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What I Read in August & September, 2015

August and September were productive months, and my reading happened in spurts and fits. I read a few books before the move, and a few after:

Bull Street was awful. This book was so incredibly bad that I looked up the order on Amazon to see if I had paid for this ebook. I had. I will regret that for a long time. I could have spent the $2 on a coffee, poured the coffee on my head, and been more satisfied with the results. My review on Amazon (which I’ve pasted here) is titled, “Now I’m a victim of Wall Street too.”

There is no tension, there is no suspense. The bad guys are obviously bad from the first description. The stakes are incredibly low. The protagonist manages to be boring, offensive, immature, totally self-ignorant, and cowardly at the same time. The author frequently introduces important information only when it’s helpful to the plot. Foreshadowing is apparently not in his literary vocabulary. He either forecasts with the subtlety of an elephant, or waits too long to inform us of something critical.

Every secondary character speaks with the same voice: the voice of the narrator. Also, pistachios. Somewhere the author must have read that it’s important to give the characters a quirk. Pistachios can be a great quirk, but I’m tired of reading that a character shelled a pistachio and then “popped the meat into his mouth.” I’m sure that’s a technically correct way to refer to what’s happening, but what’s technically correct and what’s good are two different things.

At least I didn’t pay for The One That Got Away. It was Amazon’s free book of the month for Prime members. This book was so bad. I read this in a night, and by the end, I turned to my wife and said, “You’re never going to believe how bad this book is.” The book was a master-class on terribly developed characters, cops that would get fired in a heartbeat for incompetence, and totally unrealistic motivations. For example (SPOILER ALERT!): the killer is motivated by a desire to punish people who have bad manners. He’s also apparently really bad at killing. I will not read another book by Simon Wood. I am probably going to stop taking advantage of the Amazon Prime Kindle First freebies as well.

Faulkner once advised writers: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.” So, since I write, I’m reading a lot of books, and these were two of them. I learned a lot about bad writing while reading this book, but I won’t buy or read anything by David Lender or Simon Wood ever again. Is it wrong to say, “May their tribe decrease?” I mean that in the sense of, “May these types of books never be published or conceived again.”

Then things got a little better and improved dramatically through the next six books.

D.M. Pulley’s The Dead Key was another Kindle First freebie. The thing is, this book is not half-bad. Good character development (not amazing, but hey, not bad), good tension (genuinely tense at a few points, generally tense throughout), goodish, clearish writing, and a more-or-less satisfying conclusion. I thought it wrapped up a little too quickly considering the scope and scale of the villainy involved, but it was still good enough.

And Robert Ellis’ City of Echoes wasn’t too bad either. I was not expecting this book to be much good, and the opening pages were sub-par, but after things started rolling, the surprises kept coming, and the writing kept me engaged. There were a few twists that were way more predictable than they should have been, but on the whole, it was a decent read, and I’ll maybe pick up the next if it’s free.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good author, generally, so I was happy to get a collection of his short stories. This collection was like all collections–it had its high points (“Escape from Kathmandu” or “The Blind Geometer” or “The Translator”) and its low points (“Sexual Dimorphism” or “Prometheus Unbound, At Last”). The strong stories are stories. The weak stories are experiments. Though that may say more about my personal philosophy than Robinson’s talent. If you’re in the mood for some solid science fiction, pick up his Mars Trilogy.

Speaking of Mars, The Martian was very enjoyable. I imagine the movie is also enjoyable, and look forward to seeing it someday, probably after Calvin grows up and moves out. (Missions and parenthood = a drastic reduction in movie nights.)

Station Eleven was the fictional highlight of the last two months. The author (is it St. John Mandel or just Mandel?) managed to craft the sort of post-apocalyptic story that slides right past all of the easy material (the moral reproach in the form of some disaster, the disintegration of society, the violence of survival, etc) and delivers a heartbreaking and gently told tale set in the midst of tragedy. She weaves themes of memory, regret, repentance (or unrepentance), hope and artistic joy around a set of characters drawn with the sympathy and humanity that marks an excellent author.

And finally, Art & The Bible is my first Schaeffer book. This was a very short book, containing two essays: “Art In the Bible” and “Some Perspectives on Art”.

A couple of great quotes from the first section:

“Despite our constant talk about the Lordship of Christ, we have narrowed it’s scope to a very small area of reality.”

“About all that [evangelical Christianity has] produced is a very romantic, Sunday school art.”

“A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.”

“God is interested in beauty.”

“The Christian life should produce not only truth…but also beauty.”

The second essay was also fantastic. Schaeffer thankfully affirms the value of art as art–it is valuable simply because it is “a work of creativity” and because in creating, we are imitating our Creator–and he proceeds to lay out some helpful instructions for thinking about art, both as a viewer and as a creator. Perhaps the most compelling sections for me were his “Four Standards of Judgment” and “The Christian World View”.  Some quotes from these:

“We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life. Christian schools, Christian parents and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because the schools, the pastors and the parents did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected by scorn or ridicule. Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ from his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man.”

“If we stand as Christians before a man’s canvas and recognize that he is a great artist in technical excellence and validity–if in fact he is–if we have been fair with him as a man and as an artist, then we can say that his world view is wrong.”

“The Christian and his art have a place for the minor theme [of our fallen state] because man is lost and abnormal and the Christian has his own defeatedness. There is not only victory and song in my life. But the Christian and his art don’t end there…[And] if our Christian art only emphasizes the major theme [of redemption], then it is not fully Christian but simply romantic art.”

“Even though we may spend most of our time on the judgment of the law, love dictates that at some point we get to the gospel. And it seems to me that in the total body of his work the artist somewhere should have a sufficient place for the major theme [of redemption].”

If you are a Christian and you have not read this book yet, do yourself a significant favor and pick it up. For Christian artists, it’s a wonderful little summary of why we are called to create and how we can glorify God through such activity. For Christians who are not artists, it’s a wonderful discussion on how to interact with art for God’s glory.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

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  1. Jessica

    1. I follow a number of bloggers who are big readers and share what books they are reading, and I continue to find it surprising that many people can read many books in one month. I think I need a different system. I have had basically the same stack of ‘to read’ books for a number of years now and made little progress.

    2. Does Dave know you read the Schaefer book? I can’t remember if he has read it or just others with similar titles. But that sounds like something he’d enjoy discussing with you :)

    • Dan

      I’ll mention the Schaeffer book to Dave–I hadn’t said anything to him yet, but if he hasn’t read it, I think he’d enjoy it.

      I don’t normally read so many books, but late last year, I realized that my reading volume had increased a lot after arriving in Spain. I think that’s happened for a couple of reasons–we watch less TV here, we’re often commuting by train for a long distance (rather than driving), and when we were in the south we found ourselves waiting for a long time if we were to show up to an appointment on time.

      So, my system has just been to have my Kindle with me at all times and to read for about 30 minutes each evening (plus any time I get when I’m riding on trains or sitting in waiting rooms). Even as few as 10 pages a night will get you through a ton of reading in a year. (Just 10 pages is 3600+ pages in a year, or about 10 novel-length books.)

      This year, my unwritten goal was to try to read about 4 books a month; I think I’m on track, but that has meant that a few of them have been very short books that I’ve been wanting to read, but which I did not feel as motivated to read until a month was drawing to a close.

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