Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “religion”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #98: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This is Brook’s first novel, and my first exposure to her writing, and was highly recommended by my equally-bookcrazy sister. Year of Wonders is an historical novel based on the true story of a small mining village in northern England in 1666, which gets exposed to the plague and whose inhabitants are inspired by their rector to quarantine themselves for however long it takes, as both a test of their faith and to prevent the plague from spreading further. The story is told from the viewpoint of Anna, the daughter of an abusive father, who is already a widow at the young age of 18 and who loses her two young sons to the plague early in the story. She struggles to preserve her sanity and her goodness as people start dropping like flies around her. Anna works as a maid for the passionate, driven, but moody rector and his saintly wife Elinor, who takes Anna under her tender wing and introduces her to reading, poetry, and culture.

Brooks uses this unique setting to discuss such moral issues as social inequality, gender inequality, religious fanaticism, mob dynamics, and much more. When the townspeople fall under the rector’s persuasive appeal to shut themselves off from the world, it is the local aristocratic family which heartlessly locks its household staff out and flees the town. As terror of the plague descends on the town, it is the wise old healer and her lively nonconformist niece who become the subjects of a murderous witch-hunt by a mob desperate to blame someone for their plight. As more townspeople die, some turn into the flagellants of medieval times while others exploit the fear and grief of the afflicted for their own gain. The rector slowly loses his faith, and Anna’s is repeatedly challenged.

While Brooks’ writing is very evocative, I fear she weakens her novel by imposing certain improbable modern-day precepts on her characters and plot. For example, Anna is the unlettered daughter of a brutish drunkard in a tiny 17th century village, and yet she fights for women’s rights, questions religion, and embraces science in medicine.  A less than believable characterization, for this day and age and in this context. At the same time, Brooks gives us luridly-depicted scenes of murder, death, and lunacy that smack of a Gothic horror story. Worse is Brooks’ resorting to soap-opera plot points to ramp up her story: improbable sexual interludes which smack of cheap romance novels about Lord Spencer and the governess. And perhaps worst of all is how Brooks chooses to conclude her novel, which is so unlikely as to be, frankly, a little ridiculous.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, I think Year of Wonders is a worthwhile read and recommend it for the fascinating subject, excellent historical research, and haunting—if melodramatic—writing.

Fofo’s #CBR4 Review #33: The Break of Noon by Neil LaBute

Target: Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon: A Play

Profile: Drama, Spirituality, Religion

I read about fifty plays every year.  Some for the first time.  Many for the third or fourth times.  It comes with the job of coaching high school speech and debate.  As a general rule, I don’t let these plays (and assorted other things) count toward my review goals, mostly because a lot of them are ten minute scenes, but also because there is a difference between reading for work and reading for pleasure.  I rarely treat a potential speech piece the way I do an epic fantasy, or a piece of popular nonfiction.  But every once in a while, something will overlap.

Neil LaBute has always been intriguing to me.  I’m particularly fond of his short play, Iphigenia in Orem out of the “Bash” compilation.  LaBute never lets the uncomfortable topic get in the way of telling a story, and the scenes are all the more compelling for forcing the audience to confront these terrible situations.  I could go on, but most of what needs to be said about his provocative style can be found in other, more professional reviews and criticism.

Read the rest of the review…

ElCicco#CBR4 Review#36: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a novel based on a real double murder that occurred in Toronto in the 1850s. Grace Marks was a 15 year-old servant in household of Mr. Kinnear. He and his mistress Nancy, also a servant, were found dead in the cellar. Grace and the stablehand James McDermott had gone missing and shortly afterward were found just over the border in the U.S. with Kinnear’s and Nancy’s belongings. They were apprehended and returned to Toronto for trial, which resulted in both being found guilty. McDermott was hanged, and Grace was sentenced to death but had her sentence reduced to life in prison. Atwood imagines Grace’s history and what might have really happened. The narrative is relayed through characters’ reflections and letters as Dr. Simon Jordan tries to uncover Grace’s lost  memories. Is she innocent or a manipulative seductress? Benevolent church groups working on her behalf retain Dr. Jordan, who uses the latest methods, to try to uncover her memory of the murders, and with any luck, secure her pardon.

Atwood did a lot of research on the period and her characters, particularly the attitudes toward women and the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. She includes excerpts from the trial as covered by newspapers and commentaries by philanthropists and specialists who observed and interviewed Grace. Atwood uses Dr. Jordan, a fictional character, to introduce discussions of mesmerism, hypnotism, and current (for that time period) interventions for dealing with inmates in penitentiaries and asylums. Grace blacked out during key moments of the murders, and Dr. Simon hopes to spark her memory by using association. In some rather humorous moments, he brings in a series of root vegetables, which would be stored in a cellar, to make her think of the murders. “According to his theories, the right object ought to evoke a chain of disturbing associations in her..,” but “… all he’s got out of her has been a series of cookery methods.”

Dr. Jordan also presents uncomfortable ideas and attitudes about women. His thoughts regarding Grace, his landlady and a servant named Dora are sometimes disturbing and misogynistic, which he himself recognizes. He reflects that, “The difference between a civilized man and a barbarous fiend — a madman, say — lies, perhaps, merely in a thin veneer of willed self-restraint.” Nonetheless, he, Kinnear and other men in authority frequently abuse their position vis-a-vis women without sensing their own barbarousness. Grace sees things more realistically: “Men such as [Dr. Jordan] do not have to clean up messes they make, but we have to clean up our own messes, and theirs into the bargain. In that way they are like children, they do not have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what they do. But it is not their fault, it is only how they are brought up.”

Atwood’s take on what might have really happened in the murders has sort of a gothic twist to it, but given the novel’s focus on psychological matters, it seemed fitting. The novel provides much to discuss in a reading group. I’ve only touched on a few things here, but certainly religion and philanthropy, crime and punishment, relationships between rich and poor, men and women and amongst women are all themes that recur throughout the novel. And Atwood is an outstanding writer, creating complex characters and using poetry, popular songs and the names of quilting patterns to frame each chapter. A really wonderful book!

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #23: Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

I’ve lived my whole life deep in the Bible Belt.  This is both amusing and frustrating for me as an agnostic.  Pretty much everything, everywhere is awash in religion and religious culture, from the t-shirts ahead of me in the checkout line to the fact that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a church of some kind.  Even the checkout person at the local liquor store isn’t above telling me to “have a blessed day” when I’m on the way out the door.

I dimly remember reading some of Revelation back when I was in high school, and again for a class in college, but I was not in any way familiar with it.  I picked this book up a while ago – it was on the shelf at the local library within reach of The Year of Living Biblically, which I reviewed a while back – and so I figured what the hell.

Revelation was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus named John of Patmos.  John was a Jew, but a Jew who had accepted the messianic nature of Jesus.  He was writing about 20 years after the Romans put down a bloody Jewish revolt in Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and Pagels argues that much of John’s symbolic language is directed at the Roman Empire.  The book was intended as both a condemnation of the Romans and a promise to the Jews that the empire would, one day, get its comeuppance.

What fascinated me is how, in the following years, the interpretations of the book changed to reflect contemporary controversies.  When the early Christian movement – which was still largely Jewish – began seeing a large influx of Gentiles, the apocalyptic language was repurposed so that the Antichrist, et al referred to non-Jews.  Later, when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and the faith began to spread throughout the empire, the church began to be divided by doctrinal differences and the “orthodox” factions declared that the Whore of Babylon symbolized heretical doctrine, and those who spread heresy were antichrists.

Needless to say, the book has been hugely controversial within the church practically since the ink dried.  It made it into the New Testament canon by the skin of its teeth, and mostly on its merits as a condemnation of non-orthodox beliefs.  And there it’s sat ever since, continuing to spawn off newer and newer interpretations as needed.

I found this book to be really fascinating, if a bit dry at times.  At a slender 246 pages, Pagels does a fine job of distilling the theological and social disputes of the early church into easily read chunks, and, with a few exceptions, the book moves along surprisingly quickly.  Overall, very nicely done.


ElCicco#CBR4Review#26: Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh, known for his humorous novels, published the soap-opera-like Brideshead Revisited in 1945. Some may be familiar with it from the 1981 TV series starring Jeremy Irons as Charles and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian. Brideshead Revisited is the story of the wealthy, propertied, Catholic Marchmain family and their manor at Brideshead on the eve of World War II. The story is told by Charles in a flashback. It begins during the war, with Charles (in his late 30s) serving in the military and being stationed at Brideshead, thus causing him to think back on the very strange but fascinating family that he knew there many years before.

The themes running through the book involve the loss of youth and innocence, the decay of the wealthy propertied class between the wars, and the search for faith and meaning in life. The Marchmains are Catholic because Lady Marchmain had refused to marry Lord Marchmain unless he converted. They had four children together, and then while fighting in World War I, Lord Marchmain left them for his lover on the continent. Lady Marchmain remains a staunch Catholic, but two of her four children — Sebastian and Julia — struggle with their faith and the aftermath of their parents’ divorce.

Charles meets Sebastian at Oxford and finds the family’s religion a curiosity but does not understand its hold on the Marchmains. On the whole, Charles opposes organized religion since “…at its best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of ‘complexes’ and ‘inhibitions’ … and of intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity.” Sebastian, who struggles with alcoholism especially when amongst his family, seems to be searching for faith and purpose in life, and his inability to find it exacerbates his drinking problem. In a conversation with Charles on Catholicism, in which Charles calls it all nonsense, Sebastian says, “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” He goes on to describe Catholics thus: “…they’ve got an entirely different outlook on life; everything they think important is different from other people.” The description of the life that Sebastian comes to lead sounds rather sad and pathetic, but it actually seems to be the fulfillment of his desires and affords him some happiness.

Charles, while distancing himself from organized religion, seems to fetishize buildings and architecture. He wishes to be an artist but does a poor job with people and excels at architectural painting. “I have always loved building, holding it to be not only the highest achievement of man but one in which, at the moment of consummation, things were most clearly taken out of his hands and perfected, without his intention, by other means, and I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited.” It is the structure, and not those who live in it, that leads a “long fruitful life.” During the Depression, Charles becomes a successful artist by painting portraits of houses and manors that will soon be “deserted or debased” because the families can no longer afford to keep them. They commission portraits of their homes to remember how they once were. But Charles grows tired of this, and finding that he needs some sort of inspiration, sets off for Central and South America. It’s a strange sort of missionary trip for Charles, where he can “…go to the wild lands where man had deserted his post and the jungle was creeping back to its old strongholds.” He paints churches, palaces and cloisters in disrepair and makes another fortune. On his return voyage from this trip, he reconnects with his wife, whom he left for two years to do his painting, and with Julia Marchmain Mottram, leading to Charles’ return to Brideshead and the final chapters on the fate of the Marchmains and Brideshead.

I found myself engaged throughout the story but somewhat disappointed when it was all over. It was okay, but not great. The characters who interested me most — Sebastian and Lord Marchmain — had relatively small parts in the novel. Waugh devotes more attention at the end to Julia, whom I did not especially like, and I couldn’t understand why Charles became so interested in her all of a sudden. I can see how this would make for better television than reading.

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #20: The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs

AJ Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazine, decided that he would attempt to live by every rule in the Bible for one year.  When he says “every rule”, he means every rule, from the obvious stuff like “thou shalt not lie” to the obscure stuff like “don’t wear clothes made of mixed fibers.”  Along the way Jacobs made a point to interact with as many different religious groups as he could: the Amish, Hasidic Jews, creationists, evangelicals, gay evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, to get their unique points of view.

I was pleasantly surprised by how even-handed the book is.  I am an agnostic, but I try to respect my religious friends’ beliefs to the greatest extent I can, and I was a bit worried that Jacobs would turn out to be one of those irritating Bill Maher-esque douches who is just out to mock.  This wasn’t the case.  Jacobs made a great effort to learn not just that the Bible says this or that wacky thing, but to consult with scholars and religious authorities to try to understand why it says what it says.  He also bent over backwards to be fair to, say, creation scientists, while still making it clear that he doesn’t share their beliefs.  Disagreeing without being disagreeable…what a concept!

Needless to say, the nature of the experiment had a huge impact on Jacobs’s day-to-day life, from the way he did business to the way he interacted with his wife.  For instance, he strove valiantly not to experience lust while interviewing Rosario Dawson for Esquire, and engaged in constant struggles with his wife over the segregation-during-menstruation rules.  One of the requirements put on men is that they not have any contact with anything a menstruating woman has touched, including not sitting in a chair that an “unclean” woman had sat in.  So of course his wife made it a point to sit on every chair in their apartment to force him to stand all day.

Overall I found the book funny, informative and oddly touching.  In these increasingly polarized times, it was nice to see someone make a real, honest effort to view the world through someone else’s eyes, and come away from the experience with a deeper respect for his opposites.  I think that’s an example we could all profitably follow.


DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #35 Princess of Wands by John Ringo

American author John Ringo is far better known for his military fiction and political thrillers than this quirky paperback that appeared in 2006. The cover artwork of a woman in jeans with a Japanese katana (sword) fighting some scaly beast was intriguing enough to get me to flip it over at the bookstore. The back copy about this homemaker drawn into the supernatural was clever enough to make me buy it and the ensuing tales of mayhem, magic, wry humour and Faith ensured it a permanent place on my basement bookshelves.

Princess of Wands is actually three books in one. Book One, The Almadu Sanction, explains how a seemingly normal Soccer Mom, Barbara Everette, decides to take a break from her family for a weekend to restore her sanity and discovers that she is actually a Believer who can help battle against the evil that is lurking in the Bayous beyond New Orleans. Book Two, The Necromancy Option, is Barbara’s first team mission to root out the evil that lurks at a Sci-FI/Fantasy convention (anyone who has ever been to a Con will find themselves laughing out loud on several occasions) and Book Three, Broken Sabbath, is a short but satisfying romp into how this Christian warrior manages to protect her family without truly revealing what she has been up to on the side.

For the rest of the review and a link to Baen’s FREE version of this book, check out the Book Hoarding Dragon‘s blog.

DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #32 Misfit by Jon Skovron

It’s not often that I read a book which I enjoy as much as it also baffles me.  Misfit almost defies being categorized, despite being found in the YA section of major bookstores.  The cover art and jacket wording were unusual and eye-catching enough to grad the attention of my oldest daughter during our recent bookstore binge, but the subject matter was touchy enough that she checked with me first. Part Paranormal and Horror, part religion and history yet a wholly satisfying tale of a young woman coming of age, Misfit deals with the conflict experienced by a 16 year old Catholic-school student, Jael Thompson, who learns that her mother was considered a God to some and a demoness to others.  Learning how to cope as a half-breed while one of the fiends of Hell is… well.. Hell Bent on your destruction… proves to be a bit of more of a challenge than the everyday life of a teenager should hold.

Having inhaled the book in a day but the timing of it being during Holy Week (while I was still in a lot of pain from the whiplash’’), I found myself somewhat puzzled as to how I was going to rate this book.  I can see how the very subject matter and point of view might insult, intimidate or offend a certain segment of Christian readers, but some of the questions that are raised in this book are actually very important ones for young people to ask themselves; What do I believe in?  Is Evil done in the name of Good all right? Is there a wider world out there?

Many authors, from C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle to Phillip Pullman, George Lucas and J.K Rowling have caused readers to explore their own faith systems before and the delicate, precarious balance between Light and Dark.  Jon Skovron does so in his own way which is as unusual as it is unique.  Though this story could stand on its own, there were certainly enough loose threads and intriguing plot twists to hint at the possibility of a sequel.  Reading this just after Infinity gave me an unusual chance to compare and contrast the two stories and their Demon overtones. The female character in Misfit, though certainly enjoyable, lacks some of the optimism and gutsy strength  that permeates the Chronicles of Nick series and its main character.  Misfit is an intriguing insight into the more rigid dogma of Catholicism from one person’s perspective and the mayhem that ensues when things go suddenly awry.

Hardcover format, 362 pages, published in 2011 by Amulet Books

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #25 Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

If there was a quintessential Discworld book, Small Gods would for it.  Pratchett’s satire is at its peak.  While it is the 13th book in the series, it can easily be read as a stand alone book.

The story follows the (formerly) great god Om as he makes his not so triumphant return to the Omnians.  Every so often he checks in with his followers, picks a prophet to kick it with for a week or so and goes back to smiting from on high.  At least, that’s how it’s suppose to go.  Om winds up in the inglorious form or a tortoise and it turns out that no one in Omnia is a true believer anymore.  Well, there is one – novice named Brutha with a photographic memory that crowds out any hint of a personality in his brain.  For everyone else, though, religion is now just a force of habit.  Or in the case of Vorbis and his Quisition staff, an outlet for sadistic tendencies.

The books has several parallels between the Old and New Testament God from Christianity.  Om was the great and terrible back in his beginning, taking a more active role in the lives of his followers, smitings and such.  When he gets transformed into a tortoise, he get in touch with the mortals once again, as his our mortality is threatened by the lack of faith in the Omnians.  However, the focus of the book is really lampooning religion is general.  It’s no surprise that Om’s one believer left if someone that learned religion by rote and has never had one original thought of his own.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Reviews #9 and #10: Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson

“What is a soul?”

He looked up, smiled, studied her face. “Why ask me?”

“It just seems to me that you would know.”

He shrugged. “On the basis of my vast learning and experience, I would say – it is what you can’t get rid of.”


You’re going to have to bear with me for a moment, while we talk about the doctrine of election. If you are familiar with Calvinism, then you probably know what the doctrine of election is (you might know it by it’s somewhat oversimplified name, predestination). For those of you who don’t, however, an explanation: the doctrine of election refers to the Calvinist idea that God has pre-selected his followers. The idea is that we do not choose God, he chooses us, that in fact he chose us before we were born, and that – this is the sticking point – he only chose some of us.

The doctrine of election is also the reason that I left the church. But more on that later.

Marilynne Robinson’s two most recent works, Gilead and Home, are companionate pieces about the same town – the titular Gilead – set in the same time, with a very small and consistent cast of characters. Because of the limited setting of her books, she can afford to ask a lot of her readers, and she does: without some foreknowledge of the tenets of Christianity listed above, as well as a some contextual  knowledge of the racial and cultural history of Iowa, you are likely going to get a little lost at times, reading these books (Gilead in particular). Indeed, the narrowness of the content should speak to the absolute power of Robinson’s prose and insight – the fact that a novel about a small-town Congregationalist preacher that focuses on doctrine that is unfamiliar to most won both a Pulitzer and widespread popularity is nothing short of amazing. Which works out, because the novel – both novels – are no short of amazing, either.

Gilead is the more compact of the two novels. It is set entirely in the head of the aforementioned Congregationalist preacher. He’s in his seventies, having re-married late in life after losing a wife and daughter in childbirth. The book is written as a letter to his seven-year-old son, meant to be read posthumously, because the writer – Reverend John Ames – has learned that his heart is failing him and his time is running short. The book is, in a word, absolutely beautiful. It reads as a meditation on not only the life of John Ames, but of life in general. It is also in large part about the soul, and how we recognize bits of our own soul in some, and grievously misjudge others. Ames sifts through his life experiences at random, returning to some over and over as common themes begin to emerge. As he writes, his peaceful home life is interrupted by the resurfacing of his namesake, John Ames Boughton (or Jack Boughton), son of his best friend and perpetual source of trouble, after twenty years. Jack is a peripheral character in Ames’ story, but in Home (the second and more conventional of the two novels) he takes center stage, as the novel delves further his life and family. It is narrated by Glory Boughton, his youngest sister, who has come home for her own reasons only to reconnect with her brother after a twenty-year absence and find she has more in common with him than she thought. The relationship between Glory and Jack is fantastically written, full of authentic moments, both funny and emotional, between siblings. But it’s the intersection of John Ames and John Ames Boughton that is the real crux of the two novels, the pivot point around which the story turns, and from which its themes emerge.

There are two themes which permeate both books, and those are race and religion. Both terms seem reductive in context, but the term religion in particular minimizes what these books are really exploring: namely, the soul, and how God chooses to reveal himself to some and not others, and about how that differently revelation manifests itself in people’s lives. What ties the themes of race and religion together is the idea of the accident of birth, and how it can determine, without your knowledge or consent, so many things about your life. And with that we find ourselves again, at the doctrine of election.

It should surprise no one that John Ames narrates from the position of a chosen one, while Jack Boughton seems to sit well outside the confines of God’s grace. They intersect in strange and uncomfortable ways, misunderstanding each other with a consistency that is both tragic and completely familiar to those of us with families. “In every important way we are such secrets from each other,” John Ames says, and it’s true. Both novels hinge upon the revelation of one such secret and it is this revelation that causes these souls to finally recognize each other in one glorious moment that provides the ending to the first book. The ending of Gilead is redemptive in a way the best American novels always are. Which makes it all the more devastating when that redemption is questioned in the second. The first novel had me a little teary at the end, but I was left mostly with the well-fed sense of having read something fulfilling. The second novel, however, absolutely trampled me. I was in messy, ugly tears over its suggestion of lives unlived and unfulfilled, its implication of fathers inadvertently passing on their sins to their children, its questioning of the whole idea of redemption, and whether it can happen as neatly as we’d like to believe. While I felt heartened by the first book, I was completely heartbroken by the second.

Part of the reason for this is that the heartbreak of that second book hit very close to home for me. I grew up in the church, by which I don’t mean the laissez-faire Easter/Christmas double feature common to many families, but the more rigorous Christian schools, church-at-least-twice-a-week variety. Despite the fact that I had never felt at home there, leaving the church still took a very long time. I was brought up to expect so much of it – I thought, because I was told, that the church was meant to redeem the world, to serve the poor, to bring hope to the afflicted. What it did, instead, was demonize the gays, hush up the abuse of children, ignore the poor and suffering, and consistently make it clear, despite many empty words, that grace was only for those who were good enough for it. More than that, the church gave me impossibly high expectations of God and his capacity to answer and intervene in the prayers of those who believed in him. The trouble with this was that God never seemed to answer my calls. If grace was only for a chosen few, it seemed obvious that I wasn’t one of them.

It’s five years later, and I have a much more realistic and forgiving view of the human failings of the church than I used to. But even so, I could never return to it. Having felt the sting of unbelonging, I would never feel comfortable pledging faith to an institution that believes in the arbitrary exclusion of others. This is why both books hit me so hard. Gilead painted a portrait of the incredible peace that comes with deep faith, and Home reminded me what it is to not feel a part of it. Gilead filled me with the satisfaction of a good redemption, and Home reminded me of what happens when that redemption doesn’t come: “a hope deferred makes the heart sick,” as the Bible says.

I don’t know if these books can be read the same way if you haven’t grown up in some sort of faith community. I wouldn’t know, because the faith of my parents – that accident of birth, or doctrine of election, whichever way you look at it – has defined whole chunks of my personality, including the aspect of it that read this book and reacted to it so strongly. But regardless of your religious history, what both Gilead and Home have, and what the church seems to so conspicuously lack these days, is a blatant and unabashed love for the humanity of the people that inhabit it. That alone would make it well worth the read.

Recommended for: Recovering Christians. Or current ones, I suppose.

Read During: Lent. It’s Ash Wednesday today, so you better get on it.

Listen With: Old Crow Medicine Show is what I listened to while reading this book and writing this review. I would specifically recommend “Take ‘Em Away,” since it’s pretty relevant to the subject matter.

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