Monday, March 09, 2009

John Green, Paper Towns, 2008.

I stayed up too late a week ago to finish the book; it makes sense that I’d stay up too late tonight, writing a blog entry about it.

It’s much like Green’s other books, in terms of its energy, pacing, and careful reimagining of the bildungsroman. The main character, Quentin, is caught up one night in helping Margo-- the next-door neighbour whom he adores—with pranks and revenge… only to be dismayed by her disappearance the next morning. As high school draws to a close, he follows a trail of clues to find her--and dragging along with him the usual odd assortment of supporting characters (who struggle with their own -issues and who challenge Quentin to do some substantive work to grow up).

The conceit of the book—the concept of a paper town itself—is clever and intriguing, and doesn’t overtake the plot. In some ways, the book is stronger than Green’s other efforts: the plotting is tighter and less contrived, exposition is handled more neatly, and the characters are more plausible as people (I’d argue some in both Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines are better as ideas than as characters).

It’s a fun and funny book, deeply enjoyable, and reveals (as does his earlier work) a truth about Green: he’s a good teacher. He’s the sort of engaging, clever, funny, sweet guy who cares deeply about topics and wants to share them. What impresses me most about Paper Towns is that Green is getting better and better at integrating that truth about himself with his deep desire to tell stories that people want to read (and blog about) late into the night.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, 2007.

Borg and Crossan’s book is a careful look at the birth and infancy narratives in Matthew’s gospel and in Luke’s gospel. They do an exemplary job of looking at the particular concerns of the two communities—comparing and contrasting the differences between the two stories. The close reading is not particularly remarkable—it is eminently “doable” by people who have experience, but it’s done remarkably well. What is innovative is the argument the authors advance that the birth and infancy narratives offer the “gospel in miniature”: that these sections present the overall themes and concerns of Matthew and Luke, and that the content of the remainder of the gospels is contained in the almost-prologue-esque nature of the Christmas stories.

In some ways, it’s the last chapter which is most effective. Borg and Crossan tie together three themes that they look at throughout the book—joy, Advent, and “the meaning of Christmas past for Christmas present and Christmas future” (227). It’s an effective piece, and one I may well find myself rereading at the beginning of November next year as I get ready to preach in Advent and Christmas.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008.

I loved The Tipping Point. I think it’s a brilliant book, and I learned a lot from it. I’m a little astonished I didn’t blog about it at the time! It was likely because I was in the middle of thesis-ing.

Outliers is told in a very similar way: anecdotes and carefully presented data make sense of truths that are hard to see through the clouds. Gladwell’s lucid prose and brilliant storytelling make it an enjoyable read. My only problem with the book is that there’s nothing to it. Oh, sure, Gladwell convincingly proves his thesis that the success of people are not due to sheer dint of hard work (the old self-made man story crap), but rather that that they’re products of environment, milieu, history, genetics, and deep cultural traditions. He convinced me that it's better to see these successes more as outliers from the statistical mass, than it is is to see them within the usual narratives.

But… so? Yes, it’s a myth that needed to be punctured, but it’s hardly a shock. Gladwell offers no tools to assess situations and histories to determine patterns to make one’s self a success, nor does he offer tools to create effective communities like that of Roseto, PA (a very healthy town that he uses to begin his book). To return to the language of the book's title, there's no attempt to ask major questions about how we can shift the mean toward significant measures of wellness. The trends he thinks about are visible in his rear-view mirror, but never through the windscreen.

Ultimately, I was left disappointed. Gladwell’s book is brilliant at giving the answers to the “what” questions, but never gets to the “so what” questions in any adequate ways.

Friday, January 02, 2009

David Gilmour, The Film Club, 2007.

Gilmour’s memoir spans just a short period of time, from when he realises that school is killing his son until the end of their unusual experiment. His son Jesse—a bright, capable, and quite pleasant teenager when the story begins—is unmotivated and uninterested in school. David can sense that forcing Jesse to stay in school will lead only to badness. So father makes son a deal: Jesse can drop out, if we watches three movies a week with his dad.

It’s a fascinating premise. It just failed to hold my interest for the duration of the book. I enjoyed Gilmour recounting how he introduced each movie, how he designed groups of movies, what to watch for in each flick. The story of Jesse’s growth and development is more interesting and enjoyable still. Yet as I read it, I never felt the book come together: it lacked sufficient coherence, and felt as if it was held together only by straight chronology. I enjoyed reading it, and had no problem moving through it… but I just never found myself engrossed.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Christopher Moore, Coyote Blue, 1994.

I found myself needing something that was simultaneously funny, light and profound. This desire, odd and paradoxical, is a hard one to fulfil--except, of course, until you start reading Christopher Moore’s books. (If you’ve never read Lamb, you should go find a copy now: it is beyond incredibly brilliant.)

Coyote Blue is a romp through native American mythology, a playing-story with Coyote that’s delightful and very funny. It’s not as nuanced, as slyly playful as are Tom King’s novels (especially Green Grass, Running Water) but its sheer exuberance is undeniable. (For a brilliant academic treatment of the Trickster, read one of my favourite books: Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde.)

The story revolves around Samson Hunts Alone, who is forced to leave his reservation when still a young man. After a series of jobs, he’s secured for himself a seemingly great existence as an insurance salesman. Yet the intervention of Coyote brings both love and chaos into his orderly, predictable existence… and things go crazy from there.

It was exactly the sort of book I was looking for: it is the right mix of crazy, zany, and at the same time deeply thoughtful about what it means to live well.