Spaghetti Surprise!

“Spaghetti Surprise was a simple equation for indigestion, invented by Mom: Noodles tossed like a blond wig over all your leftovers.  Noodles as a culinary disguise for gross, inedible root vegetables: surprise!  In a trash can this dish was raccoon kryptonite; even Grandpa couldn’t finish it.” (Karen Russell, Swamplandia!, p117-118)

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audio book review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (narrated by Jim Dale)

a fabulous fictional location in a pretty good story

A nocturnal circus is the venue for a contest between two magicians. The plot of this story is enjoyable but not exceptional. There is a love story which I found not to be compelling at all. There is a separate plot with a young man finding his way which took a while to find its way (but did, eventually). Again, these plots are enjoyable enough but not enough by themselves to recommend the book. Some characters are compelling (Celia, one of the magicians) while others remain flat (Marco, the other magician).

BUT the circus itself is fabulous. Not since the Cemetery of Lost Books (from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game) have I encountered such an enchanting, exciting locale. The circus is only open at night, and new tents and wonders are continually added. This book is worth reading just for the circus, which is the main and by far the most intriguing character.

Jim Dale continues to be the best reader in the business for fantastical tales; if you don’t know what I’m talking about run (don’t walk) and listen to him reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Note on content: The book has exactly one swear word as well as I can remember (an f-word, right near the beginning). There is one intimate scene portrayed briefly and in very figurative terms (e.g., “he covered her body with kisses”).

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audio book review: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

fun and creative and emotionally resonant

If you haven’t read The Magicians, go read that first.  Stop reading this review.  The Magician King is Lev Grossman’s excellent sequel. The book proceeds in parallel narratives, alternating by chapters, between King Quentin and his fellows king and queens in Fillery on the one hand, and the story of what happened to Julia, Quentin’s high-school crush, after she failed the entrance exam to Brakebills. The narratives come together in the final chapters. Quentin is still something of a sad sack, always hoping that the next adventure or quest will bring him happiness (guess how that works out), and his story starts a little slow given how familiar it seems to what we’ve seen before. But it picks up as the quest grows more dire, filled with plot twists, and as Quentin learns some invaluable lessons about heroism. (I really liked the ending of this book; it completely defied expectations and yet managed to be powerful and satisfying at the same time.)

Julia’s narrative is filled with desperation, as she tries to learn magic through an unregulated network of magicians with no formal training. Just as the first book managed to capture certain emotional processes wonderfully (such as betrayal), so this one captures obsession and desperation. There is also lots of humor, pop culture references, and endless creativity. (Occasionally Grossman fills a scene with so many creative ideas that it’s concentrated delight, as in the contest of swordsmanship competition in this book and the Brakebills entrance exam in the last.) I highly recommend this book. The reading in the unabridged audiobook is excellent.

Note on content: The book has strong language scattered throughout, some fantasy violence, and one harrowing scene of sexual violence.

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audio book review: The Battlefield of the Mind, by Joyce Meyer

good ideas and a good feeling

In this unabridged audiobook, Joyce Meyer shares a series of ideas about how to win the battle to maintain good, positive thoughts. Meyer is a Christian, and the book is filled with biblical verses and their applications to this topic. The principal message of the first half of the book is to fill your mind and heart with the word of God from the scriptures as a tool to keep control of your mind. Meyer practices what she preachers here: I was impressed at the breadth of biblical scriptures she draws on.

The second half of the book is dedicated to what Meyer calls “wilderness mentalities.” She relates how the Israelites, led by Moses, could have arrived at the Promised Land in a matter of days, but their lack of faith kept them in the wilderness for 40 years. She then shares from the Old Testament a series of scriptures showing thought processes exhibited by the Israelites in the story and elucidates how they apply to us. It’s a nice metaphor and I found it useful. At one point, she shares how, when tempted to engage in some unconstructive thinking, she asked herself, “Joyce, do you really want to circle that mountain one more time?” alluding to the Israelites circling again and again during their wandering in the wilderness. I have found that question useful in my own efforts.

I didn’t love everything about the book. Meyer is not very friendly to the use of reason (seeing it as often an enemy to faith), I wouldn’t totally rely on every fact (for example, she says that most scholars believe Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, which I believe is not true), and – like many self-help books – the book provides lots of good ideas but no systematic program for improvement. Still, the ideas are helpful, and I had a good feeling as I listened to the audiobook version of this. I recommend it.

Note on content: Nothing objectionable, unless you’re offended by excessive quoting of Bible verses.

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book recommendation: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

the futile, external quest for happiness

Quentin, a hyper-competitive, super-intelligent high school student is on his way to a Princeton undergraduate entrance interview when he is diverted and discovers Brakebills, a five-year magical university hidden in upstate New York.  Imagine – and if you’ve read anything about this book, you’ve already seen this – Harry Potter for grown-ups.  There is also a series of books within The Magicians about a magical land called Fillery, which are clearly an homage to the Narnia books.  I’d recommend against reading lots of reviews, as many reveal a key plot twist that doesn’t take place until halfway through the book.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook and had trouble putting down my ipod.  From the opening of the first chapter, I loved the prose: smooth, well constructed, a pleasure.  Grossman – in his protagonist Quentin – expertly illustrates a teenager and then a man constantly seeking for external sources of happiness with the expected results.  I remember a scene that was particularly emotionally resonant, in which one character has betrayed another and slowly, step-by-step, goes from self-justification to admitting (to himself) the gravity of his action.  The emotional resonance and the prose surpass the fantasy genre.

Yet relative to the genre, the creativity is wonderful, with a number of ideas (and a twist regarding time) that I haven’t seen before and thoroughly enjoyed.  I cannot wait to listen to the sequel, Magician King.

Note on content: The book has a few sex scenes (not graphically detailed for the most part), strong language, and a couple of scenes of graphic violence.

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book warning – The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, by Alice Ozma

not what it claims to be

[Caveat: I listened to about one-third of this audiobook before giving up.]

Ozma’s father read aloud to her every single night from when she was nine years old until she left for college.  That’s lovely.  I love books and reading and reading to my children, so I thought I would enjoy this book.  However, the book isn’t about the books they read, or about how the books affected their lives, or really about reading the books at all.  Each chapter begins with a quote from a book they read, but other than that, the author talks little about the books or the reading.  Rather, this is a memoir of Ozma growing up with her father.  And I found it incredibly…mild.  There is no real conflict, just a series of little stories, hiding out in the museum with her father for a boy-hater’s club, getting locked in the principal’s office, and so on.  No real conflict, just pleasant little stories.

Also, two sticking points: First, from a causal inference crank (me).  Ozma’s father writes the foreword and points out all the fabulous academic achievements that Ozma has achieved, suggesting the link between years of reading aloud and said achievements.  We all know that reading aloud is great for kids, but the specific link in this case is pretty tenuous.  How much of these wonderful achievements comes from reading Alice in Wonderland and how much comes from having a father who encourages reading in other ways, from having a father who works at a school, and so on.

Second, from a book-loving crank.  Ozma attributes the finding of Narnia to SUSAN in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Susan!  I would be annoyed if this were a regular book, but this is a book about someone who loves books and children’s literature.  Susan’s the last one who would have discovered Narnia.

I’m sure many people would enjoy this book, but it is not a book about the books that Ozma and her father shared, or about books at all.

PS For an excellent essay on reading aloud to your children, read Anne Fadiman’s introductory essay in her book Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love.

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ringing book recommendation – Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, by Grant Hardy

an analysis that takes the Book of Mormon on its own terms

I loved this book!  Grant Hardy steps away from the ways of reading generally adopted by non-Mormon scholars (trying to show what it tells us about Joseph Smith), Mormon scholars (trying to prove its truth through identification of literary techniques unique to Hebrew literature), or lay Mormon readers (seeking verse by verse for inspiration) and instead suggests “that the Book of Mormon can be read as literature – a genre that encompasses history, fiction, and scripture – by anyone trying to understand this odd but fascinating book.”  In doing so, he examines the book as the work of three principal narrators – Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni – each very distinctive in circumstances, style, and sense of audience. 

What I loved about this book:

  • Hardy analyzes not only what IS there but what ISN’T there but perhaps should be.  For one example, Nephi recounts his father Lehi’s blessings to each of his children, except his blessing to Nephi!  Why might that have been excluded?  (Admitted speculation – albeit textually suggested – ensues.)  For another, Hardy points out that with one major exception, the Jaredite record (Book of Ether) seems to be almost entirely non-Christian.  
  • Hardy is a believer – as of a fabulous interview I heard in April 2011 on the Mormon Stories podcast he was serving in a Stake Presidency – but does not shy away from the difficult elements of the Book of Mormon.  How does Nephi quote from elements of Isaiah that the best Biblical scholarship suggests were written long after Nephi et al left Jerusalem?  What about the passages that rely heavily on New Testament prose?  Hardy explores potential explanations, and which are more likely to be faith-based rather than evidence-based. As Hardy says, “As believers, we should read it as carefully as possible, and we should bring to our study the best biblical and historical scholarship available, but there is enough theological flexibility to accommodate whatever we might find” [1].
  • In his analysis of the Book of Mormon as literature, he draws on other scripture traditions, from Zen classics to Tibetan tests to Hindu sacred poetry.  He also draws on literature, from Gulliver’s Travels to Nabokov’s Pale File to Don Quixote.
  • The footnotes are fabulous: They provide all the additional information and source material that you could want.

I hope to come back to this text again and again, and – more importantly – use it launch my own much more careful reading of the Book of Mormon and other sacred texts.

If you don’t want to trust me, here are a few other reviews worth reading:

  1. Steven Walker, BYU Studies, 50(3), 2011 – link
  2. Julie Smith, Times & Seasons Blog, 15 August 2011 (adapted from her Dialogue review) – link
  3. 12 Questions with Grant Hardy at the Times & Seasons Blog, 7 September 2011 (part 1, part 2)
  4. For a non-Mormon perspective, see Alan Wolfe, “Chloroform in Print: Does the Book of Mormon Get a Bad Rap?” Slate, 17 May 2010 – link

[1] 12 Questions with Grant Hardy, Part 2, Times & Seasons Blog, 7 September 2011.

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