Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Read: 5 December, 2014

Hiro Protagonist (no, really) delivers pizzas for the Mafia, and must never, ever be late. On a night where absolutely everything seems to be going wrong, it looks very much like the pizza will be late, until he’s saved by fifteen year old Kourier, Y.T. Thus begins a partnership that sees the rise, and fall, of a linguistic virus/religion transmitted to hackers through the Metaverse.

Snow Crash is a dog pile of interesting ideas. Reading, it felt like something new was being thrown at me every couple pages. While that certainly made for an interesting read that I suspect I will still be thinking about for a long time, it also means that there wasn’t much room for character depth – or even for me to grow to care for the characters. Sure, Hiro and Y.T. are cool, but they never got to feel like people.

The sheer amount of content and detail also means lengthy info-dumps, like the multiple chapters of Hiro sitting in his Metaverse office talking to the Librarian. The Librarian is explaining the whole backstory for the plot while Hiro occasionally interjects with a question or comment, and this goes on and on and on. The ideas were interesting, but I couldn’t help but think that there absolutely must have been a better way to deliver them.

I think that the pacing and style of the book would have worked much better as a movie, but then all those info-dumps would have needed cutting.

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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Read: 3 December, 2013

Fat Charlie’s father died while singing karaoke, and that was only the start of his troubles.

I’ve been listening to people recommend Gaiman for years and finally gave Sandman a try recently. I was unimpressed. But, I did want to give him a second shot, so I picked up Anansi Boys, and I’m very glad I did!

This book is wonderful, pretty near perfect. The use of mythology is, of course, right up my alley, but that alone wouldn’t have sold it. Anansi Boys is also clever and hilarious. The narration was a joy to read, and the characters were entrancing.

I was really blown away!

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Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom

Read: 13 September, 2013

I got to meet and see Ophelia Benson speak at Eschaton2012 and I follow her blog occasionally (although her post frequency is way too high for my poor, beleaguered schedule to handle). When I do get to read her writings, I quite enjoy them, and I thought her talk at the conference was great. Thankfully, most of the speeches have been uploaded to YouTube, so you can see her speak:

So after the conference and seeing how awesome she was in person, I decided that I should bite the bullet and read one of her books. Unfortunately, my local library didn’t carry any, but fortunately I have friends! After mentioning on Facebook how upset I was by the gap in the library’s collection, a friend very kindly brought over Does God Hate Women? Of course, I immediately set about putting it down under a pile of stuff and forgetting about it. (Friends, thankfully, don’t generally charge fines.)

I’ve been losing so much desk real estate to notes and scribbles and books and flyers and all sorts of other bits and bobs that I decided to tidy my desk today. In the process, I rediscovered the book and then remembered that I am actually going to see the loaner tomorrow! This prompted a mad rush to read the entire book so that I could return it and, hopefully, save my relationship with that friend.

It’s a shame, though, because the book is absolutely packed. It’s very short and easily read in a day, but that kind of pace hardly does it justice.

The authors provide a number of examples where religious laws or efforts to protect religions have harmed people – particularly women. Woven throughout these examples are the authors’ musings about human rights, multiculturalism, Female Genital Mutilation, and more.

While I didn’t feel that the book was particularly organized, it was powerful. And frightening. And rather depressing.

And, while surely offensive to most religious people who might attempt to give it a read (the authors certainly don’t try to soften any punches), I feel – at least after such a quick read – that they adequately defended all of their assertions.

The books does focus a good deal of its efforts on Islam, though there is also some discussion of Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, the FLDS church, and the Roman Catholic Church. I realize the point of this – that the authors were going after the most horrific examples of religiously-motivated attacks on women (which seem to be concentrated, at least at present, in Muslim-dominated areas of the world), but I think that some treatment of the more mundane – and, therefore, familiar – ways in which religion is used to defend gender inequality would have been interesting. As it was, the authors clearly felt that they needed to spend an entire chapter explaining that criticism of Islam (or forms of it) is not the same thing as islamophobia or racism.

I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in gender issues, although religious readers should prepare themselves emotionally and go in with an open mind. I would also recommend this more generally to anyone interested in the interplay and overlap between religion, culture, and laws. However, I would recommend buying – rather than borrowing – this book because it is a book that requires highlighting. It is full of fantastic quotable passages and factoids that need remembering, and I definitely felt at a disadvantage in not being able to to mark it up.

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The Friendly Guide to Mythology by Nancy Hathaway

Read: 11 June, 2013

After I read and loved The Friendly Guide to the Universe, I found out that Hathaway had another book out – this time about mythology. Her discussions of mythology in the Universe (how some stars and constellations got their names, etc) was interesting, so I had high hopes.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

As in the Universe, Hathaway broadens her discussion. When talking about astronomy, it meant also talking about astronomical concepts in pop culture and mythology. In talking about mythology, in means presenting not only the myths themselves, but the story of their discovery (for example, the section about Marduk contains a timeline of the composition and discovery of the Enuma Elish text), and some of the criticisms and disagreements in the study of myths.

I mentioned in my review of the Universe that there were some additions that were presented a little too uncritically. In this book, the flaw is the omission of the Abrahamic myths. Though she discusses creation, flood myths, tricksters, and other mythic themes that have parallels in the Abrahamic religions, there is simply no mention of them. In fact, there is only the briefest of notes on Sheol and Hell in the discussion of the afterlife, and a note about the conceptualizations of Pan becoming associated with Satan. It’s a shame, because she’s missing a lot of opportunity to contextualize the myths she’s discussing within a frame that her audience is likely to be familiar with.

But, as with the Universe, her set up is such that her book can easily be used to launch a discussion about the missing elements, so the omission isn’t tragic. But it brings the book short of Pure Awesome.

The writing style is very accessible and could be used for any age group (adults included). It would also make for a fantastic textbook for a class on mythology for students aged 8+, since it introduces not only the myths themselves, but issues in the study of myth.

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The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Read: 22 October, 2010

The basic premise of The Moral Landscape is that the well-being of sentient creatures is the proper measuring stick to determine morality. He convincingly argues that defining morality simply as that which God likes or dislikes is absurd, in the same way as defining it based on the wishes of a king would be absurd. But on the other side of the debate, the idea that morality is a natural offshoot from our evolution as social animals, merely describes an ‘is’ and does not allow us to argue for or against the ‘shoulds’ we may encounter in our navigation of ethics. The well-being of creatures sufficiently aware to care about well-being is the only measure that makes any sense.

In the book, Harris anticipates and responds to a number of criticisms. The greatest of these is the question of whether well-being is even worth valuing in the first place – what makes this, above all others, the concept that ought to be at the centre of this debate? To answer this, Harris compares well-being to health. Why should we value health? None of us would think twice about calling someone insane who argues that health ought to be defined as weight as much as possible, so why do claim that there is no way to say whether a patriarchal system in which half the population is kept under constant bondage is any worse than a society in which genders are viewed as equal?

He also brings up the idea of neuroscience – that we will one day be able to scan people’s brains to determine what truly contributes to well-being, and what people have merely been acculturated into thinking it does.

I’ve been surprised by how poor the book’s reception has been among the atheist community. It seems that many have fallen into the trap Harris anticipated, arguing that there is no reason to value well-being above any other criteria. But for my own part, I’m convinced. Harris challenges his readers to think of any criteria that would be equally valuable in resolving ethical issues, and I’ve been unable to think of any. It seems as obvious to me that well-being is the only foundation that makes any sense at all. Once we accept this premise, it seems obvious to me that ethical questions could potentially be resolved with right or wrong answers.

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Black Man by Richard Morgan

Read: 5 June, 2010

Black Man (or Thirteen, as it’s known in the US) envisions a future in which genetically modified super-soldiers have come and gone. Carl Marsalis is a ‘Variant Thirteen’ whose escaped persecution by becoming persecutor, his job is to use his enhanced abilities to hunt down others like himself.

It was an interesting book with a rather frightening image of the future. For one thing, the US has been split apart by ideology, with a vast portion fenced off and backwards, an anti-technology society referred to as ‘Jesusland.’ The hints dropped throughout the book about how this future came about are frighteningly plausible.

Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that the book contains quite a bit of graphic violence. It did verge on the gratuitous at times, but it fights with the context. Thirteens are hated and excluded from society precisely because of their psychopathic violent tendencies.

I’ve read that the name was changed in the US to avoid the more racially-charged title. It’s a shame, because the fact that Carl Marsalis is black plays a fairly important role in the story. The whole idea of the ‘Variant Thirteen,’ people who are seen as not quite people, echoes back to the rhetoric we’ve so often heard in the context of race. To censor the title, eliminating the big neon sign pointing at the analogy of the book, doesn’t avoid racism. Rather, it just hides it – and it’s questionable just how much use not talking about a problem can have in fixing it.

All in all, a solid future-fiction with a good plot and an excellent premise.

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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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Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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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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Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Read: 18, May, 2011

In 1984, Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, were murdered in their home in American Fork, Utah. Eighteen years later, Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. In both cases, the crimes were committed by Mormon fundamentalists who believed in the doctrine of Celestial (plural) Marriage.

In Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Krakauer investigates these two crimes, splicing in the Mormon story and the events that lead to the schism between the Fundamentalist church with the more mainstream LDS church. He also takes a hard look at some of the Mormon scriptures that the Lafferty brothers and Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, used to justify their actions.

In particular, Krakauer condemns the idea of continuing revelation, saying that it makes it possible for individuals to justify any action as revealed commandment from God. With this idea firmly entrenched in Mormonism, it is almost impossible for the more mainstream leaders to rein in the crazies. In the background, throughout all the narratives, patriarchal polygamy looms.

The book is very strong in its narrative, but doesn’t set out to make a point or place blame. As a result, Under the Banner of Heaven couldn’t legitimately be called an anti-Mormon book. It also meant that there wasn’t a good sense of scale – How many women are currently in polygamous relationships? How many children are being raised in these families and, potentially, being forced into marriages themselves? How often are crimes relating to Mormon polygamy committed?

Overall, I found it to be a very good read. Krakauer is a great storyteller and the stories themselves are interesting (albeit difficult to stomach). And, while Under the Banner of Heaven does give a fairly clear picture of the specific individuals and events covered, it’s hard to extrapolate that into any kind of knowledge about Mormonism or patriarchal polygamy.

Most quotable line: “If you want to know the truth, I think people within the religion, people who live here in Colorado City, they’re probably happier on the whole than people on the outside. But some things in life are more important than being happy – like being free to think for yourself.”

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