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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Three



 by Sarah Lotz
Little, Brown    2014
422 pages     Fiction

Four planes crash around the world on the same day, and three children—perhaps four—are the only survivors—one from each crash. It's called "Black Thursday," and it creates a huge sense of foreboding around the world, particularly because a woman who is able to send a message before she died warns her preacher to beware of the boy. The preacher seizes this as an opportunity to make his mark as an evangelist. He claims that the survivors are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He says in a sermon, "Now, John is told that the first four seals will come in the form of four horsemen. We know, and this is a fact, that the four horsemen are sent to fulfill a divine purpose. And we know from Ezekiel that that purpose is to punish the faithless and the godless. The horsemen will bring plague, famine, war and panic to the earth; they will be the harbingers of the Tribulation." Wow! What a burden to place on the survivors? Or are they merely survivors or something more sinister? The goal of The Three, of course, is to figure out who these children are. By book's end, the entire world is in turmoil; 69 percent of Americans believe that the end of the world is imminent, and politics in the United States takes a nasty turn as theocrats win the election. 

The Three's design is a non-fiction book within a novel. An author, Elspeth Martins, pieces together the Black Thursday story through interviews, emails, articles, online chats, and memoirs and publishes it in a non-fiction book, which is the fabrication upon which The Three is based. It is a clever format that spins science fiction, religion, and media madness together to make a compelling novel. By reading each short entry, the reader weaves together the tale. It is very skillfully written, and rather remarkable to read, once you catch on that you have to cull out the clues from each message, conversation and online chat. When the book reaches its climax, you are overwhelmed with the details that led to this moment.

One interesting side note that ended up being crucial to the plot is that one of the planes crashed in a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. The forest is called Aokigahara Forest, and it is where many Japanese go to commit suicide. In actuality, Japan has more than 30,000 suicides each year, one of the highest rates in the world. Here is an article about the forest, with some great photographs. I knew nothing about the Aokigahara Forest, but of course, you can find anything on the Internet. Don't think I want to go there.

Sarah Lotz is a South African screenwriter and author. She describes herself as a writer of "pulp fiction." She says this of the plot line for The Three:  “I do think that an event on this scale would change society to some extent. Perhaps not to the extent that I’ve depicted in my novel, but I do think it’s these disasters that cause us to look at ourselves and reexamine our society. We don’t always learn from them but they do tend to cause a shift either in the way we live in the world, or the way we perceive it.” 

I started reading The Three just before Flight 370 disappeared off the coast of Malaysia. It was all just too real! I had to quit reading, and when I began again, I just couldn't put it down until the very last interview Elspeth makes with a relative of one of the survivors. I kept thinking that the novel would make a great mini-series, and apparently it has been optioned to be just that. 

Believe me! It's a great summer read! One reviewer's conclusion: "If The Three isn’t the year’s most chilling work of fiction, I don’t know what is. Assiduously ambiguous, brilliantly balanced, carefully controlled and in the final summation fantastically crafted, it makes sense that this is the first of Sarah Lotz’s solo novels to be published outside South Africa. The Three is easily the best thing she’s written, and she’s quite right to want to own it." 

An excellent review on Tor.com science fiction website.
A review in the Washington Post.
An interview with Sarah Lotz in Kirkus Reviews.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Blonde



By Anna Godbersen

Weinstein Books     2014
390 pages     Fiction

The Blonde is an alternative history novel that feeds into the conspiracies about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. In this version of the story, Marilyn Monroe is a secret agent recruited by the Russians to establish and maintain a relationship with Jack Kennedy and relay information given to her through pillow talk from 1959 until the presumed death of Marilyn, and the assassination of JFK. 

It is told in the third person from Marilyn’s point of view, with occasional chapters told by Walls, the FBI agent assigned to follow Marilyn and her assignations. The entire cast of characters is there, including Robert Kennedy, Arthur Miller, Clark Gable, and Frank Sinatra. Oh—and the Chicago mafia, who, according to this narrative, bought the Chicago vote for Kennedy.

Marilyn is everything that you can imagine. She is young and naive, and at the same time brash and worldly. She knows just how to get everything she wants, but at the same time, she has nothing that she wants more than to be loved. None of the men that seek her out satisfies her longings for love and security. She has spent her entire life seeking the father that she never knew. The Russian agent promises her that if she works as an agent for them, she will meet her father.

Although the history happens just like we remember, the way it happens and reasons why it happens are very different from the way it was recorded. That is the beauty of alternative history novels. You play along with the game and nod your head, “Yes, that’s possibly the way it could have happened.” Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America imagines a world in which Charles Lindbergh became the President. In The Blonde, Marilyn Monroe becomes a spy and perhaps an assassin.

My complaint about The Blonde has nothing to do with the plot, which is well-researched and totally feasible. I just got tired of flowery language that made no sense. For example, “The apartment was empty, and the herringbone parquet stretched out from beneath the points of her high-heeled shoes, unprotected by the clutter of real life.” Or “the honeyed end of daylight making her loneliness seem almost gorgeous” or “The air coming off the high desert was over a hundred degrees, the kind of heat that melts the borders of a girl’s body.” See what I mean?

But—if you can get by the adjectives, and Marilyn’s use of her body as a weapon, and just read for plot, it’s a fun read. Could it have been? Who knows!

Anna Godbersen's website: http://annagodbersen.com

Monday, June 23, 2014

How to Write Anything



by Laura Brown
W.W. Norton     2014
596 p.      Non-fiction
The Shortlist

Where was How to Write Anything when I was getting started as a self-taught freelance writer and editor? I had to purchase books on writing resumes, white papers, and research reports. In one volume, Brown has given us a guide to almost everything the average person will ever need to write. It will be an enormous help, and I am excited to include it on my shelf. But, it is also a great guide for anyone who writes anything. Should be in most every home.

Just think for a moment. What are the writing tasks that confuse you the most? Resumes and cover letters, for certain, as well as business letters, email messages, condolence letters, and college entrance essays. Brown covers them all and much more. She includes the problems, pitfalls, and possibilities of communicating in the 21st century, including instant messaging, emails, and tweeting. 

The book is divided in three sections: personal writing, school writing, and professional/business writing. However, Brown recommends the same 6 steps for each endeavor. They are:
  • determine the purpose for the writing.
  • determine who the audience or the readers are
  • brainstorm ideas
  • organize thoughts and idea
  • do a final draft
  • revise, revise, revise.
To that, I would add one other step. Read it aloud. Here is what I have learned about reading something aloud. First, when you read it aloud, you don't miss mistakes that got overlooked with the spell or grammar checker on your word processor. Second, if you read it aloud, you will catch run-on sentences and things that just plain sound stupid. Third, you may catch misused words. Somehow reading a document aloud makes it sound like a different voice than your voice. Finally, if this really is an important document, have someone else read it aloud. They will most likely catch anything that you may have missed.

I really like the format and the comprehensive nature of How to Write Anything. I wish that my international clients each had a copy because I am constantly being asked to write an email to a professor or a cover letter to go with a resume. Kudos to Laura Brown for putting together such an easily accessible volume.

The website for the book: http://www.howtowriteanything.com/

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Flight Behavior



by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Perennial     2012
433 pages     Fiction

Dellarobia Turnbow is the young mother of two preschool children living in a small house on the family farm in Appalachia. "...being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself." As Flight Behavior opens, she is on the way up the mountain to a small cabin to meet a man with whom she has been having a flirtation. She is on the cusp of throwing her life and marriage away when she has a Moses-like burning bush experience. Thoroughly freaked-out by the message she believes has come from God, she turns around and goes back down to her mundane life filled with guilt and promises to do better. 

She later discovers that her burning bush is in actuality a gathering of millions of monarch butterflies, and the discovery changes her life. The discovery of the monarch butterflies creates a media and scientific frenzy. The monarchs are not supposed to be there, but their winter habitat in Mexico has been destroyed. A biologist named Ovid Byron arrives from New Mexico to study the monarchs, and he brings along with him equipment, student assistants, and later, a job for Dellarobia.

Flight Behavior explores the relationships between Dellarobia  and her family, friends, and community. The book, however, is only in part about Dellarobia (I just love saying that name!). It is in large part an exploration of the relationship between the monarch butterflies up there on the mountain and the effects of global warming that brought them there in the first place. Kingsolver is not subtle in her feelings about global warming, nor is she subtle in the way she expresses those feelings. In some ways, this is a polemic about global warming in the guise of a novel. But, the book is redeemed by a cast of characters that is incredibly appealing. You learn a lot of science in amidst the family drama, and believe me there is plenty of drama. These are complex, fully developed characters for the most part, although some of the minor characters are caricatures. 

Kingsolver chooses to write novels that are not just a good read, but she wants to make a point regarding social justice. In an interview with Diane Rehm, she says: "That was my plan because novelists really aren't writing about climate change. Well, it's pretty rare for novelists to write about science, in general, so because I was trained as a scientist, I really like to write about science and about the methods of science. And part of the difficulty of this conversation, non-conversation, that as a nation we're having or not having about climate change, is that it's hard for people even always to understand the language of science." So, she has a message about global warming for the non-scientist, using Dellarobia as the foil. Dellarobia is a sponge for knowledge, and over the course of this scientific journey, Kingsolver dispenses her scientific knowledge, and Dellarobia, as well as her son, Preston, soak it up. In the end, it is the science of the monarch butterflies and global warming that causes Dellarobia to make major changes in her life.


Kingsolver's social justice point of view is obvious in two definitive scenes: the first involving an environmentalist who sets up shop on the mountain to tell the locals about how to behave responsibly about the environment. One of his solutions is to fly less, but of course none of the people in Dellarobia's family have ever been on a plane. The other scene is the shopping trip Dellarobia and her husband take to the dollar store to buy Christmas gifts for their children, and all they can afford is cheap, foreign made junk, and she despairs the idea that another generation of children are bound by poverty. 

One of the things that Kingsolver really understands is the relationship of religion to the lives of Appalachian people. Chapter 3 is a description of a southern church that I found to be worth the price of the book. Dellarobia was "what Hester (her mother-in-law) called a 911 Christian; in the event of an emergency, call the Lord." She goes to church because it is conventional; in her world view, everything is open to question, but that is not the style of the southern church. She has been kicked out of the Wednesday evening Bible study because she asked too many questions and made too many unorthodox observations.

The comment made by Ovid, the biologist, is Kingsolver's message. When he is describing to Dellarobia the diminishing coral reefs and dying insects, he laments: "What was the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it." 

My book club had a lively discussion about the book, probably evenly divided between those who loved it and those who thought it was only marginally successful. Frankly, I am in the marginally successful camp. I found the science part of the novel cumbersome and didactic. The ending, no matter how symbolic and breathtaking, was a bit cheesy. (Dare I say that about such a famous novelist.) 
On the plus side, Kingsolver is a compelling writer, and I found myself underlining some marvelous statements on nearly every page. She understands human nature extremely well, which makes Flight Behavior worth reading, even if it has less than glorious moments.

Kingsolver is committed to social justice, and her books reflect her views. Apparently, she has even established an award called the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. 

Barbara Kingsolver's website: http://www.kingsolver.com/

  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships



by Matthew Vines
Convergent Books     2014
213 pages     Spiritual

God and the Gay Christian is written by a young, conservative Christian gay man. Within the framework of Biblical exegesis, Vines takes on the scriptures that are traditionally used to speak against homosexuality. He looks at the verses and shows how they are taken out of context, or how they couldn't possibly have meant what the nit-picky Bible reader thinks they mean, or how the values portrayed in isolated verses of the  scripture have no meaning for today's world. This is a young man on a search for his own Christian faith, for his own values, and for his own understanding of who he is as a gay man. Frankly, a PhD Biblical scholar could not have done a better job.

Vines explains the historical context of the scriptures and offers an interpretation that helps the Christian form a new opinion about their gay Christian brethren. He calls those who decry homosexuality in Christ's name "non-affirming," but his primary attempt is to help his own family come to an understanding of their son and brother as a child of God. "While we are infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, we also have intrinsic value. This belief is shared in some form by many cultures and worldviews, and . . . it is deeply embedded in the Christian faith. The Bible teaches that, as human beings, we are made in the image of God, a doctrine that Christians have long understood to form the basis of our inherent value." If that is the case, then we are ALL formed in God's image. This is how we find our worth, and when we tell our homosexual brethren that there is something wrong with them, we are denying them their infinite worth. He says, "In the final analysis, it is not gay Christians who are sinning against God by entering into monogamous, loving relationships. It is WE who are sinning against them by rejecting their intimate relationships."

Much of what he discusses I learned long ago in seminary. However, often what preachers learn in seminary is not what they preach, and even if they learn the historical context of the scripture, they tend to take the scripture at face value when they preach from the Bible. After I read a positive review of the book on the Pathos website, which appears to be a progressive website, I then turned to a more conservative review, which of course, sought to downplay the book and threaten that Vines had perverted the scripture for his own gain. It was hard to concentrate on the negative review on The Christian Post website because of the Claritin, Tampax and toothpaste ads that blared loudly in the background. I had to wonder who was perverting the scriptures—Vines or The Christian Post.

Vines writes like a Biblical scholar—actually he is a self-trained Biblical scholar. His words are refreshing, and the time is right for the message of Bible to be looked at through fresh eyes. I commend his work to you. It could very well be that his book could turn the conversation around among conservative Christians. 

Recently, I went with several family members to a presentation of the video Seventh-Gay Adventists. While the screening was at a Quaker meeting house, most of the people in attendance were young Seventh Day Adventists. We were invited by our friend Beth, a deeply devout Christian woman who happens to be a Lesbian in a committed relationship. I was struck by the power of the documentary and the conundrum that the three people profiled found themselves in. They wanted to be part of the religious community, but the shortsightedness of the church confounded them. Of course, as the mother of a gay man, I just wanted to shake these people. "Can't you see?" my mind yelled at the screen. "These are children of God that you are rejecting because of your own stupidity." I would recommend this documentary as a companion piece to the book God and the Gay Christian.

Here is a link to the documentary: https://www.youtube.com/user/sgamovie
 For a summary of the chapters read the review on the Pathos website: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2014/05/review-of-god-and-the-gay-christian.html
Matthew Vines website: www.matthewvines.com