Monday, December 22, 2008


Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism is a 2006 nonfiction anti-religion, pro-atheism book by David Mills. Ostensibly, this book points out why God is unnecessary to explain the existence and origin of the universe, and rebuts arguments in support of God’s existence.

David Mills is not a scientist. What he seems to be, if anything, is a professional atheist. Atheist Universe’s “About the Author” section begins, “David Mills has been an atheist for thirty years…” Not surprisingly, then, this book fundamentally isn’t about science – it’s about atheism as an ideology versus religion as an ideology. Mills is not a historian, either. He’s on record that Jesus never lived at all, which shows a profound ignorance of the kind of accepted historical standard we have for that era.

Mills’ biggest hang-up with Christianity seems to be the hypocrisy of many Christians and the un-Christian behavior of the Church throughout history. Other problems with God that Mills has include God’s punishment of evil, the fact that bad things happen, and God’s failure to solve all the world’s problems immediately. On the whole, Mills shows himself to have a very juvenile and simple concept of what God should be, and what humanity by implication would be.

Mills does point out some legitimate problems with Christian fundamentalism. Yes, you run into problems when you try to make everything in the Bible completely literal. Yes, you run into problems when you throw doctors and modern medicine away completely. But Mills irresponsibly bases almost his entire argument against all religion on these problems. Mills takes his arguments against those on the fringe and applies them to the whole. Similarly, he takes a few poor arguments that some proponents of intelligent design have made and applies them with broad strokes to the whole of creationism. In Mills’ mind, God and science are never compatible at all for any reason.

Mills claims to understand the Bible, but the way he quotes it and uses it shows that he doesn’t, on any fundamental level. This is not to criticize him for not believing the Bible; rather, many of his attempts to use the Bible against itself (“here’s a Bible verse – look how silly that is”) are poor, silly, baseless, and stupid. And he’s often completely wrong about what the Bible says, period. He frequently attacks those whose pro-Bible arguments boil down to “The Bible is true because it’s the Bible”, but his criticisms of the Bible often boil down to “The Bible is untrue because it’s the Bible.”

The fundamental problem with Atheist Universe is that Mills makes little in the way of meaningful arguments to support his positions. He mostly draws from the old “Here’s the religious/Bible/Christian position – see how ridiculous it is?” well. Those arguments would carry a little more weight if he had any clue what he was talking about. Either way, debunking something else doesn’t prove the point you’re trying to make (not that Mills does a good job of debunking anything other than his credibility). On the whole, Mills comes across as petty, juvenile, and not much of a thinker.
Atheists who evangelize are always remarkable. If nothing has eternal bearing, than what’s the point converting other people to atheism? It’s one thing to say, “God doesn’t exist.” It’s quite another to say, “God doesn’t exist, and I hate him.” Mills carries on at length about “injustice” and “evil” in the world – Mills, you’re an atheist - injustice is relative, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Mills doesn’t want God judging him, so he judges God and finds him profoundly lacking.

Atheist Universe is poorly reasoned and poorly argued. David Mills is, on the whole, quite content to throw the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater and grind his axe against God and religion. Calling this book “The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism” is an insult to thinking people everywhere.


Friday, December 19, 2008

JESUS ON MARS by Philip José Farmer

Jesus on Mars is a 1979 science fiction novel by Philip José Farmer, author of the magnificent Riverworld series. The title is also the premise: An expedition from Earth lands on Mars to investigate a crashed spaceship, and discovers a large society comprised of aliens and Jews, whose ancestors were brought to Mars around the time of Christ. The leader of this group claims to be Jesus Christ, has miraculous powers, and has been with them for two thousand years. Is this Jesus real, an impostor, or the antichrist?

Farmer’s Jesus and his Martian society reject the traditionally accepted Christology – that Jesus was fully God and fully man. This Jesus is man only, an imperfect “adopted son” of God. This Jesus says he did no miracles during his life on Earth (the biblical Gospel writers made that up afterward), he died, was resurrected and appeared on Mars, where he gained his miracle-working powers. For this and other reasons, Farmer’s Jesus doesn’t ring true, nor does his society of Martian Jews. They are billed as a God-fearing, good people, but it never feels like there’s much love in them. As such, the reader is never in much danger of accepting Farmer’s Jesus as the “real” Jesus. And somewhere, Saint Paul is rolling over in his grave.

Farmer’s writing has some problems. The main character’s romance doesn’t feel natural. None of the characters are particularly well-developed, and Farmer missed a wonderful opportunity to explore his themes more deeply by not including a committed Christian in the crew. Everyone comes to faith in this Jesus rather easily – all it takes is a few tossed-around allegations that the biblical Gospels were fabricated and a circus performance by Jesus, and everybody’s on the wagon. Further problems – every female character in the entire book is specifically described as having a large bust. Busty women are well and good, but come on, Farmer. And if you want to play a Jesus on Mars drinking game, your word is “aquiline”.

Farmer does raise some valid issues as he pursues his theme of skepticism versus faith. Certainly, if Jesus appeared on Mars as he does in this novel, then yes, Christianity as we understand it would be bogus. But that isn’t really the issue – the real issue is the nature of Jesus himself, and by implication, God. The fundamental issue of who Jesus is is relevant to anyone, something that Farmer makes abundantly clear in Jesus on Mars (whether he was trying to or not).

Any way you slice it, Jesus on Mars discredits the biblical Jesus. Farmer’s Jesus, his Martian society, and the ship’s crew all endorse and/or buy into the idea that the Gospels were tampered with when they were initially written, a concept that Farmer throws out as accepted fact but offers no real evidence for.

Jesus on Mars is hardly Farmer’s finest work, as his writing and execution of the premise are both somewhat lacking. And while the novel raises some legitimate questions on faith and skepticism, Farmer doesn’t handle these weighty issues as well as he might have, or as thoroughly.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008


A Case of Conscience is a 1958 science fiction novel by James Blish. It won the 1959 Hugo Award.

In 2049, Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit priest, accompanies an expedition to an alien planet to see if it should be opened to human contact. The inhabitants are a perfectly moral but completely non-religious people. This causes a crisis of faith for Ruiz-Sanchez, who comes to suspect that the planet and its inhabitants were created by Satan to trick humanity into believing that it can be good without God (that Satan can create relates to the heresy of Manichaeism).

A Case of Conscience is a relatively short novel, but the length never feels insufficient for the task. Blish does just enough world-building with his futuristic Earth to communicate the issues. Curiosity would have liked more information on the planet Lithia, but the story works well enough as is. Blish is heavy on the hard science here, at least enough to overwhelm (and thus fool) the casual reader. This is an idea-driven, not character-driven book, and Blish doesn’t bother with much deep introspection on anybody’s part (There’s great potential for it on Ruiz-Sanchez’s part, and it’s refreshing to see it not happen).

This novel was expanded from a novella, and there’s plenty of room left for further expansion. Egtverchi is a fascinating character and full of potential. But again, it’s refreshing to see the idea cow not milked to death – that was how people wrote fifty years ago, but not in our age of Robert Jordan and those hacks that cranked out the Left Behind series.

Like a good science fiction novel should, A Case of Conscience raises some interesting and valid moral and theological issues, and it’s entertaining, too.


P.S. - "A Spanish-speaking Jesuit priest travels to another planet as part of an expedition to make first contact with an alien race and subsequently suffers a crisis of faith" – this also is the premise of Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 novel The Sparrow. Whether Russell borrowed from Blish or not (obviously she did), Blish’s novel is incredibly superior (no great achievement, since Russell’s is so bad).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird is a 1994 book on writing and life by novelist and writing instructor Anne Lamott. This is partly a book on writing and partly a memoir – obviously, when writers write books on writing, this is not an infrequent combination, although Lamott more or less melds them inextricably together – there is no "writing" section and "memoir" section.

There is relatively little in Bird by Bird on craft. Lamott gives a few tips on plotting, character and dialogue, but by and large she's more concerned with the writer's mindset (and telling her little stories). Lamott talks at length here about the writer's mindset, and this is where Bird by Bird makes good. She gets writing and the writing process, and she discusses it empathetically. Writers who experience anxiety, frustration and writer's block will relate to her, although she does seem to be more schizophrenic than most.

Lamott's style will turn some readers off. She is mildly humorous, but she tends to ramble on frequently, and readers who do not think she's particularly funny will find her writing style tiresome. Lamott talks often about God and spirituality, but she ascribes to an annoyingly vague and general mysticism.

Bird by Bird is going to be hit or miss with most people. If you're a writer looking for tips on craft, look elsewhere. If you're a writer looking for someone to sympathize with your travails and encourage you to keep at it, Lamott is it.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by Mark Twain, originally published in 1884. It is the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Ernest Hemingway (and many others) called it the greatest American novel ever. Huck Finn picks up right where Tom Sawyer left off – Huck's abusive father appears to lay claim to Huck's fortune, so Huck fakes his own death and goes down the Mississippi River with Jim, the escaped slave.

Much like Tom Sawyer, there's not a lot of plot going on here most of the time, and that's okay, because Twain's writing is extremely entertaining. Twain has a good old time mocking social conventions, and the novel is gripping almost all the way through. Hemingway was right: the end of Huck Finn is poor. After Jim is abducted and Tom Sawyer reappears, things just get silly, not to mention highly convenient (And Tom Sawyer here is just as immature as he ever was, reinforcing that no real maturation occurred in Tom Sawyer, and that that book really isn't a coming-of-age story in the truest sense).

Twain has made Huck the narrator. On the whole, this works, although it gets tiresome to read Huck's dialect sometimes. Twain-as-narrator is definitely missed here. Nobody could write a clever sentence like Twain, and most of that is lost here, although occasionally Huck will turn one (and by doing so break character, but that's the price you pay).

Huck Finn has been exceedingly controversial because of the extensive use of the n-word. So is the novel racist? Certainly the characters have the racism of the day ingrained in them – in that sense, it is racist. But more important to most people is whether Twain was racist; that is, whether he put his own personal racism in the book. That is harder to determine, especially since Twain has made Huck the narrator. Perhaps the fairest thing to say is that Twain was genuinely criticizing racism, but the way in which he portrayed Jim and the other characters contains some residual racism of its own.

So is Huck Finn America's greatest novel? Well, maybe not. But it's definitely up there.


Friday, December 5, 2008


The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a 2008 book written and illustrated by J. K. Rowling. Set in the Harry Potter world (although it features none of these characters), it includes five fairy tales about witches and wizards. These are nothing special, and some are blatant adaptations of old fairy tales. This is hardly enough to make a book, so Rowling has added Professor Dumbledore’s commentary (which is just as long or longer than the stories) following each tale. This is an attempt to humorously add moral and sociopolitical significance to these stories. This doesn’t work as well as it should have, in large part because it doesn’t feel tongue-in-cheek enough. Rowling did the illustrations here herself, but she’s no great artist, to put it kindly.

The cumulative effect of this is the distinct feeling that Rowling thinks very highly of herself, and can do whatever she wants. Which she has done, and by doing so created a very so-so work. It’s remarkably short, too – yes, it’s 100 pages, but that includes illustrations, double-spacing (at least) and vast margins. Most people will read this entire book in 30 to 60 minutes. It’s not for the tiniest children, either – Rowling uses an adult vocabulary, and several of the stories are fairly violent (much like many classic Grimm tales).

Proceeds from the sale of this book benefit Rowling’s charity, the Children’s High Level Group. Which is well and good, but the way Rowling has written her introduction, the reader might well think this charity is fictional.

Ultimately, on many levels, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is nothing short of mediocre.


Monday, December 1, 2008


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a novel by Mark Twain, originally published in 1876. In this review, I will not attempt to analyze it from any pretentious literary perspective, but rather as just another novel.

In this novel, Tom Sawyer, a boy who lives with his aunt on the Mississippi River in Missouri, has all kinds of adventures, most of which involve misbehaving in some way. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer does not seem to be a coming-of-age story, as it initially may appear to be. Certainly Tom has many experiences that theoretically lend themselves to the maturation process, but at the end, he lapses back into his more childlike behavior. He is a "bad boy" when the book starts, and he is a "bad boy" when it ends (albeit a wealthy and popular one).

Twain's wit is what carries this book. He can write a clever sentence like nobody's business, and his dialogue, characters and story developments are all highly entertaining. Even though there's not a lot going on here plot-wise, the story grips the reader.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an enormously entertaining book, and if taken purely for entertainment value, will not disappoint any discerning reader.


Sunday, November 30, 2008


Chas Addams Happily Ever After is a collection of one-panel cartoons by Addams Family creator Charles Addams. Many were previously published in The New Yorker. Others were previously unpublished – these are mostly sloppy drafts. With the exception of maybe two cartoons, this book does not feature the characters from The Addams Family.

These cartoons are in the classic Addams vein of morbidity, here applied to marriage and the male-female relationship. Taken as a large group like this, they tend to lose much of whatever fizz they might have had. Few are more than just mildly amusing.

On the whole, Happily Ever After is worth flipping through once, but that’s about it.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

THE ART OF FICTION by John Gardner

The Art of Fiction is John Gardner's book on how young writers can improve their fiction writing. This book is divided into two sections: the first covers literary theory, and the second deals with technique, errors, and plotting. 

Gardner, who was a teacher as well as an author, is extremely high-minded. He sets very high standards for writing, which is good. But he's one of those people who thinks you need to take college courses in Shakespeare in order to appreciate Shakespeare. His instructions on writing naturally and not trying to write above yourself often come across as pretentious and hypocritical, as he gets pretty pretentious himself from time to time. 

So many talented writers who didn't study literature or fiction in a university may well throw out the first half of the book, and that's fine. The second half, however, can be of benefit to most anyone. Gardner covers frequent errors, technique, and plotting, giving specific examples and explaining things well. 

Gardner is obviously much more concerned with the Hemingways and Faulkners of the world than the Stephen Kings and Michael Crichtons. Fine; take this book for what it is. Separate the wheat from the chaff and The Art of Fiction has something to help most writers improve. 


Friday, November 21, 2008

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is a 1996 philosophically- and spiritually-oriented "literary" science fiction novel by paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell. Here, Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of a Jesuit-sponsored expedition to an alien planet to make first contact. When he returns, he is maimed, in emotional shambles, and accused of terrible crimes.
The setting and framework of The Sparrow are a highly conducive environment for Russell to explore some serious theological and moral principles and implications. Unfortunately, the whole thing is poorly executed and Russell more or less punts on any kind of deep analysis.

Russell begins upon Sandoz's return to Earth, and from there goes back and forth between then (2060) and the origins of the expedition (forty years prior). Working from the ends, Russell fills in what happened in between. While this was probably the best way to structure the story, Russell does it poorly. The Sparrow leans heavily on suspense to keep the reader's interest, and Russell manufactures this artificially by waiting as long as possible to tell the reader what he or she really wants to know – What happened to Sandoz? How did he come to be in this situation? How did everyone else die? By the end of the novel, there's entirely too much skipping around, which significantly lessens the novel's suspense and makes it entirely too long. And too many of the payoff events, the dramatic climaxes the reader has been waiting 400 pages for, are told secondhand, neutering the drama. Thusly the payoff is extremely disappointing.

Russell's writing is amateurish in many ways, beyond her mishandling of the narrative. Her physical descriptions of characters are often clumsy. She is prone to using big and uncommon words seemingly just for the sake of using them. The dialogue is another egregious offender. The Sparrow is fifty to a hundred pages too long, and a major reason for this is because Russell spends the first half of the novel trying to endear her characters to the reader, mainly by repeatedly having one of them make a corny joke or an obviously fanboyish movie quote, and then having everyone else crack up. It doesn't particularly work. They die, the reader knows they're going to die, and it really isn't that big of a deal. Her characters' chemistry together is decent enough, but they just aren't fleshed out well enough for it to matter.

What Russell does well is the alien culture. With her anthropological background, this isn't surprising. The aliens' culture is different and interesting, even if she doesn't do a lot with it.

Russell drops the ball with her portrayals of the priests. There are a lot of Jesuits, but there isn't much God anywhere to be found. Russell's priests are, on the whole, a bunch of agnostics and deists. For Russell and her characters, just believing that God exists is a big accomplishment and noteworthy spiritual breakthrough. This is hardly an accurate representation of modern Catholicism. Nowhere in the book does any Catholic say one word about evangelizing the aliens. That's remarkable beyond words.

The long and short of it is The Sparrow is a badly-missed opportunity. It was a good idea, pregnant with potential, but it just doesn't work on too many levels to make it worthwhile reading.


P.S. - "A Spanish-speaking Jesuit priest travels to another planet as part of an expedition to make first contact with an alien race, and subsequently suffers a crisis of faith" - that's right, we're talking about James Blish's 1958 novel A Case of Conscience. This shared premise is so specific that it seems unbelievable that Russell didn't steal it (which she maintains). Indeed, it is curious she would choose a Jesuit as her protagonist given her profound ignorance of Catholicism. In any event, Blish's novel is superior in many ways - the science is better, the concept is better, the understanding is better, and the execution is better.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is a 2008 post-apocalyptic novel by Victor Gischler, written in a humorous tone. In it, nine years after the end of the world, Mortimer Tate emerges from seclusion, whereupon he has many harrowing adventures.

Gischler has gone for humor and action over character and story. Go-Go Girls certainly is action-packed, as the main character and his associates go through one action scene after another, often without any real flow, rhyme or reason. Any interest this might generate is diminished by the lack of attention to character. Gischler doesn't particularly care about his characters, so why should the reader? And ultimately, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse just isn't that funny, so it doesn't have that going for it either. On the whole, it feels like a disposable story – action for its own sake, and little else. Gischler has gone heavy on sex and violence by and large for their own sakes, in a way reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino (not a compliment). It's typically pointless and often vile.

There are a number of narrative details that Gischler loses track of. For example, the main character loses his pinky at the very beginning of the novel. He suffers no ill effects from this whatsoever, and Gischler only mentions it two or three times over the rest of the novel. Things like this add to the reader's feeling that Gischler just dashed this thing off. If he's not invested in it, why should the reader be?

In the manner of a bad action movie, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is an unfunny novel of dubious entertainment value. Mindless entertainment is well and good, unless it forgets to be entertaining.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis, originally published in two volumes, is an autobiographical graphic novel by Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi. It chronicles her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, her coming of age in Austria, her return to Iran and her second departure, to France, after her failed marriage.

Satrapi’s black and white art is thick-lined, simple and spare, and it fits the book well. The vignettes of everyday life she presents are fascinating, because of Western unfamiliarity and because of her tremendous openness and honesty.

Ultimately, Persepolis is an engaging, many-layered work that gives an honest, revealing view of a way of life that most Westerners are extremely unfamiliar with.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


With a title like Supernatural Childbirth, you'd probably expect Jackie Mize's book to be about the Virgin Mary. Instead, it's about her own experience carrying and delivering babies after she was told that she was unable to have children. This is a very short book, 120 pages, and includes an introduction and epilogue by Terry Mize, "confessions", a salvation prayer, and the pièce de résistance, a foreword by the inimitable Lindsay Roberts.

Supernatural Childbirth is Word of Faith to the extreme. Mize is of a very charismatic bent, and her target audience includes some of the flakiest people in Christendom. Wow. She uses the King James Version of the Bible exclusively, which in this day and age is kind of ridiculous. She treats the Word of God like it's magic. 

Nevertheless, this book is not completely without merit. What Mize has going for her is a good, not-pushy tone. She writes with a "this is what worked for me, feel free to try it" attitude. Mize is tremendously, egregiously off on some points. Most of these, however, are secondary to the point she's trying to make. But on her larger points, she mostly does all right. Anyone who is worried or fearful about their pregnancy can find encouragement here. Mize is right that faith must be built over time. And an attitude of faith is obviously better than an attitude of worry. As Mize herself says, a cow eats the hay and spits out the sticks. Well, there are plenty of sticks here. A discerning, analytical Christian can sort through this, take the good and leave the bad.

If you can avoid throwing out the baby with the deep, dark bathwater, Supernatural Childbirth might well be worth your time. Otherwise, don't bother; it'll just make you angry. 

RECOMMENDED - but take it with a lot of salt

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Whisper of Glocken, by Carol Kendall, is a children’s fantasy novel, and the sequel to The Gammage Cup. Five years after the events of The Gammage Cup, when a flood of biblical proportions strikes their valley, the Minnipins must send forth a group to find a solution. For no good reason at all, other than that Kendall wanted to write some new, more annoying characters, the original team from The Gammage Cup voluntarily sits this one out.

The land they journey to is apparently the land of convenient happenings. Everything that needs to happen more or less happens on its own (Help! We’re being attacked by relatively unthreatening creatures that conveniently drop the most valuable substance that we just ran out of when you kill them!), and to a large extent the Minnipins just go with the flow (although they do each conveniently get their own opportunities for heroism). Story elements intended to be suspenseful are obvious, even to small children. Worst, the deus ex machina at the end is unforgivable.

While The Gammage Cup was all about individuality, The Whisper of Glocken is without such an overbearing moral (although “people who stink are people too” comes close). The real moral here is that a hero is as a hero does.

Kendall’s writing keeps the book moving most of the time in spite of its many flaws. There is a certain charm to her characters, even if this batch is distinctly unlikable. As she did in The Gammage Cup, Kendall has trouble writing above the very personal level. There are narrative problems in scenes involving multiple characters, and she doesn’t always connect scenes together well.

Ultimately, there’s just too much going on here that’s happening for no other reason than that Kendall wanted it to. About the only thing The Whisper of Glocken has going for it is that certain charm with which Kendall writes. And it just isn’t enough.