Hild by Nicola Griffith

Read: 7 March, 2015

We know precious little about the real Hild, a woman who lived in 7th century England. Within the frame of sparse information, Griffith weaves a tale of a young woman who navigates from being the homeless daughter of a murdered king, to king’s seer, a commander of armies, and weaver of political intrigue.

Years ago, when I read Dune, I was completely blown away. Previously, most of what I had read was assigned reading – classics with literary and historical merit. But Dune captured me. What I loved about it was the many moving parts – the members of the household and the surrounding nobles, each with their own goals and motivations, and the lone protagonist stuck in the middle trying to find the pattern, take hold of the weave, and re-stitch it to his own will. It’s a magnificent theme, and one that I’ve always loved seeing done well. And Griffith does it well. Very well.

Hild begins in a very precarious social position, and we see her (via her mother, at first) rise and find safety for herself and her loved ones through cunning and information. The details of her rise, and of her struggle to maintain safety in an environment where kings can rise and fall in the blink of an eye, was extremely well handled. I felt like I could really see her learning, working things out, and tailoring her advice to the personalities of the recipients.

Often, when a character is shown to be especially cunning, this is either done by making everyone else in the story too oblivious to see the obvious, or it’s done by having the character make impossible logical leaps. Here, however, we see Hild paying attention, we see her building a spy network, we see how she comes to make those logical leaps that she does make (and, perhaps just as importantly, we see her be wrong sometimes).

Another aspect of this book that I loved is how much time was spent on both the Big Political Stuff and on domestic business. We see Hild organizing alliances between kings, and we see her checking sheep to estimate the price of the resulting wool. This really spoke to me, because history tends to be taught as The Important Things Great Men (and these few token women) Do, and neglects to show us all the things women and people of lower social standing were doing in the background to make those Great Things work.

Not only that, but the women who organized alliances and gave advice behind the scenes rarely get any credit. Hild, as a seer, speaks more openly, but we see how her mother and the queen are able to nudge others as well. In other words, the history here felt complete, and it was lovely.

All this is mostly to say that this book was right up my alley. All of my alleys. Griffith did an excellent job controlling the narrative so that the rather lengthy character list never felt overwhelming, and the pacing was perfect.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the ending felt a little rushed. (SPOILERS: And while I understood Breguswith and Aethelburh’s motivation in orchestrating it, I didn’t grasp was Edwin was thinking. I feel like we should have seen Hild spend a little more time working that out, though I do see how that would have interfered with the pacing of the climax.)

I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in intrigue and the domestic world of 7th century England. If you have trouble keeping track of lots of characters (particularly since they have unfamiliar names, several of the characters having quite similar spellings), it may be useful to keep notes.

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Wenceslas by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Christian Birmingham

The story of Wenceslas is fairly normal Christmas fair – a king (who has light shining out of his cloak and footprints) leaves the comforts of his castle in the middle of a terribly cold night to bring food to one of his peasants.

From a lessons standpoint, the message is fine for a picture book. Never mind that, as king, he runs a country where the hunger and poverty of his peasants exists in the first place, or that the comfort he provides is only to one family of peasants and not to the thousands of others who will simply suffer while the nobles enjoy their party. It’s also something of a monarchist message, practically deifying the king by no virtue other than basic human decency (backed with the money and power to act on it).

But still, it’s a Christmas story and we don’t expect too much depth from these things – certainly not in a picture book. And the artwork makes whatever flaws in the story entirely worthwhile. Christian Birmingham’s images are stunning – so gorgeous that there were several I’d love to just hang on my wall. He uses the contrasts between warm colours (representing the Wenceslas’s quasi-divinity, warmth, fire, happiness, safety) and cold (representing, obviously, the cold) to give his images great depth and resonance.

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God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

Read: 27 April, 2010

“God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult.”

The above quote is from the New York Times Book Review and appears on the cover of my edition. I find it to be an excellent summary of the book, and of Hitchens’s work in general. He treats God like any other human adult, holding him responsible for the actions attributed to him, and not letting God’s celebrity status get in the way of justice.

My complaint of this book is the same as my complaint of pre-sober Hitchens in general. He has a lot of zingers and truly quotable lines, but they’re buried under a meandering and unstructured argumentation. The book is divided into chapters, but there’s no build-up or progression. It’s more like Hitchens merely writes in the train of thought and then publishes, without regard for editing.

I also didn’t like the lack of notation. He does have end-notes, but they aren’t marked in the text and mostly only provide citations for the passages he quotes. Any “facts” that he writes aren’t sourced, so it’s often difficult to check their veracity. For example, on page 110 of my edition, he write: “One recalls a governor of Texas who, asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.'” Unfortunately, no details are provided about this incident that might help the interested look it up. No name, no year, nothing except the location. It seems plausible that it’s true, but I have no way of verifying it.

I’m being harsh on the book, but I did enjoy it. Hitchens is an excellent writer – funny, interesting, and he certainly keeps the pace moving. So this is a fine book to read while travelling or sitting by the pool. What it isn’t is a resource or an argument. It’s the fluff of the atheist library.

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The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty

Read: 27 September, 2009

Imagine if people living a couple hundreds of years from now forgot that the Harry Potter series was fiction. Imagine that they started to worship Harry Potter, to seek out relics from Hogwarts, and fought wars against those who did not believe that the historical Harry really did have magical powers.

That’s essentially the premise of The Jesus Puzzle. According to Doherty, Jesus was a mythic character, invented consciously by individuals who were  embodying the teachings of their sect in an archetypal character. But then, as the religion spread outside of this original community, the allegory was forgotten and adherents came to see Jesus as an actual historical figure. This is how Doherty explains the discrepancies between the gospels and the lack of biographical information given in the epistles of Paul.

To a lay reader, the argument is convincing. That being said, it’s worth noting that Doherty is not a scholar, the accolades on the book jacket are written by individuals (David B., Mary B., Jan K., and Rusty A., whoever they are), and he is something of a laughing stock among biblical scholars. “Mythers,” as they are called within scholarly circles, tend not to be very well received.

Indeed, even a lay reader may grasp that something is amiss after Doherty’s umpteenth reference to his persecution at the hands of academics. My own skeptical alarm bells tend to ring when authors imagine vast conspiracies against themselves or their ideas.

I’m not sure that I’d be willing to dismiss the book entirely, simply because Doherty does provide a perspective on many New Testament passages. I’ve found it useful in my reading of scripture over at my other blog, if only to have additional points of view to mull over while forming my own readings. Just keep in mind that Doherty is expressing a fringe opinion that is not taken seriously by those who know the material best.

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The End of Faith by Sam Harris

Read: 4 April, 2010

After years of being told that I absolutely had to read The End of Faith and seeing Harris’s TED presentation on universal morality, I finally took the plunge and bought a copy.

The book is divided into two distinct parts: the first is what doesn’t work, and the second is what Harris believes will work. What doesn’t work is, of course, religion. This part reads like must other Atheist books that have come out in recent years. Harris devotes a portion to each major religion, a little different than some books, perhaps, in that he addresses the Eastern religions as well. Of course, his focus is on the two major troublemakers of recent year, Christianity and Islam. The chapter on Islam includes four pages of Quranic quotes that are racist, anti-tolerance, anti-apostate, xenophobic, etc. That alone makes this book a valuable addition to a debater’s bookshelf!

The second portion deals with spirituality, and a way to integrate spirituality with Atheism. Harris is a proponent of meditation. Unfortunately, many of his assumptions regarding the workings of the brain run contrary to what I’ve learned, some making rather strange leaps of logic and some being downright silly. Harris seems to lose his credulity in his search for “something more.” That being said, I can appreciate what he’s trying to do even if I don’t agree with him (or think he’s gone loony).

He also has the nasty habit of dropping bombs without any explanation. He’s presumably writing for a sceptical audience, so it seems strange that he wouldn’t devote a bit more time to explaining the concepts that would set off sceptical alarm bells. For example, he says that “there also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science” (p. 41). This particular bomb is dropped without examples or explanation, just a list of book titles in the end notes (obscure books that neither my library nor my university has ever heard of).

There were some historical inaccuracies that bugged me. For example, he refers to Isis as “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns.” Well, I’ve never seen Isis with cow horns. Her symbol was a throne with an egg on top. The cow horns belonged to Hathor. These sorts of little details really pulled me out of the book and made me wonder how much else he may have gotten wrong.

Despite some carelessness and strange choices, it’s a worthwhile read. I do appreciate that he attempts to ‘fill the gap’ after dismantling religion, and I would like to see more of this in the mainstream Atheist discourse. I simply don’t see his replacement as being any more rational than that which he seeks to replace.

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Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce

Read: 10 August, 2009

Joyce examines not so much the Quiverfull movement as she does the Christian Patriarchy movement – Quiverfull, of course, being one component of it. The Patriarchy movement centres around the belief that feminism has caused a number of social ills that can be remedied only by having women leave the workforce and return home to be submissive wives and mothers. Quiverfull is the added belief that all attempts to limit the number of children a family has is an insult to God (the most famous practitioners being the Duggar family with their eighteen – and counting – children).

Joyce’s analysis is mostly uncritical, her own feelings only rarely show through and, then, introduced explicitly as her own views. Her style is to simply narrate with few adjectives the views of her subjects and allowing them to speak for themselves.

Despite her fairness, Joyce’s writing style leaves something to be desired. Her sentences are so long and cover so many different ideas at once that I frequently found myself having to go back and read again. This interrupted the flow of my reading and, therefore, diminished the power of Joyce’s writing. The organization of the book seems to be haphazard with ideas coming at the reader from every direction. If any transitions are present, they are surely feeling very lonely.

Stylistic elements aside, this was a fabulous book filled with information on a movement that has, for the most part, remained outside the mainstream West’s awareness. I highly recommend it for all readers interested in religion and what is happening under the surface in Christian extremism.

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Saints by Ruth Sanderson

The text was awful. It was written in a very point-by-point fashion that is barely interesting to an adult with a passion for religious tradition – I can imagine how dull it would be for a child who has a smaller tolerance for dullness. Take this sentence from the biography of Saint Lawrence for example: “Valerian hoped that if the flock of Christians had no shepherds, they would hopefully scatter” (emphasis mine).

That being said, the illustrations were beautiful – significantly raising my rating of the book. It’s worth it if we intend to use it as a picture book, or if parents fill in their own stories based on the text rather than just reading it out.

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Blind Faith by Ben Elton

Read: 19 December, 2008

Throughout my reading of this book, I kept thinking of the classics of dystopian fiction such as Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. In the end, that’s exactly where this book lost its points for me. The televisions that cover every wall, the underground railroad for books, the total saturation of society with sex, food, and entertainment, etc. All of it was lifted directly from the exemplars of the genre. The only difference was that when Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury wrote their novels, their visions were prophetic in a way. Elton’s novel, on the other hand, merely took much of the world as it is and changed the names (FaceBook becomes Face Space, YouTube becomes MyTube or just Tube).

All this might have been forgiven if the characters had been better fleshed out. Instead, Trafford is merely a modern man stuck in a totally different world with little explanation for why he thinks as he does. In his conversations with others (particularly Cassius and Sandra Dee), he comes off as either pathetic or overly dramatic. This might have worked had it been clearer that many felt as he did but were, like him, too afraid to show it. It might have worked if we could see him incorporating bits of media into his speech so that we can, at least, know that the reason he makes such dramatic speeches is simply that this is how he has learned to talk. Instead, we just have a thoroughly modern character who regresses into the role of a babbling idiot when he meets like-minded people, and then suddenly takes on this obnoxious and self-important attitude when he decides he has a “mission.” It all reeked of Hollywood.

Compare this to Winston Smith who, despite his doubt, remained thoroughly a man of his time. Or compare it to John of Brave New World who at least had a good reason for being an outsider and a surrogate for the reader.

All in all, I found it to be a bit of an ego-stroke – a vehicle for ideas that are finding themselves increasingly in poor favour. All the atheist and scientific talking points were puppetted out by the various characters, which is all well and good. I would have liked a better setting for such gems, but this is what I got instead. Worth a read, but don’t expect too much.

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The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Read: 26 July, 2008

Overall, I loved this book. Dawkins is a wonderful writer and I think I would have enjoyed his style regardless of the subject matter. The only major flaw that irked me was his habit of veering off into tangents, but even this was made bare-able by not only his writing style, but also by the fact that most of his tangents were just plain interesting. Dawkins makes his case even stronger, in my opinion, by fulling admitting to and even going out of his way to point out the limits of his own personal knowledge. At several times during the book, he will say that he suspects one thing but does not know for certain, showing an inquisitive and flexible mind, both humble and confident. It’s a refreshing break from the average writer who seems all too sure of her/his omniscience.

With all that out of the way, I’d like to address a couple of issues with the book. The first is with Chapter Four or “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” I found the whole chapter to be a disappointment. Dawkins takes the question of “if there isn’t a god, how did everything fall into place so perfectly to produce us?” and tries to answer it with science. This points him in an awkward and unnecessarily defensive position because the question itself is not a legitimate one (something he never once says outright). It’s like asking “how did my parents know to have sex at just the perfect time to conceive me?” It assumes that we are an end result, a goal that the universe has been working towards – rather than the more accurate assumption that the universe is merely ambling along in one of billions (to pick an unrealistically small number) of possible ways and we just happen to be a bi-product (one of many possibilities) that happened to emerge. There is nothing special about the production of us, whether as individuals or as a species.

Another quibble I had with the book is that Dawkins repeats multiple times that natural selection gets rid of negatives and keeps positives, which is just sloppy. What about the vast majority of mutations, which are just neutral? Or mutations that have both positive and negative expressions?I understand the need for brevity and keeping things simple, but this is a major point and something that a lot of Dawkins’s opposition can’t seem to grasp.

And the final detail that I took issue with is his statement that “[monogamy] is what we expect, and it is what we set out to achieve.” Is it? Maybe he’s right, I don’t know. Maybe monogamy really is the default. But that’s not what even the quickest glance around the diversity of human societies in the world today will tell me. Many societies involve one man and several women, some even involve one woman and several men. If monogamy truly is the natural default, why isn’t this expression universal? Like I said, maybe he’s right – but because his statement was counter-intuitive, the existence of polygamous societies should have been addressed.

With all that said, this was a fabulous book and I am very glad that I’ve read it. It ought to have stayed on topic a little better, but that’s okay. There were no parts of the book that I felt weren’t worth reading and that’s more than I can say for most books.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Read: 2005

Piscine Molitor Patel (known to all as Pi Patel) is the son of a zoo owner. He’s an exceptionally bright young man and shows his maturity quite clearly when it comes to religion. He’s a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian, all at the same time. But soon, political discontent drives his family out of India and towards Canada. The zoo is sold, the bags are packed, and the whole family (including several animals on their way to American zoos) board the Tsimtsum, a Japanese cargo ship with a Taiwanese crew.

“The ship sunk,” begins Part II. From that point on, this is a story of survival against amazing odds. Not only does Pi Patel survive 227 days in the Pacific Ocean, but he does it in the company of an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The thing I love most about this book is the fact that you can read it once and interpret the story one way, but then you can read it again and see everything differently. The revelation of Part III is certainly really good food for thought. There’s the literal interpretation of seeing the boy on a life-raft with a tiger. Then there is the alternative story given at the end of the boy on a life-raft struggling with his inner beast while trying to keep his humanity. Then, of course, there’s the third possibility that the entire story is complete fiction and is just about a boy maturing and struggling with the different influences in his life. It’s easy, especially as an English major, to really read too far into books and see things that just aren’t there. But I think Yann Martel makes it quite clear that all three of these interpretations are intentional. Heck, he even gives us two of them up front!

Another thing I loved about the story was the three part system. Part I deals with introducing Pi and the society he is coming out of. I found that what I read in Part I really brought Pi to life and let me identify with him enough that I really cared about what happened to him in Part II. I had bonded with him enough that when he suffered in Part II, I suffered as well. When he started to lose touch with his humanity (like when he suddenly notices that he’s eating like a tiger), I really feared for him. Thank goodness Part I ends with the message: “This story has a happy ending.” I think it would have been very difficult and painful to read otherwise. Part II is his struggle on the raft. Part III is his interview in which he explains what happens. I found this to be a really important part. It’s also a very interesting part in its function. It serves not only to ridicule the idea that the concept of the book (a boy surviving that long in the pacific with a tiger) is preposterous, but also serves to introduce a whole new perspective and the possibility that none of it might have happened at all (I mean that within the book’s fictional world).

Several people I have spoken to have said that the transition is too abrupt. Of course, it would have to be since that’s exactly what it was for Pi Patel: abrupt. But I’ve heard many times that there’s too much character development at the beginning to wade through before getting to the meat of the story. To each her own, I suppose.

One final fantastic point I just want to bring up in relation to the two possible stories offered by Martel is the idea that the more interesting story is more important than the story that is true. So that’s what Martel leaves us with: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” Which is more important to you, a good story or the truth?

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