Some books are almost impossible to review. If a book is bad, how easily can we dwell on its flaws! But if the book is good, how do you give any recomSome books are almost impossible to review. If a book is bad, how easily can we dwell on its flaws! But if the book is good, how do you give any recommendation that is equal the book? Unless you are an author of equal worth to the one whose work you review, what powers of prose and observation are you likely to have to fitly adorn the work?
'The Hobbit' is at one level simply a charming adventure story, perhaps one of the most charming and most adventurous ever told. There, see how simple that was? If you haven't read it, you should, because it is quite enjoyable. At some level, there is little more to say. Enjoy the story as the simple entertainment it was meant to be. Read it to your children and luxuriate in the excitement and joy that shines from their faces. That's enough.
But if it was only simple entertainment, I do not think that it would be anything more than just a good book. Instead, this simple children's story resonates and fascinates. It teases and hints at something larger and grander, and it instructs and lectures as from one of the most subtle intellects without ever feeling like it is instructing, lecturing or being condescending.
At its heart, the complaint I opened the review with is just a variation on one of the many nuanced observations Tolkien makes in 'The Hobbit' when he complains that a story of a good time is always too quickly told, but a story of evil times often requires a great many words to cover the events thereof. How often has that idea fascinated me.
Consider also how the story opens, with Bilbo's breezy unreflective manners which are polite in form but not in spirit, and Gandalf's continual meditation on the meaning of 'Good morning.’ How much insight is concealed within Gandalf's gentle humor! How often do we find ourselves, like Bilbo, saying something we don't really mean and using words to mean something very unlike their plain meaning! How often do we find ourselves saying, "I don't mean to be rude, but...", when in fact we mean, "I very much mean to be rude, and here it comes!" If we did not mean to be rude, surely we wouldn't say what we say. Instead we mean, "I'm going to be rude but I don't want you to think I'm someone who is normally rude...", or "I'm going to put myself forward, but I don't want you to think of me as someone who is normally so arrogant...", or even, "I'm going to be rude, but I don't want to think of myself as someone who is rude, so I'm going to pretend I'm not being rude..."
I think that is what makes this more than just a good book, but a great one. Tolkien is able to gently skewer us for our all too human failings, and he does so without adopting any of the cynicism or self-loathing so common with those that seek out to skewer humanity for its so evident failings.
We fantasize about heroes which are strong and comely of form, and we have for as long as we've had recorded literature. Our comic books are filled with those neo-pagan mythic heroes whose exaggerated human virtues always amount to, whatever else may be true of them, 'beats people up good'. These modern Ajaxs, Helens and Achilles dominate the box office, and I would imagine dominate our internal most private fantasy lives as well. Oh sure, the superhero of our fantasy might have superhuman ethics to go along with his superhuman ability to kick butt, attract the opposite sex, and enforce their will upon others, but it is always attached to and ultimately secondary to our fantasy of power and virility. How different is Tolkien's protagonist from Heracles, Lancelot, Beowulf, or Batman - short, small, mundane, and weak. Of all the principal characters of the story, he possesses probably the least of that quintessential heroic attribute - martial prowess.
And yet, he is not actually merely an 'average Joe'. Bilbo is just as much an exaggerated idealized hero as Heracles, it's just that those attributes in which Bilbo is almost transcendently inhuman isn't the sort of attributes we normally fantasize about having ourselves. Bilbo is gentle. He is simple. He is humble. Power and wealth have little attraction for him. He is kind. He takes less than his share, and that that he takes he gives away. He is a peacemaker. Though wrongly imprisoned, he bears no grudge and desires no vengeance for the wrongs done to him. Rather he apologizes for stealing food, and offers to repay in recompense far more than he took. Though mistreated, he harbors no enmity. He never puts himself forward, but he never shirks when others do.
How often do we fantasize about being this different sort of hero, and yet how much better we would be if we did? How much better off would we be if we, like Thorin could declare in our hearts, "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." How often is it that we hunger after all the wrong things? What profit would we really have if we had in great measure the power to 'beat people up good'? What real use could we put it too? How much better off would we be individually and as a people if we most desired to be graced with Bilbo's virtues, rather than Achilles speed, strength, and skill with arms? How much less mature does this mere children's book of a well lit-world cause our darker fantasies to seem?
Now, I admit I am biased in my review. I read this book 36 times before the age of 16. I broke the spines of three copies of it with continual reading. Yet in my defense I will say that I'm considered only a moderate fan of the book by many. I've known several devotees of the book who, like the protagonist of Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451', can recite whole chapters from memory - ensuring that this would be one of the few books that would survive the sudden destruction of all the world's technology if only the world's story tellers survived. If you are inclined to think no book can be that good, and that my review overhypes it, so much the better. Go in with low expectations so as to be certain that they will be met or exceeded. Forget all I have said save that, "If you haven't read it, you should, because it is quite enjoyable." ...more
I might be crazy to write this review. Either that or for some reason I’m finding that I no longer get enough hate mail, or that my number of friend rI might be crazy to write this review. Either that or for some reason I’m finding that I no longer get enough hate mail, or that my number of friend requests is getting too great.
I suppose in every generation there is some work of literature which is highly praised despite its abundant defects simply because the intention of the author is judged so good, or the beliefs of the author are too central to how society arranges itself to risk assailing the story with actual criticism. My suspicion is that the vast majority of these works are completely erased from history or at least from our consciousness in due time, as socially approvable opinions and styles change, and things that seemed immediate and important at one time become more distant. However, I offer up something like ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ as an example of one that survived a fairly long time just so one will have an idea of the type.
Now, I have no doubt that such works are honestly enjoyed by many, but at least we ought to know why we enjoy them. One of the many examples of such moralizing works in our own generation, is Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. However, by way of comparison to Bunyan’s dreary simplistic didactic work, with its analogies that don’t even work well as a guide for how to react to the things he’s warning against, Atwood doesn’t even get points for being bold. Simplistic, dreary, and didactic sure, but Bunyan at least was somewhat sufficiently a blast against conventional ideology that he had to write Pilgrim’s Progress from prison. Atwood gives a paint by numbers rant against everything the present literary establishment is already firmly against. If you enjoy Atwood’s, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, I’m ok with that. But please enjoy it for what it is, and not what it isn’t.
Atwood is infamous for disassociating herself and this work from the category of “science fiction”. She prefers the title of speculative fiction, because she says that speculative fiction deals with things that could happen, whereas, science fiction deals with “squids in outer space”. The pretentiousness of this notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is that it is far more likely that there are squids in outer space than anything in this book could happen. If at any point, your justification for liking ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ is that it is realistic or prophetic or whatever, then you are simply delusional.
Now, let’s be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that it is impossible that a reactionary religious movement that treated women as second class citizens couldn’t come into being, and that even within the first world such things are impossible. I’m not saying that there hasn’t been oppressive treatment of women in the past. I am not even saying that it is impossible for such a thing to happen under the auspices of a Christian movement. I am saying that the particular delusions that this novel entertains are socially impossible, not only in the time frame and time scales that the novel postulates but ever. The reality of a reactionary religious movement taking hold and relegating women to second class citizens in a first world nation can be found in, for example, modern Rotherham England. However, Atwood did not predict that, and what she did write exists only in her mind and will only exist in her mind ever, for all time.
Religious movements based on a sacred text can have somewhat fluid beliefs, but they are not completely plastic. Predictable social forces work on them within the limits of what they can fit the text to. If you want to escape that, you have to invent a new text. To begin with, if a religious movement is reactionary then it tends to want to revert to one of its prior social structures. A Christian reactionary movement would therefore tend to look back to some earlier social organization, earlier theology, and earlier language and describe the world in those terms. There are plenty of prior social structures and movements to look at – Puritans, Medieval Catholic, Calvinist, Shakers, Quakers, Amish, etc. Further afield Atwood could have even mined prior Christian heresies. Or Atwood could have set this believably in the far future on some distant planet colonized by a speculative pseudo-Christian ideology were it could grow unchecked by its surroundings. Atwood’s invented reactionary Christian movement however is pretty much entirely invented and novel theologically, socially, and linguistically. So Atwood’s pseudo-Christian invented mythos is in fact doctrinally liberal and not reactionary. There is absolutely nothing in the text that lets us imagine how this particular set of novel beliefs come about. In particular, radical departures from conventional belief tend to happen in periods of prosperity and growth. Radical reactionary movements do tend to happen in the novel’s predicted times of poverty, but again, the doctrine of Gilead isn’t actually a reactionary movement. There is nothing at all in the history of Christianity that would allow for the basic gender structure that Atwood invents. There is no past guide to draw on.
Even worse, when a religious movement with a sacred text goes reactionary and populist, it inevitably evolves it’s doctrine to correspond to the simplest and most direct reading of the text – that is to say ‘fundamentalism’. Nuanced readings tend to be thrown out in favor of what is literal and proximal. So for example, the real American Christian Right does have novel doctrine based on the book of Revelations, by applying a more literal reading of the text and assuming its referring to the present or near future. But in the case of the Christian text, while this could produce a society with females in a second class status based on simplistic readings of the text and some fundamentalists in fact do so, it could not in fact produce the caste system seen in the novel. Among other things, handmaids are not provided for under New Testament theology, polygamy is condemned, and the simplistic reading of the text gives women the right to be chaste and confers on such high status. There have been more – far more - ostensibly Christian sects that advocated chastity to the point of human extinction, than those that valued women only for their ovaries. The sexual mores of the hypothetical society aren’t a natural expression of the sexual mores of the sacred text no matter how literal you read it, but are in fact deeply offensive to all Christianity throughout all of its history. Even the ‘handmaid’ of title, refers to an Old Testament story which condemns the practice. A simplistic reading of a text that condemns Abraham and his wife’s unfaithfulness in the face of barrenness and sterility, cannot possibly be that the text condones such unfaithful acts. Perhaps if God had endorsed Ishmael as the child of the promise, you might could read it that way – but only Islam actually endorses that reading and only by suggestion that the Judeo-Christian text is perverted from the original.
Virtually none of the salient features present in the text could possibly be the result of even a twisted evolution of American protestant evangelicalism. A society that featured stoning women guilty of adultery or execution of homosexuals I can believe, albeit I see absolutely nothing that suggests present trends are going that way and have seen no such trend in my lifetime. That a society would be hypocritical in enforcement of its beliefs I can believe. But the actual caste system and sexual role that Offred is forced to conform to isn’t anything you can extract from Christianity by even the most tortured route. In irony of ironies, the actual social construction of gender that Atwood imagines finds its closest analogy in the Greco-Roman world that early Christians fought to escape and transform. It’s in that Greco-Roman model that you find caste systems, veils, young arranged marriages, woman as rewards for martial valor, female slaves as sexual objects, men living in open marriages while women are executed for adultery, state owned prostitutes, and high class men seeking out prostitutes because of the loveless arranged marriages that they are entered into provides no social comfort. It’s the Greco-Roman world-view that puts in tension the practical realities of marriage and erotic desires, so that a husband has heirs by one but desires the other. The sexual politics of the non-Christian Mediterranean world remain largely locked into this paradigm. Christianity by comparison attempts to resolve this tension with the idea of romantic marital love, with all its attendant idealization of finding one’s life partner. A story that speculated some sort of Greco-Roman pagan rival might reasonably justify the setting, but had Christianity been replaced by Greco-Roman pagans in the story I feel reasonably sure that much less attention would have been paid to it.
And the same story with Islam as the religion, and the UK as the setting, would have only been condemned.
As an author, you know you’ve done a good job of illustrating someone’s actual beliefs when they are forced to defend them. But no Christian, not even a Young Earth creationist longing for a return to 17th century Puritanicalism, needs to defend the social structure of Atwood’s world. Every Christian, left, right, progressive, conservative, mainstream, independent, or Catholic, finds them aberrant. The ideal of women under Christianity is either of chaste nobility, or else of romantic and faithful partnership. ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ chooses to avoid attacking either ideal. A fundamentalist reading the work doesn’t feel like his beliefs are being mocked. A fundamentalist reading the work doesn’t feel his opinions are being given short shrift. A fundamentalist reading the work isn’t compelled to defend the society as reasonable. Rather, a fundamentalist reading the work would come to the opinion that this is the sort of sick sexually perverse pornographic situations that could only come out of the mind of someone bereft of the goodness of Christ. You might could reasonably attack many of the beliefs of conservative Christian evangelicals, but in point of fact this book doesn’t do so. No one actually familiar with the sexual constructs of American evangelicals could possibly believe you’d go from present reality (the good and bad) to arranged marriages to strangers, or that the central tenet of Protestantism – that a direct relationship with the Divine is possible for every person – would be easily subverted. It’s much easier to imagine Protestantism with its endless divisions and sects descending to anarchy and mob rule, than being unified into a single rigid authoritarian state. This is a novel so clearly written by someone on the outside - way on the outside – looking in, or rather, someone not even looking in and offering the sort of critique an informed observer might have but instead substituting their own insecurity and hatred for reasoned critique.
But I guess, one should never let reflection get in the way of good visceral emotional fear of the unknown, least of all if you are writing a novel.
This is no more honest criticism of Christianity than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is honest criticism of Jews, and it serves the same emotional purpose for its readers.
So, if we dispose of everything we like about this novel because it attacks the right sort of people or upholds the right conventional ideology, what are we to make of it? I’m used to dealing with unflattering presentations of Christians, and I’m sometimes capable of overlooking that on some other merit. There are plenty of atheists in science fiction, and some of them write works I rather enjoy – even with their anti-Christian moralizing.
Well, to the extent that I could apply the term feminist to a story in a flattering way, I’d like to think that a story deserving of such a label presented women in a flattering way, and not in the manner of conventional male chauvinism. Why it is feminist to present women as wallowing in victimhood and defining themselves by the particular relationships they have with men, I confess I don’t know. I’m fairly convinced that this novel doesn’t capture that actual reality of women’s lives even in the actual reality of oppressive patriarchal societies, even if Atwood had the imagination or experience to write about such things or the courage to write about real problems as they actually are. I do know that I have two daughters, and I certainly don’t want them exposed to this sort of crap until they have firmly in mind a positive mental image of the role of women in the world and the ability to say, “This is what an author believes. I’m not required to believe it myself.” Fortunately they have their mother for that, but literally God help the woman who has to process this sort of swill and bile with no other guide for what it means to be a woman and with the conviction that being a good woman means accepting this work as a guide. Such a woman may be better off than oppressed woman of Atwood’s speculative fiction, but I guarantee that they will be no happier. They’ll be too busy oppressing themselves with their fears to actually live life well.
It’s also really not that great of a story. Very little happens. Characters don’t really develop. No one is very likeable, so the most you can manage for the characters male or female is a sort of mild pity mixed with dislike. And nothing is really resolved. The only character of the story that is really fully developed is the invented society itself, which is at its most basic level, is just a superficial Big Brother given a very superficial religious gloss. At least Orwell had the guts to admit 1984 got it wrong....more
Like most of my five star books, I’ve read Dune multiple times. In fact, I’d say that what makes a book more than just enjoyable and instead truly amaLike most of my five star books, I’ve read Dune multiple times. In fact, I’d say that what makes a book more than just enjoyable and instead truly amazing is that you want to read it more than once and are rewarded for doing so. I’ve probably read Dune six times, and I’ve never gotten tired of it but my understanding of the work has increased over time.
To begin with, the first time I read Dune, I got about three pages into it, realized I didn’t understand a thing and that I was hopelessly confused. I had to go back and reread what I had read, and then go back again and reread the whole chapter. I would excuse myself by saying that I was 10, but I’m sure I’m not the only one that has had that experience. Don’t be dismayed if it happens to you - whether 10, 18, or 45. If you are confused at first, consider that Paul is also confused and finds so much that happens strange and new. Understanding will come in its proper time.
At one time at least, there was a fairly famous website (at least among geeks) that humorously summarized books in thirty words or less. Maybe it still exists, but its name escapes me. The summary provided for Dune read something like this, “I’m Frank Herbert and I’m a lot smarter than you are.” When I was younger, this would have seemed a fair appraisal of the work. One of the most central aspects of ‘Dune’ is Herbert manages to write convincingly about people whose intelligence is supposed to vastly exceed that of the reader. More than anything, to create a believable Messianic story, the writer has to create a Messiah possessing believable Messianic wisdom and insight, and Herbert succeeds at this invention probably better than any other writer. We come to believe that the protagonists do have deep and profound insight into the question of ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’ so that we do not immediately feel cheated and we are able to believe in the characters – even someone like Maud’Dib. As I’ve gotten older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve come to see that Herbert is not in fact possessed of superhuman intelligence, but that he creates the illusion of superhuman intelligence by a variety of clever devices. The appearance of a superhuman intelligence and wisdom is really a sham and the pool is really pretty shallow, but even this revelation does not reduce the esteem in which I hold the work. It’s not Herbert’s real job to be a prophet: he’s an artist. Herbert succeeds brilliantly in what he should be judged on – the ability to paint the illusion deftly and convincingly. If we acquire the sophistication to see through it, it shouldn’t reduce our appreciation of the artistic mastery used in creating it. I think now I would amend the summary of the work to be, “I’m Frank Herbert, and I’m a lot better writer than you are.”
If all that could be said in Dune’s favor was that it had one of the most convincing invented prophets in literature, it would still be a worthwhile work. But Dune has abundant pleasures beyond the richly realized illusion of philosophical depth and even the deftly realized setting. Chief among these for me is the truly deep and intricate relationships Paul has with the other characters. There is a real depth of feeling here, and I love the way each of the complicated nuanced relationships is portrayed as we are introduced to the cast of Paul’s complicated life. Each character feels a deep mixture of feelings for Paul who is boy, man, friend, soldier, sovereign, and Messiah and much else. There is tenderness to this work. We sense that complexity and tenderness right from the start, when his mother allows him to be tortured and to face murder, and then immediately thereafter experiences profound hope and joy: “My son lives.” We feel Paul’s boyish love for his friends and companions, who are also his father’s henchmen and his teachers and who he is in turn their future Lord. We feel the more mature manly love that these companions have for their young charge and future ruler. Even Yueh loves the boy he must destroy. We feel the boyish admiration Paul has for his father as he strains to be worthy of him and to make his father proud, and we feel the returned pride and satisfaction that his father feels. We feel the aching love of a boy for this Mother when he has already lost everything else when Jessica is buried in sand, and we feel her returned love when she says, “I knew you would find me.”
And though there love is only briefly on stage, still I find the love between Paul and Chani among the sweetest and most charming in literature. Who cannot thrill when scarcely knowing each other, but seeing their lives together stretching out before them both good and terrible, the young becoming but not yet lovers promise with tender vows nonetheless to be forever each other's comfort and joy and they feel their hitherto unseen future becoming a real solid now. Isn’t that how it is in some way for all of us when we meet the one who will be the one and we suddenly realize we want to and we will spend the rest of our lives together regardless of what will happen? And how often have we felt the total unabashed joy as Paul does when we know our lover is now near?
“That could only mean Chani was near by—Chani, his soul, Chani his sihaya, sweet as the desert spring, Chani up from the palmaries of the deep south.”
All that and ‘Dune’ is a wonderful exciting action adventure story filled with thrills and chases, fights and battles, and supersized edge of our imagination wonders. Worms.
It’s no wonder that this is one of the best beloved books of all time. If you haven’t read it, you should. If you have read it, read it again. ...more