Saturday, January 31, 2009


Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, originally published in 1883, is part memoir, part paean to the Mississippi River and its culture, and part compilation of whatever miscellaneous anecdotes Twain thought were worth relating.

Twain begins with a history of the Mississippi since it was discovered by de Soto in 1541. He then discusses in great detail his training and early career as a steamboat pilot before the Civil War, and the accompanying science of navigating the river. Mastering the river in Twain’s time was a mind-boggling achievement – it required the memorization of the entire river from St. Louis to New Orleans, and this monumental task was complicated by the Mississippi’s tendency to change its course constantly. Later in life, Twain and some companions traveled on a steamboat from St. Louis to New Orleans, and he discusses in great detail how the riverboating industry (as well as industry in general) has changed. This account reads something more like a travelogue.

Interspersed through this account are a number of anecdotes and commentaries, covering a various and sundry range of topics, including tall tales, legends, architecture, culture, grammar, mule racing, cockfighting, and Sir Walter Scott’s detrimental effect on the American South. One could spend several pages listing the topics Twain covers, but suffice it to say that the majority will be of interest to the discerning modern reader. His tall tales (often related as fact) are particularly good.

Twain is just as engaging here as he is in his fiction. He is self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek, and his style is completely endearing. And if a particular topic is not of interest to the reader, well, he moves on quickly enough.

Ultimately, Life on the Mississippi is a fascinating read, not only for detailed insight into nineteenth-century life in America, but also for the countless tales Twain relates in his inimitable style.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The Story of the Other Wise Man (sometimes just The Other Wise Man) is a 1896 novella by Henry Van Dyke, a professor, preacher and diplomat (He also wrote the words to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”). This novella has become (and remains) something of a Christmas classic, up there with O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and such. Here, Artaban, a Parthian magus, intends to travel with his three magi friends to find the infant Jesus. But he is repeatedly delayed by a number of factors, many of which involve him stopping out of compassion to help the needy. In doing so, he wonders if he will ever find Jesus.

The end of the story isn’t entirely expected. But Van Dyke’s message is transparent throughout – it is by serving others that we best serve God himself (Matthew 25:31-46). Artaban is, to some degree, aware of this, even as he despairs of giving away the treasures he had stored up for Jesus, but on the whole he loses sight of the significance of the good that he does. This inner conflict is not played up to the degree it might have been, but nevertheless this story’s impact is powerful.

The Story of the Other Wise Man is mind-bogglingly descriptive. Perhaps half the book is taken up by descriptions like

“The doorway between the pillars, which opened upon the terrace of the roof, was covered with a heavy curtain of the color of a ripe pomegranate, embroidered with innumerable golden rays shooting upward from the floor. In effect the room was like a quiet, starry night, all azure and silver, flushed in the east with the rosy promise of the dawn. It was, as the house of a man should be, an expression of the character and spirit of the master.”

This level of detail is a double-edged sword. It’s terribly immersive, but it also slows down the story, at times to the degree that the reader may skip ahead. Also, kids and adults will want to keep a dictionary handy.

All things considered, The Story of the Other Wise Man has held up very well, and is rightly a Christmas classic still.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

GOOD OMENS by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I am a fan of both authors. The book is a comedy and a spoof of Antichrist/devil/end-of-the-world movies, particularly The Omen. Here, the Antichrist has been born into the world, the powers of Good and Evil are ushering in Armageddon, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are running amuck. An angel and a demon, who are friends and who like humanity, conspire to avert the end of the world.

The writing style here isn’t what most readers would expect from either Gaiman or Pratchett – it’s looser, sillier, and doesn’t take itself seriously at all. More than anything else, it’s reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character of Death makes an appearance here in an iteration very similar to the Discworld Death, and the humorous footnotes (which are some of the most entertaining parts of the book) are here as well.

Good Omens has an extraordinarily large cast of characters, many of which appear only tangentially to the story, and it may take readers half the book to sort out who’s who, even with the list of dramatis personae at the beginning. This also means that few characters get spend large amounts of time “on screen”, and so it’s that much harder for the reader to develop any kind of real interest in them.

While Good Omens is mostly amusing and thoroughly silly, it’s just not that funny (they aren’t the same thing at all). And the story isn’t compelling on its own, in part because nothing is taken seriously, and in part because this antichrist/apocalypse theme has been done ad nauseum already. So a lot of it feels like we’ve been there, done that.

This is not to say that the writing is not clever. It is. With Gaiman and Pratchett, you may be assured that it is clever. But cleverness on its own, without being grounded on any kind of hard foundation (like a real plot, or a few serious aspects of the world the authors have created), is built on sand, and doesn’t get you very far. This is, for example, the biggest difference between Good Omens and most of Pratchett’s excellent Discworld series.

In Good Omens, heaven and hell are equally matched, and the forces of Good aren’t all completely good just as the forces of Evil aren’t all exceptionally evil. The point the authors make with all this is that humanity can be good and evil on its own, without divine influence. While that may sound objectionable, the book isn’t interesting enough to make this worth fussing about to any great degree (also the reader notices from the beginning that the forces of good are all mostly jerks, throws out any connection these beings as portrayed may have to his own spiritual beliefs, and goes on with the story).

Good Omens is, on the whole, reasonably amusing, but it’s silly without being particularly funny, and it’s ultimately a disappointment, especially to those of us who are fans of the authors.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Called out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession is a 2008 memoir by novelist Anne Rice, who is best known for her Vampire Chronicles (most notably Interview with the Vampire). This book deals only peripherally with her novels; as the title suggests, it’s about Rice’s spiritual journey.

Rice grew up in New Orleans, immersed in Catholicism. She describes her faith at this time as strong and deep, yet simple (the archetype of what we think of as “childlike faith”). In college, Rice was exposed to secular humanism for the first time. She rejected the Church (and with it, God; one can be rejected independently of the other, which Rice notes, but at the time she threw it all out) and became an atheist. After thirty-eight years as an atheist, she acknowledged that God had been drawing her, and came back to faith. Rice has since given up writing vampire novels and is in the midst of a series on the life of Christ.

What makes Called out of Darkness compelling is Rice’s openness, and the very personal tone she uses. She describes in detail the pull that she felt from God (she repeatedly quotes Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”). She goes on at length about what her faith means to her, and how she came to appreciate Scripture.

Clearly, Rice understands what it means to be a Christian. She appreciates that it is difficult – that living out faith as a Christian is more challenging than leaving religion alone. She understands that faith is not a magic bullet for the problems of the world.

Writing this book was obviously cathartic for Rice. It is hesitating, almost rambling at times, like she was compelled to pour out everything she knows and feels. A large portion of Called out of Darkness deals with Rice’s Catholic childhood, and she describes this world with immersive, vivid detail, which is sometimes good and sometimes makes the book drag. Rice relives these moments with the reader. All of this enables Rice to come across as genuine and sincere about everything – her initial faith, her atheism, and her return to God.

It is interesting to trace the parallels between Rice’s novels and her life. Rice herself touches on this. Rice’s vampire characters were so androgynous because Rice was raised without cultural and social restrictions on gender. Rice’s vampire novels were bleak and hopeless and dealt heavily with spirituality and theology because Rice herself was an atheist looking for spiritual truth through her writing. And so forth.

Rice is still feeling out the world of new Catholicism and her place in Christianity. Her doctrine isn’t always right, and some of her suggestions on making the Church more progressive are way off base. But at this point, the reader should not hold that against her.

All in all, Called out of Darkness is a worthwhile account of a return to faith by someone with a rather unique perspective.