God: A Biography

Author: Jack Miles

Audiobook or Real Book: Real Book

Why I Read It: As I mentioned in my book notes on American Gods, I read a few chapters of this for a theology course in undergrad.  I really enjoyed it and always meant to come back and read the whole thing.

Synopsis: Miles follows the tradition of scholars who approach Judeo-Christian religious texts as literary works, as opposed to religious or historical ones.  Specifically, Miles walks readers chronologically through the Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible) and uses close readings of the text to do a character analysis on the Tanakh’s protagonist: God.

General Thoughts: I was really excited to read this book.  I remembered absolutely adoring it as a freshman in college and had always wished that I would find the motivation to come back to it.  I was not disappointed.  There is absolutely a part of me that loves this book, not for its academic value, but for religious reasons.  The idea of a God that learns, changes, and considers is one that is very appealing to me (even if the God of the Tanakh never becomes a god I am particularly interested in worshiping).  And as I hover around a vaguely Christian agnosticism (or that’s how I would describe it anyway), finding an image of God I like is exciting.  Beyond that personal indulgence though God: A Biography is also a fascinating work of scholarship.

Of course, I will start with my complaints.  Miles invites us to consider the impact of the Tanakh and Christian Bible as literary works in his introduction.  He points out that their enduring success, wide readership, and massive literary influence have made them books that have shaped the very foundations of Western thought for the religious and nonreligious alike.  He goes on to argue that it follows that the most important character of these two works—God—would then also have a remarkable impact on the self-image and thought process of Western civilization.  Especially since God is a character that is allegedly the very being for whom mankind was made as a mirror.  I have no problem with Miles premise here.  He is undoubtedly right.  However, in seeing the idea of the influence of God on Western thought as part of his introduction I did hope to see a bit more clarity on what Miles believes that influence to have been in his postlude.  He speaks a bit about the complexity of the character of God being the defining influence on Hamlet and other truly character driven works in Western literature.  He also gives a brief nod to ideas of individualism and theodicy, but largely Miles keeps his focus on God.  I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if I didn’t feel like the introduction had promised me much grander theories on the workings of Western civilization.  My other concern is his focus on the Tanakh over the Christian Old Testament.  I think it would be hard to argue that, following the translation of the Bible from Latin to common languages, the Tanakh is more widely influential than the Old Testament.  In America, at least, the opposite is almost certainly true.  When addressing why he chose one over the other—the primary difference between the two is the order of the books—he pays an incredibly small amount of lip service to the idea that the Tanakh is in better chronological order historically (and also confesses that he isn’t super concerned with that anyway).  Mostly, he appears to have chosen the Tanakh because he likes the story it tells of God better.  He thinks the confrontation between Job and God being the last time God speaks in the Tanakh makes it a crescendo in the life of God.  He enjoys the “musical round” nature of the last four books of the Tanakh.  He even seems to have a certain fondness for the JPS translation (although he has no trouble calling up other translations to compare points of view or when an alternate translation makes his point better).  And again, I have no real problem with him choosing the Tanakh because it makes a more interesting life of God.  If he had never mentioned the influence of God’s character on the Western world I probably wouldn’t care—beyond basic curiosity—how a similar reading of the Old Testament would look.  But again, Miles’s introduction just oversells his work enough to make his total failure to address how the God of the Old Testament may have influenced the West differently than the God of the Tanakh just disappointing enough to be noteworthy.  But for all the words I just spent on these complaints, they are pretty minor in the overall impact of Miles’s work.  Especially because the first few books of the Old Testament are exactly the same as in the Tanakh.

With regards to the real purpose of God: A Biography, Miles’s interpretation of the God of the Tanakh is absolutely fascinating.  (I’ll admit here that I’m struggling to figure out how to do nonfiction book notes.  I think what this next paragraph or so will be is me rehashing the bits of the book I found most interesting and that will be that.)  Miles does his best work in the opening chapters of the book as he examines God’s relationships with humans from Adam through Moses.  In these chapters, he leans heavily on the historical reality of polytheism in the region where the ancient Israelites lived.  He points out the places where God, as an individual, acts in ways that in a polytheistic religion would be the actions of many gods (even explaining which historic polytheistic gods likely influenced the foundation of the Judeo-Christian God) and explores how those conflicting behaviors can be reconciled into one being.  He drives the points of these early chapters about a polytheistic pantheon in his postlude, when he reinterprets the entire Bible as a brief polytheistic story, driving home the point that the plot of the Tanakh is completely driven by the intricacies and contradictions of God’s character.  Miles’s other strongest chapter is his discussion of Job.  The idea that Job judged God’s morality and found it lacking is a powerful one.  The idea that this could possibly have shaken God’s faith in himself is pretty stunning.  Additionally, some of the most individually compelling moments are when Miles talks about God discover that he dislikes humans committing murder and when he claims that God hardens the pharaoh’s heart against the release of the Israelites as a way of exploring his identity as a warrior God.

I want to say one final thing.  If you have somehow read this reflection and also not read the book I strongly recommend it.  Regardless of how you feel about religion, come to it with an open mind and you will find it a fascinating read.  Miles can even be rather funny on occasion.

Quotes: (fair warning I have a lot of them)

“But whether the ancient writers of the Bible created God or merely wrote down God’s revelation of himself, their work has been, in literary terms, a staggering success.  It has been read aloud every week for two thousand years to audiences who have received it with utmost seriousness and consciously sought to maximize its influence upon themselves.” (5)

“Within the book of Job itself, God’s climactic and overwhelming reply seems to silence Job. But reading from the end of the Book of Job onward, we see it is Job who has somehow silenced God. God never speaks again, and he is decreasingly spoken of.  In the Book of Esther—a book in which, as in the Book of Exodus, his chosen people face a genocidal enemy—he is never so much as mentioned. In effect, the Jews surmount the threat without his help.” (11)

“And yet, contradictory as this must seem, he also enters time and is changed by experience.  Were it not so, he could not be surprised; and he is endlessly and often most unpleasantly surprised.  God is constant; he is not immutable.” (12)

“Having just inflicted labor in childbearing on her and toil in the fields on him, why should he now spare them the inconvenience of making their own clothing? Why if not because, to speak very simply, he feels bad about it all?” (36)

“After the murder, when he says to Cain, ‘Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!’ it is as if he has at that moment discovered that murder merits condemnation.” (41)

“Just as the one command the Lord gave after God had created the world was a restriction on human procreative power, so the one command given after the Lord/God destroys the world is God’s restriction on human destructive power.  Destruction is forbidden because God is a destroyer as well as a creator.  Reverence aside, a human being engaging in either destruction or creating becomes his rival.” (45)

“None of the divine action reported in the Bible is unlinked to human beings; none of it is, in that sense, purely divine.  God takes no action that does not have man as its object. There are no ‘adventures of God’”. (86)

“If we were forced to say in one word who God is and in another what the Bible is about, the answer would have to be God is a warrior, and the Bible is about victory.  The meaning of victory will change, yet no substitute will ever be found for the language of victory” (106)

“The difference in mood between this Psalm and ‘a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rock!’ is breathtaking; and in the long run any discussion of the Lord God must admit that both moods are native to him.  Neither Psalmist is mistaken about him.  And it should be noted that even Psalm 23, so often printed in illustrated versions for children, includes the prayer that the Lord will make it possible to flaunt his good fortune before his enemies” (282)

“When God himself turns out to be a gambler, all human bets are off.” (310)
“Job does divorce the Lord: Forced to choose between justice and God, he chooses justice, a choice the Lord eventually concedes was the correct one.” (337)

Here I quote Miles quoting Edwin M. Good “’I will grant this to those who think that Job repents of some sin.  If willfully misconstruing the world is a sin, Job repents of it.  If thinking that the issue of sin is important in construing the world is a sin, Job repents of it.  If the essence of religion is that it solves the problem of sin, Job repents of religion’ (In Terms of Tempest, p. 378)” (427)

Further Questions: I know Miles has written something of a sequel called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God and I definitely hope to check that out someday.

This book also helped rekindle my interest in the history of literary criticism and the different active schools of that criticism.

Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here.  The idea that anyone would read 1000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant.  But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it.  Just comment.  Hopefully if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that

God: A Biography

The Art of Fielding

Author: Chad Harbach

Audiobook or Real Book: Audiobook as read by Holter Graham

Why I Read It: It was recommended in a vlogbrothers video and was a recent release so I thought I’d give it a shot

Plot Synopsis: During the best baseball season Westish College has ever had baseball players Henry Skrimshander and Mike Schwartz find themselves struggling to figure out the next steps of their lives.  Meanwhile, Westish president Guert Affenlight tries to balance repairing his relationship with his estranged daughter Pella with a new romance.

General Thoughts:  I have mixed feelings about this book.  For the first hour, I was intrigued.  For the next few hours of listening I was certain I wouldn’t like it.  Next, I fell in and out, at times excited at times not, but motivated to finish at least.  For the final, few hours I was enthralled.  I’ll be honest, and this is humiliating, but for me, one of the biggest struggles (although not the only problem with it) of the book is the intelligence of the characters.  I started this summer of self-improvement mostly because I felt woefully under-read and this book certainly didn’t make me feel better about that.  I’ve also always had a bit of a complex surrounding my own intelligence.  I have always been arrogant about how smart I am.  I basked in my ability to achieve good grades with significantly less work than my classmates. Even here I put these book notes out as a blog mostly with the cautious hope that I might get to talk to people about books in a way I haven’t since finishing undergrad, but I also can’t help but feel like people might read this and think I’m incredibly smart.  But that arrogance has always been tempered by what I know the reality to be.  I am, at best, of average intelligence.  To again use this blog as a point of entry, no one who sees my fundamental failure to utilize commas correctly could really think particularly highly of my overall intelligence (not to mention the actual content of my book notes).  Which has led, of course, to an intense battle of overwhelming knowledge of failure and overwhelming certainty of exceptionalism happening in my head regarding the issue of intelligence.  Suffice it to say, this book was definitely a point for the side of insecurity, which made the arrogant part of me very uncomfortable.  The Art of Fielding is a book that is highly concerned with genius and as I move forward to discuss the themes and characters of the novel I, and anyone who might read this, must view my analysis through the complicated prism of my own relationship with exceptionalism.

I think the easiest place to start is my biggest problem with the novel beyond my personal issues: Owen Dunn.  Owen is an incredible young man, a gay mixed-race boy raised by his African-American mother, he is a striking character from the moment he is introduced.  He is, of course, a genius.  We get hints that his high school grades in math and science were not all that impressive, but his essays earned him a full ride to Westish.  He speaks multiple languages, reads everything from great American literature to the Greek classics, read President Affenlight’s greatest academic achievement in high school, campaigns for sustainable living, wins a grant to study abroad in Tokyo, remains a calm and rational presence throughout the drama of the novel, commands any room he is in, and, to top it all off, isn’t a half-bad baseball player.  He wins the heart of the 60ish college president Guert Affenlight and, to hear Affenlight tell it, retains all the power in the relationship despite both their age gap and their positions as student and teacher.  We also don’t get Owen’s point of view.  In a book with 5 main characters, Guert Affenlight, Pella Affenlight, Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, and Owen Dunn, Owen’s is the only point of view we don’t get.  He remains mostly Affenlight’s object of desire.  We see him play other roles as well, on a smaller scale: Henry’s tragic mistake and steadfast friend; Schwartz’s equal: Pella’s rival for her father’s attention.  But his personal story is mostly ignored.  I will give Harbach some credit, we get hints of Owen’s inner life in the dirty picture he has as a background on his computer, his desire to keep a photo of young Affenlight, his story of depression after his first serious break-up, and his desire to win the National Championship, but these are hints.  Mostly Owen floats through the novel, an image of purity and serenity.  I can see the possibility that this could be a positive thing.  Owen takes on a role that has largely been reserved for white women—the pure and beautiful aspiration of the male protagonist.  But for me, that role runs Owen to close to an object.  This offense may be less egregious if he wasn’t also portrayed as Affenlight’s gay indiscretion.  At no point do these allegedly well-educated characters acknowledge the existence of bisexuality, or talk in any sort of nuanced way about Affenlight’s sexuality, he is simply described as suddenly gay (something both he and his daughter struggle to accept).  Part of Affenlight’s defense of his heterosexuality includes casting Owen’s mannerisms and looks as distinctly feminine, which to me, undermines the value of placing a gay man of color in a traditional white female role.  But this is a bit of a digression from my original point, in a multi-pov story, the lack of Owen’s point of view is a glaring and uncomfortable omission, made more egregious by his inhuman perfection and more sinister by him being the only main character of color and the only openly gay character.

Moving on from Owen to Pella, I have more problems with Harbach’s approach to women.  Pella is the only female character of any significance; Henry’s sister Sophie appears briefly in the beginning and at the beginning of Henry’s downward spiral before vanishing completely and neither time does she contribute anything to the plot beyond a minor complication and Owen’s mother serves only as a catalyst for Owen and Affenlight’s relationship.  A book doesn’t necessarily need multiple female characters to portray a dynamic and complicated woman and overall I would say that Harbach does a good job with Pella.  He pays lip service to a number of feminist issues, including gendered language, and portrays Pella and the mistakes of her teenage years and her recovery from depression in a way that inspires empathy.  However, I cannot get over how this young woman who we are supposed to regard as exceptionally intelligent and quick witted talks about—however briefly—how she has only been friends with men and cannot see herself making any friends with the slightly younger women attending Westish.  It plays as an uncomfortable “not like other girls” moment that casts everything Harbach has done to make her brilliant and complicated into the uncomfortable light of what the male author imagines women are actually like.  Her strange and fleeting sexual attraction to her father also left me feeling like her role was partly to assure us of Affenlight’s virility when Harbach’s straight male characters couldn’t do so and Affenlight’s love interest was kept silent.

Beyond the problems I had with Harbach’s characters, I genuinely enjoyed reading about Mike and Henry.  I particularly liked that, despite showing them as, at the very least, good at everything thing they do Harbach also showed us repeatedly that they were both hard workers.  Henry trains for baseball for hours every single day as well as going to class and working hard at his job.  Mike studies constantly and throws the rest of his remaining effort into the school’s athletic program.     While I can’t say I related to or even liked either character, they were well drawn and fascinating protagonists.  Henry, in particular, was a treat to read about.  Lacking his love of baseball, or the level of dedication to anything that he has to baseball, his thought process was often foreign to me but absolutely fascinating.  I particularly loved the way Harbach portrayed Henry’s deep depression after his failure.  In a book that features Melville so heavily as a reference point it was nice to see an allusion to Melville I was familiar with (I have never read Moby Dick).  While Henry’s depression certainly felt like a vivid and realistic portrayal of someone deeply depressed, the heavy specter of Melville over The Art of Fielding also made it feel like a direct reference to “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (particularly in Henry’s decision not to eat) although I could not find a thematic link to “Bartleby” (granted it’s been a long time since I read it).  Perhaps one could argue that the thematic link is how unfulfilling hard work without success can be but I don’t think that’s the point that either Harbach or Melville are trying to make in their respective works.  Affenlight never did grow on me and I don’t have much to add about his character that feels worth adding here.

Thematically The Art of Fielding is most interested in ambition (and that’s not my interpretation either, it’s from the official summary).  It is interesting to note that all his characters, except pure Owen, fail:  Affenlight cannot balance Pella, Owen, and Westish; Henry signs with the major league, but only in the 33rd round; Mike doesn’t get into to one of the top 6 law schools in the country; Pella has not discovered her passion.  But they don’t fail too badly either.  Henry will return to Westish and become a better player.  Mike will remain at Westish building up the athletic department he’d put four years of work into.  Pella will be continuing college and is excited about her courses.  Finally, although he does die, Affenlight could have left Westish with his head held high and, after his peaceful death, his body is set out to sea as a poetic tribute to his life.  For Harbach, it seems, ambition and hard work are important but all the more valuable if you can balance them with failure.  Henry, Mike, and Pella are only victims of their ambition when they let it overwhelm them and cannot cope with a deviation from their plans.  Affenlight is only a victim of his ambition when he cannot acknowledge the incompatibility of his goals and adjust his course accordingly.  In the end, despite its somewhat somber final notes, Harbach’s message seems to be one of hope and perseverance.  Perhaps it’s my overall ambivalence to this novel or my own blind stupidity, but I cannot find much in it beyond that theme.  Harbach’s relationships—father-daughter, mentor-mentee, teammates, friends, and romantic partners—are interesting and fleshed out, but he does not seem to have anything to say about them.  Mike and Pella’s relationship in particular, while nice, felt more like a way to tie the two sides of the story together than something that added anything to the theme of ambition or anything else Harbach could have said about love and romance.  I’m not saying that having one theme is a bad thing, just that the tone of this novel definitely made me feel like it expected me to get a lot more out of it than I did.

Quotes: (Again pulled from Good Reads ☹)
“She hated the namelessness of women in stories, as if they lived and died so that men could have metaphysical insights.” (haha sorry)

“Each of us, deep down, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide onto an Earth-sized screen. And then, deeper down, each of us knows he’s wrong.”

“The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

Essay Ideas/Further Questions: Obviously, I would like to see something that explores Owen as a queer character.  I would either like to see something comparing him to other queer characters in literature, compares him to female characters that have filled similar roles, or an in-depth look at him in relation to the preeminent essays on queer literary theory.

If I had read more Melville, I would want to write an essay that decoded the influence of Melville on The Art of Fielding, particularly what Melville provides to the theme of the story.

Finally, some kind of analysis on Mike and Henry’s relationship to each other, and how that impacts their relationship to their own ambitions, might be worth looking into.

Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here.  The idea that anyone would read 2000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant.  But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it.  Just comment.  Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that

The Art of Fielding

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (ReRead)

Author: JRR Tolkien

Audiobook or Real Book: Real Book

Why I Read It: I have always considered myself a huge LOTR and Tolkien fan.  But I was talking to my sister a few weeks ago and realized I had not re-read the actual trilogy since the summer before college (five years ago!!!!).  That said, this was at least my fifth time reading it.

Plot Synopsis: When Frodo Baggins inherits a magic ring from his uncle he has no idea its true power.  However, when the ring is discovered to be the long-lost weapon of the Dark Lord, he must embark on a dangerous quest to keep Middle Earth safe

General Thoughts: I want to preface everything I have to say with this: when it comes to The Lord of the Rings I am not sure how well I do separating the books from the movies.  I think of myself as someone who normally does not have trouble thinking of an adaptation as totally separate from the original work, but for me LOTR is different.  I think it has to do with how I fell in love with Tolkien’s world.  When I was 10 I saw part of the first Lord of the Rings movie on TV, specifically Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog.  I was enchanted.  I wanted desperately to watch the rest of that movie, but it was pg-13.  Hoping to dissuade me, I think, from something that may be too violent or scary, my parents told me I could watch the movies after I read the books.  I read them.  Not only did I read them, but I loved them.  I definitely didn’t understand or appreciate a lot of the language and intricacies of the books, but they were fantasy/adventure stories which had been the bread and butter of my reading since I first read Harry Potter.  Besides, I have always been someone who likes to feel as if I’m smart, and they were in the adult section of the library and far more difficult than anything I had ever read before.  When I finished, my parents kept their promise and we rented all three movies as soon as possible.  I spent the whole time we watched them explaining the book and talking about what was different.  I got the movies for my birthday that year.  I think the fact that my first experience with the books is inextricably linked to my first experience with the films is what makes it so difficult for me to separate them. Or maybe they are so closely intertwined for simpler reasons.  Maybe it’s just that I think The Lord of the Rings movies are the greatest page to film adaptation ever made or because I’ve watched them so many times.  Regardless, I bring this up because I am not going to try to stop myself if I start talking about the movies in what is allegedly a book reflection.  I am going to try to stop myself from talking about the trilogy as a whole, but I don’t edit these book notes beyond very basic grammar, so if I fail oh well.

My love of The Lord of the Rings definitely has more to do with the world building than the writing, characters, or even the plot.  The depth and intricacy of Tolkien’s world never ceases to amaze me. It is something I tried to replicate all through middle school and into high school.  Even now, if I finish the novella I’m trying to get out as part of my self-improvement summer, I’ll probably go back to trying my hand at intricate world-building.  I have discovered I have no talent, or even love, for writing fiction, but I would love to have a private world to explore.  Tolkien’s deep understanding and love of Middle-Earth comes through in every page of his work.  The casual references his characters make to the mythology and lore (or really the history) of their world lends the trilogy a beautiful sense of depth and truly makes us feel like this story is only one of many in the long history of these people, and perhaps not even the most important one.  I do find that I appreciate those references a great deal more having read The Silmarillion, especially when they come in the form of long songs that I definitely skipped my first time or two reading the books, but I don’t think that background knowledge is necessary to appreciate what Tolkien does with the history of Middle-Earth.  Even those long songs are wonderful without background knowledge for more mature readers than 10-year-old me.

Speaking of things more mature readers can appreciate, I have often said to friends who haven’t read the books that Tolkien’s writing style can tend to drag.  I have accused him of being overly descriptive and even, at times, boring.  However, each time I return to these books I find myself proven more and more wrong.  True, Tolkien has a tendency to have the real action of his books be over in just a few paragraphs.  Notably, Frodo being stabbed at Weathertop literally takes place over the course of 2 pages and the first page is only Aragorn and the hobbits sensing something foul approaching.  But Tolkien does not, as I once thought, waste words.  Instead he uses discerption to build moods and those moods can be so powerful that the moment of action is more a culmination of what he has been building than the sudden intrusion of the plot.  I first noticed this on what I think was my third reread, when I felt my whole body physically relax after the ring was destroyed in The Return of the King (I hadn’t even realized I was tense).  This time I tried to pay closer attention to my mood as the story progressed and, while I didn’t have any reaction as visceral as that one, I was able to appreciate Tolkien’s writing better than ever before.  His writing as the fellowship journeys through Moria is particularly compelling.

If there is a criticism of Tolkien that I made early on that I still feel holds true it is a criticism of his characters.  I do think—and this is where the problem of my opening paragraph comes in—I may have more love for the characters as Tolkien presents them if I had not seen the films.  I have often brought my love of the characterizations of the film into the books, but I tried to avoid it this time and appreciate the characters as they are.  In Fellowship, at least, only Frodo, Boromir, and Galadriel have any real compelling depth to them.  Most of Tolkien’s characters are stick figures.  They represent a type of hero and differ from each other mostly in species, knowledge, and maturity.  I discussed this with a professor of mine once and he made the case that the flatness of Tolkien’s characters has more to do with the type of story he was trying to write than his skill as a writer.  This professor, who largely focused on medieval English literature, argued that the style of early medieval English literature was the style Tolkien was trying to write in.  He said that the idea of “character development” being a necessary part of a good story was an invention that started with Shakespeare—in English literature at least (I want it noted that I am paraphrasing a conversation I had almost 3 years ago and if I am messing up the facts that’s on my faulty memory not his knowledge of literary history).  Our conversation focused on Aragorn in particular, in the books Aragorn appears to me quite arrogant and, worse still, not able to really live up to everything he imagines himself to be.  We do see self-doubt from him, but only when he must take up Gandalf’s mantle.  I have tried to reflect on my professor’s argument, that in the tradition Tolkien is writing in Aragorn represents the divine right of kings and what I interpret for arrogance is what Tolkien would regard as proper kingly behavior.  While I can appreciate that my professor was likely right in his analysis and even acknowledge there is power to choosing to write characters into shallow boxes for the purpose of divine right and true heroes—especially if the DVD bonus feature assessment of Tolkien’s goal being to write an English mythology is true—I can also say that it’s not a style I really appreciate.  I don’t think well-rounded and complicated characters are ever a mistake, nor do I think that making characters well-rounded and complicated means taking away from the purity of your story.  I still enjoy all the book characters (I’m not all that hard to please), but I’ll admit I love most of them because even when reading the books, I combine them with their movie counterparts.  Now, I will make a caveat on my analysis.  Fellowship of the Ring is definitively Frodo’s story.  Perhaps as I move on to Two Towers and Return of the King I will find that four years has left my memory faulty and letting go of my movie biases will open my eyes even further. Maybe as each character gets more page time I will understand how full and complicated they really are.  Perhaps, my Two Towers book notes will contain nothing but apologies for the last 500 words I just wrote.  We’ll see.

As for the characters, I do think are complex, Frodo has a great deal of inner life.  We are privy to his doubts and fears as well as his moments of heroism.  I debated putting him on the list of compelling characters, because he does often feel simply pulled along by what the story needs him to do, but I think his real moment comes in the final chapter.  As he contemplates how to make himself go on to Mordor, and whether or not he should leave the rest of the fellowship behind, we see the depth of his fear and the strength of his doubts at war with the simple knowledge of what must be done and the solid courage to do it.  I think this moment of reflection, along with the slow start from Bag End to Crickhollow, give us real insight into Frodo’s complexities.  Boromir is also a complex character, although perhaps a bit of a cheat of one as all his complexity exists for plot reason.  He must be a good man or else he could not be in the company and serve his later role or introduce us to Gondor.  He must be hungry for power or he would not be the first to fall to the ring.  Someone must fall to the ring to demonstrate the power the ring has over good men and separate Frodo from the rest of the company.  But the plot purposes his characterization serve don’t stop him from being an interesting and complicated.  Boromir’s fall is all the more moving because we know it must be coming, but we can see the good in him and hope he can avoid it.  Galadriel, despite her limited page time both here and in The Silmarillion, is, in my opinion, Tolkien’s best character.  A lot of her depth must be inferred in Fellowship and even in The Silmarillion (there is a chapter of Unfinished Tales called “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn and of Amroth King of Lorien” which I read once when I was a junior in high school and have just rediscovered and intend to reread when I have time).  From Fellowship alone we can mostly go on how Frodo feels about her.  We understand through his feelings at the Mirror of Galadriel and the fellowship’s reactions to her that she is incredibly powerful.  We can also see that she has been tempted by the ring, not only when Frodo offers it to her, but that she has thought about obtaining it before.  We understand too, that there must be some level of darkness in her for her to wield Nenya, but also a purity of heart that means she will sacrifice her home to defeat Sauron.  There is also the element that, in Tolkien’s highly patriarchal world, Galadriel is brazenly both wiser and more powerful than her husband.  I would love to do an in-depth character study of Galadriel that closely examined all her appearances in Tolkien’s works, but unfortunately these hints of complexity are all Fellowship gives us.

Reaching nearly the 2000-word mark (these book notes are definitely getting a lot longer than I thought they would and taking a lot longer to write) I still haven’t talked about the themes of the book yet.  I also don’t intend to.  The Lord of the Rings is truly one cohesive work and I think trying to draw themes out of Fellowship alone would be a mistake (God help how long my Return of the King book notes will be).

I would like to add, however, one more quick note.  I absolutely adore how a cheerful walking song that the hobbits sing while still in the Shire is the song that was transformed into Pippin’s emotional solo in The Return of the King film.  I love to imagine that, after telling Denethor he has no songs appropriate for the occasion, it is, in fact, a cheerful walking song that Pippin sings—modified to fit his current mood.

Quotes: (Still pulled from GoodReads because I failed at note taking. I did go back and find the pages in my edition though)

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’” (50)

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” (58)

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” (339)

“The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” (82)

Essay Ideas/Further Questions: I’m not going to address this at all until I get to Return of the King

Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here.  The idea that anyone would read 2000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant.  But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it.  Just comment.  Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (ReRead)

Between The World And Me

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Audiobook or Real Book: I listened to the audiobook read by the author

Why I read it: I first heard of the book when Coates was interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  Since then I have seen it recommended in quite a few places

Synopsis: The book is presented as a letter from Coates to his son after a grand jury refused to indict Darren Wilson

General Thoughts: I don’t think I can say a lot about this book.  Sure, there were things Coates said that I wanted to vehemently dispute.  There were also things he said that I wanted to show to everyone I’ve ever spoken to and say “see, this is the truth”.  But, I do not think this is a book for me to discuss and debate.  I am white.  For me, this book is offered up as an experience.  It is the opportunity to see inside what it means to be black in America, but I am not able to criticize or canonize anything Coates says.  I can only listen.  Any debate or discussion that can come up around this book is intended to come from within the black community.

I will talk briefly about the moments in the book I found most striking.  The one that stands out the most to me is when Coates recounts going on a guided tour of a Civil War battleground and the tour guide being a confederate reenactor.  The next most striking is when he describes having a confrontation with a white woman and a white man after the woman pushes his son out of the way.  For me, it was not so much the rest of the confrontation that rattled me (although that appeared to be what rattled Coates) but the willingness of anyone to step forward and defend someone who shoved a child.  I realize the phrasing of that sounds like I’m trying to dismiss the racist tones of that confrontation.  I am not.  Coates makes it clear that his son’s blackness is at least partially responsible for the push and his own blackness is certainly responsible for the man’s intervention, so for me, while the racism escalates throughout the conversation, it was the initial facts of the white peoples’ actions that left me reeling.  Coates’s description of Howard, or really his description of attending an all-black college, was definitely striking to me.  It was also eye-opening.  While I had intellectually understood the arguments for all black (and all girl) colleges, I had never truly understood their popularity.  I would also like to talk briefly about Coates’s reflections on his time spent in France.  There was not a whole lot about that section that felt as moving or even as important as the rest of the book, but I would say it was potentially the most interesting piece.  The way race does and does not cross cultures when one is a tourist was something I had never considered before.  Finally, the comparison that Coates draws between the history of race and racism and the current global warming crisis is stunning.  At the risk of toeing the line I drew for myself just a paragraph ago, I found this Coates argument about the white (or people who believe they are white, as Coates describes us) culture of domination dooming the earth to be quite compelling, if fatalistic.

One final note that I have—I would very much likely to see the spiritual successor of the same caliber coming from Coates’s symbolic son.  Not that I want to be a total jackass and literally demand that Coates’s actual son write a memoir in conversation with his father just so people can compare, but that I would like someone who has lived a life relatively similar to Coates’s son to write a reply in conversation with Coates.  Obviously, Coates is one person and no one person can write something that reports the experience of a whole group.  But, beyond that limitation, Coates himself acknowledges that he has lived a specific type of black experience which further narrows his voice.  More than once he wonders at the ways in which his son’s childhood is different than his own, both safer and broader, and I wonder how a “son’s” interpretation would differ from Coates’s and how he would address those disagreements in conversation.  Of course, this is merely wishful thinking (or perhaps such a book exists and this is merely ignorance) but I do think it would add a valuable layer to what Coates is trying to do both inside and outside of the black community.

Quotes: (Per my own failure, quotes are pulled from GoodReads with no page numbers or timestamps as opposed to my actual favorites)

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

“One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.”

“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

Essay Ideas: As I said, this is not a book for me to be debating and dissecting and therefore this is not a book for me to write essays about.  If anything at all, I would cite this book in an essay on something else.  But that’s an at most.

Between The World And Me

American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Audiobook or Real Book: I listened to the unabridged full cast production of the 10th-anniversary edition

Why I read it: I read it once in high school and really loved it.  I decided to do a reread before the tv show came out.

Basic Plot Synopsis: After the death of his wife Shadow Moon is plunged into the world of Gods.  He finds himself caught up in the brewing war between the old gods and the new when he accepts a job with the old con-man Mr. Wednesday

General Thoughts: I love this book.  I did not really remember much of what I had read in high school beyond the basic plot structure and the Bilquis scene.  I often cited my biggest reason for loving the novel the first time around was the “twist” ending.  Coming back to it now I rekindled a much deeper appreciation for everything about it.

First, however, I’d like to get my primary complaint out of the way. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style, while I think he does manage to create a compelling atmosphere in American Gods, I find his writing style too choppy and disjointed.  In fact, American Gods is the only book by Gaiman I’ve ever managed to read all the way through, although I did listen to Good Omens and The Ocean at the End of the Lane as audiobooks.  Even as an audiobook I occasionally found myself bothered by his style in American Gods, but as with my first time reading it I found the concept, plot, and themes so compelling that I didn’t mind. (I want to make clear that this critique of Gaiman’s style is not actually an accusation of poor writing. While I personally do not care for his style, there is nothing objectively wrong with it.  My criticism is about preference, not a declaration of good or bad.  In fact, his ability to create a mood for me even as I dislike his style is likely indicative of a great deal of skill I am simply not appreciating.)

As for what I like about American Gods the original concept of the novel was something I was always going to find compelling.  I have always been fascinated by religion and faith.  When I was a child, I was extremely religious and, although I became agnostic in high school, I have remained interested in religion.  I attended a catholic college where, although I did not major in religious studies, I took three religious studies courses—including one where I was introduced to the work of Jack Miles whose book God: A Biography will be the first nonfiction nonaudiobook I will talk about on this blog.  A book all about the function of myth and faith in the United States whose characters are gods made flesh was always going to excite me.  Thematically this book did not let me down.  I do not feel like I fully appreciated what Gaiman was talking about my first time reading, or at least I do not remember appreciating it, but coming back to it I completely understand why I was supposed to reread it for my Sci-Fi and Fantasy Literature course in college (oops).  Gaiman’s meditation on immigration and the American landscape is incredibly compelling.  His nuanced exploration of the constant and cyclical culture clash between the old, the new, and the lingering creates compelling questions for the reader about where they place their faith and why and what kind of power that faith has.  He also raises questions about how America functions in its own mythology.  I love his characterization of America as a cruel place for gods, where the old gods cannot succeed and the new gods will become old before they know what has happened.  Shadow’s final conversation with the land leaves the audience reeling with a renewed understanding of how little power gods truly have. (This was the place I was worried about the show.  The trailer, and more notably some of the cast interviews, seemed to hint at the show taking the track of the new gods are capital B bad, and while the old gods may not be good, everyone should hate the new gods.  Which, at least in my interpretation, is not Gaiman’s point at all.  The new gods are no different than the old gods except that they are new and therefore powerful.  So far, I am fairly pleased with how the show is handling this.)  There are, of course, more subtle nuances and side themes in the novel, but this is already 650 words of slop and I would like to discuss the characters and plot before this begins to reach essay length.  One final thematic note I would like to touch on, however, is Jesus.  By listening to the 10th-anniversary edition (which is also the edition I currently own—although not the edition I first read) I was able to hear the scene Gaiman wrote between Shadow and Jesus while Shadow was holding vigil.  Even in the extended edition, he leaves the scene as an appendix. Gaiman says of the scene “I felt like I was alluding to something that I couldn’t simply mention in passing and then move on from. It was too big” (532).  I disagree with Gaiman, although I’m sure he knows best, as I am in love with the scene.  I would recommend it to anyone, even if they have previously read the original publication edition, and am super pumped to see how the show will be incorporating Jesus based on this scene.  Gaiman’s Jesus feels kinder and more open than any of the gods Shadow has encountered previously, but Gaiman makes it clear that he is no less troubled.  He is successful, true, but that success has its own price.  America has no tolerance for a God that is static, Jesus is many different things to many different people and not much of anything to himself.  Gaiman is right that the 3-page meeting hints at something massive and forces the reader to again reimagine the world of gods in America, but I think it is worth it.

As for the characters, I can’t say I personally like any of them except Shadow.  Although don’t take that to mean I don’t think they are all wonderful and well-written characters, they are.  Shadow, for me, is extremely likable.  His numb pain after years in prison and Laura’s betrayal are the perfect vehicle through which the audience can experience the strange and troubling world Gaiman has crafted.  However, he is not reduced to simply an audience surrogate in his passivity.  Shadow’s journey, to me, is a journey of empowerment and peace.  I think that journey is made all the more powerful by the fact that Shadow is not explicitly looking for either and yet at the end of the novel Shadow is undeniably more content than he was at any other point.  He understands his own value and his place in the world.  He knows he has power, but he also knows that power is limited and he has made his peace with all his loss and all he cannot change.  Laura’s assessment of him, as someone who was never fully alive prior to his vigil for Wednesday, and someone who became fully alive during it feels incredibly accurate.  I feel like there is some deeper discussion that could be dug out of Shadow’s character, but this is just supposed to be my general after reading thoughts (despite having finished the book almost three weeks ago—oh well).  The only other characters of real note for me are Wednesday, Anansi, Czernobog, and Laura.  The three gods are static, which is in part the point of them.  They are as much symbols as they are characters, not as a failing of Gaiman to give them complexity, but because they are what they were once believed to be.  I’ll admit, I am not familiar enough with any of their mythological traditions to differentiate between where Gaiman pulled from myth and where he innovated, but I certainly find his approach to the gods compelling.  Laura is the other character with real development, and I love her as a character even if I have no fondness for her.  I know there are complaints about her treatment.  The cheating wife punished with brutal death and none of it the fault of our betrayed protagonist is certainly a reviled trope for a reason and I make no excuses for it.  I can only say that I love how Gaiman executes that trope.  The Laura we meet is on, what is on the surface, the opposite journey from Shadow.  He goes from absence through death to life while she goes from life through death to absence (I’m not sure absence is the best word to describe it, but it works).  Her journey is no less valuable, thoughtful, or powerful.  I also love, that while Laura and Shadow shape each other and remain tied together through their old life together their journeys happen independent of each other.  Their spouse has a significant role to play in who they become, but they do not change for each other the way that it is hinted they may have when Laura was alive.  I am very excited for the TV show’s promise to expand the role of the book’s female characters, namely Laura and Bilquis.  I dearly hope that this expansion will also cover Bast.  Although I love Bilquis’s introduction as much as the next person and am sure the show can draw a compelling storyline out of her, I think Bast is the goddess whose presence in the book most invites question and exploration.  I would also like to see more expansion on Mama-Ji, whose blatant dismissal of Wednesday at the House on the Rock is a fantastic moment.

The plot of American Gods is rather flimsy, to me, it’s more a string of explorations of place and character than a coherent plot, but I do not think that harms the novel.  There is enough of a story to keep you interested in the plot, but the war between the old and new gods does not truly get interesting until the con is revealed.  The con is fantastic, both for its symbolic resonance and its shocking discovery, and I would argue even if the novel wouldn’t be cheaper thematically without it the plot simply would not be interesting enough to hold up the novel without it.  Luckily, the twist is there and we do not have to worry about it.  Coming back a second time I definitely appreciated the events in Laketown more.  I remember thinking the subplot an odd aside, an interruption in the middle of an interesting book when I first read it.  Returning to the book I realized first, that it actually slots in quite nicely with the main plot in a way I simply didn’t remember, and second, the plot line does a lot to show the power of human faith and communities first hand in a way that Shadow’s wonderings with gods simply cannot show him.  The final scene with Hinzelmann also brings a nice cap to Shadow’s character, he has changed for the better but there is only so much changing for the better can really do.

One final note on the book is that, as a Wisconsinite, I must admit there is a part of me that loves this book simply because it takes place in Wisconsin.

Quotes: (I am not a note taker when reading.  As much as I can see the benefit of reading with a highlighter or pen, and as much as I would like to be the kind of person who does so, I have never mastered the craft.  While I do intend to try to improve on that, I listened to this audiobook before I had that goal.  To be completely honest, I’m also not remotely sure how to go about marking a favorite quote in an audiobook.  All that is to say, these quotes are mostly pulled off GoodReads and may exclude my actual favorite quotes as I cannot remember them. Also, I don’t have page numbers or timestamps for most of them)

“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”

“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.”

“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you—even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition.”

“The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored.”

Essay Ideas/Further Questions: If there was ever a novel that lends itself to essays on symbolism this is one.  I would be particularly interested in an in-depth look at the types of coins and coin tricks

It could also be really interesting to approach the themes of faith and belief from a theological perspective.  I do not know enough about theologians to make a judgment off the top of my head on what resources one should use, but it would be awesome

Of the existing scholarly work, I’ve seen on American Gods, much of it centers around the use of folklore in fantasy novels.  An essay in conversation with these papers would work.

Obviously, one could try to detangle Gaiman’s ideas about identity—maybe with an in-depth character study of Shadow, even contrasting him with characters around him

Finally, I’d personally like to see a feminist critique of Sam Black Crow.  For me, her speech on belief brings her a bit too close to manic pixie dream girl, but I’m not sure about that

Last Thing: It feels incredibly uncomfortable and presumptuous to make a comment to a reader here.  The idea that anyone would find this and read 2000+ words of reader response, let alone find anything I have to say remotely worth thinking about, seems incredibly awkward and arrogant.  But, I also know I would regret not saying it: if you have anything you would like to discuss or debate about anything I have said I would love to talk to you about it.  Just leave a comment.  Hopefully, if anyone reads this they won’t judge me too hard for saying that

American Gods