I meant to post the November edition November 30 but got seriously sidetracked, and then I spent the second half of December on an extended road trip in the US for the Christmas holiday. So this is a combined Nov/Dec instalment.
And that wraps up the 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge, in which I pledged to read 42 books. The first book on the list below marks Book #43. So I pretty much nailed it.
And so here’s how I read my way to the end of 2018.
Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about how postmodernism is a major challenge to Christianity, but denunciations of postmodernism often sound unconvincing to me, if only because it often sounded to me like too many people use “postmodern” as a descriptor with little indication that they understand the underlying philosophy. This book by James K.A. Smith (who is both a Christian and a philosophy professor) argues that postmodernist philosophy is highly misunderstood by theologians, and that if you read the works of postmodernist philosophers Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault closely, you’ll see that contrary to postmodernism being anti-Christian (i.e. anti-religion), it actually strengthens Christianity’s position in a postmodern world by bringing it back to its traditional apostolic roots.
For the most part, Smith makes a lot of very good points, and does a really good job of explaining what the core tenets of Derrida (“Nothing exists outside the text”), Lyotard (postmodernity is “the incredulity of metanarratives”) and Foucault (“power is knowledge”) actually mean, and how they aren’t as anti-Christian as they seem if you just take them at face value. His use of films as an illustration of each point is also engaging. Where it falls apart for me is the end, where Smith ties all of this into his view of how the church should evolve by adopting “radical orthodoxy” (a topic he’s written about extensively elsewhere) – which may be a valid point of view, but in terms of practical application it seems unconvincing and unrealistic to me, not least because Smith’s views are rooted in catholic orthodoxy, so his points are going to be lost on denominations that aren’t.
So as a call to action in regards to church reform, I don’t think the book really works. But it will definitely get a discussion started, and that’s a good thing. If nothing else, I think it’s a good primer on understanding postmodernist philosophy, and makes a good case why it’s not the boogey man some Christian leaders make it out to be. But obviously, an open mind is a prerequisite.
The Serpent of Venice: A Novel by Christopher Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to Fool, Christopher Moore’s rewrite of King Lear that puts the jester Pocket at the center of the story. This time, Moore stretches the concept further by mashing up Othello, The Merchant Of Venice and (for no apparent reason except for fun) Poe’s “The Cask Of Amontillado”, whilst throwing in a horny dragon for good measure. To say nothing of Marco Polo.
I’d offer a plot summary, but it’s arguably better if you dive in without knowing too much. Suffice to say that Pocket is betrayed in Chapter 1 by Brabantio, Antonio and Iago, and spends the rest of the novel seeking revenge whilst being caught up in the various plots, subplots and double dealings of the various characters in the story.
As with Fool, there are tons of bawdy shagging jokes (which Moore frankly overdoes here). On the other hand, he does a great job of not only blending the various stories into a (mostly) coherent narrative, but also poking fun at Shakespearean conventions (the use of the Chorus character, for example) and shining a harsh spotlight on the racism and anti-Semitism of the times, particularly regarding the infamous character Shylock. Overall, it’s a rare case of the sequel outshining its predecessor.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’ve never read Paulo Coelho before, though of course I’ve seen his books everywhere. I’ve never been particularly inspired to read any of his stuff, but I came across this at a charity book sale, and I figured since this is his most famous book, this would be the perfect excuse to give him a try.
And … well.
The book is nominally about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who is encouraged by a Gypsy and a mysterious vagabond king to seek out his Personal Legend – which is to travel to the pyramids of Egypt to find his treasure. But all of that is really just a vehicle for Coelho to ruminate on the meaning of life, love, and listening to your heart to tap into the Soul Of The World to fulfil your destiny. Which is fine as far as it goes, but as a reading experience it just didn’t click with me.
That’s not to say Coelho isn’t a good writer – he is, and this book has a fable-like quality to it. The problem isn’t so much the narrative or his philosophical/religious views, but a lack of suitable balance between the two. Oftentimes it feels like Coelho is trying too hard to say Important Profound Things About Life, and Santiago as a character seems to learn these things too intuitively, as if out of convenience to keep the narrative moving along. I wouldn't rule out trying Coelho again – I’d like to read his book about his pilgrimage on the Road of Santiago de Compostela, which I’ve become interested in lately – but I can’t say I’m in any hurry.
A Drop Of The Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the 17th novel featuring former NYPD cop and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder, who makes a living as an unlicensed investigator. Scudder has aged and mellowed along with the series, but this one returns to his harder-edged days (set almost a year after he quit drinking) via a flashback frame – modern-day Scudder tells his friend Mick Ballou about Jack Ellery, an old childhood acquaintance who became a small-time criminal and an alcoholic. They meet at an AA meeting where Ellery tells him he’s making amends to the people he’s wronged (as per the 9th Step). Then Ellery is murdered, and Scudder ends up investigating.
Which sounds like a familiar set-up for your standard violent revenge tale. Luckily, Block has generally been good at taking a standard set-up and doing the unexpected with it, or at least something different – in this case, by staying true to Scudder’s character. The real story here is Scudder’s struggle to make it to his first anniversary as he delves deeper into Ellery’s past, and as his relationship with his girlfriend seems to be crumbling. Even the ending, which exercises another genre trope, goes against the grain of the set-up precisely because it would be out of character for Scudder to do anything else.
Credit to Block also for masterfully returning to a time period when NYC was a much darker and grittier place, and where being a PI required library visits, working pay phones and a pocket full of quarters. As a long-time fan of the series, I thought it was also nice to see Block bring back several of the regular minor characters from the early books. A few minor flaws aside, it’s a solid addition to the Scudder canon.
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A blast from the past,
This is dF