Happy Yule!

Of course, the requisite Pusheen holiday picture:

pusheen

Also, Slate posted an amusing article called “Amazon Best-selling Books of 2013, and What They Tell Us About America.” I haven’t even heard of many of these books, and others honestly make me worry about this country. One is the new Rush Limbaugh book and another the newest Bill O’Reilly book. Pretty frightening.

Anyway, merry Christmas everyone, and make sure to eat tons of cookies!

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Review: “The Origin of Satan” by Elaine Pagels

originWhat I expected here was a book about the early development of the concept of Satan and Hell from the Jewish and early Christian perspectives. What I got was a long description of how early Christians broke up into different groups and saw each other as evil. While there was a running thread about how opposing groups blamed each other’s misguidance on demons, there really was not much on “the origin of Satan.”

Pagels sums up what I perceive as her thesis when she says that the concept of Satan is what began a “cultural legacy” of perceiving “social and political conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world.” In other words, when a disagreement about a social or political issue arises, your side is the “good” side and your opponent is “evil.”

One reviewer on Goodreads, who calls herself simply “Rebecca,” reflects my thoughts perfectly:

What this [the book] actually turned out to be is a description of how the Christians rallied themselves again and again by uniting against an exterior enemy, whether that be fellow Jews at first, then pagans, and finally fellow Christians. She maps this Othering by using the occasional touchstone of who it is the writing in question says has been motivated by Satan…The real point is how different generations of Christians retold Christ’s life and teachings through the lens of their own experiences, and how that influenced both the way the four gospels were each written and also which gospels ended up being canonical and which became heretical.

I had some more problems while reading the book’s conclusion. Pagels makes some broad generalizations about the way people think today. She writes:

Those who participate in this comic drama [God vs. Satan] cannot lose. Those who die as martyrs win the victory even more gloriously and are assured that they will celebrate victory along with all of God’s people and the angels in heaven. Throughout the history of Christianity, this vision has inspired countless people to take a stand against insuperable odds in behalf of what they believe is right…This apocalyptic vision has taught even secular-minded people to interpret the history of Western culture as a moral history in which the forces of good contend against the forces of evil in the world. [Emphasis added]

I most definitely do not interpret the history of Western culture as a battle of good against evil. How absurd and small-minded. I see the history of Western culture as a battle for power and survival, and not much more.

On a side note, both Goodreads and Amazon list this book with the subtitle How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics. For some reason, this subtitle appears nowhere on the book – not on the front cover, and nowhere inside the book. It’s just as well; it’s quite a condemnatory subtitle, while the book itself certainly is not condemnatory.

Verdict:

I can’t recommend this to anyone. I’ll look elsewhere for a history of the character of Satan. However, if you’re intrigued, it looks like you can get a used hardcover copy on Amazon for $0.01.

Amazon | Goodreads

Review: “The Reason I Jump” by Naoki Higashida

jumpNaoki is a 13-year-old autistic Japanese boy who has done a very remarkable thing; he wrote an eloquent and moving account of what it is like to be inside the mind of a young person with autism. Written mostly in the form of question and answer, Naoki engages the reader with vivid descriptions of how he feels when he has a panic attack, when he feels happiest, and when he feels ashamed for having disappointed someone. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers; rather, he seeks to bring better understanding to autism so that both people with autism and their caretakers can work together.

This is a book unlike any I’ve read before, both in content and in format. It’s a quick read – if I had read it without a break it probably would have taken less than an hour and a half. Naoki has a higher-functioning form of autism than many people have. He can’t hold a face-to-face conversation, but he does have the ability to type. What’s more, he’s able to understand and empathize with the emotions of the non-autistic people around him.

What struck me most was how wise he is about many things. When asked if he would like to be “normal,” his response was the following:

I’ve learned that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness. For us, you see, having autism is normal – so we can’t know for sure what your “normal” is even like. But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I’m not sure how much it matters whether we’re normal or autistic.

The book was translated by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell and his wife, who themselves have an autistic son. Mitchell got involved with the project when he and his wife, who is Japanese, were looking for more information about autism so they could better understand their son’s disability. Mitchell was on The Daily Show back in October to promote the book, and I really recommend checking out the extended interview. Apparently Jon Stewart does his own work with autism, and so it was an intelligent and enlightening conversation between the two of them.

I would recommend The Reason I Jump for anyone who has an interest in autism or other developmental disorders, whether the reader has a loved one with autism or just wants to know a bit more about it. I think it’s  misunderstood in our society, often because it’s over-diagnosed, making many people skeptical that it’s a disorder at all. If you’d like a sample of it, read an excerpt on NPR.

Get on your library hold list now – it took me more than two months to get it!

Amazon | Goodreads

 

Review: “Christian Nation” by Frederic C. Rich

cnI’m going to tread carefully here because my intent is not to offend anyone. I’ve been known to do that when discussing matters of politics and/or religion.

In this alternative history, McCain wins the 2008 presidential election. Soon after taking office, he suffers a brain aneurysm while speaking in Moscow and dies, leaving the presidency to the terribly inept Sarah Palin. The protagonist, a successful Wall Street lawyer named Greg, is skeptical when his best friend begins to insist that there are signs the evangelical Christian right is headed for a violent revolution in the pursuit of a theocracy. In hindsight, Greg does indeed see these signs, and the book is his memoir leading up to the revolution. He points out (real) quotes by an array of prominent figures who made their intentions blatant – they want to create the Kingdom of God in America. In the beginning of the book Greg cites the rise of Hitler as another case in which the world chose not to read the signs. I wouldn’t compare the Christian majority to Nazism, at least not as we know it today. But in the world that Rich describes, it may be a fair comparison. Rich addresses this very question in the author Q&A on the book’s website, saying, “extremist ideologies flourish in the soil of economic suffering, national self-doubt, fear and distress.”

For the reader that may not follow the news, it might be difficult to discern where fact becomes fiction in this book. Through the eyes of his protagonist, Rich recalls a lot of real events and connects them to later (fictional) events that turn the country into an increasingly oppressive theocracy (redundant?) At first Rich’s alternative world seemed highly improbable to me, but as I continued to read, I felt more and more uneasy. The steps the Palin administration took to ensure the evangelical message was unimpeded by secular law didn’t seem impossible; in fact, I’m not sure the majority of Americans wouldn’t support them.

I’m optimistic about Americans being able to retain their freedom of religion (or non-religion). Surveys indicate that agnosticism, atheism, and non-religion are on the rise all over the world, including the US. So unless there’s a military coup (I guess it’s not out of the question), eventually I think we’ll get to an America that doesn’t squabble over religious monuments on government property or have a yearly “war on Christmas.” In the meantime, I’m happy to support secular measures to keep in check any government endorsement of religion. I’ll close with a quote from the book that helps exhibit its ominous tone:

“I submit America to Christ.”

With those words, Steve Jordan began his inaugural address. Within moments, the rain promised all morning by the gray skies began to fall gently and did not stop.

For the twenty years prior to that rainy day when Steve Jordan finally mounted the steps to the Capitol, Christian fundamentalism had been the largest mass cultural and political movement in America, and the fortunes of each side in the ongoing “culture war” had ebbed and flowed. For the eight years following the election of McCain/Palin and Sarah Palin’s unexpected ascension to the highest office in the land, the nation had headed slowly and unsteadily down the path envisioned by its evangelical leaders. But the year 2017 was entirely different. With the long-sought goal in sight, a popular mandate for Jordan, both houses of Congress solidly in control of the Christian right, martial law still in place, and a Christian Militia in almost every state ready to do their bidding, Jordan and his team now sprinted toward victory.

Amazon | Goodreads

Review: “The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan

17383934There’s no doubt that Amy Tan is a great storyteller. There was a reason The Joy Luck Club was a bestseller and went on to become a popular film. However, I don’t think her books are as good as most people think. When I read The Joy Luck Club in high school, I did so because I figured a book that so many raved about must be phenomenal. I was disappointed, discovering that the hype had greatly exaggerated the book. I never saw the movie.

I didn’t intend to read The Valley of Amazement because of my previous experience with Amy Tan. I decided to give it a try because it takes place in Shanghai and I’ve been really missing the city since I left in September. The book is decidedly a well-told story, but I still have plenty of complaints about it.

To begin with, it’s tiresomely predictable. As in so many books that can be filed under the genre of “women’s fiction,” it’s the story of a woman who tries to make her life better and is foiled again and again…and again…and again. With every choice the protagonist makes, I could see the outcome before it happened. It’s a formula that’s been followed by plenty of authors in countless books.

Maybe Tan intends to create a bond between her characters and the reader in order to make the book more powerful, but I just found the cycle of hope and tragedy to be annoying and overly sentimental. If there’s any word that describes this kind of book the best, it’s exactly that – sentimental. The Valley of Amazement is hardly of higher value to me than something by Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele. I’m not going to make myself suffer through any more of her books.

Amazon | Goodreads

Google Hands?

You may recall from either my  post last month or from reading the news that recently the lawsuit against Google was dismissed, meaning the company is allowed to continue scanning books for its Internet database, open to the public. Hurray! But I just came across something pretty strange. Apparently there are some significant glitches in the scanning process, and not all of them are machinery problems.

Photo courtesy of Google Hands.

                                                      Photo courtesy of Google Hands.

Note the irony of the book’s title.

It seems there is a plethora of Google employees’ hands on the interwebs, beautifully wrapped in tiny pink finger condoms, and some people are having fun searching for and posting these gems. I point you to the New Yorker article that I read for more information on the intrusive Google Hands and their consequences, and other ways Google has royally screwed up. Not that I’m complaining…I couldn’t live without them.

Review: “Dangerous Women” by Various Authors

dwI don’t like reading short stories. I feel like they don’t have enough time for proper character development and, more often than not, they feel awkwardly truncated. Short story collections are difficult for me to sit down and read for a long time because my brain keeps being confused when I move on to the next story. But that’s the reality of short story collections, huh?

Anyway, this collection is better than those I have read before. I sincerely enjoyed each and every story in the book, though of course I liked some more than others. There were several that I wished were full-length novels (Carrie Vaughn’s “Raisa Stepanova,” for example). I had a few friends who were misled by the title, thinking it referred solely to women that are out to wreak havoc and destroy lives. That is certainly not what this collection is about. While some of the female protagonists may not be shining stars of virtue, for the most part they all represent strong woman who take control of their destinies. It is, truthfully, a book of feminist dreams (and I mean that in the best way possible).

A friend did express concern that the book would use George R.R. Martin’s name as a way to sell a collection of mediocre stories. However, I found that is not the case. I came to the collection without bias, as I have not read anything by any of the authors (no, I do not read the Song of Ice and Fire series), yet I found each story to be well-written and original. I just hope that not too many people flip to the end of the book to read Martin’s story and then decide not to read the others. It would be a damn shame, since I was not impressed with his work.

Is the book worth $32.50? Personally, I would not think of paying full price for it. However, as stated before, I am not typically a fan of short stories. I think it is a worthy addition to the book collections of those who do enjoy short stories, or for those who are fans of one or more of the contributing authors.

Dangerous Women will be on shelves tomorrow (December 3rd)!

Amazon | Goodreads