My Year in Books

There was a time, before I had kids, when I looked at the 50 Books challenge and scoffed. Not even one book a week? How was that a challenge? Try to stretch yourself people! Now I find myself in a position where 50 books a year isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossible dream. But still- I did 37. While working, raising three kids, and #resist-ing. So that’s not too bad, right? Right?

I hope for 40 next year. But my real challenge for 2018 isn’t for 50 books, it’s 52 blog posts. One review a week shouldn’t be too much to ask of myself. I didn’t come even close to that schedule—or keeping up with my reading habit—this year. But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for, I suppose.

So, without further ado, my incredibly brief reviews of the books I’ve read this year. With links to a full review on the rare occasions they’re available.

Earth is Room Enough, Isaac Asimov—A collection of Asimov short stories, all of which take place on Earth. Asimov is at his best at a short story writer, and this was entertaining enough. I don’t think any of these are my favorites that he’s written, but they were a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys through Knowledge, James Burke—In the vein of How We Got to Now and other such stories, this book aims to explain how discoveries in one era can lead to unintended inventions and discoveries elsewhere. I thought that the connections were less compelling than those in other, similar books, and Burke isn’t the best of writers. There are other such books and miniseries done better.

The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris—A while back there was a Facebook quiz thingy asking people to list the 10 books that had most influenced one’s life. Two of my friends listed this. I picked it up at a library book sale and it was fascinating and beautifully written.

The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a life in academia wasn’t for me, and that academic writing tended towards pointlessness and preening with no meaning. Sometimes I regret that decision. Then I read a ‘popular’ philosopher like Žižek and realize all my worst thoughts of academia are correct and I made the right decision. And on a related note.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards—The book opens (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s on the back cover and everything) with a doctor’s decision in the 1950s to tell his wife that one of their twins, born with Down syndrome, was stillborn, and asks his nurse to take the girl to an institution. The book covers how this lie affects everyone’s life for years. It was poignant and well written, and I’ve been talking about it with others all year.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson—Bryson is always hilarious, and his tangents informative and fascinating. My mind is also a weird musty attic for pieces of trivia, so anyone who provides as much as he does is a valued companion to me. Sadly, Bryson is also a grump and, in his old age, a curmudgeon who turns his astute judgments on the absurdity of society to complaints about Kids These Days and their clothes. This book was fun enough for a Bryson fan, but if you’re a newcomer pick up a younger and more cheerful book first.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein—There’s a prison colony on the Moon that wants freedom, and so a super computer and three unlikely leaders plot a rebellion. I’ve read other Henlein books and this is similar in that it starts off interesting enough and then gets sort of strange and goes off the rails. Also this was written when he was quite firmly in his extreme libertarian phase, so there’s that. He has some… interesting… ideas about government and feminism, I’ll give you that.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke—Until I was looking through my Goodreads list of books I’d read this year, I completely forgot this book. Which should probably tell you all you need to know.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jossi Adler-Olsen—A Scandinavian murder mystery! This was an enjoyable thriller, and I enjoyed the troubled detective enough for his type. If you enjoy the genre you’ll likely enjoy this book. I’ve read a few of these types now, and personally I find the Scandinavian thrillers to just be a bit too tortured and cruel, but I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than most.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan—This book was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was basically created from whole cloth to center around uranium enrichment factories. It was a secret city that didn’t even appear on maps until well after the war ended, and women and men were employed there in almost every conceivable position. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this book.

Armada, Ernest Cline—Ready Player One was absolutely amazing. I loved it. But you can only go to the well so many times, you know?

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi—This was, hands down, the most creative book I have read in a long, long time. I read a lot and it is rare that I read something that is entirely original, but this is. I have spent all my time since I read this book wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it and how amazing it is.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks—There is always interest to be had and things to be learned with Oliver Sacks. That being said, this wasn’t my favorite of his books. It didn’t have quiet enough variety and just didn’t capture my attention they way others have.

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay—This was a book I took with me on summer vacation, and about where I would assign it. It kept me entertained, it passed the time. It didn’t do much more than that.

Flight, Sherman Alexie—I had never read anything by Alexie, and this showed up at a library book sale. It was something, that’s for sure. I read it a few months ago, and I’m still working out all of my feelings, which I take as a good sign in a book. A troubling read, but a worthwhile one.

Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood—I *love* Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS. Because I am a white, upper-middle-class woman and we are obsessed with British* crime dramas. This was the first of the books I’d read, though, and it was great fun. If I ever have time to dive into a series again, I’ll definitely pick them up.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Charles Chaput—Not to be confused with Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein, a very different book indeed. Chaput thinks that traditional Christianity is under attack, and that liberal views, particularly those on sexuality, are to be blamed for most of our current ills. He also thinks that civil authorities letting gay people be married is a far greater threat to our Church than, say, objectivism. He has some great things to say about the ideal society and civics, he just seems to have trouble identifying the actual problems.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep TufeckiAre you part of the #resistance? Good. Get this book. Read it. Bring it to your Indivisible or Flippable or Swing Left or whatever group and have them read it and talk about it together. And follow Tufecki on Twitter. I didn’t think everything about this book was perfect, but she has important things to say and we need to think about the questions she’s raising.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrecht—A moving tale told through the perspectives of a woman in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and her grandfather. It tells the history of the place, and the story itself, and is imbued with magical realism and a painful sympathy for the region.

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon—A suspenseful thriller and a modern day ghost story. The genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the book was a page turner, and if you enjoy this type of book I think you’d love this one.

Getting Better, Charles Kenny—I know everything is horrible right now, especially in the developed world. But that’s exactly why a book like this is important. For one thing, it gives you some hope. For another, while so many on the right are trying to tear down the current order, and many of the far left (my political home) are too disillusioned and disappointed to vigorously fight for it, this book reminds us of the tremendous successes of post- WWII liberalism. I’d like to give a copy to everyone.

Nightfall and Other Stories, Isaac Asimov—Asimov is amazingly prolific, and as I mentioned about another collection (old sci-fi paperbacks are usually $.25 on half-price day at the library book sale, so I have several) he wrote so much that his short stories can be hit or miss. But “Nightfall”, the title story of this collection, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Reading the whole book was worth it just for that.

The Best American Essays, 2003, Ed. Anne Fadiman—I love the “Best American” series, and I adore essays and long form articles, so I loved this book. My favorites were Katha Pollit’s very honest “Learning to Drive”, and “Home Alone”, which surprisingly had me cheering on a defense of Martha Stewart and her fans.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene—God, this book is amazing. I kind of want to read it again right now. Why Greene isn’t more held up as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I don’t know. An amazing spy novel against the backdrop of Viet Nam, before Americans were even in the thick of it. It’s less than 200 pages and has more to say about colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution, and human nature than almost any other book I’ve read.

Disarming Beauty, Julian CarronDisappointing. This collection of essays circled back and occasionally repeated itself, but never built on itself. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire, Richard Adams Carey—An incredibly engaging read. Carey does a wonderful job of talking about the history and future of caviar, going into detail regarding high end importers, the agents enforcing endangered animal treaties, environmental regulators, organized crime, and the politics of biologists. A great example of the genre of digging down into a rarely examined piece of life.

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher—Rod Dreher thinks that Christians need to remove themselves from current society to the extent possible to defend the faith because traditional Christianity is under threat from people wanting cakes at their gay weddings and gender theory in schools. It’s basically just like communist Eastern Europe, an analogy he actually uses. But let’s leave that aside for now. The bigger issue is, how does one write an entire book about having lay people exercise a Benedict Option and never once mention lay Benedictine Oblates! I mean, that just seems obvious.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009 ed. Elizabeth Kolbert­—The Science and Nature writing series is my favorite, and this was no exception. It’s a bit depressing—Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, and her knowledge of and interest in ongoing environmental catastrophe shows. But there’s plenty of other topics to round it out. Try reading Atul Gawande’s “The Itch” without scratching for weeks. I’m itchy again just thinking about it.

A Long Way Down¸ Nick Hornby—Four people contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve meet each other and form connections instead. Entertaining, if you like Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) you’ll like this one, too.

Arkwright, Allen Steele—You know all those books by Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein that start out with humans on a planet we colonized long, long ago? This is the prequel. It should be a must read for any sci-fi fan.

Murder at the Dacha, Alexei Bayer—A murder mystery in Soviet era Moscow. Well paced, well written, and a good mystery novel that also paints a picture of life at this time and place.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett—The first in Pratcett’s Witch series in Discworld, it follows a girl who was accidentally made a wizard when women clearly can’t be wizards. I still don’t understand how I made it so far in life without reading Pratchett, but I’m doing my best to make up for it now.

Well of Lost Plots, Jasper FfordeThird of the Thursday Next series, our protagonist has taken refuge in Book World while she tries to un-eradicate her husband and plot how to take out Yorrick Kaine, a would-be dictator who’s escaped from fiction to the real world. And if none of that made sense, just start with The Eyre Affair and keep reading.

St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, Marie Dennis, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor—My only problem with this book is that it was clearly written to be studied at a prayer or small faith group, with discussion questions and everything, and it wasn’t presented that way up front. There’s limited utility if you’re reading it on your own.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian GreeneGreene traces the history of the scientific quest to determine reality and its beginnings from Galileo and Newton and on through modern string theory. It’s fascinating. Also, the difference between discussions at physics conferences and weed intensive college dorms is apparently just how many math equations are used.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde—Having left the safety of Book World, Thursday Next is now back in real-world England trying to take down Yorrick Kaine by ensuring Swindon wins the biggest croquet match of the year, deal with a mopey Hamlet, and find reliable child care.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco­—Umberto Eco is amazing. I still think Baudolino is my favorite, and a far too underrated book, but I will always have great love for this one. My fourth (?) time reading it, and I always discover something new.

And that’s it! I suppose not a bad showing on my part, but I could certainly do more writing. My main goal for the coming year.

Happy New Years, all, and Happy Reading.

 

*Okay, technically this one is Australian, but it’s on our PBS station that shows entirely BBC shows, so I think it counts as British Crime Drama.

^My youngest is 19 months, so I figure another 16 years or so until I have spare time.

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Well of Lost Plots

well of lost plotsWell of Lost Plots, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots is the third installment of his Thursday Next series, and it starts off more or less immediately where the former book, Lost in a Good Book ends. Thursday Next is a Jurisfiction Agent in a Great Britain similar to the one in our world, but with some notable differences.  Genetic engineering is quite common, and Thursday has a pet dodo she made with a home genetics kit. The series takes place in the 1980s, but the Crimean war is still raging. Wales is independent. Zombies, werewolves and vampires are all real, but more of a nuisance than anything else. Time travel is possible, but highly regulated by the Chronoguard. There are severe cheese shortages and cheese import laws. And the most relevant to the series, people take books seriously. Very seriously. Like, there is a special operations division, SO-27, dedicated to tracking down forged books and protecting literature. Oh, also, literary characters live in book world and have their own policing agencies to keep the plots as they’re supposed to be and sometimes people from the real world can enter the books and vice versa.

Well of Lost Plots is unique in the series so far in that it takes place entirely in the book world. And from here on out there will be SPOILERS for what has happened in the first two installments, and you have now been warned. At the end of Lost in a Good Book Thursday Next had been apprenticed as a Jurisfiction Agent policing book world rather than books in the real world, her husband, Landon, had been eradicated through time travel by the multinational Goliath Corporation, and she was somehow still pregnant with his child in this time stream. Thursday is less distressed by this part than many of us would be since her own father, a rogue Chronoguard agent, had been eradicated and still pops up in her life regularly. Sadly, Landon’s eradication seems to be somewhat more complete.

While she’s pregnant, and planning how to get her husband back, Thursday decides to take a break in Book World as a Jurisfiction Agent, subbing for a character in a seldom-read book while continuing to track down Page Runners (characters who escape their books), evading Grammasites (parasites who feed on words) and fighting off a plot to make all books far more generic and lifeless through what sounds suspiciously like e-books.

I’m constantly surprised that Jasper Fforde’s books are not far more popular. They’re incredibly witty and clever, the world building is truly impressive, and they are full of allusions and references that can only be understood for the overeducated types who have spent far too much time in our world’s paltry equivalent of Book World. There is absolutely no reason that nerdy hipster types shouldn’t be referring to Jasper Fforde constantly and bragging about how many of his jokes and references they understood. Each book is basically a novel of in jokes for literature and history nerds.

Well of Lost Plots is just as clever as the others, and Fforde is a talented enough writer to pull off all of this. It just works, you see. Oddly enough, Lost Plots was somewhat easier to understand than some of the others in the series, I thought, since it only takes place in Book World and one doesn’t need to try to keep track of all of the rules of both worlds. And, a further benefit for those of us who like to be in on the jokes, it sets up the Nursery Crimes series. One doesn’t need to have read one book to get the other, but having read The Big Over Easy definitely made me appreciate some of the bits of Well of Lost Plots more.

Anyone who spends too much time on books, especially classics, who enjoys being the smartest in the room, or who likes Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or other witty British authors will likely enjoy all of Fforde’s work. He’s one of the more creative and imaginative authors I’ve read, and I’ve got the rest of the series waiting on my to be read shelf for the next year.

God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason

God and the PhiliosophersGod and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, ed. Thomas Morris

I really wanted to like this book. Discussing the intersection of faith and reason is a topic I’m intensely interested in, for one thing. For another, I’m interested in philosophy but much of philosophy currently seems to be focused on an atheistic belief system, and disproving faith and free will, so I was interested in reading a different view point, from philosophers who have struggled with this personally and professionally.

Sadly, I was highly disappointed. While the book says it’s about the “Reconciliation of Faith and Reason” it’s really about religion and philosophy, and just the one religion—Christianity—and primarily a more conservative version of it at that. There was, I believe, one essay by an Orthodox Jew, but that’s it. It’s not that it’s a problem that it was really only from the Christian point of view, but people should be up front. I do get irritated when ‘faith’ or ‘interfaith’ or ‘religion’ are used when one only means ‘Christianity.’

The essays, being written largely from the perspective of people from the same faith, and from the same, traditional, branch of that faith, working in similar institutions with similar secular (at best) and anti-theist (at worst) leanings, covered much of the same material. From my perspective, the book became quite repetitive quite quickly. I had highlighted a few passages in the first couple of essays, or found something worth pondering, and then found that same point returned to again and again over the course of the book. It droned on without most essays introducing anything new.

My last complaint is regarding the arguments themselves that were used. The essays largely covered two broad topics: the first, why the author him or herself believed in God and was a practicing Christian and what that meant to them as working philosophers, and the second, why would anyone believe in an omnipotent and benevolent God when there are so many reasons not to, particularly when one considers how many bad things happen to good people? A good question, to be sure, and one about which there have been literally millennia of discussions.

The thing is, almost all of the essays in the book focus on the problem of evil. How and why would evil exist in the world? People are horrible to each other. How, then, can we believe in the Christian God? For me, though, this question is not of very much interest. I understand how it can pose an issue to some, but there is a very obvious answer: God gave us free will, which means that sometimes humans are free to choose terrible things. If one believes in free will, which I do, then of course some people can be evil. And, in fact, I think a belief in free will is a strong argument for a belief in God or gods of some sort. After all, if there is free will it means there is something beyond a deterministic view of the world, something to ‘us’ beyond just chemicals and particles. And if there is some part of us that is beyond our physical, properties, then there is something to everything beyond the physical, measurable properties. In my mind, the concepts of God and of free will are inextricably linked.

So, several essays on why a writer still believes in God when there is evil in the world didn’t interest me as much as it might have interested others. (And even for those who are interested in it, I think this would have been too many essays on the same topic with the same conclusion-that we must believe anyway and remember that Christ is in the suffering. A very Christian answer, and another place where they could have benefited from a variety of theists.) By contrast, there is a question along these lines that interests me: why do bad things that are entirely outside of human control happen? If there is a benevolent, merciful and loving God why are there volcanoes, and tornadoes, and hurricanes, why are there plagues and why does cancer exist and why does anyone ever die in childbirth? This doesn’t have anything to do with free will, and for me has always posed a much larger problem in the ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ question. And I don’t have a great answer, and would have been interested to read one or two philosophers –not all of them—grappling with that. Although perhaps others would have found that boring. I don’t want to criticize a book for not being the book I wish had been written, but I was surprised that this aspect of suffering barely received a mention.

In summary, God and the Philosophers was full of essays that may have been interesting on their own. Each one of them was fine, although I didn’t find any particularly intriguing. However, altogether, these essays became repetitive. I just don’t think it needed to be a book.

The Fabric of the Cosmos

fabric of the cosmosThe Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene

Even if you don’t know who Brian Greene is, you’ve probably seen or heard him around. He’s done two miniseries for NOVA, and two TED talks. He’s been on NPR’s Science Friday a couple of times. He did a cameo on the Big Bang Theory. And earlier this year he was on Stephen Colbert’s show with a world-record-setting Galilean Cannon. He’s also a professor at Columbia University’s Center of Theoretical Physics. While he talks repeatedly in his book about how time travel is impossible, I assume he’s found some way of developing a time turner in order to accomplish all of this.

Greene’s also written a couple of books, and this was my second time reading his second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. The Fabric of the Cosmos centers around the fundamental questions of where does everything come from, why does time move in one direction, and just what is everything made of anyway? He’s a patient author, and while I don’t think any layperson reading this will have a deep understanding of all of the different pieces of string theory and why we have all these extra dimensions lying about, I do think he does the best he can without teaching us complex mathematics. Greene also builds up to these theories, starting with Newton and moving through the history of physics and what has brought us to the current theoretical framework.

This book did make me contemplate time quite a bit and, specifically, the changes that occur as one gets older. The first time I read this book, and The Elegant Universe, I remember being fairly blown away by the ideas they contained. The second time around I found myself thinking, “Well, none of this is actually possible. Obviously quantum physics is witchcraft.” I exaggerate slightly, but at a certain point in theoretical physics its hard to see it as pure science anymore. When we’re trying to explain the world in ways that can’t be observed or experimented on, with math that isn’t completed yet and in fact has to be changed up constantly, that one can just add an extra dimension to (string theory had 9 space dimensions and 1 time dimension, then someone united the different theories with M-Theory but to do this you need 10 space dimensions and 1 of time) without substantively altering the theories, and theories predict all sorts of things that by all accounts don’t exist, it’s hard to accept this as the final descriptor. Maybe all off our math is wrong and can only work for classical physics, maybe there’s an as yet unidentified way of truly describing the universe. Maybe we’ve been headed down the wrong path for decades. Maybe we are all holograms?* Now I need to go lie down for a while and watch some House Hunters International until I can purge all of these mind-splitting questions.

In all seriousness, the book is fascinating, but the questions it raises are mind-boggling. I also found myself with a lot of additional questions that I assume there are answers to, or at least have been contemplated since they seem obvious, but the book didn’t address.  I’d love to attend a seminar on all this.  My questions are:

  • How is it possible that particles only ‘decide’ where they are when they are observed, as is the case in quantum physics. I know we’ve shown it’s the case, but don’t they interact with the world constantly? The question Einstein raised about quantum mechanics is, would anyone argue the moon isn’t there when we’re not observing it? But surely even if no human was looking at the moon, it’s being ‘observed’ by birds, gravitons, dark matter, solar radiation, etc. What does the interaction of the rest of the world have to do with quantum mechanics? This must have an answer, but I haven’t seen it.
  • Greene, and other physics explainers I’ve seen, make much of the fact that physics equations work the same forwards in time and backwards in time. Basically, there is no reason, based on the laws of physics, that your egg couldn’t put itself back together and jump back on the counter. Which seems to indicate a basic flaw in the laws of physics to me, but never seems to bother scientists. Greene explains that the big bang caused us to begin with a highly ordered universe, and that the entropy is constantly building, and that’s why we have the arrow of time. But 1) he explained earlier that entropy is just as likely to *have been* than to *be in the future*, so that still doesn’t seem to explain the arrow of time, and 2) even if that explains it for the universe as a whole which is moving to a more disordered state, that still doesn’t explain why it is the case for every single piece of the universe constantly and forever. TL;DR What’s up with time, anyway?
  • Dark matter? Seriously, what is up with that? And now there’s extra unexplained stuff besides dark matter? I’m going back to House Hunters.
  • Greene goes into detail about the potential shapes of the universe (spheres, saddles, or flat) before detailing that it may not matter because the universe is so big, possibly infinite, that it’s more or less flat where we are. Nope, you’ve gotta do better, physicists. We’re trying to determine the shape of dimensions smaller than a Planck length (1.616229 x 10-35 m), an inconceivably small distance, but so-big-it-may-as-well-be-flat is the best we can do for the universe? That doesn’t cut it for me.
  • Despite what I just said, though, that criticism only works if the universe is finite. If its infinite, doesn’t it actually have to be flat? Otherwise, where is the ‘middle’ where it starts to curve for either a saddle shape or a sphere? Is this something that can be answered mathematically, but not pictured? Or does infinite mean flat?

 

I have a lot more questions, too, but they’re more along the lines of how all these extra dimensions fit in, questions I think are still somewhat unanswered, and even if there is an explanation, its only one that exists in theoretical maths^, not anything that can be translated to our world.

Green’s book won’t turn you into a theoretical physicist overnight, but I do think his work is some of the most interesting and accessible on modern physics. Even if it does leave me with more questions and answers. His most recent book, Hidden Reality, explores other dimensions more seriously, so I may have to pick that up. Even if I still think it’s all impossible.

 

*Briefly, the strength of the gravity of a black hole and the amount of entropy don’t correlate with the volume of a black hole, but only with the surface area. Which shouldn’t be the case! But it suggests that at a certain point it’s the ‘projected’ part of the hole that has an effect on its surroundings. This alongside some suggestions that we may actually be a three-dimensional brane wrapped around other dimensions makes it possible that we interact more as holograms than solid beings, a theory Greene thinks has legs. I think the obvious explanation is Elon Musk is right and we’re in a simulation.

^Not an error. I’ve been listening to a lot of British podcasts lately.

Cannery Row

Cannery Row  Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

A fairly short book, Cannery Row isn’t so much a novel as it is a sketchbook. Published in 1945, it takes place on a particular street in Monterey, CA, during the Great Depression. The book covers the characters and their goings on, a window into one particular place and time and the people making their lives there.

The ostensible plot of the book centers around Doc, a marine biologist who works at the lab in Cannery Row and is likely the most “respectable” person in the book. He studies the marine life and collects specimens, which he packs and sells to labs and classrooms around the country. Mack, the leaders of a very contented community of drunks and layabouts, decide to throw a thank you party for Doc to thank him for all the good he’s done for them and everyone else. Along the way this premise is used to flesh out the people and buildings who are to be found on Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is an evocative writer, able to set a scene or make you know a person with a few well chosen words or phrases. And he is an amazing observer of humanity. Steinbeck is a master of find a way to describe those aspects of people or humanity that are under the surface, the type that seem to go away when you look at them straight on, and find a way to describe them perfectly. It shows up in all of his books, which are populated with such poignant characters, but in a book where the story is the characters, his talent really shines.

Cannery Row reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Brautigan, in all the best ways. He’s not nearly as absurd, and all of Steinbeck’s sentences make sense, but the book also doesn’t feel entirely real, either. Cannery Row seems to exist just next to our world, the way much of Brautigan’s writing does. But at the same time it’s easy to put oneself there. I smell the tide and feel the cold water when reading of Doc’s excursions the same way I smell loam and feel Northern California fog when I read Brautigan.

I adore this book. Steinbeck is always a joy to read, but it can be hard to be joyful when reading his stories. Cannery Row is a departure from those, although similar to books such as Tortilla Flat, which played with the same concept and location but with a different group of characters. It’s not that it’s all slight, as there is much going on under the surface of the story, but the book doesn’t deal with heady subjects, just the basics of living and the many different ways people go about that. It’s a delightful novel, with beautiful language, and that radiates with love for its subjects. A truly wonderful experience to read.

The Benedict Option

benedict optionThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher

 

How can one be a faithful Christian in a world that is hostile to Christianity? That is the premise of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, a premise which has a pretty huge assumption baked into it, as you may notice. Dreher’s answer is to withdraw into our own small faith communities, following the example of St. Benedict and the Benedictine Monasteries. He suggests we support Christian* businesses, pull our kids out of public schools immediately, and create our own culture where we’ll be as cut off as possible from the impacts of the world. He think we need to brace ourselves for further attacks on Christianity*, and see Christians* continue to have to choose between being good Americans and good Christians*, and the continuing decline. The only way to survive, according to Dreher, is to withdraw into our Benedict Communities, a sanctuary, so to speak, to protect our endangered Christianity*.

Let me say upfront that I did not dislike this book as much as I expected to! The general concept of small faith communities is one that I am wholeheartedly in support of, and I think people trying to be good, to be faithful, and to do the right thing do need to support one another. I think that our current culture looks down on community and tends to discard anything that inconveniences us, and this is a problem. And I’m sympathetic to the challenges of raising children in a culture that seems to criticize my own values. I’m a parent, and I’m trying to raise my kids Catholic, raise them to be kind and giving to others, to realize they can’t have everything because its wasteful, to not be violent, and so on and so forth. And I was raised that way as well, and it was difficult! The outside culture tries to get in, and it can’t be avoided altogether. (Mom, Dad, I’m sorry for all of the times that we snuck out to go to Dougie Olson’s place to play Mortal Kombat.) (Also, I’m still not sorry for all the times I watched MTV. I maintain that that ban was unnecessary.) In my own house, we have constant parenting discussions about how much to let the kids pretend to shoot each other, what video games and shows to watch, and on a grown up level what it’s okay for us to invest in, and how much its okay to invest instead of donate.

So I can understand where Dreher is coming from. And I am a fan of the concept of small faith communities, and living intentionally.  Building stronger lay communities is incredibly valuable and important, both to strengthen the Church and for individuals looking for spirituality, friendship, and living out their values. All that said, though, everything about the way Rod Dreher seems to approach this is off. Let us state from the beginning that Christianity, and even Christianity*, is not under threat here in the United States. No one is going to be hauled off to jail for being Christian, there are no pogroms, no one is being fed to the lions. This is not the time of the martyrs (a time that is likely overstated anyway.) There are pressures against Christianity in our society, but threats against Christians—at least in the United States—are far overstated by the Drehers and Chaputs and Grahams of the world.

Then, again, a common theme among the Drehers of the world is that there is really only the one way that Christianity* is under threat, and that’s from the legality of gay marriage. Oh, sure, he makes a couple feints towards the importance of helping people, and of standing up to racism, but these are clearly thrown in. Again and again the horrors of legalizing gay marriage, of teaching respect for transgender individuals, and otherwise going against natural law are held up as the way Christians* will be wiped out.

I don’t understand this. At all. No one is making other people get gay married. And for all the fear that is brought up about this, no one will ever say the Church has to recognize gay marriage. Right now, a religious leader can refuse to officiate the marriage of anyone for any reason—notice how divorce has been legal for a very, very, very long time, but the Catholic Church still won’t remarry someone who’s legally been divorced? There are the constant fears of how religious liberty is being attacked because there may be laws saying that business owners have to serve someone with different religious beliefs, which are being fought over right now, true. But other than that changes to our beliefs, and changes to Church teaching on sexual issues, are for the most part not being forced on us.

And even if the sexual mores of our society have diverged from Catholic teaching (which happened a while ago, really), is this the greatest threat to Christianity? They have often diverged to a certain extent, at least in practice, but we go forward saying what the ideal is and what the Church teaches, and hope that at least the people in the pews will get it right. The Church has survived several societal shifts, major cultural changes, and massive amounts of corruption within our ranks (see, for instance, everything about the Renaissance, Inquisition, etc.).

Meanwhile, nationalism is on the rise, with increased antisemitism and racism. These are sins we have fought before, but there is ample evidence they are infecting our Church, as well as other Christian communities.  And worse, there is a seeming fear of addressing racism within our Church and an absence of clergy in the fight in a way that other social issues do not suffer from. From a religious liberty perspective, there were several bills introduced over the past few years in different states, and even in the US Congress, that would have made it illegal for church workers to assist undocumented migrants in need. To its great credit, the Church has been much stronger in standing up for migrants and refugees, but it was startling to see the conservative voices calling for the religious liberty to ignore this direct affront to our Church’s mission.

A capitalist, individualist society that tells us not to help people we see in need is a danger to our Christian identity. When businesses are penalized for paying workers a living wage, how can a committed Christian treat their workers fairly? Society based on convenience, rather that responsibilities and togetherness, is a great threat to the Church (probably one of the biggest reason people don’t show up in the pews.)  Society that is soaked in violence is a threat to the Church. There are many challenges we face.

And many small groups that have risen to address them! I was surprised that “third orders” didn’t come up at all in the book, basically lay people who have still taken vows and agreed to live by a religious orders rules, since they seem ready made for this discussion. The largest of the Third Orders currently the Lay Franciscans, who are dedicated to social justice principles. There are also lay Benedictines, though, and they don’t even get a mention. I’d think he’d want to give them a boost. Catholic worker houses seem to be relevant to this discussion, but I imagine they don’t conform to his idea of Christianity*. Heck, Amish communities seem to be dedicated on pulling away from society that would damage their religion. This idea of pulling away and creating your own faith community isn’t unique, and it’s a glaring absence that Dreher doesn’t discuss them.

One a broader note, though, pulling away entirely—and I should mention that the Catholic groups above still work within society constantly, they aren’t isolated—is antithetical to what it means to be Christian. Even if I agreed with Dreher on the worst threats facing Christianity* today; even if I agreed that we were facing an existential threat; I still wouldn’t be able to condone his suggestions. Because the fact is that we are called to be part of the world, to minister, to evangelize. And most of all, throughout Catholic teaching, we are taught that we are an Advent people. We are people of hope. We are not allowed to withdraw, to only tend to ourselves, to despair of society. We must live in the world and be a public witness, and do what we can to call others to us. And doing this while holding true to our teachings is a challenge, but it is ours to live. It does not matter the difficulties we may face, we are not called to despair and withdrawal, we are called to be Salt and Light.

*Relevant only for his particular brand of socially conservative Christianity.