Sunday, October 7, 2007

Currently Reading

I thought I’d write down a few thoughts on all of the books I’m currently reading. When I say ”currently,” I mean books I’ve started but haven’t yet finished. A few of these have been unfinished for quite a while now but I do plan to eventually finish them. I’ll start with the non-fiction, which consists entire of Christian books, mostly of the theology and doctrine variety.

What Saint Paul Really Said by N. T. Wright

Last year, my Sunday School class was about to do a study on the Apostle Paul. A friend recommended N.T. Wright as a possible source of good scholarship on Paul so I bought this book, partly for the subtitle “Was Paul of Tarsus the real founder of Christianity?” As it turns out, that subtitle is a bit misleading as only the last chapter of the book really deals with that question. The rest of the book is a brief overview of Paul and his message of bringing the gospel to both a Jewish and pagan audience.

I’ve only read the first four chapters, not because they were boring but because (as is often the case) I became distracted and wanted to read something else. Lately though, I’ve been curious to go back. One of my favorite radio programs, The White Horse Inn, is currently doing a series on justification and in the last program, they specifically mentioned N.T. Wright and the so-called “New Perspectives on Paul.” The theologians on the show are all reformed theologians and were quite harsh in their treatment of NPP in general and specifically Wright, who I assume was singled out because he is so well known in the theological world. I don’t quite understand the entire issue but I gather it has to do with Wright’s redefining of the word “justification” from meaning “to be declared righteous” to “being made righteous.” The members of the radio show are of the opinion that Wright’s views are closer to a Roman Catholic perspective on the term than a reformed Protestant view. With that in mind, I will definitely read Wright’s book carefully to see I can understand this controversy.

Christian Baptism by John Murray

I bought this book for a very specific reason. As recent members of a Presbyterian church that believes in infant baptism, I wanted to understand the reason for this practice. Both my wife and I come from a conservative evangelical background in which baptism is only considered for people who have professed faith in Jesus, and since infants can’t do that, they are never baptized.

Murray’s defense of pedobaptsm, if I understand it correctly, has to do with God’s command for the elect to join the church, which represents the body of Christ. Murray spends a lot of time discussing exactly what baptism means and how it unites the believer to Christ. I still haven’t yet made up my mind. I only have a few chapters left in this short book.

The Same Sex Controversy by James White and Jeffrey D. Niell

The issue of homosexuality and the church seems to come up more and more. This is an issue that isn’t going away so I decided to get a book on exactly what the Bible says about homosexuality.

The authors believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin and set out to refute almost every conceivable argument that says otherwise. Their arguments are extremely well-stated, to the point that I can’t imagine a better defense of the traditional Biblical perspective. Each objection is answered with solid Biblical exegesis. While their defense of the sinfulness of homosexuality is unflinching, they are also compassionate to those who struggle with the issue.

Now on to the fiction…

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’m not sure what to say about this book yet. I feel like I’ve read a great deal but I’m still only on page 225 or so out of nearly 800 pages with lots and lots of words per page. Even though I told myself I wasn’t going to be intimidated by such a massive novel, I still get a little nervous every time I pick it up. It’s not that it’s hard to understand. On the contrary, the translation I’m reading is excellent and makes the book quite readable. There’s just so much information to retain and lots of characters and situations to keep track of. Thankfully, Dostoevsky has a great ability to convey information through dialogue and since the characters often think about and speak about the events in the novel, the reader is subtly reminded of the complicated relationships. In fact, it is the characters that stand out most. Each one, even the minor ones, has a specific voice and each speaks in a unique fashion. I’m also glad Dostoevsky writes such concise chapters. Each section of the novel has a specific purpose and as long as I don’t take too much time between sections, I can still keep up with the story.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Two recent novels

Well, it's been a while since I've posted anything. I have been reading lots of books but haven't taken the time to write anything down so here are a few reviews of some recent novels, both of which came out in 2006.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan is a psychological novel that tells two stories. The first, told in third person, follows two American cousins who are trying to convert a dilapidated European castle into a resort. One of the cousins still harbors feelings of guilt for performing a cruel prank on his older cousin when they were kids. The other story, told in first person, features a man in prison who is taking a creative writing course offered by the prison. He is writing a story about two American cousins converting an old castle into a resort. Of course, the two stories are linked somehow and part of the fun of The Keep is trying to figure out the connection. Is the prisoner simply making up a story and Egan is allowing the reader to follow along, or is this a true story, and if so, how does he know about it? The answer, when it is revealed, is both unexpected and rewarding.

There’s more to The Keep than just narrative trickery, though. The characters are all well-drawn and Egan gives the novel a creepy, gothic atmosphere with vivid descriptions of the decaying castle and a mysterious baroness who still lives there. One of the cousins becomes increasingly paranoid and the reader starts to wonder if he is slowly going insane. The novel climaxes with a claustrophobic set-piece in the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the castle. Egan offers insight into how feelings of guilt and fear can consume a person, and how people can display great courage in the face of great danger.

Fans of the TV show The Office will likely enjoy Max Barry’s hilarious satire Company. This sarcastic, funny and quite accurate portrait of the corporate world will make sense to anyone who has ever worked at any kind of job, but particularly to those of us who work for large corporations. The novel’s hero, often referred to only by his last name Jones, takes a job at Zephyr Holdings, located in a nondescript office building in Seattle. He joins the Training Sales department and it isn’t long before he notices that things aren’t quite normal at Zephyr. For one thing, the receptionist is a stunningly gorgeous woman who drives a sports car and never seems to be at her desk. For another, he realizes he doesn’t know what the company does. He soon uncovers a vast conspiracy which completely changes his perception of his job.

Barry is merciless in his send-up of the business world. Everyone from Senior Management to the catering staff is a target for satire. There were numerous laugh-out-loud moments and I often found myself thinking, “so I’m not the only one who notices things like that.” I enjoyed the jokes about ineffectual powerpoint presentations.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Top 5 Authors I’ve Never Read Before

The first installment in my “Top 5” series is inspired by my recent review of Dorothy Sayers’ novel The Five Red Herrings. I had always heard that Sayers was a good author and this was the first book I read by her. As you can tell by my review, I did not like the book but I’ve heard too many good things about her to quit now and many other people have written that Herrings is her worst book. Below is a list of other authors whom I have never read.

5. Madeleine L’Engle

I have always enjoyed so-called “young adult” fantasy and science-fiction books such as The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter books. But somehow, despite their popularity, I never got around to reading A Wrinkle in Time, the classic award winning novel by Madeleine L’Engle. I’ve heard different things about whether or not the books reflect a Christian worldview, but I won’t know for sure until I read it myself.

4. G. K. Chesterton

Chesterton was a Christian writer famous for both non-fiction works like Orthodoxy as well as novels like The Man who was Thursday. He seems to get quoted a lot and C.S. Lewis loved his works.

3. Francis Schaeffer

Schaeffer is another Christian writer who gets quoted a lot. I’ve read that he wrote passionately about the relationship between Christianity and the arts, which definitely makes me curious. Some of his books include The God Who is There and How then Should We Live?

2. Virgil

I recently read a great article about the necessity of reading the classics, by which the author meant the ancient Greek and Roman works including Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid. I may know parts of the plot of The Iliad and The Odyssey but I’m not so sure when it comes to The Aeneid. Luckily, a recent translation by Robert Fagles has been getting outstanding reviews so maybe this is my big chance to finally read a genuine classic.

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky

There are two types of people in this world, those who love long Russian novels and those who have never finished one. OK, I’m sure that there are some people who have read Crime and Punishment or War and Peace and just didn’t like them. Usually, people avoid long novels just because of the length. I’m sure that changed a little bit after Oprah picked Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as one of her book club selections. Anyway, I read that Dostoevsky’s novels are of particular interest to Christians so I’m determined to read one. I’ve already bought a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and hopefully will start it sometime this year.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Book review: The Five Red Herrings

The Five Red Herrings

By Dorothy Sayers

Since I enjoy both mystery novels and works by modern Christian authors, I was curious about the fiction of Dorothy Sayers. She is well-known for her novels featuring the detective Lord Peter Wimsey. She also wrote Christian essays and plays as well as a translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I picked up The Five Red Herrings at random, not knowing with which Sayers novel to begin. Depending on your point of view, I either made the wrong choice or a very good one. I made a wrong choice since I did not like the novel and found it extremely frustrating and difficult to read. But on the other hand, if this is her worst novel, things can only improve.

The plot involves a murder that takes place in a small town in Scotland in which many artists live and work. One of them, a man named Campbell, is not well liked and quickly turns up dead. Peter Wimsey happens to be staying in the area and comes to the conclusion that Campbell was murdered. Based on the evidence at the scene, one of the local artists committed the murder. Naturally, all of the suspects have a motive as well as an alibi so it’s up to Wimsey to discover the truth.

The biggest problem I had with the novel is Sayers’ choice of phonetically spelling out the heavy Scottish accents of many of the characters. This results in lots of apostrophes and makes reading the dialogue tiresome and difficult. Since the entire novel takes place in Scotland, nearly every chapter is filled with hard to read accents. Robert Louis Stevenson did something similar in Kidnapped, but that novel was a picnic to read compared to Herrings.

Another problem is the use of train timetables as a plot device. There are endless discussions of when this train leaves this town and arrives at the next and which character could have taken which train and how long it would take to get there. It’s all ridiculously confusing. The various stories told by the suspects are lengthy and confusing. Even the real story of how the murder was committed is long and too reliant on a very specific timetable of events thus making it implausible.

Finally, I don’t know how he is portrayed in the other novels, but Wmsey comes across as an arrogant, disagreeable know-it-all. I realize that many of the great fictional detectives, like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are arrogant, but at least I like them. I’m not sure about Wimsey yet.

I read a few reviews on and noted that I’m not the only one who found the accents and timetables frustrating. Apparently, Sayers wrote better mysteries than this one and I won’t let my dislike of The Five Red Herrings discourage me from reading other Sayers’ works.

Book review: Reaper Man

Reaper Man

By Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett takes on the concept of what would happen if Death took a holiday and stopped taking dead people to wherever it is they go when they die. Since this is a Discworld novel, Death is personified as a robed, skeletal figure WHO ALWAYS SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. The plot follows Windle Poons, an extremely old wizard who is ready to die and get on with the afterlife. When his appointed time comes (and every wizard knows exactly when he’s going to die) Death doesn’t show up and Windle discovers that in addition to still being dead, his mind is now more alert than ever and his body is stronger than it has been in decades. Still, it’s no picnic being dead and still hanging around so Windle decides to find out what has happened. Meanwhile, Death decides to see what it’s like being a human and takes on a job as a farmhand for a widow. (He’s very handy with a scythe during harvest time.) In addition, the wizards at Unseen University must deal with some very strange occurrences as a living city (more on that later) tries to take over the town of Ankh-Morpork.

Reaper Man contains the usual assortment of wacky characters, puns, and jokes one would expect in a Discworld novel. I liked the self-help group of the recently Undead and the wizards were funny too. Unfortunately, the book isn’t as hilarious as the last two Discworld novels I read, Guards Guards and Wyrd Sisters. The plot of a strange threat about to take over the Disc is too similar. Also, the explanation for why a city is somehow evolving and taking the form of snow globes and shopping carts is convoluted and murky. Similarly, the philosophical reasons behind how Death works and the idea of “life force” are too abstract to make much sense.

Overall, this is an average Pratchett novel. If you’ve never read one of his books, I recommend starting with Guards Guards. Reaper Man is best saved for later when you’re trying to complete your collection.


Hello. My name is John and this is my blog about books. Or at least it's about books until I decide to write about my other hobbies which include movies, TV shows, classical music and film scores. But for now, it's about the books that I have read and would like to read.