Reading Radar Recommendations

Over on the Nashua Public Library website, I have a list of book recommendations. Someone asked that I write blurbs for the books, which is a good idea, though that’s not the format we’re currently using on the library site. I have produced the blurbs below, for both my fiction and non-fiction picks.

Fiction

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. You’ll love this novel if you grew up in the ’80s playing Dungeons & Dragons and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of the real world. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. I know many people who love this book, even if they don’t normally read science fiction.

Ubik, by Philip Dick. The story is set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

The Five, by Robert McCammon. If you like suspense and music, then this book is for you. A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down. The narrative is also saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a reader “hear” music off the page, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.

Song of Kali, by Dan Simmons. I consider this the best novel Simmons ever wrote. Critics say that first novels often show authors at their most honest, writing without regard for anyone’s expectations, and Song of Kali fits that profile. It’s about the Kali cult in India, and forget the cartoonish portrayal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The cult depicted here is foul beyond words. They run Calcutta like the Mafia runs American cities. Businessmen by day, killers by night, they sacrifice people (including their own members) to make their goddess manifest on earth. Their evil seems to have somehow infected the stones and air of Calcutta; pain and hurt are the only language people understand. The story involves a magazine writer who is sent to Calcutta to obtain poetry supposedly written by a man who was thought to be long dead. He takes his wife and infant child (bad move) and becomes entangled with the cult. What happens is vile and depressing, but in an understated way that makes everything seem too real to be fictitious. There are no cheap thrills or victories against the Kali cult; no one is brought to justice; the cult goes on; the city of Calcutta sweats poverty, despair, and anger in endless cycles.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl, by Peter Straub. There’s a scene from this book burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it terrified me. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final terrible page.

Sword of the North, by Richard White. It’s hard to believe that Columbus ever got the credit for discovering America. Leif Erickson beat him by five centuries, and Henry Sinclair probably beat him by one. This novel is Sinclair’s story. He was Baron of Rosslyn in southern Scotland and also Jarl of the Orkney Islands, and as White portrays him a fair but firm ruler who went at heads with corrupt bishops and venal noblemen. He got around plenty before embarking on his voyage to North America — to Norway, the Faroe Islands — and there’s even an amusing scene where visiting England he bumps into that father of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer. The dialogue is superb, lyrical and almost poetic without sounding aloof. There’s striking humor on display, and whether or not it represents 14th-century thought, it’s the book’s clear signature which sets it above the mainstream. It’s long out of print and almost unheard of, which is a shame. The author was a teacher at my high-school back in the ’80s, and he went on to write the smashing western Mister Grey; more recently he finally published his scholarly research on Sinclair’s expeditions, These Stones Bear Witness.

The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks. Whether you love or hate this novel will depend on how flexible you are with genre. It’s the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572) as Quentin Tarantino might envision it — pulp historical fiction at its most graphic and obscene. The violent content was judged so extreme that it couldn’t even be published in the U.S. The hero’s slaughter-fests make him as bad as the villains. Most of the opposition he faces are poorly trained city militia, everyday thugs, and politically appointed “knights” hardly worthy of the title. He kills out of simple revenge for his wife, hardly caring who. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre began as a royal stab against the Huguenot elite but degenerated into a full-blown extermination of unarmed Protestant civilians by the Paris militia. Tannhauser’s personal degeneration matches the city’s; there’s backstabbing everywhere, and a kingdom of beggars and thieves shunned by everyone. Those dark alleys are Tannhauser’s ultimate destination, and where an unexpected salvation is found. There, and in the souls of raped and dispossessed children he rescues along the way. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue is crisp, and the mystery of who wanted Tannhauser’s wife dead and why unfolds at the right moments. It’s an unusual novel that indulges hyper-elements to explore the consequences of hurt, and the inability to transcend monstrosity.

Non-Fiction

Free Will, by Sam Harris. The idea that we don’t have free will seems to defy common sense, but more scientists are coming to that conclusion. The idea of free will implies two things. (1) That we were free to think and act differently than we did. We did something but could have done otherwise. For example, I raised my right hand but could have raised my left; I went to see a movie, but could have visited a friend; I decided to join the Peace Corps, but could have gotten a job; I thought about cooking dinner, but could have considered ordering pizza. (2) That we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. Our consciousness is the author of our inner lives and subsequent behaviors — the thinker of our thoughts, and the intender of our intentions. For example, I feel that I want to rise from a chair, and so I rise. I experience the desire to marry my girlfriend, so I propose to her. Sam Harris says that both of these assumptions are false. Read this persuasive book to find out why.

Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, by John Meier. The author believes that of the 32 parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, only four are historically reliable: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either show signs of being written after Jesus, or can at best be judged unclear. It’s worth noting that Meier is a conservative Catholic and not predisposed to being so skeptical about accounts in the Bible. His historical methodology pushed him to the conclusion.

Night Comes, by Dale Allison. Here’s a meditation on death and how we cope with the idea of it. There’s a chapter on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far. There’s a chapter on the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the Gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Paul’s idea of a discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. There’s a chapter about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Dale Allison’s books, Night Comes succeeds in unnerving you no matter what you believe.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, by Dario Fernandez-Morera. This book is a milestone in putting to rest the biggest academic myth of our time, and what’s amazing is that the author is a scholar from Harvard — the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. They were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christians being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks being happy slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. This books shows that had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland. This is unlike any other ranking of the U.S. presidents. Most historians, regardless of their political bias, tend to grade presidents on the basis of their management style and charisma. Eland points out that effective presidents may be successful at accomplishing their goals, but those goals could be bad and often are. Charismatic leaders may inspire us with speeches, but that’s meaningless; some of the worst leaders in history have been charismatics. Eland ranks the presidents based on a threefold criteria — what they did for causes of “peace”, “prosperity”, and “liberty”. After all, these were the prime objectives of the American founders, and most people when asked say they want to live safe lives, be able to provide for themselves, and enjoy freedom. This is the book I’d been awaiting for many years. Even where I disagree with some of Eland’s assessments, I respect the reasoning he uses. His rankings tend to turn the common wisdom upside down. For example, in his judgment, Jimmy Carter (a Democrat) and Warren Harding (a Republican) were the two best presidents of the 20th century, while many historians consider them among the worst. As for the presidents we carved on Mount Rushmore, says Eland, three of the four don’t deserve the honor of being there.

The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Free Speech, by Robert Spencer. Anyone who cherishes the First Amendment should read this book. Our right to free speech and expression may not last. People are increasingly unable to listen to and engage with views they are offended by, resulting in safe spaces on college campuses, shout-down strategies against invited speakers, and the advocacy for “hate speech” laws that criminalize bigoted opinions (or those that are deemed such). Spencer reminds us that free speech is offensive speech, and that has always been its point. Inoffensive speech doesn’t need the protection of a First Amendment. Liberals are the worst threat to free speech these days, and a conservative like Spencer is a breath of fresh air. In this book he describes how social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as student groups on American college campuses, are doing the bidding of anti-First Amendment activists; how American representatives at the United Nations have already agreed to limit free speech in certain ways; how people have lost their jobs for criticizing the doctrine of Islam; how European “hate speech” laws are used to prosecute and harass people who are not hateful — and how this could become the way of America. As a liberal, I stand with Spencer against my own leftist tribe on this issue.

 

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