Monday, September 24, 2012

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Is it a scam, I wonder, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas?

No, of course I don't mean that, or not exactly, but I'm a little worried that at heart, this celebrated novel is really no more than a more narratively complicated Da Vinci Code. Am I crazy for saying this? Is it blasphemous?

Admittedly, I had a wonderful time reading Cloud Atlas: I don't know that I'd call it hallucinogenic, one of the lazy reviewer's go-to descriptors, but it wasn't easy to put down, and images and scenes kept floating into mind throughout my days with this novel. The thematics fascinated me, the way that the novel emphasizes humanity's ascendance to have occurred so rapidly, in only a few centuries, and to have fallen so rapidly and completely as well. And it's important to recognize that the nested stories aren't a gimmick, or aren't entirely gimmicky, because you lose something when you read them one at a time, without the interruptions.

(I can say this definitively, about the nested stories. A friend in the book club asked me to, so I read each story completely before starting the next one; for me it was six consecutive linked stories, rather than five interrupted stories wrapped around "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After." You miss lots of the interlinked references, because throwaway lines turn out to have been foretellings or echoes or rosary beads, so to speak.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rebecca Kraatz, Snaps

Distracting irrelevancy: Rebecca Kraatz' Snaps was blurbed to the skies by "Rich Terfry (Buck 65)." I really enjoyed it as well, so I raise this not to disagree with Mr. 65, but simply to remark that I wish he was confident enough -- or that Kraatz' publisher was confident enough -- simply to let his preferred moniker stand.

Because throughout the rest of this graphic novel, there's no evidence of marketing's influence, and that's a very good thing. There's no easy way to market Snaps widely, and I haven't seen a review anywhere that quite works for me, either; I think that Jonathan Ore gets it, mostly, but his review kind of peters out at the end.

Not that I'd ever do that. Heaven forfend, as they (never) say.

The backstory is that some years ago, Rebecca Kraatz bought an old photo album from the 1940s from a garage sale in Victoria, BC. She didn't know anyone pictured in it, and there weren't names or other identifying information that'd help her understand the relations between the images. And yet, and yet, she found herself going back again and again to the album, seeing the same person on different pages, seeing different combinations of people, seeing some people only appearing once. This novel, Snaps, represents an imaginative version of this recursive work: Kraatz developed a whole series of short tales about the people, some of the stories isolated and others embedded within a multi-story narrative.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Daniel Coleman, In Bed with the Word

An hour from home, six hours from our destination, my great-uncle looked back over the burgundy velour front seat and asked, "So, have you made a decision about having Christ in your life?"

Now, this was an ambush, pure and simple, not the continuation of an earlier conversation. Our nuclear family didn't have Christ in our lives, and the great majority of my extended family made no room for him/Him either: church was for weddings and funerals, and both Christmas and Easter were secular festivals of Black Magic chocolate boxes. Not long after listening to Uncle Jim's tapes of sermons for half the trip to Vancouver, I found myself in a Coles Books not long afterward, stumbling upon and buying Nietzsche's The Antichrist at 14, and I've been a confirmed atheist ever since.

But like a lot of readerly folk, I've nevertheless maintained a vexed relationship with the idea of god. I deeply respect the idea of community that's embodied in church life, and for a time I quite enjoyed the company of a particular United Church congregation (in which my former spouse had grown up). I'm regularly impressed by the devotion to learning shown by many religious people, and by the fundamental practice of applying theoretical principles to the complexities and vicissitudes of daily life. There's no god in my life or my imagination, or in my understanding of the universe, so a church will never be a home for me: I'm comfortable with the philosophy and the process of reason behind that statement, but I'm also aware that there are ways in which it can feel a lonelier path than the path of faith might be.

If this was a review outside this blog, I'd talk only about the book, but my house, my rules. And besides, it's important to me that you understand just how compelling I found Daniel Coleman's new book In Bed with the Word: Reading, Spirituality, and Cultural Politics. It's a book about reading spiritually, about reading spiritual texts (though not only those), and about reading from and for both the spirit and the Spirit. This atheist loved it, frankly: I read it twice back to back, which is something I just don't ever do, and I've read it a third time in the month since buying it at the ALECC conference in Kelowna (for which, again, many thanks are due to Nancy Holmes and her organizing team!). It's not for everyone, In Bed with the Word, but those who appreciate it are likely to find it easy to imagine becoming a touchstone.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

Never trust the press, right, and don't believe the hype? Well, the 1971 cover of George Stewart's Earth Abides (originally published in 1949) has more than its share of hype, referring to it as "The famous prize-winning science fiction classic." All true, as it happens, and frankly all deserved. I really enjoyed this novel, and for good reasons.

That's not to say it isn't a product of its time. Earth Abides detours (albeit briefly) into some essentialist ideas about race relations in the American South, and it's built on some distinctly 1940s ideas about gender roles. Plus it's organized around what I found a very troubling thesis about the depth to which humans are innately governed by an impulse toward mysticism -- Stewart makes the exhaustion of atheism a little easier to take by making smart people dismissive of the mystical, but still. That's not necessarily because of the 1940s, since there's still plenty of new anti-atheist end-of-times fiction being written (like this stuff I'm not planning to read, not ever, good heavens, not EVER).

Most people will have a vague sense for the plot of this book, so I don't think a spoiler alert is necessary before saying that Stewart explores the aftermath of a lethal plague, probably global, survived by only a tiny remnant population of humans and other primates. Other animals are unaffected, so as with Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, and the History Channel's series Life without People, and National Geographic's documentary Aftermath: Population Zero (watch it here), much of the interest has to do with the changes across time, without people rushing about pretending to run things. Unlike those more recent works, though, Stewart's novel follows one man's life from his near-death in its opening scenes through the years that follow: its focus is thus anthropocentric, but the world itself becomes increasingly remote from its past engineering in the service of human needs, and human culture -- such as it remains -- increasingly recognizes that humans are parallel to other species, rather than special.