Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hard Work

Next in the line of books I received at Christmas time is this (auto)biography of Roy Williams, coach of my beloved North Carolina Tarheels men's basketball team.

It is often easy to forget, but there is no reason to assume that just because a person is extremely good at something, the rest of the person's character will turn out to be good too.  No place is this truer than the sporting world (*ehem* Mr. Woods).  Not so with Roy Williams, who happens to be an extremely successful coach (a Naismith Hall-of-famer and the winningest active coach by percentage among NCAA coaches) and, by all accounts, a genuinely good person.

The book follows Coach Williams' rise to basketball royalty from his meager beginnings as a stat tracker sitting in the upper deck of Carmichael Auditorium as an underclassman at UNC.  Along the way, we are treated to recollections about his career, philosophy (basketball and otherwise), and personal life.

Something that becomes immediately apparent when you look at Coach Williams' life (at least the portions he has chosen to share with us in his book) is that he is a fairly uncomplicated person.  He has lived his life with an almost single-minded approach to any task:  an uncompromising devotion to outworking everyone around him.  In a sport where a sense of entitlement seems to pervade the culture of both players and coaches, Williams' example should be lauded.

At the suggestion of a friend, I'm now going to include a rating for each review to serve as a quick way to determine my overall feeling about a given book. I will be staying with the theme of the blog and using a five hamster rating scheme.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Year of the Flood

The first of the four (count 'em, four) books that I got for Christmas!  I have _really_ been looking forward to Margaret Atwood's new novel since it is a continuation of the ideas introduced in her previous Oryx and Crake (which happens to be on my top 10 list of all time favorite books).

Oryx and Crake introduced readers to a world where the material and moral excesses of the present day were taken to the extreme (and, indeed, nearly to a conclusion) in the near future.  Corporations (The Corps) attempt to control every aspect of people's lives.  Chains such as HelthWyzer and AnooYoo push products and treatments that guarantee to make you into a better, healthier, more attractive person.  Society is highly stratified and divided into those who live comfortably in the security of company compounds, and those who must fend for themselves on the rough streets (the pleebs).

It is in the midst of this world of excess where we find a group called the God's Gardeners in The Year of the Flood.  The group, led by a guru-like figure named Adam One, has a theology that revolves around humans treating the Earth with the same reverence and respect that should be shown toward God.  Members lead an extreme organic-vegetarian lifestyle: no eating the meat of other animals, no use of pesticides (even worms are picked off plants and gently set aside), only rough-spun garments from indigenous fibers are worn, bathing is  infrequent, no use of electronics, etc.  The group prepares hidden caches ('Ararats') against the day when the Waterless Flood will sweep the self-absorbed human race from the planet.

The novel alternates between the viewpoints of Toby, a senior member (an Eve) of the God's Gardeners, and Ren, a younger woman who joins the group as a girl when her mother takes up with one of the men.  The majority of the book is told in flashbacks when Toby and Ren remember the various life incidents that led to their association with the group and their experiences while members.  Both are eventually forced to part with the group and must learn to reintegrate into a society in which they are ill-equipped to fit in.

The book culminates with the coming of the Waterless Flood predicted by the God's Gardeners.  This turns out to be the engineered epidemic unleashed by Crake in the previous book through widespread use of the BlyssPlus drug (a compound enhancing the act of sex).  Both Toby and Ren survive and are reunited in the joint cause of finding other surviving God's Gardeners members.

The world of After the Flood is vivid and fully imagined.  In between major sections of the novel, Atwood presents a short sermon by Adam One, followed by a hymn taken from the hymnbook of the God's Gardeners.  These small details really add to the ambience of the story.

Alas, the book went by far too fast (as most of Atwood's seem to).  I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I didn't find it quite as compelling as Oryx and Crake.  While the Gardeners were fascinating, the overall plot was not as intricate or climactic as the previous novel.  Also, I would certainly recommend reading Oryx and Crake before After the Flood to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how society evolves into the state in which we find it at the opening of After the Flood.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


My latest read is by an author that I would consider to be one of my favorites:  Dan Simmons (his Hyperion Cantos books are near the top of my list of favorite novels).  Though somewhat hesitant about the setting of the novel (Victorian London...probably about as far from my interest as you could get), I went into the novel with high hopes.  After all, Dan Simmons was behind the wheel!

The novel (which, incidentally, gets its title from the unfinished novel of Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) is a fictionalized  account of the final years of Charles Dickens' life as told by his friend Wilkie Collins, also a writer of some repute.  It opens with an account of Dickens' experience during the Staplehurst rail accident of 1865, where he escaped injury but tended to the dead and dying in the immediate aftermath.  Dickens notices an odd person dressed in a black cape and hat with white skin, sharp teeth, and strange face milling about the scene.  This character turns out to be Drood, who will haunt both Dickens and Collins for the rest of their lives.

The accident has a profound effect on Dickens' psychological state, and he leads Collins on a hunt to find Drood in the seedy underbelly of London.  The narration takes us through such colorful (actually rather drab and dirty) places as an opium den hidden in a graveyard to cities of homeless built in the sewer system.  This half of the novel that really shined for me--I enjoyed the descriptions of London as well as the back story of the Drood character (which I won't give away).

The second part of the book concerns the growing opium addiction and subsequent degeneration of Wilkie Collins at the hands of Drood.  The mystery of Drood the man, while not completely forgotten, becomes a more distant concern as Collins' jealousy of Dickens begins to take over his life.  The novel reaches its climax when an unstable Collins comes to the decision that he must kill Dickens if he is to be rid of the troubles plaguing his life.

To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what really happened at the conclusion of the novel.  By this point, Collins' narration becomes so unreliable, some events and conversations that I thought were real may or may not actually have taken place.  In the end, I was left wondering if the entire plot had been an opium-induced fantasy by Collins.  Perhaps this is what Simmons intended for his readers, but I was left completely unsatisfied at the end this fairly lengthy book.

I think that Drood is just crying out for a good editor.  There were large swaths of the book about Collins's personal life that, while somewhat interesting (they managed to hold my attention enough to finish the book), did essentially nothing to advance the central plot.  I couldn't help but think that Simmons was being somewhat self-indulgent at times by beating me over the head with details of the Victorian lifestyle.  Had the book been shorter, say 400 pages instead of 750, its plot would have been tighter, its action more taut, and, in the end, a much better novel.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Screwtape Letters

We finally finished reading this short book in our small group from church (it only took us about 3 months to get through our 8 week informal study).  The book is a series of letters written by Screwtape, a master tempter in the Lowerarchy of Hell, to his nephew, Wormwood, who is an inexperienced tempter handling his first case.  I'll just make a couple of observations since I read it for study rather than pure leisure reading.

Two key points really hit home for me:
1)  When you really sit down and examine human behavior (something which C.S. Lewis is extremely adept at), you begin to recognize that nearly all evil, un-Christian, etc. behaviors boil down to putting one's own wishes/wants/desires before those of others.  Ol' Jesus really knew what he was talking about when he exhorted people to follow the famous Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31).  An often overlooked point is that he wasn't speaking solely in terms of giving charity (though this is a good thing too).  If one's thoughts, speech, and actions (about others AND yourself) are constantly and consistently held up to this litmus test, you have the makings of a virtuous life whatever your belief system may be.

2) Screwtape himself best sums up the second point when he counsels Wormwood that tempting humans to spectacular acts of evil will rarely pay off in the end (i.e. lead to the successful corruption of a soul).  Instead, he notes that "the safest path to hell is the gradual one."  That is to say, it is the mundane day-to-day choices in our words and actions that have the potential to do us humans the most harm by far.  Screwtape continually advises Wormwood to set up fairly innocuous situations where someone might be tempted to act in a sinful manner (as an aside, the word "sinful" sounds awfully strong, but I imagine that Screwtape would say that tempters have toiled to warp the meaning of the word so that we can easily apply it to our own actions less and less).  In the end, the message is that upright living requires a constant evaluation of one's thoughts, words, and deeds (hmm...sound repetitive? see Golden Rule above).