Tag Archives: review

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book written by an engineer for engineers. I’m not an engineer. But I can’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy reading this one. I needed a beach book for my week in Michigan, and when this book appeared on the shelf (as books are wont to do on my wife’s side of the bookcase), I grabbed it. I had seen one of my honors students (an engineer) reading it and had read this fantastic quip on XKCD. And then I saw the movie trailer (which looks AWESOME), so that helped me finally jump on the bandwagon. (And I know this is a departure from my resolution to read fiction by minority authors, but– BEACH.)

Be advised, this is a book by an engineer written for engineers. Did I already say that? It is compelling. The idea is simple and devastating: in the near and pretty believable future, manned missions to Mars are a reality and as gritty and physical and dangerous as an actual mission to Mars would be. On one of these missions, an astronaut gets left behind, assumed dead. It turns out he’s not, and he has to figure out how to survive on Mars, NASA has to figure out what happened and what they can do to fix it, and the crew of his ship have to figure out whether they follow NASA’s lead or mutiny and risk their own lives to save him.

Most of the story was told in the form of journal entries made by the marooned astronaut, Mark Watney, during his time on the surface. Here’s where the whole thing at times felt like a long, science fiction McGyver episode. Mark explains in detail how he’ll provide water and oxygen for himself, how he’ll grow food, and how he’ll get around on the surface. These are gripping details for a few chapters, but they can’t keep a reader’s interest– even one who appreciates the thought and detail the author put into keeping this grounded in reality– forever. Mark himself is a sort of Everyman, competent, foul-mouthed, and with a dry sense of humor. His ordinariness at times though, in spite his incredible technical competence, seems hollow. Not once, for instance, do we find Mark describing the view of Mars out his hab suite windows or reflecting on the nature of his dilemma with anything other than a superficial “do or die” mentality. But then again, what are the chances NASA would be sending a philosopher into space?

Luckily, Weir– himself a software engineer– realizes that stories don’t work without people and that it’s going to be difficult to build suspense about whether Mark lives or dies with him reporting in at the end of each day. So the narrative switches up a few times and we get a glimpse into the lives of the people back on Earth working to send supplies to keep Mark alive and ultimately his shipmates as they learn his fate and decide what they need to do to save him (as well as occasionally some God’s-eye-view narrative of the lives of inanimate equipment parts and geological features about to fail, which oddly enough functions quite well to build suspense).

This is where the actual drama comes in, and for me the most exciting parts of the novel were where the crew of the Hermes had to wrestle with what it might cost them to return to Mars to save Mark. And this– the dynamics between crew members on a months-long voyage and the cost of rescue– is what I hope the upcoming movie plays up. This was the pivot-point of the novel, and it was enough pull to get me as a reader over the hump and into the second part of the book, which chronicles Mark again and all the technical challenges of piloting a rover across a good portion of Mars to arrive at the appropriate rondevouz point and make an orbital-return component capable to escape velocity.

Lots of science here. In fact, Mark’s not really the hero of the story so much as science is. Science, Weir is saying, can pretty much solve anything if we’re plucky enough to keep trying and make the sacrifices required. (He also says something about it being the nature of humans to want to help each other, which is quoted pretty much verbatim in the movie trailer.) Besides the scientific triumphalism (which SPOILER dictates how the book will end– there’s never any real question of Mark’s survival), he deftly sidesteps any deeper questions, such as whether there’s an appropriate cost for saving a single human life or whether humans belong on places like Mars at all. No sir, this is a book about engineering. But I have to admit a book that raises philosophical questions without addressing can be fine in its own right. Sometimes it’s okay to simply present the problem in a clear-eyed fashion and leave it to the reader to puzzle through like Mark had to puzzle through the reality of Mars.

It is a fun, compelling, riveting book, but it ultimately felt unfulfilling for me because the pieces that made it tick– the people, and particularly the crew of the Hermes— never got closure. That is, we learn Mark’s fate but we don’t any view of his reunions with the people who saved his life. That would all be a compelling follow-up novel: call it The Earthling. It could show Mark’s life returned as the most famous human on the planet and him interacting with the people who contributed to his rescue as well as his return voyage to Earth with his crew (as well as the implied hook-up with Mindy, the NASA worker who contributed to his recovery and about whom I can only assume there’s an in-joke here regarding “Mork and Mindy” with Weir’s proclivity for 70s television). But the book is still tight and cogent leaving all that up in the air, especially as messy inter-personal stuff like that would take the focus off the science.

Inheriting Paradise

Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on GardeningInheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening by Vigen Guroian

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The rain over the past several days has meant the plants in my meager garden have grow wild, chaotic, threatening to slip beyond the control of a weeding hand. It doesn’t help that I’m already a bit of a lazy gardener. It’s important for me to have growing things in the ground– my ground– every season, but I don’t spend time each day in the garden. I kind of let things– cucumbers and tomatoes, mainly– run riot.

I have two shallow raised beds in the backyard. This fall I may add a third. One of them is devoted to different varieties of cucumbers with basil plants holding down the corners. There’s a long trellis I made out of old chicken wire running down the middle. The cucumbers are gathering themselves right now in a slow green boil, like they’re gathering momentum to leap up and over it, as they will soon, burying it in a long leafy wave. I’ve always had good luck with cucumbers.

The second bed is more unruly. Half of it is devoted to a weedy onion patch, though the long fingers of the onions still have a comfortable lead on the grass growing up between them, for now. I dropped onion sets into this side of the garden haphazardly and without plan, so the onions have come up in bedraggled rows. The rest of the bed is split between four large tomato plants that have fountained up as bushes, spilling languid green arms in all directions, and a row of potato plants that I’m not sure what to do with. I’ve never grown potatoes before, and as lovely and thick as they look above the ground, I don’t know what that means beneath the soil.

In one corner of this bed I have an uneasy alliance with a bunch of mint. At one time this mint spread across the back of the house and my wife spent a long afternoon pulling it out of the flower bed where it had thrived for perhaps decades. I have a soft spot in my heart for the plant though, because I pull a leaf to chew every time I walk past the garden and I boil it to make mint tea for my kombucha. I have it walled off in its own corner of the raised bed, though my walls don’t go deep enough to actually do anything to hold it back. That’s just me, pulling out the constant runners that keep creeping into the tomatoes.

You’re supposed to be able to tell something about a man from his garden, and if this is true then my garden says I’m enthusiastic, overly optimistic, and naive. I know there are supposed to be growing things on my land, so I plant them, but I’m never quite sure I have the hang of what to do with them once they go crazy, as they do each season. I like to watch the garden come to life, but I lack artistry. Fortunately, there’s not a lot riding on my gardening. I don’t rely on it to provide a major source of my food. If Vigen Guroian is right though, I do need it to provide food for my soul.

The garden is the oldest analogy. As Guroian points out, man was placed in a garden at creation. Whether or not this is “historical” truth, consider what it means as literary truth. Man begins in some kind of order, as some kind of caretaker in relationship with ordered creation. Wildness and wilderness only come later.

For Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian, gardening is more than a hobby or an ecological mission: it is theology, lived in the context of the soil. The annual death and rebirth of his garden is a reflection of the theological– the cosmological, he would argue– truths exemplified in the liturgical life of the Church. Indeed, in this slender volume the chapters are divided by Christian holidays, with Guroian reflecting on the beauty, significance, and meaning of what’s happening in the garden in time with what’s happening in the liturgical year. The garden is a way of participating with creation itself in worship, in bearing fruit joyfully before God. For Guroian, as he shares his own battle with depression, it’s also a means of healing.

The mirror for all this is the prayers and hymns of the Armenian Orthodox liturgy. Guroian pulls from this throughout the year– as well as scripture and occasional quotes from the Fathers or other writers– to draw the reader into an understanding of the cycles at work unseen beneath the turning of the seasons. This might be a central claim of anyone who gardens: for those of us who have lost touch with the land, the circle of the year turns largely unseen. We skim along the skin of it, but we don’t reach deeply and touch what it means.

For an Orthodox Christian gardener like Guroian, the claim might go deeper: most Christians today are like the non-gardeners, out of touch with the deeper turnings in the liturgical life of the Church. We see Easter and Christmas come and go like non-gardeners see certain fruits and vegetables appear and then disappear (though they don’t even really do that anymore) from the markets. But there’s a deep connection between the two, and Guroian believes– in keeping with mystical Orthodox theologians– that the story of the Church, the entire story of redemption and deification, is written in the soil. He would have you know this when you garden as well as when you sing or speak the liturgy.

For all that I agree with Guroian’s message here, I was disappointed with the book. It’s a slender volume that despite the richness of his prose and borrowed texts felt woodenly didactic. The cosmic significance of gardening was spelled out writ large, but what was lacking was the specificity that makes such sweeping analogies and metaphors truly powerful. I learned the significance of gardening, but what of the significance of tomatoes? What of cucumbers or mulch? What of the back bent in labor? They’re all here but passed over, unexplored. I was hoping for something more along the lines of Chet Raymo’s Soul of the Night; whereas Raymo’s theological claims are far vaguer, his treatment of natural (in this case astronomical) phenomena are compelling, concrete, and sublime. For all the truth Guroian is touching here, the execution came off a bit too trite.

Stations of the Tide

Stations of the TideStations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve read or are familiar with Saga, the gorgeous comic series that re-imagines the science fiction epic with a generous helping of fantasy, you won’t be completely at sea with Station of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick had been on my to-read list for a while, mainly due to associations with other authors I enjoy, but I had embargoed his work due to my attempt to finish out this year only beginning works of fiction by minority writers. Not long into this commitment though, I found myself in Chicago with time on my hands, nothing to read, and a paperback edition staring up at me from a bookstore shelf with a price of only a few dollars.

I was weak.

It had been on my radar for a while as a fairly recent cult classic among science fiction enthusiasts. The Gene Wolfe list-serv I follow has buzzed about his work occasionally in the past, and I was reminded recently he was someone I needed to check out when one of his essays appeared in the recently-reviewed issue of Feast of Laughter.

I was not disappointed. Stations of the Tide is surreal, gorgeous, and stand-alone. It’s also dream-like, a bit chauvinistic, and at times opaque. Like Saga it’s a tale that artfully blends elements of fantasy with science on a large interplanetary backdrop. There are lots of science fiction elements dropped causally in the background as aspects and support of the plot, but you never get the feeling– as you sometimes do in hard scifi– that the plot is simply an excuse to highlight or features some new piece of speculative technology.

The story is set on Miranda, an alien world fully colonized by humans but upon which (a la Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus) indigenous inhabitants are rumored to survive. Once every two centuries, the climate of the planet shifts and huge jubilee tides rise to cover the lowlands. The plot takes place primarily in these backwoods Tidewaters, as the protagonist– never named, always simply called the bureaucrat– hunts for a fugitive among towns being abandoned and evacuated in anticipation of the coming, cataclysmic floodwaters.

The power of the book is not in the characters. None of them seem real, except perhaps the bureaucrat’s local partner, Chu, and the story’s villain, Gregorian, a Mirandan accused of stealing forbidden technology but believed on the planet to be a powerful wizard. The rest are caricatures: the administrative superiors the bureaucrat is working for, the woman he falls in love with, and of course– as perhaps intentional and illustrated by his name– the bureaucrat himself. If he’s meant to be a faceless everyman the (presumably male) reader can put himself into the place of relatively easily, this succeeds.

No, the real strength of the novel is the setting and the story-telling itself, which consists of vignette-like chapters in which the bureaucrat moves through this surreal, dream-like (and yet vivid) setting in the wake of Gregorian. And here I think is where the novel illustrates something important about story-telling (important and encouraging to me at least): it’s a powerful example of how to provide a sense of wonder through the “show, don’t tell” maxim used effectively. More than that though, it illustrates an author absolutely comfortable in the world he creates. The history of Miranda is never completely spelled out. It’s simply the world we find ourselves in; it forms a background organically and naturally glimpsed (sometimes frustratingly incompletely) as the story progresses. Same with the technology: no one ever sits us down and tediously explains how surrogates work or the internal functioning of the bureaucrat’s suitcase. The snippets of explanation we do get, mainly between the bureaucrat and his local partner, seem natural because the control of off-planet technology is central to the story and the political tensions on the planet. This is also true of the flora and fauna of the planet itself. Again, these are details mentioned casually in the background: the orchid-crabs, the barnacle flies, the behemoths. Most of them are never actually described in detail, yet you’re given enough to build an image of this world. It’s a strange, alien bayou, with cities being abandoned before the rising waters with a carnival-like Mardi Gras feeling.

Television is an important thematic element throughout. There’s always a television on somewhere in the background, and throughout the novel we’re given glimpses of a serial playing out along the lines of the grotesque pirate adventure that is threaded through Watchmen. It also reminds again of Saga, the ever-present and shifting images on the screen-face of Prince Robot.

Something should also be said about the tantric sex scenes, though I’m not sure what. They’re there and pretty vivid, but what’s vaguely disturbing about their inclusion is that they seem to do little but play into stereotypes that science fiction– even good science fiction like this– is a playground for men and their fantasies, both sexual and technological. The character of Undine, the bureaucrat’s love interest, has the sole purpose of teaching the bureaucrat a couple neat sex tricks and providing an emotional motivation for what is otherwise a straightforward sense of duty (though ultimately these two motivations come to a play briefly in a scene of conflict that for a moment gives the bureaucrat pathos). Yet she doesn’t do this by being any sort of actual character besides a really, really good lover who just happens to take a fancy to the main character.

If Undine represents standard male science fiction sexual fantasies, the bureaucrat’s briefcase represents technological fantasy. The briefcase is a character itself, something like a smartphone might be in several hundred years. It can manufacture anything, integrate into any computer system, and get around on its own. And it’s the perfect servant, always obedient and quick to save the day. Indeed, it becomes one of the most endearing characters because of its faithfulness and resourcefulness. Which makes the final scene with it all the more poignant. I think Swanwick knew what he was doing here, and it’s an ironic commentary on man’s love affair with the technology he creates and controls.

If you’re willing to overlook the awkward deployment of eroticism, Stations tells a powerful, compelling, and enjoyable tale. The plot is meandering, and at times I had trouble figuring out why the characters were going to certain locations or keeping track of characters who disappeared and reappeared throughout the novel. Scenes come and go, only vaguely held together by the pursuit of Gregorian. Some of the reveals at the end seemed forced, and a few were unsurprising. We realize early in the novel that Gregorian is deceptive and the bureaucrat naive. We know to expect a few tricks. But the trick the bureaucrat himself pulls at the novel’s very end took me by surprise, and I’m eager to read it again to tie many pieces together but especially for clues to see if I should have caught the final twist coming.

That’s why it’s a great book. You can’t toss it aside and forget it. It’s going to sit on my shelf, and in another year or two I’ll read it again and figure out how many tangles I can unravel now that I know that whole story. Yet I didn’t leave the first reading disappointed or confused. It’s like a good puzzle. There’s some satisfaction, but I’ll return to it not because I feel l need to in order to fully “get it” but because it’s going to be even better exploring the second time. Maybe it’s less like a puzzle and more like a rambling house. That balance– satisfaction with a single read but awareness that there’s more to return to– is difficult to achieve and I think a mark of a new classic.

Ian Morgan Cron

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's TaleChasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I came to a realization reading Ian Cron’s work: Mystics are empiricists. They’re trying to meaningfully express experiences. I’ve always been a theorist. I try to fit my own experiences and those of others into pre-conceived patterns and structures. I had always imagined (without much thought) that this was the other way around. I imagined the mystics were the theorists and that my own thoughts were grounded more firmly in empirical evidence. Meeting and reading Cron made me realize that the true mystic always speaks from experience.

I say all this because I do believe Cron is a modern-day Christian mystic. He came and spoke at my university at the beginning of this semester, and I had the privilege of meeting him as he visited and had lunch with one of my classes. He is deeply passionate, well-spoken, and kind. His words and vision are compelling, and he left behind stirred minds as well as hearts, a campus buzzing with what he had expressed, and a stack of his books generously gifted to my class.

So it was I found myself reading Chasing Francis, a book several of my students assured me was “the best book they had ever read.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but within the first chapter I realized it wasn’t this: Francis through the lens of the fictional disillusioned, burned-out megachurch pastor Chase Falson. Though my opinion on the text differs significantly from that of my students, I believe what Cron is doing here is excellent and immensely important: unpacking aspects of Catholic mysticism and social gospel through the eyes of a mainstream evangelical.

The basic premise of the novel (Cron calls it “wisdom literature”) is that a pastor of a successful megachurch has a crisis of faith and finds himself traveling to Italy to spend some time with his uncle, a Franciscan. In the company of his Uncle Kenny and a few other jovial monks, he lives for a time as a spiritual tourist, shuttling back and forth through the Italian countryside visiting historic sights linked to the life of St. Francis and taking up a correspondence of sorts with the saint through his journal. New characters are introduced as needed to explain to Chase aspects of the Catholic spiritualism Francis exemplified: the love of artistic beauty, community, peace-building, and service, for examples. Chase learns there is a lot more to being Christian than the conservative, consumeristic view of the Church he previously held, and he returns to his church a changed man.

First, the value of this book: if you want to learn about the life of Francis, there are better ways. If you want a tour of Italy and Church history, there are better ways. But if you don’t know much about either and if you’ve been raised in the kind of Christianity Chase’s character represents, this might be your window into a new world. For me, this is why– despite the flat characters and the forced plot-line– it’s still gratifying when my students tell me they enjoyed reading it. Because the perspectives they take away from that are important. For someone, for instance, who sees in the symbols and practices of liturgical worship nothing but empty form or at worse harmful superstition, Chase’s realizations are going to be essential.

These themes aside though, the story itself is a bit tedious. The characters– most particularly Chase himself– are caricatures. They have conversations about spirituality and faith and beauty, but they’re simply observers, even the group of Franciscans. Even the most emotionally powerful portion– the account from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide– is staged and somehow sterile: we’re sitting beside Chase as he listens to a lecture at a peace seminar. The entire book is like this: Chase is staring through windows, meeting people who deliver information and perspective. This sense of disconnect reaches its climax in the chapter on beauty, when Chase happens to meet a concert musician, and then they happen to meet an Anglican priest conductor who gives a lecture on the role of beauty in theology, and then they all go out for dinner.

There’s a deeper problem here though, and one that caused a nagging worry as I continued to read. Chase begins the story as a self-centered individualist who realizes the answers he had are no longer working. For the duration of the story he functions as a self-centered spiritual tourist (Cron uses the term “pilgrim,” but I remain unconvinced. Chase is a tourist. He never abandons the Western tourist mentality.)

Chase’s church had been the “Chase Falson” show; he returns to it with new and transformed ideas, but his goal upon his return appears to be to simply reinvent it into the new, improved Chase Falson show. Nothing about his idea of church has essentially changed. He has absorbed apparently nothing from the Franciscans about humility, menial service, church hierarchy, or putting oneself under the authority of a spiritual superior or mentor. Chase’s McMegachurch is certainly transformed upon his return– and some of the twists here will be familiar to anyone who has experience with church politics– but it’s not a transformation away from the dominant paradigm of one man with a dedicated cadre of followers. As the final scenes make clear, this will still be the Chase Falson show, now simply informed by some ideas of St. Francis.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of SortsJesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir…of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ian Cron is a bridge between multiple worlds. He’s a bridge between mysticism and everyday evangelicalism. He’s a bridge between Catholicism and Protestantism. He was raised in one world and now, from what I can see, identifies strongly with the Via media of the Anglican church. And in that position he can mediate between many of the traditions and denominational languages of contemporary Christianity. I saw this at my own university, where Ian on the one hand led our chapel in an ecumenical eucharistic service and on the other listened and tried to understand students expounding on the Nazarene view of holiness.

Wherever we are among these different worlds, we need people like this.

If Chasing Francis, his first book, felt flat and unreal even as it communicated important ideas, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me is alive. In this memoir Chase Falson, the omni-man protagonist of Chasing Francis, is replaced by Cron himself, and the writing that had only a constrained glimmer in Chasing Francis explodes into three-dimensions in this memoir. Here is someone writing about something real. Here is a true mystic expressing true experiences.

The title of the book, as Cron relates in the first chapters, comes from his realization upon his father’s death that Cron knew very little about his father’s actual career, which apparently included time as a CIA operative. His father– an emotionally abusive alcoholic– remains one of the primary threads woven through the work, and it is clear a primary impetus in the writing was Cron grappling with his memories of his father and the way they shaped his childhood. This makes the book’s conclusion– which seems at first glance disconnected from the rest of the narrative– a powerful commentary on fatherhood in general and the lasting repercussions of both wounding and redemption.

Cron calls the book “a memoir . . . of sorts,” but this hedging seems to me to devalue the work itself. He writes in the beginning that he feels the need to qualify this because not every conversation is written from memory and many are recomposed in his mind as he believes they would have happened. But can any memoir be any more than this? Considering the blending of history and fiction that characterized his prior book, I was left by this qualification with a shadow of doubt about whether Cron had taken more than usual artistic liberties with his representations of his past. Otherwise why insist that it was only a memoir of sorts? This would be disappointing, as the whole thing has a vibrant feel of realism and honesty.

The book bounces around chronologically, beginning with his father’s deathbed and funeral, jumping back to Cron’s childhood and teenage years, and chronicling his own battle with alcoholism and his life as a father today. In between he writes about his first communion and the power and transcendence of that experience, which comes full circle as he recounts his own first officiating as an Anglican priest. The stories along the way range from hilarious to deeply troubling, but there is a constant theme of wonder, humility, and gratitude. The language, which seemed forced in Chasing Francis, flowers here into something much deeper.

Cron writes, speaks, and lives well. I hope he comes back soon.

Viper’s Tangle

Viper's TangleViper’s Tangle by François Mauriac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things that always struck me about C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is how effectively Lewis wrote in a demon’s voice. The character of Screwtape was believable, because Lewis understood how young Christians thought, the beliefs and desires that motivated them. He understood temptation enough to compellingly examine it from a unique and “alien” point of view that was at the same time disturbingly familiar. As strange a connection as that may be, I couldn’t help but compare the first portions of Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle to Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.

In Viper’s Tangle we’re given a surprisingly compelling and (for me, at least) an uncomfortably familiar view into the mind of a bitter man nearing death and reflecting on his life. Mauriac’s character, Louis, lives in a state of quiet warfare with his family, whom he sees as hovering around him waiting for his death so they can claim his fortune. He knew love once– or thought he did– early in his marriage, but has for the past forty years lived in symbolic silence with a wife he believes neither understands nor appreciates him. He is embittered and hateful, and we as readers quickly become suspicious of his view of the world around him because it’s so colored by his own perceptions and beliefs. Are things really as bleak and tangled as he represents them? Is he correctly interpreting the present and past actions of his wife and children?

I certainly don’t believe I’m in a similar situation as Mauriac’s protagonist, who begins writing his account as an explanatory letter to his wife to be read upon his death. Yet the power of the account is what I felt years ago reading Lewis’s Screwtape: a certain amount of recognition. If I’m not as hateful and vindictive as Louis, I can see the seeds of such fruit in some of my own attitudes, in my own petty feelings of injury that can easily be nursed into a deep resentment, similar to those Louis uses to justify his attitudes and outlook. As embittered as Louis is, Mauriac effectively outlines how he became this way, and it’s a mirror to some of my own worst days.

This is the second novel we have read in the course I’m auditing on the Catholic imagination in twentieth-century literature. Mauriac’s Louis has nothing but contempt for the lukewarm religiosity of his family members (nominal Catholics) and takes a great deal of pleasure in antagonizing them. He sees them as hypocritical, unable to admit they care only for the same thing that drive him: their wealth. Yet whereas they are unaware of the misery obsession with money brings, he lives and breathes within the center of the web it has cast across his life. He sees clearly how little happiness it brings, and he doesn’t cloak his pursuit of it in any sort of noble or selfless terms, does not justify it with the trappings of middle class Catholicism as do the members of his family.

It’s compelling watching Louis in his own net of vindictiveness and self-destruction. Yet the book is ultimately about Louis’s transformation. This is not a simple Dickensian transformation. Louis does not wake up one morning, like Scrooge, a new man. There is instead one final plot of Louis’s to disinherit his conniving children as he realizes the tangle of vipers is not simply within his own heart but has extended to the actions of those around him. Louis’s final endeavor is concluded by an unexpected death, and then comes– near the end of the novel– the transformation in which his hatred abruptly drains away. Mauriac depicts Louis as paradoxically, finally, realizing the true object of his love in his own loathing for his fortune and his desire to become free of it.

What makes this more than a straightforward conversion tale is the skill Mauriac uses in detailing the weaving of Louis’s tangle of hate and weak, tired avarice. It’s a picture of the furious futility of a selfish life, of hatred that is simply an emptiness. It is believable. Yet there is also, all around Louis, the glimmer of a greater reality breaking in that reminds– like a brilliance glimpse around the edges of cloud– of the wonder of Chesterton’s world. Louis is aware of this, fleetingly, in the world he sees and in a few of the characters who love him unselfishly, uninterested in what they can take from him. This is a story of someone trapped in the wonder of a Chestertonian world and unable to perceive it from the prison of self-loathing until almost too late.

There is a final plot twist near the end of the novel, which enhances the narrative of Louis attempting to reconcile himself– or allow himself to be reconciled– to his children. The question of the unreliable narrator again emerges as we get a glimpse of the ways in which his children perceive his sudden transformation. Indeed, I thought the way Mauriac ended the novel, with letters by Louis’s son and his granddaughter, was especially effective. Each of them present a perception of who Louis ultimately became, and trying to work out which aspects of which were correct or at least understandable adds a final layer of intricacy to the tangle from which Louis attempted to extricate himself at his life’s end.

The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday: A NightmareThe Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My edition of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday includes an explanatory note at the end of the text, taken from one of Chesterton’s columns published the day before his death, in which he calls attention to the work’s subtitle and the fact that most people ignore it. For me, that subtitle– “A Nightmare”– is one of the biggest riddles of the work. As I reread it recently for a course I’m auditing, “The Catholic Imagination in 20th-Century Fiction,” that question kept coming back to me: in what terms does Chesterton view this story as a nightmare?

It’s certainly dreamlike. The protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is an undercover policeman charged with infiltrating a secret ring of anarchists. He does so by a remarkable chain of events that results in him being elected to the Central Council of Anarchists, a body in which each member is given the codename of a day of the week (hence the title). The monstrous leader of this council and of the worldwide society of anarchists is Sunday, a figure that looms over the entire narrative like a thunderhead.

The course of the novel is one of sudden reversals and switches, a series of unmaskings that are sudden and sweeping and– eventually– somewhat ludicrous. Our hero soon realizes he is not the only person on the council who is not what he appears. The frequent and increasingly elaborate disguises are certainly dreamlike. So are the sudden changes of scenery (moving from London to the French countryside and back almost effortlessly), the weird weather (a breakfast on a balcony followed by a sudden snowstorm), and the bizarre chases.

There is also throughout the book the dreamy quality that makes all of Chesterton’s work so memorable, but it is a sharp and specific dreaminess: his characteristic attention to beauty and the mythological vistas in the everyday. Syme’s prosaic London and its various scenes (buildings along the river, rides in hansom cabs through neighborhoods, glimpses of bushes across a meadow) are glorified– even sanctified– by Chesterton as things of true terror and sublimity. Syme notes, for instance, during a duel in which he realizes he may likely die, that he is not only fighting against anarchy on behalf of all ordinary and wonderful things (a parallel here I think to how Chesterton saw himself as a philosophical champion against the anarchy of nihilism) but that he would be satisfied to lay his whole life beneath a certain almond bush glimpsed across the field, looking upward through its branches.

Though aspects of the novel have a feel of a nightmare (especially the penultimate twist that seems to have Syme and his allies alone against the world), it is the final unmasking, the revelation of the nature of Sunday himself, which takes place during the most dream-like sequence of a novel, that I still don’t see in light of the subtitle. The identity of Sunday, and what it signifies for Chesterton’s view of nature and the universe, is the central theme of the novel. In many ways, I think Syme’s experience with Sunday is an analogy of Chesterton’s conversion experience: he thought he was a man alone, defending the ordinary against the forces of anarchy, but in all his defiance he found himself continually driven back to orthodoxy, always finding the figure that he thought the greatest architect of anarchy grinning out from the cracks of reality. He kept, he has Syme say, feeling he was seeing the backside of nature– all its grimness and cruelty and beauty– but he (in the character of Syme) finally sees its face. And it’s that final realization that I have trouble understanding in the context of the tale as nightmare.

The final twist might be seen coming a long way off, and the ones leading up to it might start to feel a bit ridiculous, but the entire novel still feels fresh and exuberant, if a bit slapdash. Chesterton’s prose is easy and engaging, even when it’s dashing off on a tangent to describe clouds above the city at sunset or how the buildings across the river look like monsters. This is the point, for him. The buildings are monsters. The sunset is a flame. And this may perhaps be the most poignant part of the thing called the Catholic imagination, the thing that rings through all of Chesterton’s work– the idea that the world is almost shockingly, unbelievably good, and the greatest adventure is living among the ordinary things of creation and seeing them so.

A dream, perhaps. But I hope not a nightmare.

Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints Boxed SetBoxers & Saints Boxed Set by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Yang’s American Born Chinese years ago. I don’t remember everything about it, but I do recall that I enjoyed it quite a bit and was especially impressed with the way Yang treated both traditional Chinese mythology and Christianity, managing it in a way that neither belittled nor cheapened either. I hadn’t realized it was still possible to treat Christianity seriously in modern literature (and I definitely include many graphic novels in the category of modern literature) without making it the whipping boy for clashing cultures or post-colonial guilt.

Whereas Christianity and Chinese culture can coexist and and make American Born Chinese successful, no one can accuse Yang of ignoring when this has not been the case. Indeed, Yang takes one of the most famous and tragic confrontations between Western Christianity and Chinese culture as the focus of his latest two-volume work, Boxers & Saints. Here Yang combines history with magical realism, excellent artwork and storytelling, and cultural tact to present a retelling of this conflict from two complimenting viewpoints that is as poignant as it is tragic, as haunting as it is visually effective.

I call Boxers & Saints a two-volume work, but it is not a chronological division. Boxers, the longer of the two, tell the story of a Chinese peasant boy who becomes the leader of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, known to Westerners as the Boxers, who rebelled against growing Western influence in China in the first years of the twentieth century. Saints tells the story of a Chinese peasant girl who becomes a Christian during this period and is a first-hand witness to the consequences of the Boxer Rebellion, particularly its targeting of Chinese Christians.

There are no good guys or bad guys in this book. Even the martyrs are simply people trying to do what they think is best. This is a huge strength of the work, something that Yang accomplishes by splitting the work into its two complementary pieces. We see the threat that Western influence represented to Chinese culture and the domineering presence of many Christian missionaries through the eyes of the hero of Boxers. And we see all the blood and death and ultimate personal tragedy that resulted because of it through the eyes of participants on both sides.

The shades of grey get even deeper in Saints, as we are given a glimpse of the mundanities that led many Chinese to embrace Christianity as well as the genuine piety that resulted. Even the saints are ambivalent though, and it’s a stroke of genius that it is Joan of Arc that appears to the heroine of this volume, making the parallels between her attempt to unify France and repel the English invaders and the Boxers’ attempts to do the same for China painfully obvious, even to the Christian protagonist. There are a lot of painful loyalties; there’s a lot of death and tragedy. That’s what makes it so real though: people living through things that really happened, making actual, complicated choices that are often wrong and never black and white.

What makes Yang’s work especially powerful though, like American Born Chinese, is that he never reduces these complicated choices to materialism alone. Magic and spirituality are real here. The heroine from Saints interacts with Joan of Arc throughout the narrative. The hero from Boxers is transformed into a Chinese god who turns out to be the first Emperor of China, returned to save his country through the peasant boy whatever the cost. The Chinese gods are as real– as they were undoubtedly– to the Boxers as the Christian saints (and Jesus, who makes an appearance) were to the Christians. Yang shows us that people don’t put themselves in danger or make sacrifices on behalf of others for physical reasons alone; they do so because of the spiritual realities– the magic– that underlies the world that Yang creates.

The story is told through Yang’s simple, straightforward artwork– pleasingly flat and colorful without ever being two-dimensional or distractingly cartoonish. It is a comic of simple lines and drawings, lacking the depth of shading or detail of something like Joe the Barbarian. In Yang’s work though, this is a strength. The effective simplicity frames the story quite well.

The two volumes are not clearly indicated vol. 1 or vol. 2, but I would suggest reading Boxers first. The stories of the two heroes intersect only twice in their narratives, once in passing at the beginning and again near the climax, but having read Boxers first you can understand the epilogue of Saints better.

Yang does an admirable job navigating what might for anyone else be a minefield of cultural and religious stereotypes to tell a compelling story that underlines the tragedy of religious war by making both sides understandably human. But the paradox, as I mentioned above, is that it does this by treating the spiritual aspects seriously without cheapening or patronizing either East or West. This doesn’t mean it’s all random shades of grey with no white: the true answer, the real heroism comes, Yang seems to be saying, where true compassion is present. There, whether embodied in the crucified Christ or the Chinese goddess of compassion, Yang says, there is hope.

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous MoldsMagical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds by George W. Hudler

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was without a doubt the worst book about mushrooms that I’ve ever read. Now, to be fair, I’m relatively certain it’s only the second book about mushrooms I’ve ever read, but it was still much less than satisfying. Writing a compelling science book, and one about a subject as far-ranging and yet obscure as fungus, has to be difficult. But as fascinating as the subject matter may be (and I’m not speaking ironically when I admit I find this particular topic incredibly interesting), unless the author can make that subject come to life, can show the information instead of simply telling it, the exploration will be tedium.

I am in the intended audience for this book: someone without a background in mycology but who is equal parts fascinated and horrified by the kingdom of organisms known as fungi. They’re such a twilight concept: plant-like, yet not plants, little understood or explored by biology at large, causing disease and rot yet also a pharmacopeia of beneficial medicines and psychotropic drugs. They’re as mysterious to most as their most familiar representation: the mushrooms that spring up on summer lawns almost overnight. And like mushrooms, most of what they are remains hidden beneath the soil.

In this book, the author is particularly interested in showing the relationship between the world of fungus and the human world. He wants to highlight species of fungus that have played a role or continue to play an important or potentially important role in human affairs. This includes disease-causing fungi, historically beneficial fungi (like the yeasts that make our bread rise, ferment our beer, and have, arguably, shaped the entire course of human civilization), fungi that cause disease in our crops and trees, and fungi that decay our homes and buildings.

And as you would expect for someone interested in fungi, there are a lot of truly interesting things in here. We get an introduction to the fungal kingdom in general, how they work and how they do the things they do from the point of view of a mycologist. The author then goes through each of his topics in turn with the rigor of an undergraduate survey course (as, incidentally, the book is based upon). I was especially fascinated at the role fungi plays in the fermentation of bread, beer, and wine (I’m currently cultivating in my “fermentation corner” in our kitchen a sourdough starter as well as a jar of kumbucha, a mildly fermented tea) as well as the ability for many to create the chemicals from which we derive many of our antibiotics that still resist laboratory synthesis.

The author is obviously passionate about his topic and eager to pass this along. If nothing else, he succeeds in illustrating the vast scope of influence that fungi have on human life. For all this intention though– and despite the rich content itself, many parts of which could have entailed entire books to themselves– the reading was a drag. In fact, the various chapters often felt like little more than a series of Wikipedia articles: well-written and informative but missing the elusive spark that turns organized knowledge into something more, that translates information into a cohesive and engaging dialogue with the reader.

The entire work is a series of interesting anecdotes. Take the author’s treatment of psychotropic mushrooms. He analyzes the chemical effects that such mushrooms have on the human brain, surveys how they are used in different cultures, and even goes into the history of the investigators in the West who studied the species and brought them to the attention of society at large. This is a fascinating tale, but it’s simply told as you would tell it in a lecture. It’s missing something. It does not reach out and pull the reader into what should be a compelling story that involves Central American tribes, LSD, and academic scandal.

It may not be fair to criticize a book– and one from what I can tell one that is free of errors and obviously written by an expert in the field– that nonetheless does an important job. It brings to light things that are little understood but that have a huge and often ignored effect on human life and flourishing. Still– as interesting as the content was, there’s no escaping the fact that something was lacking: the book was boring.

There are dozens of things to learn in this book to fascinate and horrify, but they’re all passed over from one to the other like you’re on a tour or– as I’ll say again, as it seems the most apt analogy– like you’re reading a series of Wikipedia articles. Perhaps that illustrates one of the challenges in tackling this field: the desire to provide an adequate survey of a huge topic.

One final example. I’ll never forget the one of the most poignant image I have in my memory related to fungi: the time-lapse photography in Discover Channel’s Planet Earth documentary showing mushrooms growing out the bodies of insects on a jungle floor. It was like something out of science fiction. Whether the insects were already dead or still living when infected, they were being consumed from within by something that seemed terrifying and alien and was going to spread spores so it could keep doing this. In this book you might learn a bit about those fungi, but you won’t get any of that wonder and horror: it will simply be another short stop on a tour.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of GeniusLudwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ludwig Wittgenstein is widely regarded to be the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. I’ve never read his first and most well-known work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but I know something of its influence through a course on the Vienna Circle, the inter-war group of European philosophers who left their indelible mark on modern theorizing regarding science and language. Wittgenstein also shows up as a peripheral character in Logicomix, a wonderful graphic novel on the intersection between mathematics and philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, which I reviewed here. It was my recent re-reading of Logicomix that spurred me to learn more about Wittgenstein himself. Monk’s authoritative biography seemed the place to begin.

I was not disappointed. Monk paints a vivid portrait of Wittgenstein as an individual and as a philosopher. This is the challenge of any biography, I suppose: to balance the cultural and historical background of a person’s age with the personal and emotional foreground of the individual’s own psyche and link this to an understanding of how a person creates or does whatever it is that makes her or him worthy of having a biography written. Monk does this expertly– no small accomplishment, because for Wittgenstein all three of these aspects are so complex.

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 to a large Viennese family. His father was a wealthy industrialist, and the Wittgenstein fortune (in which Ludwig ultimately disowned his portion of the inheritance) provides his initial and immediate background. Two of his older brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself struggled with emotional turmoil throughout his life. To be wealthy in Vienna before the Great War (as well as after, due to his father’s expert handling of money) carried with it a certain cultural heritage: Wittgenstein was very much a child of the twilight of the Romantic era.

But “the duty of genius,” as Monk very appropriately subtitles his work, is very clear in Wittgenstein’s life from the beginning. He was constantly pushing beyond the comfortable life that he could easily have had with his background. Throughout the book (and thus throughout Wittgenstein’s life) Monk represents him as possessing a painful intellectual honesty. This drove Wittgenstein to study the foundations of mathematics in Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, but it ultimately drove him to try to experience life fully. Pure philosophizing was never enough. When the Great War broke out, Wittgenstein enlisted as a common soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was here, in the milieu of true existential crisis– both for him personally, posted alone on night duty in combat operations and for Europe writ large as the empire in which his home was the capital crumbled– that he composed his Tractatus.

Though I haven’t yet read it, Monk plays deftly enough with the second important thread of his narrative– what Wittgenstein was actually doing in philosophy– that even the general reader can get some glimpses of why this was significant. Theorizing was not enough for Wittgenstein. Experience and language were central to the philosophizing endeavor. The true meaning of the world, Wittgenstein wrote, would never be expressed in the world itself. The meaning of the system was somehow beyond the system; this was what philosophy alone could never touch, and Monk shows how the background of Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs played out against this as well. Ironically, it was this realization, that there were things on which we must pass over in silence, things that philosophy could never address, that was interpreted exactly backward by the Vienna Circle.

Immediately after the War, Wittgenstein trained to be a primary school teacher and attempted to live out his philosophy by teaching students in the rural Austrian Alps. This was unsuccessful, and after this he traveled between his home in Vienna, a cabin in Norway, and Cambridge, ultimately returning there to lecture in philosophy, though he was never comfortable in the academic setting. Monk here takes what could be rather tedious narrative and keeps the character of Wittgenstein alive: the wandering, tortured, emotionally isolated and yet intensely emotional philosopher who teaches philosophy eccentrically, damning the philosophical establishment the entire time. After Germany absorbs Austria and the Second World War broke out, he was quite literally a man without a homeland (and here Monk offers insightful comments on Wittgenstein’s Jewish ancestry and how this played out for Wittgenstein personally). Wittgenstein passed the remainder of his life boarding with various friends, admirers, and former students, writing, editing, and rewriting (but never publishing) his later philosophical works.

An easy response to a biography like this is to ask, so after all, what did Wittgenstein do exactly? What happened to him? Why is he worth over 500 pages? And in some ways the answer is simply: he did not do much. He thought and wrote. He lived and tried to love. He wrote angst-filled letters, which provide Monk much of his source material, complemented by interviews with many of the surviving characters in this story. And yet Wittgenstein changed the climate of philosophical thought itself. He trained philosophers to ask questions honestly, to try to understand what they were doing, and then he encouraged them to go get useful employment as doctors or laborers. He tried to do this himself but always came back to writing.

He was sure he would be misunderstood. He often was.

I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to know whether Monk has misunderstood him. I feel like– as with Hankins’ excellent biography of William Rowan Hamilton– Monk has explained– or rather, has held up for examination– what it is that most of us can only hope for: the fertile combination of a life lived with thoughts thought. Wittgenstein is remembered for his thoughts, for what he wrote about the nature of philosophy, truth, language, and perception. But as Monk has very expertly shown, these thoughts arose from a life lived in a great deal of pain, loneliness, discouragement, frustration, and (perhaps contributing to much of the things just listed) a relentless drive to be intellectually honest. To think and to speak clearly, as Wittgenstein attempted, is often the most difficult task of all. To write the account of someone who tried to live doing just that is also intensely difficult, but Monk has succeeded here with care and with a great deal of pathos.

Europa Report

EuropaI grew up in the generation after the golden age of manned space exploration. I never watched the Moon missions. I never held my breath as humanity first ventured into space. Was that terrifying to watch on television? Certainly the drama in events like the Apollo 13 mission must have been electrifying. But the explorers of my generation are primarily robots: intrepid Martian rovers and lonely orbiters. Landers on comets a hundred million miles away. We see new vistas, certainly, and dream big dreams, but the human element is often somewhat lacking.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, Europa Report eloquently demonstrates. This low-budget, independent science fiction movie illustrates two things. The first is how close the high drama of true human discovery still waits beyond the horizon. The other is that it doesn’t take a studio powerhouse to bring this to life.

Europa Report is a story set in the near future chronicling the first manned mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s large moons and today in truth assumed to be the most promising location for finding life in the solar system. The story is told in the form of found footage and interviews, a bricolage of believable glimpses into the life of the six astronauts living aboard their vessel on its twenty-two month voyage to Jupiter. They have been sent because scientists on Earth have (again, very believably) found strong evidence for the possibility of life on Europa. A private venture has funded the mission—humanity’s first voyage into deep space since Apollo—to ascertain whether or not there are microscopic organisms living beneath the moon’s icy surface.

The story is believable enough that at times I had a hard time separating the science from the fiction. It’s an image of a possible very near future, and there’s no wildly unbelievable piece of technology or contact with alien intelligence that pushes this movie firmly into the realm of the unbelievable. This could be us in a handful of years. There’s great effectiveness in this narrative humility. No epic story arch. No shaking camera angles. No impressive and overwhelming CGI explosions. This is a story about simple wonder and exploration—and that it’s never quite that simple.

Soon into the story it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong. One of the astronauts is killed, and the mission loses contact with Earth. The pieces are filled in as the story continues, but the survivors are faced with deciding whether to carry on and complete the mission. How far are they willing to go, they must ask themselves several times throughout the film, in answering the question of whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system?

You’re not going to find killer aliens or stark insanity or creeping terror here. This is not a psychological space-horror or Lovecraftian tale of unfathomable alien intelligences. There are certainly moments of terror, yes, and an effective story that keeps you guessing until the very end. (There’s a particularly effective twist that upends what you think you’re seeing and who you think survives near the end of the movie that’s expertly done.) The backdrops to the action are the ominous, gorgeous approach of Jupiter through the ship’s windows as the characters continue their voyage. It’s awe-inspiring in a slow, subtle way, a reminder of just how huge these objects are, how vast the distances, how audacious the hubris to venture out on that emptiness.

I loved Europa Report because it was simple. It was a terrifying and exciting drama of discovery against the immense and unforgiving background of space. The cramped confines of the ship were held in a steady, tight contrast with the emptiness through which they traveled, and these were both balanced against the bleak vista where one might find life sheltered against the void. The actors (no big names that I recognized) played the role not of heroes or villains but explorers, with all the shades of heroism and failings that this entailed.

The ending left the door wide open, not in the sense of dangling more mysteries to spin out a sequel (there was definitely resolution) but in the way that the sky remains open: there is more to discover. There is much more to know. In this respect, Europa Report felt like a throwback to the golden days of science fiction in the very best way possible.

My grade: A