Books and Book Reviews: August 2008 Archives

Odd Hours--Dean Koontz

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Odd Hours is by far and away my least favorite of the Odd books because I feel that it is too incomplete--it seems like the beginning of something that will be finished in a way that I won't particularly care for. Careful reading of the text suggests that, perhaps, when this was written, the publishers decided that it was too long for one episode and so it would be split into several.

That said, despite these quibbles with some of the mechanics, it is an Odd book, and therefore good reading. If not as good as the first three, still worth reading and worth paying attention to. Koontz continues his themes of Grace in a graceless world and here interjects some Shakespeare (overtly) and some T.S. Eliot (particularly the "Four Quartets,") more covertly--all to effect his end. Additionally, he makes some arguments about the use of force--at one point noting that he is "a killer" but not "a murderer." And they are made well--well enough that a semi-pacifist such as myself could raise no strong objection to them and even saw in them some of the wisdom of the Church. (I suppose one could argue about whether all the conditions for self defense or "just war" are met; however, this is a work of light fiction not a polemic justifying aggression.)

There were some annoying spots in the book--the overly long interrogation in the police station which has an episode of faked (and not convincingly faked) amnesia, the dialogue with the last conspirators at the end. Just too much for the weight of the book--unless, as I suspect, there is more in a similar vein to come.

Loose threads--Annamaria, the coyotes, and the new manifestations of the supernatural, are all left loose, untrimmed, untucked, unacknowledged. But this plot is tidied up and done away with quickly--so quickly indeed that there is none of the personal force of the other books--the threat to too vague, too distant, too massive to really have the impact that some of the others did.

Overall, this is a weaker effort in the series. But even so, there are the episode of the Polterfrank, the golden retriever, the house of the Happy Monster, and other real highlights that make this, while weak, a thoroughly enjoyable half-installment in the series. Given the foreshadowing, warnings, and umbras and penumbras of the beginning of the book, it is clear that this narrative episode is not yet finished, nor is it likely to be wrapped up in the next book. What we have here may be, like a recent Preston and Child endeavor, the beginning of a trilogy within a series. If as successful as that endeavor, we have much to look forward to. If not, we still have the charm of Odd Thomas, and that in itself is sufficient to make any book in the series worth reading.

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Blasphemy--Douglas Preston

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[Caution: Spoilers from the word go}

I read all of the Preston and Child books although I often find myself frustrated by the complete rationalism of them. Everything that appears supernatural is undone and shown to be a perfectly natural, albeit heinous and diabolically clever ruse of one sort of another. There were intimations in Wheel of Darkness that they may have moved a little from their rationalist empiricism into a supernatural realm (in the metaphysical sense).

Blasphemy, as its acknowledgments to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins might portend, is a return to these roots. Scientists in the southwest build a super-collider designed to explore the opening moments of the establishment of the universe; however, when they get the supercollider up to speed, strange things begin to happen and a message from God starts to come through the computers running the machine. Meanwhile, the enterprise is threatened by bad, bad fundies, menacingly peaceful Navajos, and a set of internal conflicts that make the cuckoo's nest look like a home away from home.

Excitement, new ideas, interesting landscape, predictable characters and development, all characterize the book. What I found intriguing, and what intrigues me about all Preston and Preston and Cloud books is the off-stage development of romance. These guys know they have a story without having to introduce a stray sexual element to keep you interested, and, frankly, while I'm not a prude, I find this refreshing. Yes there is a love interest, yes there is a scene in which a curtain is discretely drawn over the action--but this is just a pub brawl from beginning to end with the occasional wench pushed out of the way of harm.

I have to say that I really enjoyed the book despite its predictable trajectory. Recent books by the team seem to want to raise metaphysical and supernatural questions (in a light way) and I think that is also a good trend.

The writing here could have done with a better edit than it got--as I pointed out earlier when our resident expert on all things pedantic and querulous thought that she needed to put me in my place. And I stand by that--most modern books could do with more handling than they get. Heck, that's a huge understatement--most modern books could do with not being published at all. This, however isn't one of them--and if you want some lightweight, cheap thrills, this could be a fun book for you to read.

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Chaitin's Number--Omega

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Oh, no, don't ask why. Just go and explore the complexities of a non-computable, nearly undefinable number in support of Gödel's theorem.

No, no, just go.

Okay, just a hint--it is related to the stink beetle yesterday.

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from No One Sees God
Michael Novak

It is a category mistake to hold that God "foresees" future events. In fact, and here the conception is philosophical, not base on Christian data: God dwells in a simultaneous present. Past, present, and future are all present to Him in one vision. He sees the whole world of Time and all of this creation in one instant. He wills it all into being, and sustains it in being. Since by contast we are in time, we must speak of past, present, and future. God is not bound by that constraint.

Why, then, did Jesus instruct us to pray to our Father for our humblest needs, as well as for grand and seemingly impossible things? If to Him everything is present instantaneously, isn't the deal already done? Yet in that one same instant, God's eternal vision sees our prayers as part of the texture of events that unfolds itself in time. For us, all events are sequential. For Him, all is simultaneous. He wills the whole all-at-once. He understands it all, and He wills it all. He sees it as good, and He loves it. Our prayers, therefore, may enter into the outcome in a way unknown to us, but known to Him. In one simultaneous act He knows the (to us) later outcome, even as He knows our (to us) prior prayers.

Hence, the unknown extent of the efficacy of prayer. As we do not know in any case the disposition or destination of any soul, it would seem that prayers for all lost souls (such as those that we utter in the Fatima prayer) work to reduce the population of Hell to some extent. Is it reduced, as I hope, to zero? I cannot say. But I can pray "Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy," and because prayer contributes to the economy of salvation, I can trust that God will place that credit where it is most needed, and where, to human sensibilities it is probably least deserved. A frightening thought, perhaps an aggravating thought. And what is more it casts some mysterious light on Paul's obscure reference to "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Cor 15:29). If our prayers can reach God and help to save souls, certainly they can be applied as God allows and we do not know or understand.

But, you know, I'm out of my depth here, and way beyond my understanding. It is part of the hope that I have that when I pray, "lead all souls to heaven," the prayer really means something. As much as I do not relish sharing heaven with Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, and others, I can neither relish the fact that they would suffer eternally. Will they be saved? I cannot say--let me say that the weight of the evidence in human eyes strongly suggests otherwise. And so, I rely upon God's mercy.

(On another note: for an interesting insight into "Baptism for the Dead" see here.)

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The Editor's Work

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In a recent piece of light reading, I stumbled, almost literally, across this sentence.

"A stink beetle marched purposely through the dust on some mysterious errand, becoming a little black dot as it went off and disappeared. "

Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether any animal, let alone an insect, can be said said to have, in any meaningful way, purpose in what it is doing. Surely, if it cannot, the anthropomorphic sense of the human intellect can impose purpose on what is seen. It is a sentence like this, random, perhaps a little lazy, that disrupts what John Gardner was wont to call "the vivid and continuous dream." Indeed, upon stumbling over it, I came out of the description of the scene (so thoroughly that I had inordinate trouble relocating the sentence in the book) and thought for a while about "purposely." Is that even a word? If it is a word, should it be? What purpose does it have as a word that "purposefully" does not fulfill. Is it an adverbial appendage to indicate "on purpose," in which case, why? The fewer adverbs, the better in most prose, and this one strikes me as particularly pernicious, seeking to circumvent clearer and more careful articulations of the same idea. Adverbs reek of lazy writing. And in this case, after questioning "purposely" I had to wonder about a stink beetle marching. Had I not stumbled over "purposely," that stink beetle could have marched into the obscurity so richly deserved, as his only purpose was to give us an indication of passing time. But now, I wondered whether it was possible for a beetle to march, and if one could march what might that look like given six legs, and what might be the beat of such a march, "hut, two, three, four, five,six" or more waltz-like with a rhythm that doesn't seem to trial off to nowhere, "hut, two three, hut, two, three."

And so I was drawn out of the scene and into the world of bad grammar and its surreal possibilities.

It is the careful editor's work to assure that this does not happen to the reader. I don't care how popular, how influential, how best-selling the author, they can all use help from time to time to reshape the prose and make it meaningful and powerful. And in this case, all that was required was to use the proper adverbial form--"purposefully." By this simple alteration the beetle marches his way off the page and out of the reader's mind. Oh, perhaps the real pedant and stickler would question the marching, but for that person there is nothing to be done but to encourage him to retire to the well-padded chambers of the prose of Henry James where every article is fraught with meaning, every comma considered, withdrawn, reconsidered and inserted again. The dutiful editor need not trouble him- or herself with such a reader--they are self-selecting and would not choose a book of modern prose in any case.

I have now raked poor Preston and the momentary inattention of his much-overworked editor sufficiently to make the point. It takes only a small slip for the reader to be drawn out of the vivid and continuous dream, and if your story is not compelling, they may never be drawn back in again. I only hope that when my book goes to press I have the most vigorous, meticulous, and careful editor available. There is much to be said for the naive eye that sees what is written, not what is meant.

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The Orwell Diaries Blog--Serialized as blog entries for the day appropriate to the diary, hitherto unpublished.

And, the announcement of this year's Hugo Awards, featuring a novel by Michael Chabon. I know that Doris Lessing was at one time nominated (not certain that she won).

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Venetia--Georgette Heyer


I took my time reading Venetia largely as a consequence of two things--the long disruptive trip that fell during the time of reading, and Honoré's book In Praise of Slowness. I suddenly became aware that I was not in any particular hurry and my enjoyment of a very pleasant read was by far more important that finishing this to move on to the next.

Venetia was an excellent book to read next to The Portrait of a Lady and even The Ambassadors (which I have returned to now).Venetia herself is a strong-willed, bright, and iconoclastic country girl whose notions of independence are a good deal healthier than those of Isabel Archer. Venetia grounds her independence in a carefully cultivated world view which is internally consistent and allows her to make a choice for happiness that conventionality would deplore. Ms. Archer, on the other hand, is independent enough to make the choice, but not independent enough to make it work--she is too bound by how other people see her. Venetia has a healthy contempt for the often incorrect way in which people try to manipulate others through convention.

Not that Venetia completely denies all convention, rather she carefully chooses amongst the conventions of her time, sorting out those that conform to reason from those that are mere prejudice--the sign of a keen intellect. And that is what Venetia demonstrates from almost the very moment we encounter her.

The story centers around Venetia, a rather sequestered country girl, who meets and eventually comes to love Lord Damarel, a notorious rake and man-about-town. Venetia has her own deep dark secret that becomes her key to making the match she knows in her heart to be the right one.

The book brims with a knowing sexuality, but not eroticism, a hard look at how men and women really behave. Venetia is not a prude, nor is she under any illusions about how the world works and what a rake is. But going back to our comparison of Venetia and Isabel Archer, Venetia's passion is rooted in a true and deep affection that grows slowly over the span of her brother's stay with Lord Damarel. Isabel Archer's passion isn't rooted in anything other than her own notions of independence. When she encounters her fatal love, it isn't a flare of affection, mutual care and concern, but a burst of passion that is rootless.

What the romance genre does at its best is what woman-kind at her best does for humanity--it roots the primal and animalistic passions (particularly of the human male) in the enduring bonds of affection and caritas. It raises human love from the continuation of the human species to a true relationship that reflects, at its best, the Father's deep and abiding love for each of us. Romance, in the literary sense is about quest, transformation. We came to call modern romances such because they were about love and stemmed from the "romantic" tales of Arthur and his Knights--but some of those elements tend to be lost from modern romance. Not so with Ms Heyer. She gives to us true romance in which the characters of her novel undergo real and realistic transformations because of the bonds of mutual affection. Within the sanctity of the marital union one natural expression of these bonds is passion. But if passion is the first and only bond, it will dissipate and cause dissipation.

Venetia holds to the high standards of Shelley's, Keats's, and Byron's romanticism, in which the quest transforms the knight errant. The quest itself is often transformed--from Holy Grail to Fisher King. So it is in Venetia as Damarel gradually ceases the attempt to seduce and finds himself tangled up in true affection, true concern--so much so that he cannot even propose to the one whom he originally planned to ruin.

A fun, light-heared, but ultimately serious historical romance worthy of the attention of readers of both history and romantic novels. This is what a romance can be at its very best, and we would be better off if there were more writers who would practice this highest form of the art.

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from No One Sees God
Michael Novak

And so, when a Christian reader comes across Professor Dawkins's argument that God cannot exist, because all complex and more intelligent things come only at the end of the evolutionary process, not at the beginning, the Christian's first reflex may be to burst out laughing--but as an attentive student, he is also obliged to observe that, yes, from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, that must in fact be so. The argument may be intellectually or philosophically satisfying, yet when its practical implications are compared with those of the Christian viewpoint, evolutionary biology may not be attractive as a guide to life. If one wants to be an evolutionary biologist, however, one must learn to confine oneself within the disciplines imposed by that field.

From a Roman Catholic point of view, at least, there is no difficulty in accepting all the findings of evolutionary biology, understood to be an empirical science--that is to say, not as a philosophy of existence, a metaphysics, a full vision of human life. It is easier for Christianity to absorb many, many findings of the contemporary world--from science to technology, politics, economics, and art--than for those whose viewpoint is confined to the contemporary era to absorb Christianity. That is just one reason that we may expect the latter to outlive the former.

It is obvious that Dawkins, at laast, is quite aware of the conventional limitations of the scientific atheist's point of view. He writes that "a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists. It has no connection with supernatural belief." A few pages of his book, in almost every section, are given over to showing how an atheistic point of view can satisfy what have hitherto been taken to be religious longings. Atheism, too, he shows, has its consolations, its sources of inspiration, its awareness of beauty, its sense of wonder. For such satisfactions, there is no need to turn to religion. Dawkins does good work in restoring human subjectivity, emotion, longing, and an awed response to beauty to the life of scientific atheism. For Dawkins, scientific atheism is humanistic, a significant step forward from the sterile logical positivism of two or three generations ago.

Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether Dawkins actually argues for progressive complexity--I haven't read the book, but knowing what I do about evolutionary thinking, I tend to doubt that. It is a oversimplification of the complexity of thought and theory surrounding evolutionary biology.

What is gratifying to me is the support given from a non-scientific quarter for the need to separate the philosophical components of evolutionary biology from the empirical components. At this point Novak does not go into detail, and I don't recall any more detailed discussions in the matter; however, the assumption of randomness implicit in much of evolutionary biology is simply that--an assumption that has neither rigor nor demonstrable scientific validity.

What is also very nice is the idea that rational, thinking Christianity, as opposed to a too-literal cleaving to the exact words of Scripture, is better able to encompass all of the works of the human mind, than a philosophy that is based on rational empiricism. This should be obvious for anyone with an iota of intellectual integrity. Christianity, and Catholic thought in particular, is inclusive--it is the living demonstration of the words of Jesus, "Who is not against me is for me." (I know, the opposite is said as well, however, Catholicism, tends to embrace this view of the world--at least today.)

Novak accords Dawkins's disturbing diatribe with a great deal more respect that it probably deserves as argument, and in doing so, pulls from the morass something that can help us all in our faith lives.

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A Pink of the Ton

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Not being a frequenter of the Regency world, I assume that the thing in the title would be a good thing to be; however, depending on the passage, it is difficult to tell. Does anyone know whether or not it is desirable or undesirable? If so, would you please share and mitigate somewhat this one's ignorance?

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No One Sees God--Michael Novak


In a word--superb. A quick review of this book shows that it is the same tightly reasoned, compassionate, engaging call to conversation and, it is to be hoped, conversion from one believer to other believers and non-believers. Mr. Novak's theme in the book might well be summed up in this excerpt:

from No One Sees God
Michael Novak

In my own life, I have tried to keep the conversation up between the two sides of my own intellect. The line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us. That is why the very question stirs so much passion. I have known people who declaim so passionately and argumentatively that they do not believe in God that I am drive to wonderment: Why are they so agitated, if, as they insist, God does not exist? Why then do they pay so much attention? Some of the greatest converts, in either direction, are those who wrestled strenuously for many year to maintain the other side.

There follows a fascinating journey down the highways and byways of faith--both for and against God, because, when we boil down all terms, atheism is as much a matter of faith as is theism. In fact, it may take even more faith to remain a steadfast atheist than to remain a believer, although atheist apologists would argue that their entire worldview is rooted in reason. In reality, no more so than the average believer's worldview.

Mr. Novak skirts the territory of the "design" discussion and offers a refreshing insight into the use of the terms Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism as philosophies rather than the underlying scientific approaches to understanding the development of life on Earth. Not that he gives any quarter to the philosophy that entangles itself with a Darwinian view of evolution but he right points out that use of these terms obviates any term for the general theory of development through natural selection. He makes a very nice point here:

Source as Noted Above

Second, use of these terms would lead to costly and unnecessary misunderstandings. For example, when Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schöborn denounced "Neo-Darwinism" in the New York Times, he was understood to be attacking a scientific theory, and this mistaken impression caused shock waves that were unnecessary.

I would note that, additionally, he caused a great deal of confusion among the faithful as to what was actually being denounced. When talking about scientific theories, one must understand the science and the philosophy, which may not be so apparent. One must tease them apart and point out the problems with the philosophy without discarding the valid science. Indeed, the most powerful argument against the philosophy that underpins some scientific theories is the "rules" of science itself. Can what you propose be tested and repeatably, reliably tested in some way. If not, the matter is not a matter for science, but one for the salon.

Mr. Novak's book is fine and powerful--a wonderful discussion of the issues surrounding faith and belief and unbelief. He attempts a powerful rebuttal to the like of Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens without devolving to a "Yes He does," "No he Doesn't" kind of back and forth. The respect with which he treats views that vary from his own should be a model for us as we engage in conversation with those around us. Indeed, he delineates 5 offputting ways of talking about God: God as Scientific Entity, God as Redundant (gap-filler), The God of Infinite Regress, God as Superdad, and God as Subjective feeling.

If there is a downside to this remarkable book it is, perhaps, the allegiance and implied universalism of nihilism and existential self-definitions with which Mr. Novak leaves his introduction/preface. He acknowledges that not everyone experiences this nihilism, and I suppose our formative experiences would shape our ultimate philosophical view of the world. Growing up when he did, it is hardly surprisingly that nihilism has a certain appeal.

Let me leave with this passage and my strongest recommendation that everyone interested in a serious discussion of belief and unbelief--light without undue heat--should invest some time and energy in a perusal of this book.

You cannot see God, even if you try. But you can see your neighbor, the tedious one, who grinds on you: Love him, love her. As Jesus loves them. Give them the tender smile of Jesus, even though your own feeling be like the bottom of a birdcage. Do not ask to see Jesus, or to feel Him. That is for children. Love him in the dark. Love for the invisible divine, not for warm and comforting human consolation. Love for the sake of love, not in order to feel loved in return.


If a Christian has not yet known this darkness and aridity, it is a sign that the Lord is still treating him like a child at the breast, too unformed for the adult darkness in which alone the true God is found. Any who think they can make idols, or images, or pictures, or concepts of God remain underdeveloped in their faith. Darkness is not a sign of unbelief, or even of doubt, but a sign of the true relation between the Creator and the creature. God is not on our frequency, and when we get beyond our usual range, which in prayer we must, we reach only darkness. This is painful. In a way, it does make one doubt; in another way, experience shows us that when one is no longer a child, one leaves childish ways behind.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from August 2008.

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