nursery Crimes series didn't pan out as planned.

Rating: five out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles, by Rupert Kingfisher

Somewhere along the way my daughter heard about this book. Because a lot of the names were French, she was a little intimidated from reading it on her own, so I read it aloud to her.

Thanks to this book, I learned that "pamplemousse" is French for "grapefruit," and is used as a slang term for a breast. (The book itself didn't teach me any of this, but it gave me reason to do some Internet research, where these facts were awaiting my discovery.) A character is named M. Langoustine, which I learned a while ago from Wikipedia's "Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill" page is a name for "lobster."

This book was a little weird because I felt Kingfisher was trying to pass off laziness as mystery. Are we supposed to think M. Langoustine is Mme. Pamplemousse's cat? That would be too hard to explain, but it would make the book more boring if it weren't true, so why not just hint at it and don't definitively say one way or the other? I'd be interested in what my daughter thought about this, but she's downstairs doing school right now, so I guess we'll never know.

Since no right-thinking author writes a one-off book these days, the true test of whether a book is any good is how interested a kid is in reading the rest of the series. By that measure, the Madame Pamplemousse books are very successful.

Rating: four and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.