Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Literary Equivalent Of Pratfalls

Lamb is the latest book group read.
One of the pluses and minuses of belonging to two book groups is that I read a lot of books I wouldn't otherwise choose. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal is one of them. Not only does it not fall into the mystery, occult (OK-maybe extremely loosely), suspense, or thriller genres, it is a novel that is mostly satire mixed with the literary equivalent of pratfalls. I enjoy short satirical pieces and goofy humor at times. But not so much for fifteen hours and twenty minutes, which is the length of this book on Audible.

Despite all that, I'm not sorry I read Lamb. Mainly told in first person, it purports to be a lost gospel of a childhood friend of Jesus Christ, wrapped within the story of how Biff came to write it after being resurrected by an annoying angel. It focuses on the years the Christian New Testament skips. First, it covers childhood and, second, the early teens to twenty-something. According to Biff, these years include travel in India, learning about other religions, doubts about being a messiah and what that means, and a healthy/borderline unhealthy curiosity about sex.

More Than A Comedy

Lamb is filled with irreverent jokes, anachronisms, and silliness, but it would be a mistake to view it as making fun of the Christian gospels. OK, it does make fun of the Christian gospels a little. But I read the book as the author’s genuine attempt to understand inconsistencies, gaps, and less-than-clear doctrines expressed by the Christ depicted in the New Testament. For that reason, depending upon whether the reader's sense of humor matches the author’s, I don't think this book will necessarily put off religious readers.

But It's Probably Not Horror

The Amazon rankings for Lamb as I write this include listings under (a) horror/comedy, (b) contemporary fiction/religious, and (c) religious and inspirational/historical. Uh, I'm not so sure. I didn't find anything that would be remotely considered horror in this book. But the Amazon categories, despite including numerous subcategories, often do not quite fit a particular read. My own Awakening series, best described as a supernatural thriller series, usually appears on the Horror Top 100 list when I have a sale, though it is more supernatural than frightening or bone chilling.

As to the historical reference, my guess is people who view the Bible itself as historical would be offended at anyone referring to Lamb that way. On the other hand, I saw a Goodreads review that noted that some of the fictional adventures Joshua (the name Biff claims was Jesus Christ's real name) engages in fit with historical suppositions about those missing years.

Why Listen Rather Than Read

Had I read Lamb rather than listened to it, I might have liked it better. The joke is a bit one-note, and listening to it for so many hours got tiresome. Had I been reading, it would have taken me less time, so I might not have grown tired of it. I also might have skimmed a few more parts. (Though I confess I did the audio equivalent of skimming. I set the reading speed faster and occasionally did household tasks that drowned out the narration without going back to listen to the parts I missed.) I chose to listen rather than read because I knew this wasn't my type of book. I figured I'd be more apt to finish it if I listened while doing other things rather than setting aside time simply to read. Also, I wanted to use my Audible subscription credits.

Conflicting Reviews Of Lamb

Unlike Americanah, which I discussed two weeks ago, I was not surprised by the varying reviews of Lamb. Those people who enjoy satire and farce seemed to really love the book. Those who gave it very low reviews tended to be people who, like me, grew tired of the novel-length joke or aren't really fans of satire or farce. If you're not sure if this book will work for you, I suggest listening to a sample on Audible or reading the sample pages on Amazon. If you enjoy the tone, you probably will like the rest of the book as well. If not, I doubt that it will grow on you.

Why Would I Review Another Book That Is Not What I Usually Like To Read?

From a marketing perspective, I probably should review books here that are in the same genre in which I write. That way, people might flip from the blog page on my website to the book page and discover they are interested in my Awakening series. But I already edit a monthly newsletter that covers the mystery, occult, suspense, and thriller genres in books, film, and TV. (You can sign up here if interested.)

More important, as both a reader and writer, I want to pay attention to books that are outside my usual area. For one thing, too many dark books leads to a skewed view of the world. I already look at every alley or panel van and imagine a story involving a monster or other villain. That’s good for my career as an author, but I don’t need to reinforce it with every book I pick up. And I have always liked learning about perspectives and approaches different from my own. Which has resulted in some very interesting conversations with different friends during this election cycle, but that's a whole other post. Lamb gave me some new perspectives on how believers see Christ and on using satire in long-form storytelling. That alone made it worth the read.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

God Is Not One

This week's book recommendation.
Since my early twenties when I started seriously questioning my religious beliefs, I've enjoyed reading books about religion. Not books that preach, but books that explore. Questions about when and how the universe was created, whether there is a god, many gods, or no god, and the various ways people rely upon religion to explain and navigate the world fascinate me, as does how religious beliefs affect people's relationships. That last point inspired me to write my Awakening thriller series, where characters with genuine, deeply-held beliefs oppose one another. All of which is why I love the book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World by Stephen Prothero.

Prothero's Reasons For Writing About Differences In Religious Beliefs

Prothero's premise is that while people often say things like "we all worship the same God," we actually " in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one." (See Prothero's Introduction.) No one tries to argue that every political party, type of government, or economic system is the same, as the current U.S. presidential primary races highlight. Yet popular culture and even religious scholars often view different religious as merely varying ways to get to the same place. 

The Eight Religions The Book Discusses

Throughout God Is Not One, Prothero shows the differences among Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism. Why these and not others are included in itself raises interesting questions. Prothero organizes his analysis using a four-point structure. For each religion, he examines:

  • the problem
  • the solution (or religious goal)
  • the technique (for reaching/achieving the solution)
  • an exemplar who illustrates the path from problem to solution 

A Timely Example Of Differences

As an example of differences in the first two points, Prothero explains how Christianity sees the problem as sin, with salvation as the solution. But in Buddhism, suffering is the problem and awakening is the solution. In contrast to both of those religions, in Judaism, the problem is exile; the solution is returning to God. I find these comparisons particularly timely for the U.S., which is now in the midst of the presidential primary election season. The race includes candidates who normally court the vote of a specific segment of the Christian population, argue the U.S. is a Christian nation, and deplore businesses who attempt to recognize that not all their customers are Christian. Yet because the primaries are hotly contested this year in New York, those same candidates have needed to attempt to broaden their appeal to non-Christian voters. I confess to not following every single thing politicians say (shocking, I know), but I feel safe in guessing that one way politicians attempt to deal with such conundrums is to assert that we all worship the same God and hold the same values.

Who Shouldn't Read This Book 

If you're uninterested in religion or philosophy, God Is Not One won't appeal to you. But if you are curious about what, how, and why cultures and individuals profess certain religious beliefs, I think you'll find this fascinating. Also, while the book is well-researched, the tone is fairly conversation, so you won't feel like you're reading a textbook.

If you read God Is Not One and have thoughts about it or can suggest other similar books, please share below.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

It Was The Best Of Books, It Was The Worst Of Books: Americanah

Why I Read Americanah

Suspense, thrillers, mystery, and occult are the genres that make up most of my to-read stack, so Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not the type of novel that typically catches my eye. But I saw it listed in an article covering the ten most-talked-about books for 2014 and suggested it for one of my book groups. Also, I loved the audiobook sample on Audible. It was from the point of view of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S., struggles to achieve professional success, and writes a blog on race for non-American blacks. I found the partial blog post included in the sample funny and insightful. I was also intrigued that Ifemelu planned to return to Nigeria and was contacting Obinze, a Nigerian man whom she'd once loved, but who was now married to someone else.

The book, which I listened to rather than read, shifts between Ifemelu and Obinze, who at one point emigrates to England but does so without documentation. (Ifemelu comes to the U.S. on a visa.) There are also shifts in time. While Americanah starts when Ifemelu decides to move back to Nigeria, much of the book is the story of her life leading up to that point. 

The Best Of Books

Though I usually prefer a more traditional plot structure, I loved this book. I had no trouble following the point of view and time shifts, which is partly a testament to the narrator. She varied her accent and voice slightly for each character so that I could tell who was whom, but never to the point of caricature. I also found it fairly easy to follow the shifts in time, as the author used certain anchor scenes and places to signal the timeframe. The characters struck a chord in me and were well developed. I loved Ifemelu's observations on race and U.S. culture from her outsider perspective and enjoyed her wit and humor. At the same time, her story is deeply emotional, as is Obinze's. The book has a great deal to say about race, immigration, and differences from person to person and country to country, but I never felt it spoke at the expense of the characters or the plot.

The Worst Of Books?

So why does my title include "the worst of books"? Because after I'd finished I checked the reviews on Goodreads. To my surprise, the first review that popped up was from a reader who hated everything about the book that I'd loved. He'd found the characters underdeveloped, the plot hard to follow or non-existent, the structure lacking. Another reviewer found the book preachy and not at all funny, and the scenes that made me cry left her cold.

You Decide

None of the negative reviews changed my view of Americanah as one of the best books I've ever read. But the unfavorable reactions were educational. As both a reader and writer, I know book lovers often differ widely in how they see a particular novel. This is particularly so when it comes to a fan of literary fiction reading commercial work and vice versa. This difference often occurs because people come to novels for different things. The lovers of literary fiction tend to focus more on the writing as an end in itself, while those who love commercial fiction often look more for story, including plot and characterization. But I hadn't realized how much of a difference of opinion there could be on a book that seemed to me to do an amazing job on both counts.

If you decide to read the Americanah, please let me know how you see it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Conflagration Is Almost Here

It's almost time for Book 3 of 4 in The Awakening series. I'm finalizing the text now for publication, and you can see the cover above, thanks to graphic designer Carly Neigh. The ebook editions will be released in May. If you'd like to receive a notice of the release date directly, you can join my email list here.

Now, back to work...