Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Read: 20 March, 2018

This is a fairly straight-forward and readable retelling of several stories of the gods. There’s a good range, and I recognised quite a bit more than I thought I would.

I read these to my seven year old, and I’d say he’s right at the line of appropriateness. He got a huge kick out of the butt-mead of poetry, of course, but some of the themes were well beyond him. He also had a bit of trouble keeping track of all the names, though we made good use of the glossary at the back.

Winternight Trilogy #1: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Read: 3 March, 2018

When I started dating a young Russian gent, I started dating his culture, too. I got into Russian music, I started reading Russian fiction, I started collecting bits and bobs of Russian folkart. And my poor, dear, Russian beau, who fled the USSR and would really rather put the whole Russian thing behind them, tolerantly humours me.

All this is just to say that The Bear and the Nightingale is right up my alley.

The writings style has something of a fairy tale flavour to it, which tends to keep a bit of distance between reader and character. This took some getting used to, after the intensely intimate books I’ve been reading recently. But it fit the tone of the story perfectly.

I loved how rich the world feels – at once historical and magical, fantastical and plausible. I also loved Vasya, is was such a charmingly wild thing, without it coming off like it the narrative was trying to hard.

Learn from my fail: There is a glossary at the back for the Russian terms used in the book. You don’t actually have to keep bugging your spouse with questions. Though you certainly can, if you want to.

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A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

Jews Versus Zombies edited by Lavie Tidhar & Rebecca Levene

Read: 1 October, 2017

This is a wonderfully “niche” anthology, for that handful of people interested both in Judaism and zombies. Only two of the stories are the kinds of zombie stories you might find in Best New Zombie Tales, though even those have a very particularly Jewish flavour to them. The rest more explicitly use the undead concept to explore philosophy and Jewish identity.

I found that most of this collection is way over my head, and many terms are used that I’m simply not familiar with. This was clearly not compiled with a gentile audience in mind. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading as a gentile, however – even when I don’t feel like I really grasped a story, I still found something to enjoy in every single entry.

“Rise” by Rena Rossner

This story is essentially “12 Dancing Princesses,” except that the princesses are yeshiva students, and their partners are the corpses of holy rebetzin. While they dance, the zombie partners teach the boys about theology and philosophy. The eroticism and physicality of the learning reminded me quite a bit of some mystic cults.

“The Scapegoat Factory” by Ofir Touche Gafla

The central joke of the story is that all things are temporary – even death. A group of scientists use this assumptions to bring a group of dead back to life as zombies. Only, these zombies can’t simply return to their old lives, and they can’t die either. At the same time, there’s this whole other joke about a company called the “Scapegoat Factory” that supplies willing scapegoats for cold cases, to give the families a sense of closure. The story is very funny, but perhaps has a bit too much going on. The whole Scapegoat Factory bit could be written out entirely without affecting the story much (though, I suppose it would need a new title…).

“Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith” by Shimon Adaf

I think this one went a bit over my head. There are two stories: In one, a woman is chatting with an artificial intelligence when it “dies”. Meanwhile, a midwife is delivering demon babies. These two stories are related through the letters that two characters write to each other. It’s a bit odd, and I had a hard time separating what was reference and what was fiction.

“Ten for Sodom” by Daniel Polansky

The first real “zombie apocalypse” story in the collection, a lapsed Jew grapples with this faith as he faces the end of the world. While short and much more similar to the zombie stories I’m familiar with, this still offers an interesting and uniquely Jewish (albeit lapsed Jewish) perspective on the genre.

“The Friday People” by Sarah Lotz

The zombies are more ambiguous in this darkly amusing entry. The titular Friday People are the younger generation who meet briefly on their weekly visits to their older relatives – many doing so in the hopes of a future inheritance. Except that their relatives just won’t die, no matter what.

“Tractate Metim 28A” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

A lot of this one went right over my head, but it was still extremely amusing. A group of rabbis argue over matters pertaining to the purity of the undead. I’ve seen similar types arguments on the internet, and they are just wonderful.

“Wiseman’s Terror Tales” by Anna Tambour

A young man wants to design rockets, but seems destined to design bras instead. The zombies (again, somewhat ambiguous zombies, who seem far more explicitly metaphorical than they usually are) try to persuade him to choose a career. I enjoyed elements of this story, but something about it just didn’t grip me. Perhaps because the imagery, that would have worked better as a subtle pattern in a novel-length story, was too condensed, too thrown together. The final reveal went a long way to endear me to the story as a whole, though!

“Zayinim” by Adam Roberts

The collection ends with another ‘typical’ zombie story – this time we have some alternate history where Hitler wins WWII and gives everyone except the Jews an immortality drug. When the immortals’ minds degrade and they become zombies, the only true humans left are Jews. It’s an interesting consent, and a novel spin on an old idea. It didn’t hurt that the characters were fairly interesting as well.

The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss

Read: 9 August, 2017

The central argument of the book is that, while there were some periods of actual persecution of Christians in the early centuries, they were very few. Most of the martyrdom accounts we have are unsubstantiated, or refer to prosecution (where Christians were breaking laws that were not drawn or enforced with Christians specifically in mind).

And this matters because it is the narrative of martyrdom that excuses horrifically callous behaviour. Specifically, the fudging between disagreement and persecution. If Christians are always and have always been under attack from worldly forces, and people wanting to get gay-married is an attack on Christianity, then the Christian fight against gay marriage becomes a fight of self-defence.

I would also add, though Moss doesn’t, that there is also a fudging between chosen martyrdom and imposed martyrdom. Part of the veneration of martyrs also promises greater heavenly reward for greater earthly suffering, which is the logic used by people like Mother Teresa in denying palliative care to terminal patients. By increasing their suffering in their last days – without their consent (informed or otherwise) – Mother Teresa sought to purify their souls.

The book does have some weaker moments, such as when Moss hitches much of her argument against the reality of persecution in the earliest period on the fact that the group in question was not yet called Christians (largely around p.130-134). Which is just an argument from semantics, and not particularly useful.

But for the most part, Moss constructs her arguments well, She also strikes a good balance between being readable and being informative.

I think that much of this book will appeal to the “New Atheist” types, who will make much of the occasional ‘gotcha’ sound bites. I also think it’s a valuable (though perhaps uncomfortable) read for Christians who currently believe that early Christians were persecuted, especially if they believe that this persecution has been ongoing. This book won’t hold any hands, though, so I suspect that most readers from this group will simply dismiss it.

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Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Read: 30 January, 2017

“It was a dark and stormy night.” 

I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

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Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Read: 22 July, 2015

Anyone who has been following my book reviews for a while knows that I am rather fascinated by Christian fundamentalism, particularly of the Quiverfull variety. So far, I’ve covered Kathryn Joyce’s groundbreaking Quiverfull, as well as the Duggars’ (who popularized the movement through their reality show on the TLC channel) 20 and Counting. I also regularly read blogs like Love, Joy, FeminismBroken DaughtersDefeating the Dragons, and Cynthia Jeub’s new blog. And, of course, Vyckie Garrison’s No Longer Quivering that started it all.

There’s a sideshow aspect to my fascination, I suppose, because the lifestyle and beliefs really are weird. But far more than that, I think I feel so attracted to these narratives is because of how familiar they are. When I read Garrison’s early posts, I could see her brain working the way mine works, her conclusions trending in the same directions. Had I been exposed to fundamentalist Christianity at certain points of my life, I’m pretty sure that I could have – that I would have fallen into the same traps. So when I read these accounts, it’s with the relief of a narrow miss, and perhaps an inoculation.

In any case, all this is just to say that I was very intrigued when I heard about Devoted, and I ordered it through my library immediately.

The book follows Rachel Walker, the second daughter and currently eldest in-house, of a family with eleven children. She is responsible for cooking, laundry, cleaning, teaching, and caring for her younger siblings. She is a mom in all but status – a mom to an industrial-sized family. Things start to change for Rachel when a miscarriage throws her mother into a terrible depression just as Lauren comes back to town.

I really enjoyed Devoted. At first, I wasn’t too sure about Rachel. I was glad that she wasn’t a transplanted feminist, nor does her epiphany processes seem too easy. She just seemed so very immature, and I worried that it might be due to Mathieu’s poor writing. About a quarter of the way through, however, I realized that quite the opposite was the case. Rachel was immature because of course she was, she has been sheltered her entire life, denied all opportunity to form thoughts of her own. Once she starts thinking, however, she develops beautifully, and it’s wonderful to see that process. Mathieu handles it exquisitely.

I really enjoyed the depictions of both Lauren and Mark. It would have been very easy to have them there to serve the purpose of progressing Rachel – Lauren could have said all the right things, Mark could have swept her off her feet. In the hands of a lesser writer, that’s exactly what would have happened.

But Lauren is flawed, and she is still going through the same process as Rachel, albeit farther along and on a different path. And that’s the best part of her character – that she and Rachel are growing differently, coming to different conclusions, yet they are able to learn together and support each other. Seeing Rachel assert herself and firmly explain to Lauren that she can’t go from being under her father’s protection to being under Lauren’s protection was wonderful and very moving.

I enjoyed the little games Rachel plays with Mark, and his efforts to be conscientious despite her needs being so alien to him. (SPOILERS: I was also very glad that they never kissed or entered into any kind of relationship – I didn’t feel that Rachel was really ready for that yet, even by the end, and it would have seemed somewhat predatory for Mark to approach her in that way while she remains still so innocent and child-like. Developing their friendship, allowing Rachel to learn that it’s okay to be around boys, to be friends with boys, struck just the right tone.)

Rachel’s experiences are, to use her word, complicated, but Mathieu wisely didn’t make them horrific, though I do think she could have covered the good times a little more – Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism makes a point of talking about her family’s closeness, her good memories, to balance the bad, and Devoted didn’t really have any of that. Apart from Ruth, it didn’t really seem like Rachel had any attachment to her siblings, not even the little ones. I think it would have made her decision to leave her family more painful, and her initial depression more relatable. But that is my only complaint in a book full of great characterization.

I really enjoyed Devoted. Mathieu made a lot of great choices, and I really had the feeling that I was getting to know the characters – to the point of being a little sad when the book was over because I wouldn’t get to be in their lives any more. She’s managed to provide a lovely companion piece for Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull.

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Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Read: 29 June 2015

As with Starship TroopersStranger offers up a buffet of thoughts and philosophies, provoking quite a bit of introspection, if not agreement. The premise of the novel is that a human born and raised on Mars is brought back to earth, juxtaposing human (mainly North American, but there are smatterings of Islam) culture to the fictional Martian way of thinking. Much of the difference, it seems, stems from humans having two biological sexes, while the Martians have only one.

The problem, the same problem I had with Starship Troopers, is that some pretty awful things are presented as Truth, delivered by characters who are set up all-knowing (or close enough) Truth Tellers, without even so much as the balance of a dissenting voice. In Starship Troopers, what stood out the most for me was the proposition that we could solve our social ills by reinstating corporal punishment (from babyhood and into adulthood). Here, my big issue had to do with the novel’s attitudes toward women.

Women are treated rather atrociously throughout the novel. There are brief moments where Heinlein seems close to acknowledging this, such as when he has Jill bristle at being called “little lady” by Digby (and Harshaw underlines the point by bringing it up again, mocking Digby by using the term himself). This comes so close to being a condemnation of the casual infantilizing of women that was so common in the 50s and 60s. The problem is that Digby is far from the only character who does this (and his “crime” seems to be more the awkward repetition of the phrase, rather than its use in the first place). Throughout the novel, women are referred to as “little girl” (and equivalent terms), and generally treated like some odd cross between child and servant.

But the true shocker is when Jill claims that, 9 times out of 10, women are at least partially to blame if they get raped. This is presented as instructional, teaching Mike (the “man from Mars”) about The Way Things Are, and the statement is never challenged. It is simply dropped as a logical and accurate observation, one that anyone other than a cultural newborn like Mike would know, if they gave it any thought.

Even once we get to the nest stage of the novel, where Mike becomes a messiah figure leading his disciples in what is presented as a perfect human state, when the male and female characters are at their most equal, the banter still reveals deep prejudices. As do the assumptions made by the characters, and how many of the duties are arranged (it is women who do the bulk of the “service” work, such as running Harshaw’s bath).

The problem, as with the issue of corporal punishment in Starship Troopers, is that Heinlein presents himself as a philosophical forward thinker, capable of seeing through the cultural prejudices that blind most people. And yet, when it comes to certain issues, he seems just as unwilling to consider alternatives as anyone else.

The issue of homosexuality in Strangers (and in Heinlein’s broader body of work) is a much more complicated discussion. On the surface, Strangers seems as indisposed to challenge the social mores of the 50s and 60s with regards to homosexuality as it is with regards to women.

There main pull-quotes are:

  1. Jill is very concerned that Mike, being from genderless Mars, might not know not to accept advances from gay men, so she issues a rule against it. She is relieved that Mike chooses men for his inner circle who are very masculine (and women who are very feminine), emphasizing both her ideal of sexual binarism and her distaste for homosexuality.
  2. When Mike allows Jill to see women through a man’s eyes – as sexual objects – she is relieved to find that she goes back to viewing women in a non-sexual way once she sees them through her own eyes again. The narrator says that “to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much.” While the argument might be made that this is all from Jill’s perspective, a remnant of her somewhat conservative upbringing, the view is never challenged (even though Jill’s views in other areas are being challenged in nearly every scene in which she appears – first by Harshaw, then by Mike).
  3. When Ben tells Harshaw of his visit to the nest, he is forced to admit that, in the nest, men kiss men. This, he assures Harshaw, is “not a pansy gesture.” Harshaw then talks about the Kiss of Brotherhood, and a fair amount of effort is put into reassuring themselves and the reader that there is nothing homosexual about the expressions of physical intimacy between men in the context of Water Brothers.

But then there are hints of a more accepting perspective. Jill is no Lesbian, we are assured, yet her Kiss of Brotherhood with Patty is described as “greedy.” Not only that, but men are expressing physical intimacy with each other, and frequently doing so while completely naked. Like I said, it’s a complicated issue, and one that I don’t feel prepared to parse out. I did manage to find a good article on Strange Horizons that tackles the issue. 

My final complaint about the novel is that Harshaw feels far too much like an author insert. He is an outsider, a prime mover, and he is a dispenser of wisdom through nearly the whole book. His role is almost exclusively to drop down into the other characters’ lives, tell them everything they’ve been doing wrong, deliver snippets of great wisdom, and swoop back into the sky. Pages upon pages are devoted to his rants, and all the other characters fawn over his superior logic and wisdom. At one point, a character exclaims that Harshaw is the only person to be capable of groking Mike’s mysteries without first having learned to speak Martian. It’s not until the very end that he is taken by surprise, and then it’s only to pump up Mike’s own specialness and to set Harshaw up as his spiritual successor.

The novel feels rather uneven, divided into two (arguably three) very clear parts that struggle to fit together as a whole. Still, I found the novel very interesting and thought-provoking, despite its flaws.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick

Read: 26 March, 2014

I first saw Blade Runner as a child and absolutely loved it – mostly, at the time, because I had a rather large Indiana Jones-fueled crush on Harrison Ford. Seeing the movie many times over the years, I came to love it for all sorts of other reasons in addition to Hunkison Ford.

Yet, for some reason, I didn’t get to reading Do Androids Dream until just now.

I really enjoyed it. It’s pretty obvious where Blade Runner got its material from, yet the two are still sufficiently different that reading Androids felt like a fresh experience.

I found the book to be very thought-provoking, and the first 2/3, especially, really impressed me. It got a bit weird toward the end (as one reviewer put it, it takes Deckard about five pages to buy a goat, but he falls in love in a single sentence), but I found the ideas compelling enough to continue despite what seemed to be something of a narrative falling apart.

The society is very dated, with of course a stay-at-home wife. But at the same time, she’s given a depression – a real depression, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the experience described in such a spot-on way. It’s an odd sort of mix, an acknowledgement that the societal norm is harmful without ever coming close to suggesting that an alternative might be possible (I mean the expectation that married women stay at home, not the choice to do so).

It’s a short book, quickly read, but packed tight with ideas.

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The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Read: 6 March, 2014

Mists of Avalon retells the story of King Arthur and his knights, but from the perspectives of the women in the story – Guinevere (called Gwenhwyfar), Mogana le Fey (called Morgaine), and others.

I loved how complex the characters were, and how seamless their transition as they grow older and change their opinions. I loved the religious discussions and the tug-o-war between old and new. I loved getting to hear all the familiar King Arthur stories, but from the perspectives of characters who had always seemed to be on the outside.

It was a long book, and it took a long time to read, but it was well-worth it. I found it exciting and interesting and wonderful and so totally “up my alley.”

I highly recommend this book for its complex and nuanced look at life, religion, gender, sexuality, and so much else.

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