WFH Day 34: A Pretty Bad Case of RADD

If you had told me, “Dave, you’re going to be working from home for at least 2 months straight, and you’re not going to leave your house much during that time,” one of my first thoughts (after checking our stock of coffee and immediately settling into my comfiest pair of sweatpants) would be “I’m going to read SO MUCH!”

As it happens, that has not been the case.

It’s not like I have been binging Netflix, either. (Though I did watch The Mandolorian finally, which was *chef kiss*.) Rather, this time at home only confirmed what I already suspected:

I have a severe case of RADD–Reading Attention Deficit Disorder.

I keep jumping to new books, like hopping from rock to rock, after getting about 50 pages into several others. I was already reading 2-3 books at the same time when the stay-at-home order was given, and this was just exacerbated by being at home.

Complicating factors for RADD include:

  1. Overwhelming TBR shelves (both physical and digital);
  2. Easy access to new digital reading material (blogs, newsletters, online library catalog);
  3. Continued use of social media; and
  4. Being a parent of children under 3.

As a result, I’m about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way through several books at the same time, with a desire to start new books almost every day.

While I was able to push through and finish 3 books over the last 2 months (State of the Union, a novella by Nick Hornby; Susie, Ray Rhodes’ outstanding biography of Susannah Spurgeon; and The Final Days of Jesus, Dr. Andreas Kostenberger’s examination of Holy Week), the stack of partially-read books has grown rapidly.

So what has turned my head these days? Here’s a quick look at my “current” reads:

  • The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much, by G.K. Chesterton
  • Five Minutes in Church History, by Steven Nichols
  • We Cannot Be Silent, by Al Mohler
  • On the Incarnation, by Athanasius
  • Holiness, by J.C. Ryle
  • Church Elders, by Jeramie Rennie
  • A Dream about Lightning Bugs, by Ben Folds
  • The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon, by Steven Lawson
  • Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley

I’m not sure that’s everything, but that’s all that comes to mind at the moment.

On top of that, I just got a shipment of 4-5 books I’m eager to dive into that I purchased from T4G’s Online Store. (Note: This sale is still available today only, but it’s the last day of this sale so if you want to take advantage of deep discounts on great theology texts, jump on it right now. Not sponsored–I just hate for people to miss these deals!)

I’m convinced that RADD is a life-long affliction I’ll just have to manage better in the future. 

Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated, as I struggle through this difficult period.

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Your Turn: What books are you reading right now? And if you’re a fellow RADD sufferer, let us know so we can encourage each other to try to *finish* a book this weekend!

Friday Five: The First 5 Books I’ve Finished So Far in 2020!

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Happy Friday, faithful reader! Wanted to take a minute and share what I’ve been reading so far this year. Maybe you’ll find something new to add to your hold list or Amazon cart!

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The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson

This book may be an early candidate for top-five reads of the year, because I think it’s one of my favorite books of the last few years. Ferguson uses an event from church history called the Marrow Controversy in the 18th century as the springboard for a discussion of the key theological ideas involved: the relationship between grace and works, assurance of salvation, and the believer’s union with Christ. Every time I sat down to read a bit more of this book, I came away encouraged. Ferguson’s insightful commentary on the facets of this semi-obscure theological debate helped me to sharpen how I think and speak about the love of God in Christ Jesus. I would strongly, strongly encourage you to pick this one up.

A Great and Glorious Game, by A. Bartlett Giamatti

This slim volume of baseball essays by Bart Giamatti, former Harvard president and commissioner of Major League Baseball until his untimely death, is a quick and delightful read. Giamatti’s command of imagery and metaphor was masterful. His essays, especially the most famous entry “The Green Fields of the Mind,” are like rich dark chocolate for the lover of words–roll it around on your tongue a bit, read a few lines out loud, savor the sound of them. Even if you don’t like baseball, you will appreciate the deft and delicate intricacies of Giamatti’s writing.

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

On an unnamed island ruled by an oppressive regime, random things are suddenly outlawed and immediately begin to disappear and be forgotten. So begins the plot of Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, and when I first heard the concept, I immediately put the book on my library hold list. In the end, I found the book to be enjoyable but not as moving as I had expected. I’m not sure if that’s due to occasional stilted writing (perhaps an issue of translation from the original Japanese?) or because it felt very self-consciously *literary,* and I find myself enjoying high-brow literary fiction less and less lately. In any case, the concept is intriguing, and the climax of the book is quite unexpected as it dips its toe into urban fantasy. If you’re interested, it’s worth your time.

The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down, by Al Mohler

If you are a Christian of almost any tradition, you were likely taught the “Lord’s Prayer” (a/k/a the “Model Prayer”) at some point in your theological training. Many of us who grew up in the church have recited it from early childhood. This level of familiarity might often cause us to gloss over this short but powerful prayer without considering its ramifications. In this fine little book, Dr. Mohler works through each phrase of the prayer and spells out some of its world-shaking implications. The writing is very accessible and approachable, and while some of the content may seem like review, it’s all worth reviewing. The things we’ve known the longest are often the things we need to be reminded of most often.

Budgeting for a Healthy Church, by Jamie Dunlop

Truth be told, this isn’t the type of book I’d have picked up in years past. It’s only on my shelf because it was a giveaway book at last year’s Southern Baptist Convention, and you know how much I love free books. Obviously, being a lay elder at my church makes a book on church budgets a bit more meaningful to me than it would otherwise; much more so that I providentially have this book on my radar as our church is potentially merging with another local church, so the discussion of church budgets is a pertinent one for us. That said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed and benefitted from this short and practical volume. Even if you are “just” a church member in the pews, I think you’ll also benefit from Dunlop’s thoughtful discussion of the “why” of church budgets and his framing of how our church budget shows what our local church values. I definitely recommend this one, especially for anyone involved with church finances or who is interested in thinking through the topic.

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There you go, folks. My first five completed books of the year!

What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments below!

The4thDave’s 2019 Reading List!

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It’s a yearly tradition, so I can’t resist. Here’s a quick list of the books I finished* in 2019:

[*Since I always have several books in-progress, I count finishes and not complete reads in my yearly lists.]

January
>>Somewhere The Band is Playing – Ray Bradbury (novella)
>>The Tech-wise Family – Andy Crouch
>>Them – Ben Sasse
>>All Things for Good – Thomas Watson
>>Family Shepherd — Voddie Baucham

February
>>R.U.R. – the brothers Cajek (play)
>>Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>The Gospel and Personal Evangelism – Mark Dever
>>Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
>>Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View – Wingard, Eliff, Chrisman, Burchett
>>Understanding the Lord’s Supper – Bobby Jamieson

March
>>Evangelism – Mack Stiles
>>Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve
>>Forever and a Day – Anthony Horiwitz

April
>>The Dichotomy of Leadership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>Civil War: Spiderman – various (graphic novel)
>>The Spy who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre
>>Family-Focused Faith – Voddie Baucham

May
>>Competing Spectacles – Tony Reinke
>>A Murder of Quality – John LeCarre
>>The Looking-Glass War – John LeCarre
>>What is a Healthy Church Member? – Thabiti Anyabwile
>>Side by Side – Ed Welch

June
>>Enjoying God — RC Sproul
>>Deep Work — Cal Newport
>>Bad Blood – John Carryrou

July
>> Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John LeCarre
>> Fellowship with God – Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

August
>>The Go-Getter – Peter Kyne
>>Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual – Jocko Willink

September
>> The Apostles Creed – Al Mohler

October
>>Prayer – John Onwuchekwa
>>The Church – Mark Dever

November
>>Essential Readings on Evangelism – SBTS
>>The Need – Hannah Phillips

Did Not Finish (DNF)
August – Watchmen: The Annotated Edition – Moore/Gibbons (While the annotations were fascinating, this critically-acclaimed graphic novel was just too dark and depressing for me to enjoy, so I bailed about a quarter of the way through.)

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Total Read: 35, including a novella, a play, and a graphic novel

The Split: 11 fiction, 24 non-fiction (16 specifically theological books)

Most Read: John LeCarre and Jocko Willink, each with 3; Mark Dever, with 2

Top Five Recommendations from My 2019 Reading:

  • Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — This memoir/motivational book by former Navy SEALs sounds a little more Rex-kwan-do than it really is. Willink and Babin use real-world military experience as metaphors for best-practices of personal responsibility and individual discipline. While the book is very intentionally geared toward the business world (both men are now corporate consultants in their civilian careers), the ideas and insights are definitely applicable. Willink’s follow-ups are also worth a look, if you appreciate his style of writing, but this one is the must-read of his work.
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre — LeCarre is rightly considered one of the best spy-genre writers of the 20th century, and this story is one of his best, full of intrigue, betrayal, love, deception, and a moving consideration of the toll that even cold wars can take on the conscience. It’s not as flashy as one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, but it’s certainly more thoughtful and substantial. The ending of Spy will stick with you long after you turn the last page. If you haven’t dug into this genre of fiction, this one is a great entrypoint.
  • Digital Minimalism, by Cal NewportI’ve written about his one pretty extensively already, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say, this one is a book that I’m glad I read and took summary notes on, because I want to keep coming back to Newport’s idea of intentional, limited digital technology use as a way to limit the negative effects of social media and online life.
  • Bad Blood, by John Carryrou — I don’t often read current-year exposes or true-crime non-fiction, but I first heard about the fascinating freefall of Theranos on a podcast early this year, and the story intrigued me enough to want to dive further in. Carryrou is a reporter who first broke the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, one of the biggest scams in American medicine and technology in the last few years. He details the story of this brilliant young woman whose charisma and drive to succeed helped her to perpetuate a multi-million-dollar medical research scheme that eventually exploded in her face. Some of the events are so outlandish as to defy belief in even a fictional account. I really enjoyed this one. You will, too.
  • Competing Spectacles, by Tony ReinkeI’ve written about this one as well, so I’ll just reiterate that this book is an important one for our visual and digital age, because it not only addresses the artifice of digital spectacles, but it focuses on how it affects our hearts and souls as people made in the image of God. This theological aspect is something missing from many other analyses of the affect of screen culture on human life.

And as it happens, Competing Spectacles is the free audiobook for the month of January over at ChristianAudio.com, so if you are interested in checking it out, you should head over and sign up to get your free download. (No sponsorship/affiliate link there–I just found out about this today and wanted to share!)

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Your Turn!

What was the best book you read in 2019? Let us know in the comments!

 

52 Stories #25-26: Two Stories I Liked More than I Honestly Expected To.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Welcome back to #52Stories, in which I examine 52 short stories to discover what makes them resonate with readers. Today, I’ll be covering 2 stories that I put off reading for a long time–as in, I had the library books physically on my shelf for almost 2 months before finally reading them. As it turned out, I enjoyed both and look forward to discussing them with you!

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#25: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel (1985)

(recommended by John Reid on the Geek Out Loud Facebook page)

The Pitch

A woman visits her best friend at the end of a fatal illness.

The Payoff

It took me a couple of tries to get through this one, to be honest. The first time, I don’t think I was in the right headspace to read this story, which addresses a serious subject much the way its protagonist tries to–with humor, distraction, and avoidance. Once I was able to make myself sit down and push through, I came away unexpectedly moved and a bit heavy-hearted. While it’s not a story I would recommend easily, it was intriguing and instructive.

The Takeaways

Spoilers from here onward, gang:

  • In this story, the protagonist (whose name is never mentioned?) is the “best friend” of a woman dying of a fatal illness (presumably cancer) in a California hospital. It  seems the women have drifted apart, especially in the early stages of the dying woman’s illness, but the protagonist has finally arrived to bear witness to the final stages of her friend’s life. The interactions between these women provide insight into their relationship–while there was familiarity and even love, it seems clear that they didn’t get into deep waters together. As such, facing the spectre of death, they deal with it by avoiding it–exchanging trivia, watching sitcoms, being generally flippant about the impending end. I think, in a sense, that’s how a lot of people face death–by ignoring it or cracking jokes as long as possible.
  • There is mention of the stages of grief, and the fact that there is no “resurrection” stage. This weighed heavy on me, because it belies a worldview that holds no hope past the grave. I don’t know anything about the author’s own beliefs, but for her characters, there is only the inevitability of the end, and their best efforts to ignore it are simply whistling past the graveyard.
  • The story itself is written in a series of vignettes and brief exchanges, snapshots over the course of a few days, glimpses of the thoughts and feelings of these two characters. There’s something to be said about this approach, especially when you’re telling a story that takes place over several similar days. This is a way to hit the “highlights” and keep things moving through the narrative, which I found to be an effective approach.
  • The protagonist leaves at one point, deciding she really can’t be around for the end, much to the anger and hurt of the dying woman. Later, the protagonist says that she might tell the story differently in the future, essentially “rewriting” her narrative to say she stayed faithfully, and no one would know the difference. I liked this insight into the character and her desire to rewrite her regrets.
  • Throughout the story, there’s a running anecdote about a monkey that learned sign-language.  The final few paragraphs concludes this running story with a gut-punch of an ending. Hempel sets this up nicely as a way to indirectly reflect the grief that her character dare not express even to herself. While this approach can be done ham-handedly, there’s a lightness of touch that Hempel employs here, which lends it much more of an impact.

In the final tally, I found this to be a well-written story that frustrated and saddened me in the ways the author intends–and thus was very effective.

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#26: “The Branch Way of Doing” by Wendell Berry

(Berry was recommended by @TeeCeePal on Twitter, but I couldn’t find the exact story collection she named. I hope this will do.)

The Pitch

The son of a rambler becomes the patriarch of a very particular kind of family.

The Payoff

I’d only read a little bit of Berry’s poetry before reading this story, but my, his writing sings. I can see why so many people rave about his work. This story isn’t so much driven by plot as it is a peek into a family history that feels warm and inviting and familiar. Frankly, I wish I could hear more about the lives of these characters, which is the best thing you could ask from a short story, right?

The Takeaways

While the story isn’t humorous as such, there’s a bit of the folklorist-historian in its telling, recalling Garrison Keillor or Will Rogers. You get a clear and firm sense of middle America and its rich history and deep roots. Obviously, this is woven into the the very fiber of the tale; it’s part of a collection of poetry called Roots to the Earth that celebrates the American farmer and farming culture. What I’m getting at is that the story is rich and full, like strong coffee and dark soil, and just as inviting.

The title refers to the culture that Danny Branch establishes in his family, a culture that is endemic of mid-20th-century America: the individualism, frugality, neighborliness, and resourcefulness of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. The Branch’s represent a particular mindset that rejects the flashy and expensive for what is trusted, true, and traditional. In an age like ours that is screen-obsessed and noise-driven, this glimpse of a simpler time and place feels refreshing, if not a bit inspiring.

The only critique (and you really can’t call it that) I have of the story is that it seems to be two or three stories in one. The first section focuses on Danny Branch’s father, Burley Coulter, and his relationship with Danny and the other people in the community. The story then transitions to Danny as an adult and how he and his wife built their family culture and raised their children. The final section of the story (about Danny’s son and his “new” car) then feels a bit tacked on–as if it weren’t so much an illustration of the Branch way of doing as it is a somewhat-related anecdote. While all 3 parts are arguably justified and obviously interesting, I wonder if this instead could have been the seeds of a collection of stories about this family. (I, for one, would welcome such a revision.)

That’s all I want to say, so as to avoid giving much else away. I’m not sure why I was hesitant to read this one, but I’m glad I eventually did. Berry is a wordsmith with a well-deserved reputation, and “The Branch Way of Doing” is a sterling example of that.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

A #52Stories Update.

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Happy Friday, friends!

So you may have noticed that my initial plan of reading and reviewing a short story every week hasn’t quite panned out. Point of fact, this is the end of Week 32 of calendar year 2019, and I’m only 16 stories in!

Well, your faithful-if-inconsistent correspondent is going to put himself on the spot by declaring next week “#52Stories Sprint Week“!

Starting Monday, expect to see a flurry of posts reviewing and discussing short stories from my #52Stories list, including such notables as Asimov, Vonnegut, Tolkien, Bradbury, Jackson, Hemingway, and more!

I don’t think I’ll be able to get caught all the way up to Story #33 in my list by the end of next week, but I’m gonna make a good run at it.

If this project isn’t really your bag, that’s fine–just bear with me while I catch up over the next few weeks, and then we can settle into our normal (inconsistent) blogging on other subjects after that. Maybe sign up for email updates, so you can just check in when a post interests you? That link is on the right or below, depending on your browser configuration.

That’s it for now. See you next week, friends, and happy reading!

 

Why I Like Being a Baker Books Blogger

I have to confess: I have an addiction. I…I accumulate books way faster than I read them.

There, I said it.

Kidding aside, this…this can sometimes be a problem, especially when my to-be-read “shelf” becomes an entire bookcase. I receive books as gifts, I find cheap ebooks for my Kindle, and the library–my goodness, the library!

But one of the best ways I have found to get access to books, especially books about theology and Christian life, is by becoming an online book reviewer. If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, you know I will post book reviews from time to time that include the disclaimer that I was given a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest response.

Being an online book reviewer is the perfect way to get access to new books without breaking the bank (or sitting in the library “hold” queue for months!).

I’ve been a review blogger on and off for the last 5-6 years. I’ve written reviews for titles from Crossway, Zondervan, Tyndale, P&R Books, and even a few non-religious publishers (via Netgalley). However, my favorite publisher to review books for is Baker Books.

[Disclosure: Why am I writing about this now? Because this post is partially an entry into a contest put on by Baker for–you guessed it–free books. So I want to be upfront with you about that, reader. That said, every word of this post is true, and I stand by it even if this weren’t part of a contest entry. Okay, are we all clear on that? Cool. Thanks.]

Here are 3 reasons I enjoy being an official “Baker Books Blogger”:

  1. They publish books I actually want to read. Some Christian publishers send out their list of books for review, and as I glance over it, I find myself making a “disgusted Clint Eastwood” face. But Baker Books are often right in my wheelhouse, touching on issues that I find intriguing or areas I know I’d like to grow in understanding. Sometimes, if I’m in a busy season, I’ll just delete other reviewer emails unread, but I always open emails from Baker.
  2. They send actual physical books! Most online book review programs will send you a PDF or maybe an epub file that you have to figure out how to upload. There will be conversion and formatting errors, making the draft difficult to read. They often don’t integrate easily into the Kindle bookshelf. If you’re excited about the book, you just deal with it, of course, but most of the time, it’s a bit irritating. By contrast, when you review for Baker, you can request physical books. There are real, honest-to-goodness, paper-and-ink books on my shelf that I’ve received from and reviewed for Baker. The willingness to pay extra to print and ship books to reviewers puts Baker Books in a different class altogether.
  3. They are more relaxed about timelines. Okay, admitting this may not make the Baker folks happy, but: I’m sometimes pretty late on these reviews. With other publishers and platforms, that is a huge no-no. You can get locked out of the platform, or lose the ability to request any more review books. With Baker, it’s more relaxed, which I really appreciate, since there are times when you request a book and then run into a really busy patch at work or at home. Truth be told, I currently owe Baker a handful of reviews from books I’ve received but haven’t read yet. (Those are coming, y’all, trust me.) What I’m saying is, being a Baker Books Blogger doesn’t feel like a job or a chore. It’s sometime I enjoy doing, when I have the opportunity to do so. I appreciate that.

If you are interested in reviewing books on your website, Amazon reviews, or other social media outlets, I think you should check out the Baker Books Blogger program.

I’ve enjoyed being part of it, and hope to continue doing so for as long as they’ll have me. (As long as I catch up on my back-log of reviews, I guess!)

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Have you ever been part of an online book review program? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

52 Stories #14-15: Two Stories about the Problem with Utopia.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Whew! I’m a bit behind, aren’t I? Well, today we will be considering two stories about the underbelly of Utopia–“how the sausage is made” when it comes to “perfect” societies.

The first story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” was recommended to me more than 15 years ago by my friend Ben Doudt, and the second, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” was a surprising discovery of mine as I hunted for new short reads.

Obligatory spoiler warning: If you haven’t read either of these stories, skip over the “Takeaways” sections to avoid plot details.

Okay, no more chatter–let’s go!

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#14: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, and then reveals why anyone would think of leaving.

The Payoff

This isn’t a story so much as a fable or vignette (much like Bradbury’s “August 2026”). There isn’t a plot in the story proper; it’s all description and one-sided dialogue, as the narrator escorts the reader through the scene, providing commentary and clarification. In the end, when the final twist is revealed, the reader is left to question whether they would want to live in Omelas themselves–and whether they currently do.

The Takeaways

I first read this story about 15 years ago and then again this spring, and to be honest, then as now it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. The descriptions are beautiful, vivid and full of color. The reader can “see” the scene quite clearly. But it’s little more than a moving painting. The narrator is openly non-committal on details of their societal advancement, which is smart if you’re trying to make a story timeless; however, it also becomes more abstract, like a parable. It almost feels as if she’s making it all up on the fly, more than describing something with a history and weight to it.

LeGuin paints the picture of a humanist utopia, without king or creed, where the sun is always shining and everything is perfect–but that’s the problem. It’s too perfect. (My mind went immediately to the plot of “The Matrix”–we naturally reject a dream world that is too perfect.) So she introduces the child–a “feeble-minded” child, locked away–“born defective…or become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” A child whose pleas are ignored. “They all know it’s there, all the people of Omelas.” All the perfection of their utopia relies on keeping the broken child suffering. “Those are the terms.”

Here, LeGuin pulls her final trick. She presents “the terms” and leaves the reader to grapple with the question: can such a society be considered good, just, or perfect? Can the suffering of a single child be tolerated in exchange for a utopia in which everyone else thrives?

But here’s my problem with the climax of the story: these “terms” are utterly arbitrary. LeGuin never seems to clarify why these are the terms: is it that all children born with disabilities are “put away”? She only mentions the one child–she specifically describes him/her as “the” child, one single child. It’s the knowledge of this one child that drives some citizens to abandon this utopia in pursuit of something else, something that provides more peace of mind, perhaps.

I don’t know. This story is hailed as a classic, but it just doesn’t land for me. An interesting concept, but if it’s trying to be a morality tale, the premise is stretched to a breaking point.

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#15: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” by N.K. Jemison

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, along with the hard choices required to protect it.

The Pay-off

I decided to read this story as soon as I found out it was written as a kind of response to LeGuin’s, but I have to admit I was not quite prepared for what awaited me. Jemison’s story is a counterpoint, a challenge, a provocation. While it could be read as a stand-alone story, I think it’s best taken in concert with LeGuin’s original. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a well-written tale that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It was unclear as I read it if it was meant to be satire or straight-forward, cautionary or aspirational. And there’s the rub.

The Takeaways

There is a LOT to unpack here.

“It’s the Day of the Good Birds in Um-helat!” NKJ opens with this line and unspools a beautiful description of this African jewel of a city. The name of the city is an obvious wink at Omelas, but NKJ exceeds LeGuin in terms of vivid descriptions. My imagination was transported. For a little while.

The author emulates the narrative voice of ULG’s story, but takes it to the next level. There is also a great deal of fourth-wall breaking, making the narrator another character in the story. However, rather than the narrator being a guide for the reader, the narrator quickly becomes an antagonist to the reader. There is frustration in the narration, anger, resentment. When describing the disparity of pale-skinned executives and dark-skinned workers and the policies implemented to address that, the narrator says this is not to promote diversity, “a grudging pittance of respect.” The narrator disdains such passive change. The narrator describes “the treason of free speech” by saying “We hesitate to admit some people are [expletive] evil and need to be stopped.” (Yet, the narrator never clarify who defines what is evil.) Later: “This is Um-helat after all, and not that barbaric America. This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” Yowsa.

At this point, the narrator turns her attention to the reader, declaring any feelings of recoil or provocation as evidence that the reader actually approves of the evil of Omelas, or even our own world. The narrator assumes the reader is responding, “How dare you…”

And this is where I actually got annoyed–not at the society being described (as the narrator suggests), not at all–rather, what irritated me was the unbearable condescension and accusations of the narrator.

According to the narrator, our world is a “benighted hellscape” compared with the bright and shining Um-helat. And just how is the utopia of Um-helat preserved? Essentially, there are “caretakers” who look for people consuming or spreading hateful or wrong ideas, and then the caretakers murder them. Yep, that’s it. “They will bury him in a beautiful garden…[that] holds all the Um-helatians who broke the law. Just because they died as a deterrence doesn’t mean they can’t be honored for the sacrifice.” So, a mass grave of social dissidents executed by the agents of the state? Cool.

The narrator justifies this behavior as being a necessary “blood sacrifice to keep true evil at bay.” The story ends with the narrator calling the reader to join the dream and build Um-Helat in our world, even if that means war and the “purging scourge.” And that’s it.

There’s part of me that really, really hopes this is just masterful satire of a totalitarian progressivism…but I doubt it is. While some reviewers and readers online rightly call this a cautionary tale, others defend it, saying that a just society must be fought for by any means necessary. Yeesh.

My 3 biggest takeaways from this story (and to a lesser degree from “Omelas”) are as follows:

  • The problem with Utopian visions is that they are built on a faulty understanding of human nature. To the humanist/materialist mind, man is perfectable with the right social settings and the right information. This is a flawed premise. Mankind is by nature corrupt, selfish, sinful. We need new hearts, not new societies.
  • Utopia requires conformity at all costs. No outside voices are tolerated, no dissenting views are allowed. Thought and speech must be policed and controlled in the name of freedom, tolerance, inclusiveness, and justice. Utopia is a prison without bars and locks, but a prison nevertheless.
  • A very astute observation from my beloved, as I was discussing both stories with her: In order for man to create his perfect humanist society, someone always has to die for “sin.” This statement gobsmacked me. See the wicked parodies of the Passion in the death of the innocent in Omelas, the slaying of the subversive in Um-helat. See in our own “hellscape” as the Molech of Freedom and Autonomy fed day and night by the broken bodies of the unborn. Whenever mankind seeks to build a perfect world, they always lay their bricks upon the bones of those who stand against them or get in their way.

The evidence of good writing is sometimes that it evokes strong responses, either positive or negative. If that’s the measure, then N.K. Jemison is a talented writer.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #13: “Catch That Rabbit” by Isaac Asimov

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For my second selection today, let’s take a look at story from Asimov’s classic 1950 short-story collection I, Robot, at the recommendation of Dave Hunt over at the “GOLiverse” Facebook page.

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The Pitch

On a distant asteroid, two employees of “US Robots” try to diagnose a peculiar glitch in their mining ‘droids that results in sudden work stoppages and impromptu dancing/marching.

The Payoff

“Catch That Rabbit” was pretty good, if a bit thin. The fact that it’s part of a collection of connected short stories makes me wonder if reading it in context would add some missing heft. (Then again, maybe not.) As it stands, this one was still a good read. The resolution of the “mystery” was funny, and I enjoyed the interactions of the main characters more than the plot itself.

The Takeaways

The best thing about this story really was the dialogue. The patter between Mike and Greg reminded me of the classic comedies of the 30’s and 40’s–that quick-firing, slang-filled dialogue that established immediately how familiar and comfortable these two were with each other. You get a bit of an “Odd Couple” vibe from these two, and it was fun to see them work out the problem they faced. In other words, the dialogue felt natural, not staged for exposition. It’s a good reminder that your characters are “real people,” not just authorial mouthpieces.

There was a nice level of humor in a story set-up that could have easily turned into a “menacing robot attacks” tale. From the sarcastic comments about the company’s tolerance of mistakes to the fact that the head robot “Dave” (DV-5) has enough personality to be a third character, the overall feel is playful. Even when the engineers get themselves trapped in a cave-in, I was never concerned that they wouldn’t get out okay (though that would have been the perfect point for the plot to turn). The tone was consistent throughout, which I appreciated.

Asimov also manages to tie this piece back into the overall story collection, not only by re-using these characters (who appeared in the previous story in the book, if I recall correctly) but also by maintaining the Three Laws of Robotics as a prominent discussion point. It didn’t feel forced, either. Fears about a potential robotic uprising were easily dismissed, because these rules still apply. As I’m thinking about my own plans for an interconnected short story collection, this idea of having consistent “in-world” rules/elements is a good reminder of how these stories hang together.

On the whole, I liked “Catch That Rabbit” but I think it may suffer a little by being read out of context.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #12: “–All You Zombies–” by Robert Heinlein

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week’s selection was recommended by Webster Hunt. (I’m still not sure if Web was trolling me…) I found this story in a collection of 20th century science fiction short stories from the library. I can’t find any legit sources online, so you’re on your own.

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The Pitch

A “temporal agent” (a.k.a. time-travelling…cop or something?) goes to ridiculous lengths to recruit a new agent for his organization.

The Payoff

Folks, when I asked my social feeds for recommendations, I hoped I would get some stories that would stretch me, take me outside of my wheelhouse. …Be careful what you wish for.

Heinlein’s story is a bonkers time-travel tale that just couldn’t be bothered with resolving paradoxes or explaining much of anything. The weirdly-forced sexual references left me feeling a bit grimy. As such, I didn’t like it much at all. But hey, here’s to new experiences, right?

The Takeaways

I have to admit, there’s just not much to this story. It’s not much more than a plot-gimmick (aren’t they all?), but I’m struggling to find any resonant themes or ideas. Maybe it’s just meant to be a bit of fluff to amuse and entertain. If you enjoy Heinlein’s writing, and you just want a silly yarn to pass the time, this might suit you.

The story seems like one giant time-travel paradox (though I guess that point is arguable), with some painfully-on-the-nose imagery and allusions and a dose of unnecessary sexual references. It seems like Heinlein got the hook for the story and didn’t really bother creating a world around it or even justifying it. I almost wonder if he was relying too much on the shocking and lurid elements of some of the reveals. (Ironically, what may have shocked or surprised 50 years ago now seems almost ordinary or boring.)

Who knows? Maybe I’m a big doofus and missed the gold that’s here. If you’ve read the story and liked it, let me know why in the comments. I’m willing to keep an open mind.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reviews: “Competing Spectacles” by Tony Reinke

competing-spectacles-book

In a culture wholly driven by the moving image, we feed on spectacle every moment of the day. We are awash in the blue glow of screens almost from the moment our eyes open in the morning, until we collapse into sleep at night. While a library of books has been written about the good and bad (mostly bad) of a digital or image-driven culture, there have been considerably fewer authors in the last half-century who have focused on the deeper spiritual ramifications of constant spectacle.

In recent months, I have enjoyed (and discussed) books by Andy Crouch, Cal Newport, and Senator Ben Sasse, regarding the need for distance and perspective when it comes to digital media, but these arguments have been overwhelmingly pragmatic and relational. As I noted in my review of Digital Minimalism, I was keenly aware of Newport’s lack of spiritual perspective; that is, he had a good sense of the effect of digital obsession on the mind but no sense of how it bends the soul.

This is why I am thrilled to recommend Tony Reinke’s latest work to you: Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age.

In Competing Spectacles, Reinke fills in that missing piece in the important discussion of screen addiction and digital distraction by focusing on the cumulative effect such diversions can have on our spiritual life and growth.

In this follow-up to 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Reinke examines the prevalence of “spectacles” in our culture, and how spectacle saturation affects the spiritual appetites. The good news is, he doesn’t simply take the anti-tech position of “screens bad, stay away!” Rather, in the first section of the book, Reinke examines the nature of spectacle in several facets of cultural life, the power that spectacles have on us, and the way our appetites for such entertainment are developed.

In the second section of the book, Reinke considers what Christianity has to say about spectacles–particularly, which spectacles can and should capture our eyes and minds. This section really sings, as he applies the transforming truth of the Gospel gently but directly to our tendency toward amusement and distraction.

Near the end of Part 2, Reinke provides “Summations and Applications” that help the reader think through how we can put these truths to work in our hearts and daily lives. He concludes with a beautiful vision of what happens when our gaze is rightly fixed on a Spectacle worth observing.

Throughout the book, I was struck by by Reinke’s eloquence, recalling the proverb about words fitly spoken being like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” Had I been reading a paper copy, there would be several sections with entire pages highlighted, underlined, and starred. Once in a while, I had to just stop for a moment to appreciate a perfectly crafted sentence. Reinke outdid himself in the mechanics and construction of his prose in this book.

Final Recommendation

In the very first chapter, Reinke calls Competing Spectacles “a theology of visual culture,” and the description is apt. This isn’t just a book about screen time and self-control, social media addiction and the degradation of societal decorum. This book is inherently and blessedly theological in scope, and as such, it fills a glaring gap in this important discussion.

I heartily recommend Competing Spectacles to all my readers, and particularly those who (like me) have been wrestling with the effect of digital media and entertainment on their hearts. This book should be part of every Christian’s library, where it can be revisited from time to time for reconsideration and reflection.

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Note: I have been provided an advance copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.