Book review: The Ironic Christian’s Companion by Patrick Henry

 

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In the unlikely event of a gun being put to my head in order to discover my true and final opinion on Patrick Henry’s The Ironic Christian’s Companion, I still wouldn’t be able to offer an answer without some sort of qualifier. Did I like the book? I did; Henry is clever and I appreciated many of his insights; one or two of them made me sit back and go, “Huh” in an impressed way. Is it a good book? Sure, but I don’t think it will be to everyone’s tastes. Would I recommend this book? Maybe, depending on who was asking for the recommendation. Do I like Patrick Henry? Eh, I’m not sure; there’s more than a little self-importance there, tempered with (what I’m hoping is) genuine reform. You see? It’s complicated.

I picked up the book on sale; that and the title was the deciding factor for the purchase. I’m vain enough to think of myself as an “ironic” Christian (someone who is Christian but not as Christian as the obviously stupid people who are also Christian, in essence). The book is a series of ten essays, all loosely connected to the theme of being a Christian who has doubts and reservations about their religion, if not always their faith.

Henry’s writing is an interesting mix of memoir, theology and academia, with keen insights and the patience to let you discover them for yourself.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the marks of God’s grace in the world
Author: Patrick Henry
Publisher: Riverhead Books (1999)
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.41/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s eminently quotable.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on navel gazing at times.
Trigger warnings: Mentions of suicide (Henry’s father killed himself).
You’ll like this if… You, like me, are stupid enough to think your faith is “ironic”.

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Book review: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

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I’m happy to report that after years of living as a “late returns” fugitive, I’ve been granted amnesty (literally: South African libraries have a national, annual “book amnesty” week at the end of every March) and I’m now able to partake of the hushed, thoughtful aisles of my local library again. Gilbert’s Big Magic is one of the first books I picked up post-exile.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have picked a book I feel more ambivalent about if I’d tried, however.

Big Magic is one author’s attempt to quantify the creative process. Gilbert writes about the lessons she’s learned during her many years of writing and publishing. The book feels like chatting with a particularly warm, slightly ditzy and self-centred pal, coffee in hand and an afternoon to while away. It has that same strange paradox of painful self-awareness and painful self-ignorance that characterised the only other book I’ve ever read of hers, Eat Pray Love.

On one hand, Gilbert’s insight into the creative mind feels very genuine. She’s someone who has worked at her craft and has clearly spent a lot of time trying to understand why she (and creative people in general) do things the way they do. It’s from this place that she tries to give guidance. And she’s roguishly charming about it, of course.

On the other hand, I spent the majority of my time reading Big Magic thinking that she isn’t nearly as aware of her privilege as she believes she is. Her advice often veers from innocent into the downright naive. It’s condescending to hear someone who has achieved so much commercial success warn others against its improbability, for instance. She’s someone who’s encountered one or two locked doors and equates her experience with someone who faces a hallway of them.

Overall, one of those “take what resonates and leave the rest” books.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2015)
Rating: 2.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.9/5)
The best feature of the book: It recounts some amusing anecdotes and has a few charming turns of phrase.
The worst feature of the book: Not everyone is going to be taken with Gilbert’s spiritualisation (even deification?) of creativity and inspiration.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of other than white middle-classness.
You’ll like this if… If you’re a fan of her work I’m sure you’ll love this book; many ardent fans gush to that effect on Goodreads. If you dislike her you’ll inevitably dislike the book, as the acidic reviews on Goodreads can testify. There doesn’t really appear to be much of a middle ground.

Book review: Soonchild by Russell Hoban (illustrated by Alexis Deacon)

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Russell Hoban’s Soonchild was an impulse purchase I made a few years ago when a bookstore had a sale on. Deacon’s artwork intrigued me, plus the book’s spine creaked when I opened it. Unfortunately, my first and second reading of the book left me unsatisfied, and so the novel was relegated to a shelf until last Halloween when, in a fit of boredom, I decided to read it again.

My feeling was that I’d “missed” something that turned Sixteen-Face John’s story from the merely curious to the charming. I’m still not sure what element it was, but that Halloween reading changed the way I experienced Hoban’s story. Maybe a part of it was that I stopped expecting something from the fable and just enjoyed it. In that enjoyment, I found a surprising depth of meaning.

Billed as a young adult novel, but more fable-ish than anything else, Soonchild tells the story of Sixteen-Face John’s search for the world songs to coax his unborn child from her mother’s womb. The journey takes Sixteen-Face John (so called because he has sixteen faces with which to be afraid) deep into the north’s world, and into himself. Along the way he faces dangerous foes, of which fear proves to be the biggest one.

It’s hard to classify the story. It’s funny, wise, wry, sarcastic, cautionary and clever in turn. Alexis Deacon’s illustrations really bring it to life, sparse and extravagant as the story demands, helping you follow the barnacle-goose children over the ledge of fiction, fantasy, fable, phantasm and faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Soonchild
Author: Russell Hoban (who passed away in 2011), illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Publisher: Walker Books, 2012.
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.76/5)
The best feature of the book: Its surprising spiritual depth; its wry turns.
The worst feature of the book: It can be confusing.
Trigger warnings: You’ll be tempted to think of it as a children’s book – it really isn’t. It’s surprisingly gory.
You’ll like this if… You like fables and reading books like chewing good food.

Book review: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #5)

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Much like Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla feels like the wait at a train station between stops. The story reads like filler for the greater series arc; King pausing to recollect his characters and stop some gaps in a tale than in its writing spanned decades. And by this point you’re entangled enough that you indulge him the sandbox town of Calla Bryn Sturgis and its inhabitants and their secrets, because like Thunderclap darkens the Calla’s horizon, the ending of the series draws near…*

The story follows on the heels of Roland and his ka-tet’s confrontation with the wizard in the previous book. As a gunslinger of old, Roland’s aid is theoretically available to anyone who asks and is deemed worthy of assistance. The Calla, with their children being stolen every two decades or so and their husks sent back, ruined, reluctantly ask him for help, and Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake and Oy stay to render assistance in the only way they can: with their guns.

As far as filler goes, it’s not bad. Like I said, at this point you forgive King his dwelling on the town’s inhabitants and their idiosyncrasies. He covers a lot of important ground in a by-the-by sort of way, though, and fans of his will enjoy the return of a character from Salem’s Lot. But if you’re concerned mainly with finishing the series, Wolves of the Calla feels like an unnecessarily long phone call with a slightly delirious uncle: just cut to the chase already!

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Wolves of the Calla
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.17/5)
The best feature of the book: The Dark Tower series’ plot strings start to pull together more discernibly.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the self-indulgent.
Trigger warnings: Kids with disabilities. A dash of misogyny. The usual, really.
You’ll like this if… If you’re committed to the series you’ll like it, but if you had to start the series with this book you’d likely never get beyond this book.


*Or so you think. You fool.

Book review: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #4)

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I should probably start this review by admitting that after finishing Song of Susannah (The Dark Tower #6) I made the mistake of reading spoilers for The Dark Tower’s ending, and haven’t touched the novels since. I’d heard, years ago, someone describing the series ending as (spoiler alert) “they all go back to the start”. Apparently that’s a very literal summary. Pre-Song of Susannah it didn’t make sense to me, but after finishing the sixth novel in the series it really, really does. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I read the series years ago it was Wizard and Glass that proved to be my boredom/offended threshold for King’s The Dark Tower. Roland, not fully committed to his ka-tet the way they are to him, begins Wizard and Glass by telling his friends about the events that led him to seek out The Dark Tower. This involves a lengthy flashback to Roland’s adolescence, his love affair with “girl at the window” Susan Delgado and the things that happened in the small town of Hambry. Roland and his friends had been sent there to keep them safe after Roland’s fateful confrontation with Walter, but Walter and the King he serves have a long reach, and Hambry is not as far removed from danger as Stephen Deschain had hoped.

Wizard and Glass is the emotional gut-punch that, despite your best intentions, finally wins you over to Roland’s side. An ambivalent character for the first three books, erring first on the side of apathy and then becoming more human, Roland’s yarn completes his transformation from “The Gunslinger” to Roland Deschain, son of Stephen, son of Eld. King takes you deep, emotionally, if you can stand the story-world of Hambry and its archaic ways, and the arrogance and youth of adolescent Roland. Unfortunately Susan Delgado, for all King’s attempts to the contrary, stubbornly remains merely “the girl at the window”. It’s a pity because she was an interesting character.

Altogether a decent, if slow, addition to the series. Much of it reads like King was just sitting down and having fun in putting his world and its people together, but he does it well enough that it’s tolerable – at least on the second attempt.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Wizard and Glass
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scriber (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.24/5)
The best feature of the book: King’s great at telling stories, and this book is the story of Roland.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a dull interlude. The pace slackens, and it isn’t really picked up again until Song of Susannah, two books hence.
Trigger warnings: Misogyny in general, nonconsensual sexual contact, teens having at it.
You’ll like this if… If you’ve come this far you won’t need a reason to keep reading.