Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Completed: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God


So. There's this problem that crops up for teachers of literature, especially if there's any expectation that their texts will tie in to content from another class. For example, let's say that my students are learning about China in their history class, and I'd like them to read a book set in China to compliment their learning. In those cases, what can happen is that the need to have the book cover a certain concept, or be set in a certain place, or have a character of a certain gender TRUMPS the literary merit of said novel. At some point, this is why we uncoupled a "humanities" course in the high school, turning in back into a history course and an English course: if content drives the book selection, the literary quality of the selected novels is likely (not always, but usually) to suffer.

That brings me to this book, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which seems to be a novel driven by AN IDEA the author wanted to explore, and A POINT the author wanted to make, rather than a compelling character or conflict. It's hard to put my finger on it, but the closest I can come is that the author was looking to explain the phenomenon of the intellectual celebrity, the mystery of how humans can both feel part of and divorced from their communities of origin, and our modern dilemma of how to understand religion in the face of modern scientific knowledge----but rather than writing a few New Yorker articles, she thought it would be cute to put it all in a novel. You know, serve up the tough ideas with a thin veneer of plot, and it'll wash right down!

Not so much.

The novel itself centers around scholar Cass Seltzer, who's recent work on religious faith has won him quite a bit of media-attention. He's known everywhere as "the atheist with a soul." As it turns out, Cass's mother and family are part of a community of Hasidic Jews, in particular one of the most isolated and insular religious communities in the country. The novel starts with Cass looking out over the Charles River, considering a job offer from Harvard. They want to scoop him up from a second-tier university that's also in Boston. This leads Cass to ruminate on how his girlfriend, Lucinda, will react. But he doesn't want to tell her until he can do it in person, and she's away on a business trip. This is the A plot, moving forward in time. An old girlfriend of Cass's, Roz, appears to surprise him, some 20 years after their break-up as graduate students.

Roz's arrival sets into motion the backwards-moving B plot. This traces Cass's development as a graduate student, and his involvement with 2 extraordinary men: a young Hasidic boy, Azarya, from his hometown who is a definite genius, and Cass's mentor and PhD thesis advisor, Klapper.

The problem, and it's a big one, is that these stories never come together in any sort of satisfying way. All the characters are clearly being put into play to show the push/pull between faith and reason. For a guy as smart as Cass, it's sort of pathetic to see how unprepared he is for Lucinda's freak-out after he tells her about Harvard. Did any reader really think that Azyrya would leave his community behind for MIT? Most annoyingly, the B plot spends a lot of time setting up the disunion of Klapper and his graduate students, including Cass, but then never actually talks to much about the final rift. The entire B plot is ostensibly to reveal what happened between Cass and Klapper...and it's like crickets. I literally thought to myself, I must have missed something, I've done it before.

Instead of revealing the demise of Cass's relationship with Klapper, he rises from the dead to write a NYTimes article on the day that Cass is going to debate the existence of God with a Nobel prize winner. I mean, honestly, the whole thing is sort of ridiculous. As a novel, it's not satisfying because there's all these dropped characters and plot lines; as an exploration of faith and reason, it's unsatisfying because it's cluttered up with all these stupid characters.

The book ends with an appendix, 36 arguments for the existence of God along with a way to logically refute them. It's sort of interesting reading, but it's also weird. In the novel, Cass is famous for his 30 arguments, and he's widely regarded as brilliant for his work. Needless to say, it's a little awkward to read the author describing her own work as being brilliant. The whole thing was just a little too Jonathan Franzen, to be honest. 

It wasn't terrible for what it was, which was a thinly veiled exploration of the modern science of belief, but it just wasn't a very good novel. 


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wherein I Change My Mind


In your comment the other day, you said something about tackling Don't Know Much About History on chapter at a time. I think that's what I might have to do with The End. It's boring. I'm not in the mood. I'll finish it this year, but it might be interspersed with other books.

To that end, I've been reading another book on the list, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. I was sure I picked it up at the Borders Bender, but it appears that must have been at another trip. (Meanwhile, of those books, I've only read 4! Perhaps one or two will make it on to next year's list?) Anyways, I've started it and will finish it soon. It's a novel about an academic who suddenly becomes famous, and his back story and assorted conflicts due to his sudden fame. The book also does contain 36 arguments for why God exists in the back, along with how they can be logically refuted.

So far, I'm off to a good start. I think I will finish it this week!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kelly's Final Countdown

Dear Jenny,

Okay! The end of year is closing in. Let's see what I have to do to complete my TBR pile this year...

Like last year, I have done the math -- I need to read 17 pages per day for the rest of the year to finish my list successfully, which seems doable (I'm in slightly better shape than last year -- that post was made in September and I had more books and a 20p/day goal.)

I am about halfway through Little, Big (going more slowly than I would have anticipated... kind of hard to get into that book.) My game plan is to read Michigan next, since I think I will struggle with that. (Generally speaking, I *am* interested in the topic of Michigan, but this book is actually used as a textbook, so I am afraid of a "medicine" feeling to it.) Then I'll hit that Bill Bryson (usually an easy read -- also, of note, my 2nd author repeat in our TBR challenges) and finish with Florence Broadhurst (just flipped through that today and there are photos, so, you know... 17 pages a day is a bit of a cheat with that one...)

As for the TBP... sigh. I totally floundered with that. I read one that was *so* great that I wanted to share a bunch of photos with you. So then the post got really overwhelming because midway through writing it, I got a new computer and have not fully transferred photos from one to another (first world problem, I know!) sooo... I totally stalled out with it. I'm not giving up on that list entirely... maybe I should move on to another book and leave that picture-heavy one for when I have the time to devote to it? Bottom line: I am not going to hit 12 this year -- that's for sure! Oh, well... I'll take another whack at it again next year.

Speaking of next year... have you started making your 2014 TBR list? I do find myself looking at my bookshelves with 2014 in mind, gotta say.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Jenny's End of Year Reading Plan


 In a fit of masochism, I've decided to go right into another World War II book. It's called The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw.

I bought this a few years ago after reading a review of it in the New York Times. I'm generally interested in World War II, of course, but I'm also coming up on the Anne Frank unit. So it's a good time to get that knowledge into my head. Also, Kershaw is a renown WWII scholar, and he wrote the definitive biography of Hitler. One appeal of this book was being able to read Kershaw's work without having to read a thousand pages about Hitler.

Can we both agree that life's too short to read a thousand pages about Hitler? 

I'm a little afraid I won't find it as compelling as I'd like. The premise of The End is that it explores why the Nazis didn't surrender, and instead fought through the last year of the war, knowing full well they couldn't win. I think I was interested in that idea from a psychological perspective, what was it about the German people that kept them fighting? However, I'm about 90 or so pages in, and it seems to be more from a military perspective. So, honestly, I'm not enjoying it too much so far. 

That leaves me with four novels, of which I need to choose two to get through the challenge. I have a feeling I'll read Purple Hibiscus, which is by the author of Americanah. It's her first novel, a coming of age story. I've heard good things about it. My guess is I'll choose Lark and Termite as the other. Ceremony just seems daunting in its language at this point, but maybe I'll be wrong. Either way, I feel like I can make it.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Completed: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin


I've read some depressing books. Even some very depressing books. But I don't think there's anything I can do describe just how bleak of a read Bloodlands is...but I'm going to try. (I don't mean to laugh, but apparently my go to adjective for depressing is "brutally." For this book, I'm going to need new adjectives.)

That dark line on the map is the Molotov-Ribbentrop line through Poland.

I guess the reason this book garnered so much attention is that it did something most other books didn't: it looks at where Stalin and Hitler's spheres of influence overlapped, and talked about the effect it had on the region, which the author describes as the Bloodlands. Most books talk about either Hitler or Stalin. Snyder's argument is that the policies of each dictator enabled and allowed the work of the other. Rather than just doubling the pain and agony of the people in the Bloodlands, they created something of a multiplier effect.

The Bloodlands is roughly comprised of Eastern Poland and what was then Western Soviet Union: Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia. In the 12 years from 1933-1945, Stalin and Hitler were responsible for the deaths of 14 million civilians in the Bloodlands. Again...civilians. This number is not counting ANY military casualties. We're strictly talking about unarmed men, women, and children. FOURTEEN MILLION PEOPLE, KELLY. FOURTEEN. MILLION. This book describes the "deliberate killing policies" put into place by Stalin and Hitler that caused those deaths. As Snyder says, "German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone. The populations east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, subject to one German and two Soviet occupations, suffered more than any other region of Europe" (344).

The reason the people in the Bloodlands were hit so hard was because they were essentially "invaded" three separate times. First, in the 1930s, Stalin pushed westward, gobbling up the Baltic States. Eventually, he and Hitler formed a secret pact that eliminated Poland as an independent country,  and they split down the middle with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line. Up through World War II, Stalin controlled the area to the East of the line, while Hitler controlled the West. But in 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, pushing across the Molotov-Ribbentrop line and occupying the Bloodlands. Finally, in 1945, Hitler was defeated, and Stalin once again reclaimed the area as Soviet territory.

Basically, there were a couple major ways these mass killings were implemented in the Bloodlands. The first was starvation. In 1933, Stalin collectivized the farms of the Ukraine, which is apparently the California of Europe. Everything grows there and it is the breadbasket of the continent. Stalin took the grain from the peasants who grew it, sending it to cities or exporting it for profit. That winter, at least 3.3 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved by the government.  As you can imagine, this was a harrowing part of the book. Because Stalin had such absolute control over the entire State, he was able to keep peasants from stealing grain to eat. Imagine exporting the grain that could save starving people in your own country.

When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, he envisioned a quick lightning strike that would net an easy victory. He wanted the plentiful farm lands of western Russia for German settlers, but knew he would have to get rid of all the people there. There was an actual starvation plan in place, and in the end 4.2 million Soviet citizens were starved out by the Germans between 1941 and 1945.

The second major strategy was shooting. In the Bloodlands, Stalin had at least 700,000 of his own citizens shot in the Great Terror of 1937-38. The Germans shot at least another 200,000 Poles in occupied Poland between 1939-1941. Another 700,000 civilians from Belarus and Warsaw were shot between 1941-1944. There's some awful stories of how it was done that I will spare you from. But apparently there was no shortage of bullets in the Bloodlands.

Finally, of course, there were the gas chambers of the Germans. Once Hitler realized that he would not win in Russia, he implemented the Final Solution, which started out as a plan for mass deportation, and instead become one of mass killing. 5.4 million Jews were gassed or shot in the Holocaust, along with other ethnic groups depending on the location of the killing camps.

Again, and for the sake of empahsis: although the author briefly touches on military casualties,  especially the appalling treatment in Nazi and Soviet prisoner of war camps, all of these deaths were strictly civilian. (Current estimates for TOTAL worldwide deaths as a result of WWII are as high as 60-80 million.)

In lieu of more summarizing, I'll now share some quotes with you that I marked in the book. It's just so powerful, and I know I cannot do it justice. I'll start with some mind blowing ways of looking at the numbers. I don't have much to add, which is sort of lazy, but it's just astounding to see the way these millions of people suffered.

The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage of the war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers... the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and three million prisoners of war (155).

Ruthlessness is not the same as efficiency, and German planning was too bloodthirsty to be really practical...The problem for the Germans was rather that the systematic starvation of a large civilian population is an inherently difficult undertaking, it is much easier to conquer territory than to redistribute calories" (168).

As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the course of the entire Second World War (182).

Traditional empires had never done anything like this to Jews. On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire (227).

By the end of the War, some eight million foreigners from the East, most of them Slavs, were working in the Reich. It was a rather perverse result, even by the standards of Nazi racism: German men went abroad and killed millions of "subhumans," only to import millions of other "subhumans" to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves---had they not been abroad killing "subhumans" (246).

By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country" (251).

One of the major themes of the book is that the true extent of mass killings in the Bloodlands was hidden from history because the major killing fields were behind the Iron Curtain. All of the major death sites, POW camps, concentration camps, etc, were controlled by the Red Army. The American and British forces were on the Western Front and approaching Germany, but the major killing was done on the Eastern front. Snyder writes, "When an international collective memory of the Holocaust emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it rested on the experiences of German and west European Jews, minor groups of victims, and on Auschwitz, where only about one in six of the total number of murdered Jews died...nearly five million Jews were killed east of Auschwitz, [along with] nearly five million non-Jews" (377). He continues later to explain that "in a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps" (382). In this way, the history was astounding to me. The gas chambers that we so strongly associate with the Holocaust were a second act, a follow-up to the main event, which was mass shootings. There were other death camps of the Nazi regime, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek. At these death camps, there were literally no survivors. Blezec and Sobibor had mortality rates of 99.99%. If you got sent there, you were killed. No one survived, and only due to Nazi record keeping do we know the numbers killed there.  We know about Auschwitz because it was a hybrid camp, with both gas chambers and workers. People **survived** Auschwitz and lived to tell about it. But by the time the gas chambers opened at Auschwitz in 1943, "the tremendous majority of all the people who would be killed by the Soviet and Nazi regimes, well over 90%, has already been killed" (383).

I feel I have run out of steam on this review. It was a great book, but not an easy one.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Kelly's Book 9.13: Little, Big

Dear Jenny,

Over the past several months, we have stopped writing "preview" posts of the books we are about to embark upon and I, for one, kind of miss it. So I'm writing one for this book.

Even though... I know practically nothing about it except that it is one of the favorite books of my very favorite craft blogger, Alicia Paulson of Posie Gets Cozy. Is that a totally weird reason to read a book? Oh, well.

I read her description/review of this book back in 2005 (and it's been on my TBR pile ever since! Gah!) Re-reading that post now, I notice she also refers to her friend who lives in Hyde Park. So, you know... it's meant to be, right?

Even after reading the back of this book, I still feel like I know nothing about it. Here is what it says:
John Crowley's masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.
Sounds vague but intriguing. But I trust Alicia -- she makes beautiful things, takes beautiful photos, and writes beautiful posts. So I think she's got a pretty keen sense for beautiful things. We shall see!


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Completed: The Thirteenth Tale

Dear Jenny,

Ugh. This was almost a success story -- I started this post just a few days after finishing this novel! But then... I abandoned it a couple of paragraphs in and I am just now getting back to it. Sigh. (Finished in August... it is now October.)

Here is what I wrote in August (after the above congratulatory paragraph which I have since modified):

With all of the "catch up" posts this year, I have missed our little "preview" posts (you know -- where we talk about the book before we read it...) If I had written one for this book, it would have said something like, "I have no idea where I got this book, but I wish I knew, because I would love to thank that person for giving/recommending it to me." Now that I have written that, I am thinking... it was either my mom or my MIL. Had to be, because I don't recall picking this book up on my very own, out of the blue. I'll have to ask them both now... and whoever didn't give/recommend this book to me, I will pass it on to them!

All this to say, I loved this book.

Aaand... that's it. Today, almost halfway through October, I can't remember what I was going to say next! Perhaps I have left myself some notes in the text. Let's see...

Okay. There are a few notes up front, and then I remember just burning through the story. It was a good read. For one, it's an open love letter to books and readers -- the main character, Margaret, is a true book lover -- she grew up working in her father's rare book shop, loves to read, her world revolves around books, she grows up to be a writer, etc. -- so that's pretty great. Here's an awesome passage about reading that occurs early on:
Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter. (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.) [4]
And a few pages later...
How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. [8] 
I know that you know that "taken prisoner" experience -- when you have to stay up all night to finish a book? In a lovely way, this book ended up having that thrall over me. How meta!

As for the story itself, I guess it's technically a mystery -- Margaret is called to the house of a famous (and mysterious) writer, Vida Winter, at the end of Vida's life to write her biography. But it's not that straightforward, and you are taken along on the journey as our protagonist unravels the story for herself, thread by thread. She's also kind of racing the clock, as Vida is dying, so if Margaret doesn't figure it out now, she never will.

The title of the book refers to one of Vida's books called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation which only had 12 tales and was immediately re-published with the word "Thirteen" removed. But enough people followed her to wonder, "What was the 13th tale?" (A question frequently asked of our intrepid protagonist throughout the book.) As you read this book, you realize, of course, that you are holding the "Thirteenth Tale" in your very hands. Again... so meta! (It sounds pretty cheesy as I write it here, but it was really well done.)

The characters are nicely drawn and the story-within-a-story-within-*another*-story really works as Vida recounts her life while Margaret goes sniffing around on her own. Throughout the book, we are sometimes in the past, sometimes in the present, and sometimes in the present but either recalling, or purely speculating upon, the past. It all comes together in a pretty satisfying conclusion -- I don't know if I can really say more without giving away the end (which I know we don't care about too much, but... it's a mystery! Perhaps just this one time, I won't spoiler the hell out of this thing.)

I'll leave you with one more bookish quote:
Whether by luck or accident, I cannot say, but I found my way to the library a full twenty minutes earlier than I had been commanded to attend. It was not a problem. What better place to kill time than a library? [41]
All in all, this is a book I can see lending or recommending to other readers and feeling confident that they will enjoy it. It's not an epic life-changer, but it's a great yarn. (Any interest in reading it yourself? I can send it along!)


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Random Book Talk

Dear Jenny,

Here are some random book-ish thoughts I have had lately, in no particularly order (although, for whatever reason, I have chosen to number them...)

1. Thanks for recommending Americanah to me -- I'm listening to the aBook right now. The story is great and the narrator is fantastic. Win! (BTW, that's a Goodreads link and the reviews are an interesting mix. This 1 star review at the very top right now is especially fascinating. I see her point, but I totally don't feel that way when reading the book at all.)

2. Big news: I recently abandoned a book! I was listening to it, it wasn't that interesting, my loan was expiring and... I let it go. I am so proud of myself -- this is my first ever intentionally abandoned book. Aaaand... I have abandoned it so successfully, I cannot even remember what it was! (And I'm not going to try... go away!) Aren't you proud of me?

 3. I'm curious... how do you and/or other middle school teachers feel about this latest shocker-book, Tampa? I feel like I am seeing it everywhere and it just sounds revolting. The topic could be interesting but the over-the-top graphic sex descriptions sound atrocious. Have you read it? Know anyone who has? (And, when I heard about this book, I thought, "Please, please, please do not be in the Tournament of Books this year...") Bonus (semi-related) question: Have you ever read Lolita? And bonus (totally related) news topic... a teacher near Tampa was recently found guilty of similar actions. (Ugh.)

 4. Speaking of the ToB... as the year comes to a close, I feel more and more like, "Eep! I should be figuring out what might be in the ToB this year! Eep!" Last year, I happened to have read several of the books before it came around (seriously -- a coincidence). But if I have not pre-loaded for it, I won't be able to keep pace like I did last year... I've been following the talk on the Rooster! Goodreads group, but that hasn't been all that helpful... seems like most people are talking up books they've liked, but there are a lot of books getting thrown out there. I know there are big prizes coming up which should help pare down the list, but the outliers... oof. I am nervous.

 5. Also ToB related... every time I hear the name "David Foster Wallace," I think, "Drink!" That's a powerful Pavlovian response there. ;)

 6. I completely spaced on reading my TBR book for September (!!!) and now my final list of books are all long ones... I have a feeling it's going to be page-count-for-the-rest-of-the-year for me. (Ha -- looking back on that post, it was just about 1 year ago [Sept 21, 2012] and I had far more books/pages to read to complete the year. Sooo... I'm still ahead of where I was last year at this time!)

7. I have just realized I never posted my completed review of my August book. Crap. Okay. Gotta finish that too. Sooo... how are you doing on your TBR list?