Thursday, October 19, 2023

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read Handmaid's Tale for quite some time, but hadn't got around to it until this summer. I've always been a bit intimidated by it, to be honest, especially because of its premise of a 'Christian' fundamentalist state. As a Christian, I'm on more of the progressive wing, so, while I recognize the danger of fundamentalism, I do get tired of Christianity being equated with fundamentalism. So, I've tended to hesitate on this book and I think that was a mistake because the book is much more nuanced than that.

So, the premise, of course, is that, amid a vaguely identified environmental disaster or disasters, the US as we know it falls into a period of civil strife and a harshly theocratic, Republic of Gilead, emerges as the government. Among the developments with this regime is the complete reversal of feminist gains of the 60s and 70s as women are driven out of the workplace and the economy. Amid this, the majority of women become infertile, necessitating the virtual enslavement of the fertile women as Handmaids. Atwood's book charts the story of one of these 'handmaids' in the style of a oral tale, recorded presumably after her escape (as the afterword, set considerably in the future, tells).

The world of the Handmaids is, of course, one of surface strictness and deep, deep hypocrisy. The self-conscious piety of all members of society is a survival mechanism in a totalitarian state, of course, but the experiences of Offred highlight how even its leaders can't live with the roles they live. It makes sense, of course, in a dystopian world like this, but it is deftly captured by Attwood.

What strikes me as most interesting, given the reputation of this book as a critique of Christianity, is that the Christianity it portrays isn't the one I recognize. It has shades of the Aryan churches of Germany, but it focuses more on a more explicitly Old Testament political and social ideology. Grace, for instance, isn't really a strong voice in this religion. In fact, the mainline denominations are pretty relentlessly persecuted in this book and, indeed, some Christians, especially Quakers, are actively subverting it. The religion that Attwood presents is that of an extreme fringe of evangelicalism and just about anyone will recognize it as fundamentally dangerous.

This is really interesting to me because Handmaid's Tale has a reputation of being anti-Christian. In fact, over ten years ago, at my school, we had a parent object to the book being assigned as a text because of those overtones (I had been tempted to suggest Canticle for Leibowitz as a substitute, knowing the overtly Catholic tone of that book would be just as jarring!). Yet, I don't think Atwood is warning about Christianity in general, but just a form of Christianity which is legitimately dangerous.

So, this book is well worth reading. It does go slow and a bit diffusely, but it is well worth immersing oneself in this alternative world.

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Review: Mockingjay

Mockingjay Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather unexpectedly got this book from my public library, since it was on hold for, well, forever- the Hunger Games series being so popular. This is, of course, the concluding book of the series and continues the momentum of the previous two books, sometimes painfully. Katniss' and the other tributes' PTSD is now acute in this book and you can see how all this is affecting them, all while they are working to overthrow the oppressive government which runs the Hunger Game. There is moral complexity though because the substitute government forming isn't that much better, as Katniss realizes quite early on. This makes for a richer story, of course, which is full of moral decisions and dilemmas.

That complexity is part of what makes this one of the best science fiction dystopias of our generation. Well worth reading!

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Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second of the Hunger Games series, the first of which I read earlier in the summer finally. I'm not sure I have much to add to my previous review because this second book in the series continues the story seamlessly from the original Hunger Games. The writing remains brilliant and the characters vivid. New, of course, is you can just see the PTSD in the main characters, which is leaking out in all sorts of messy ways. Understandable, of course. And it gives layers to the main characters which make sense.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Review: The Years of Rice and Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book, but for some specific reasons that may not operate for everyone.

First, I really do enjoy historical fiction as thought experiments and this one is a fascinating one. It is based around the hypothesis of a wave of the Black Death which wipes out 99.99% of the population of Europe, leaving all of mediaeval Europe a wasteland. The rest of the book explore how the world would develop entirely without the European influence. The answer, of course, is that Islam and China become the dominant powers in the world, while a revived Indian and a powerful Haudenosaunee confederation gain ground later. And the hook is that we follow several reincarnations of a group of souls which stick together, ending each session in a Buddhist afterlife, the bardo. That allows us to have characters who develop over the length of the novel. It is a fascinating, if complex and, occasionally, perplexing premise. And it is done, not creating a utopia, nor entirely a dystopia, one that does have a sense of moral and personal progress.

Second, I really enjoyed the shifts in style as Robinson shifted from one time to the next. I'm sure I didn't pick up the nuances, but the feel of the sections are different and, where I could judge it, parallel to the times. That shows greater versatility and was an interesting element.

Third, history geek as I am, I'm fascinated by the reflections on history that show up in the discussion. The concept tends to be cyclical, but with a sense of teleology or an kind of moral progress. It is heavily influenced by Buddhism, which isn't a faith that I follow, but it is fascinating to me for that reason. The stress on progress, especially the value of technological progress in ensuring moral progress is sometimes a bit optimistic, but more often more nuanced than that. This element alone makes me want to read it more.

All this being said, the reviews of this when I started was giving the book an average of 3.75. And, without looking at the other reviews, I get why. This is a complex book thematically and stylistically. It is also a rather foreign sounding book to Western ears. That is probably a reason why I'm so enthusiastic about it, but, still, I can see why that is off putting. still, I really recommend trying this book for your yourself. I don't think you'll regret it.

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Thursday, August 03, 2023

Review: Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942

Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942 Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942 by Sir Max Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ran into this book in my library app and was interested because I knew the battle. It is an epic one, with lots of drama and lots of opportunity for human interest. By itself, the saga of the tanker Ohio makes for riveting reading. So, I was looking forward to a interesting read.

And I wasn't disappointed. Hastings masterfully combines official accounts, historical archives and personal accounts into a sweeping, dramatic narrative of this last ditch attempt to resupply the fortress island, Malta. He engages with the controversies of the scholarship and of the experience of the convoy, giving his own informed opinion. He comes heavily down on the need for the convoy, as opposed to those who thought the effort wasn't worth the cost. But he does pay attention to the cost of the campaign, highlighting both the successes and failures of both sides. The result is a vivid narrative with a lot of human interest as well as examples of the best and worst of those in the battle.

This is really a superb book, deserving a place with the best war narratives. It is both deeply researched and profoundly human.

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Friday, July 28, 2023

Review: How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a superb book! Now, anyone who regularly reads my reviews knows that I like a good title, so I'm not ashamed to say that it was the title which was the hook for me. I mean, I took American history in school, but it isn't a major focus for me, but I was interested in this attempt to look at American imperialism, which is tricky subject, given that the Americans spend so much time denying their imperialism.

Immerwahr's approach is an interesting one, focusing primarily on how the Americans acquired an empire after the Spanish-American War and how they did their best to pretend they didn't. It follows that particular trick of the collective mind by tracking American relationship with their 'empire' right up to 9/11. Immerwahr's analysis is insightful, but the best sections are when he considers the creation of the pointalist empire of the post-World War II era, where the focus shifted from the acquisition of resources from colonies, to the creation of bases to safeguard American interests. Immerwahr makes the really interesting and convincing argument that it was the development of synthetics for many necessary items for industrialisation, which made this approach possible. Less depending on rubber or other natural products in Asia/Africa, the US was able to pursue de-colonization for itself and push it allies into following suit, while also maintaining an empire, which it could still deny.

Immerwahr is preceptive and a really wonderful story-teller/writer. He's well worth reading.

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Review: The Space Between Us: Conversations About Transforming Conflict

The Space Between Us: Conversations About Transforming Conflict The Space Between Us: Conversations About Transforming Conflict by Betty Pries
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to admit that I love this book. I don't say that very often, but this is an excellent book on how to deal with conflict, from a mediator with a contemplative bent. So, I know, given my reading list, probably not surprising that I'm so enthusiastic about this book.

What I love about this book is that it isn't just a list of types and typologies, as so many of these books so often are and which can come off as how to manipulate everyone into a peace, which isn't especially peaceful. What Pries offers is an approach which looks at disagreements and conflicts as a chance to reflect on the kinds of relationships and commitments we take on and how we can learn from the conflicts which can so easily breakout even among those approaching each other in good will. She considers conflict theory, but infuses mindfulness and contemplative spirituality to help us monitor the inner landscape of us in conflict. It offers a truly human-sized way of approach conflict.

The tone of the book is both reflective and hopeful in a way that one doesn't find all the time. Pries is compassionate, even with the most difficult conflict, and really lives out the hope that conflict can lead to greater insights into ourselves and our relationships. I love that vision and I'm sure I'll be re-reading this book in the near future.

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Review: Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World

Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World by Roy A. Adkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an odd choice for me, I have to admit. Well, not the naval history nor necessarily the British navy, but it is quite early. I'm not especially interested in the 18th and 19th centuries and wooden ships are not especially interested for me. But, well, Trafalgar is Trafalgar, so I thought I'd try.

Adkin's book is an exciting read, based as it is both on the official reports of the battle and its leadup, but also on journals and an excellent understanding of the social history of the era. In fact, I'd say that the latter was the most interesting for me because Adkins does a really good job in giving a sense of what it was like on these wooden men-of-war, from basic living conditions to how they are fought. The result is a book which isn't just an account of a rather messy battle, but giving a vivid sense of warfare in this age (which, like any warfare, is horrific in its own particular way).

And, of course, Nelson looms large over the narrative. One can't really escape Nelson, of course, at Trafalgar and it was interesting to have a look at his biography again. I'm not sure Adkins fully makes Nelson feel human-there is still a lot of idolizing to cut through in the sources. But the picture is more 3D than most treatments.

This is a fascinating book of a fascinating episode in the history of European imperialisms. Trafalgar is still an icon for the British and still studied because of that. This book is a good contribution to that study.

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Review: Open Mind, Open Heart 20th Anniversary Edition

Open Mind, Open Heart 20th Anniversary Edition Open Mind, Open Heart 20th Anniversary Edition by Thomas Keating
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first of the books by Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk in the US, who was very active in the Centering Prayer movement in the 70s and onwards. Open Mind Open Hearts is a classic in the genre and offers an introduction to contemplative prayer in general and to Centering Prayer in particular. Keating is erudite, but gentle in his approach. It isn't especially an easy read, but it is a good one, especially for those interested in prayer.

One of the things that I like about this book is that Keating keeps the instruction relatively short and ends each chapter with a series of questions which really illuminate the topic. Given that we are talking about prayer, which is a notoriously difficult topic to engage in because of the danger of making all of it seem abstract and unreachable, the question and answer style really helps with explaining the application of the Centering Prayer that Keating is most focused on.

For those interested in contemplative prayer, especially in its Christian form, this book is an essential read. And it well worth the effort.

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Saturday, July 01, 2023

Review: Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem

Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem by Augustine Wetta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book because it was mentioned in a podcast on Benedictine spirituality (I can't even remember who the speaker was) and recommended highly. So, on my last online book buying spree, I added it because humility interests me. That seems odd because humility doesn't have the best rap, not unfairly because it is frequently used as a way to silence people or a highly useful tool for self-flagellation. But humlity, real humility, isn't a weapon to be used against oneself or someone else, but, as another speaker I ran into on a monastic site, 'knowing the truth about oneself- one's abilities and gifts, but also one's liabilities and weaknesses. And that is worth exploring for this middle aged guy, amid the competing demands for my attention that the world gives.

Augustine Wetta, a monk at St. Louis, Abbey, Missouri, provides a series of reflection on the well known section on humility in Benedict's Rule. The reflections combine connections to other parts of the Rule, scripture and his own experience. Wetta's writing is engaging and, sometimes, quite funny, but also manages moments of profundity. I used them as nighttime reflections, but that may not always fit. They were good to settled down to in the evening.

This book is worth keeping around (despite the instruction in the conclusion to give it away- I didn't :)) as a book of reflections, so that's what I'm doing. If you are drawn to Benedictine spirituality, this is worth reading.

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Thursday, June 15, 2023

Review: Crying in H Mart

Crying in H Mart Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a rather unexpected book for me, partly because it isn't history or science fiction or theology, but also in just how serendipitously I managed to get my hands on it. I just happened to be glancing at short videos on YouTube- the Brief but Spectacular series from PBSNewshour, and ran into the author's video on making the ordinary beautiful. That resonated with me, so I watched the video, which mentioned that Zauner also wrote a book on her mother's death. Since my mother passed away three months ago, I was intrigued, so I looked up the book in my library app. It turns out that Crying in H Mart is really popular, so I was looking at a 17 week wait, despite a crazy number of copies in the system. But, then, the app did something interesting and offered me a quick copy, if I thought I could read it in a week (I read it in two days). So, I figured that's no coincidence, so, of course, I read it.

The book is a reflection on the death of Zauner's Korean mother, when Zauner was in her mid-twenties. The author is tender and thoughtful and I found myself nodding as she mentioned reactions to aspects of her mother's last illness (although she was much more involved in the day to day care of her mother than I ever was for mine). She's very open about the conflicted elements of her relationships and conscious of how she contributed to those. As well, it is a loving reflection on her efforts to rediscover her Korean identity after her mother passed away, especially, but not necessarily limited to food. That's a hook for me, of course, because I love the connection of food and identity, as well as the fact that that was also one of the ways that my mother mediated her love to her family.

This really is a lovely book and I'm glad that I found my way to it. Despite the age difference between myself and the author, I resonated with the book and it really was quite helpful for me to read at this particular point in my life. So, very grateful to have the chance.

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Sunday, April 30, 2023

Review: The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Review: The Benedictine Way

The Benedictine Way The Benedictine Way by Wulstan Mork
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book on Google Reads because, well, any look at my reading list can tell that I'm interested in monastic literature, especially from the point of view of how to apply it to my distinctly non-monastic life. This book is definitely a monastic book and its audience is definitely Mork's fellow monastics. It looks at the Benedictine life as a way of life as a mentality, which is a helpful approach even for this non-monastic. The reading was sometimes slow going and I actually re-read it right away because I wasn't absolutely sure I was taking it all in. But definitely worth the effort.

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