First, prospective readers should be advised that this book is anything but self-analytical or polemical. It is, as its dust jacket suggests, a straight-up memoir, but unlike the best memoirs, this one lacks genuine introspection or cultural context. In other words, if readers hope to encounter a hard-edged story of the journey from faith to atheism, they are likely to be disappointed.
This is a surprisingly small-bore, sometimes dull, account of the life of a Southern Pentecostal preacher who vacillates and dithers about his beliefs throughout his life. It goes into great detail about his constant movement within the Pentecostal world as he tries to find "the correct doctrine" to inform his preaching so that he can lead the ultimate "revival."
The book ends with DeWitt feeling solid in his atheism, and perhaps that will stick. But honestly, he wavers and vacillates and dithers so often throughout his life, bouncing from one crazy cult to another insignificant, poorly paying country church, to high-powered jobs at city hall to ... let's just say the guy has a really, really hard time settling down, and many of his choices seem, on the surface, to be rather stupid. Given all that, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to learn -- since it happens so often in the story -- that he has, once again, taken up the mantle of preaching and his newfound atheism didn't really stick.
And pity his poor wife, Kelly. He drags her and their small son through bad decision after bad decision, yanking them from poverty to relative comfort and back again, usually excusing himself with his "need" to preach. The fact is, DeWitt appears to bring much of the family's misfortune down upon them, because he is so conflicted about his beliefs and his "purpose" in life.
It's charming at first, but in time DeWitt's backwoods diction and pronunciation begin to grate. PENNY-costals ... umble (for humble) ... futher (for further) and on and on. He comes off as highly uneducated, which he is.
As a study in the weird world of PENNY-costalism, "Hope After Faith" is pretty interesting. Who knew these wildly judgmental people were constantly skirmishing among themselves about "correct doctrine"? DeWitt's attraction to it all, right up until his accidental exposure as a new atheist, frankly doesn't speak well of his own capacity for judgment. Then again, maybe it's simply the story of the power of early indoctrination.
The book is self-indulgent, in that DeWitt feels free to describe the delicious chicken-fried steak he had at Brother Bobo's house and the wood paneling at every country church. Yet there is surprisingly little insight or even narrative about his transformation of belief, which is given pretty short shrift.
Most people probably pick up this book hoping for more of the latter, and they will be surprised by the extent of the former.
It isn't a bad book, if you're looking for a minutely detailed, see-saw story of an uneducated Southern pastor and an exploration of the bizarre beliefs and practices of Bible-thumping backwoods Christians. But it falls woefully short if you are hoping to gain a deeper understanding of why and how believers come to unbelief.
I had attempted multiple times to read "A Fire on the Deep" since it won the Hugo in 1992 before I decided to try it as an audiobook. Alas, it seems that this novel, much beloved by many readers, is just not my cup of tea.
I will only add that the narration here didn't help matters. I appreciate when readers use their acting skills to differentiate between characters when speaking dialogue. But the screechy rendition of the Tines' speech was so grating to my ears that I didn't even get as far as I had in my most successful attempt at reading the novel.
I very much appreciate the research upon which this book is based, and I find that the authors make a very credible case for their thesis that the Tea Party is just the latest manifestation of America's long history of reactionary, right-wing movements.
But in the end, for readers, it would have been better as a substantial, 30-40 page article. Simply put, the authors are researchers, not writers and it shows in constant summing up and "Here's what we're going to tell you ... now we're telling you ... now here's what we told you" academic approach. The prose is fairly dry and lifeless and the entire book feels inflated far beyond its interesting premises.
Also, it seems that there are some graphics, charts and so on in the printed version that obviously don't come through in an audiobook. Perhaps they make it more engaging.
About the performance: Kate Mulgrew is an evocative reader and puts her acting skills to good use here.
She does a particularly good job with the villain, Charlie Manx.
But I have to say that her interpretation was mighty shriek-y. It seemed to me that well over half of Vic's, Wayne's, and Bing's dialogue was half-screamed, even when it might have been more effective otherwise. Less so but still noted for Lou Carmody. I understand she was probably responding to punctuation and "saidisms" (she screamed, he yelled, etc.) but it made the whole thing feel a little overwrought. So often I imagined how powerful it could have been to let Vic use a cold, determined voice rather than constantly hollering at Manx and Bing.
About the book:
First, a question: "NOS4A2" is the first novel by Joe Hill I've read -- is it a deliberate homage to his father's work, or did he simply learn his craft at Stephen King's knee?
If the first, that's perhaps a little more impressive, but if the second, it does not diminish Hill's skills as a writer.
"NOS4A2" may not have been written as an homage , but consider the attributes of various King novels -- and larger tendencies -- as compared to this one. "Check" indicates the presence of the attribute in "NOS4A2":
* Children in danger, rescued by adults who were likewise endangered as children. King comparisons -- "It," "Doctor Sleep," and others. Check.
* A small number of special people with access to supernatural realities. King comparisons -- "The Shining," "It," "Doctor Sleep," and many others. Check.
* Were-children (not as in "werewolf," but as in "former") terrorizing adults. King comparisons -- "Pet Sematary," "Children of the Corn," and others. Check.
* The innocence of children. King comparisons -- Danny Torrance, Charlie McGee. Check.
* A certain sentimentality about blue-collar people. King comparisons -- throughout King's canon. Check.
* A certain curious revulsion toward sex, which is usually presented as something ugly and threatening, rarely as something enriching or warm. King comparisons -- throughout the canon. That said, Hill touches on this only infrequently here. Check.
* Evil sentient machines. King comparisons -- "Christine," "The Mangler," and many more. Check.
* Twisting symbols of happiness and innocence into threats. King comparisons -- Gage Creed, Cujo, Pennywise, and others.
* A basically Manichean worldview, in which characters are good or evil, but seldom contain both. Half-check. Throughout the King canon, though not universal.
* Dovetailing with the last item, a certain predictability. Very rarely does a character in King who seems to be evil/good turn out to be otherwise, and for all his skill at character development and keeping readers turning pages, his work is rather thin on genuine surprises. In the SF/F field, some good examples of books with true "Whoa!" moments -- "Passage" by Connie Willis, "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman, "Darwinia" by Robert Charles Wilson. Check. Hill had me going here and there, thinking that he was going to surprise me with a character who seemed one way, but turned out to be another. But it never played out that way.
* Outstanding character development. Throughout King canon. Check.
* A way with words. Check-plus. I'd say that Hill actually is a better pure writer than his father, with consistently fresh languages and imagery throughout this novel.
* Flimsy endings. The big knock against many of King's novels, though there are some exceptions ("The Shining" being the best example, for me). Hill gets a partial check. I was surprised at how routinely the main storyline was wrapped up -- again, something about the novel led me to expect a better payoff than usual with King -- but he partially redeems himself after the main action has been completed.
* A fascination with the scatological. This is a problem for King, I think; one writer friend insists it's his way of relating with "working class readers," but I find that a little insulting; do working-class people enjoy frequent descriptions of bodily fluids and functions more than others? Quarter-check. Hill is much less prone to this, and I think it gives this novel a mature feeling sometimes absent in King.
* Symbolically, I couldn't help thinking of "Doctor Sleep." I understand that Hill and King communicated a bit and dropped Easter eggs in their respective novels, so perhaps this was deliberate. When I reviewed "Doctor Sleep" for the local newspaper, I couldn't help but notice that -- whether King intended it or not -- the novel could be read as a metaphor for a contemporary American society in which the old and privileged are "living forever" and thereby sucking the life out of the young. Ditto for "NOS4A2," though where "Doctor Sleep" gave us a group of people in the True Knot, here the focus is on just one villain, Charlie Manx.
I could on, but I won't. But while listening to "NOS4A2" I literally found myself assuming I was engaged with one of King's better-executed long supernatural tales. It kept me reading. The characters were engaging. Hill is a fine descriptive writer with an ear for realistic dialogue and less prone to the kind of sentimentalism into which his father can slide, all too often.
I suppose I'll have to read/listen to another Hill novel to see if these similarities are reflected in other works. If not, then my hat's off to the son for writing a truly elegant, but not heavy-handed, homage to his father, the most popular horror writer of all time.
For a little while there, I wasn't sure I was going to make it through this. The early part of the story is all Mark Watney, all the time, and while I found the character engaging and witty in a certain way, I couldn't see spending hundreds of pages listening to his voice and his voice alone.
Thankfully, Weir gave way and let a few other characters -- not particularly deep ones, but interesting enough -- step in and the book was saved from a case of Hyper Smartacre Watkinitis.
But give credit to Weir: He basically created a Heinlein hero for a new century, and didn't do a bad job of it. Heinlein's greatest contribution to SF (I'm not a huge fan, though I recognize his enormous influence) was to give the genre smart, snappy characters who talked like real (if a tad too clever) people rather than bland, lecturing scientists. And that's Watney, to a T: He's profane, self-deprecatingly humorous, sarcastic and above all, uber competent. Heinlein would have loved him.
Yet that's also a shortcoming here. Weir is so focused on the heroic/wiseacre personality of his hero -- not to mention his rather implausible genius and will to survive -- that we get virtually nothing of his actual humanity. I don't know; seems like being stranded hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth might inspire a man to consider some Big Questions. Even, you know, get depressed. Or frankly, a little stir crazy. You wouldn't have a story if there was too much of this, but I just didn't buy that Watney was so macho, ingenius and driven that he really never had a moment of self-doubt or a bleak, hopeless few hours.
The book is an incredible feat of scientific imagination. Who knows how much hand-waving is going on? Most of us have to trust the chemistry, botany, engineering, physics, etc. that Weir gives us, but he certainly makes it convincing. It's frankly dull at times, truly skim-worthy, but that just makes it a faster read. I wonder how scientists in these respective fields react to the novel?
As far as the plot, well, it's just one dang thing after another. While being stranded on Mars would probably mean a swift death in reality, it becomes almost comical how something goes wrong--requiring new ingenuity from Watney (with an occasional assist from NASA and his Hermes crewmates)--at every turn. Yet somehow Weir never gets completely lost in implausibility.
Curiously, he suffers somewhat of a failure of imagination in that his colloquialisms (lots of sarcastic "Yays" and so many F-bombs it actually got a little tedious) and mass technology -- maybe email and texting would still be the big thing by this time, but it seems unlikely and Weir didn't even try to guess like any good SF writer should (only to crash and burn years later because she "failed" to predict the future -- or so non-SF people seem to think sometimes).
And really, now. I understand that it was all attributed to the infatuation of a single person, Commander Lewis, but Weir dates himself badly with all the disco and '70s TV references. This is supposed to be the "near future"; let's say 2030 or so. So we're expected to believe that pop culture six decades old still holds people in its grasp? Surely by then the moldy media garbage from, say, the 2000s would be no less hip. Again, a (small) failure of the imagination.
But all those are small critiques of a book that I found dull at times, but still incredibly compelling. Let's put "The Martian" on the shelf of great Mars books with Pohl's "Man Plus" (in some ways similar), Bradbury's poetic "Martian Chronicles," Kim Stanley Robinson's epic, sometimes-slow Mars trilogy, Philip K. Dick's weird (what else?) "Martian Time Slip," Roger Zelazny's short story "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," Greg Bear's political adventure "Moving Mars" and a few others.
It will be interesting to see if Weir, who originally self-published the book, has anything else in him.
William Manchester's biography of Douglas MacArthur is engaging, well reported and insightful. It's also for the most part a balanced view, though readers/listeners familiar with Manchester know that he has an occasional propensity to offer up tasty, if almost certainly apocryphal, details and snarky editorializing.
While listening to the book, I asked a number of college-age people if they knew who MacArthur was, and not one did. I suppose that's inevitable. But it's still sad and remarkable that such a towering figure of American history could be forgotten so soon.
Tom Parker's narration is very good, though it takes awhile to get used to his somewhat tinny, "1940s radio" voice.
An excellent book, well worth the 40+ hours it takes to listen to it.
I'm pretty sure I would find this book irritating even if I were reading it - more later on that - but this is wholly annoying to listen to. It's mostly epistolary, and that means an endless succession of this pattern: "Letter write/Quote quote quote. New letter writer/Quote quote quote. Author identifies his own voice/Words words words."
So, will I go off and buy the book instead? No, I won't, mostly because the authors are so enormously impressed with their own research that they feel compelled to give us ... ALL of it. So we get letters revealing the most boring, inconsequential details ... constantly.
Two stars is probably generous.
"Redshirts" is the most fun you'll have reading a didactic novel about the creative responsibilities of authors you'll read this year - or any year.
Some say the codas feel tacked on. I cannot agree. I see them as three short laboratories in which Scalzi is trying to put into practice what he's saying with the novel.
Fun, hilarious, mind-bending and in the end, surprisingly moving.
But I will second (and third, and fifty-eight) the critique of the maddening staccato of "he said, she said" that nearly drove me to distraction until (blessedly) my brain began to filter it out and the incidence seemingly decreased.
On the written page "said" is an invisible word, and awkward substitutions ("he ejaculated" ... "she enthused" ... "grandma retorted"), which Damon Knight called "said bookisms," are distracting. The problem here is that when read aloud, Scalzi's unfortunate tendency to slap an attribution on almost every bit of dialogue — "Yeah," she said. "You sure?" Dahl said. "Yeah," she said. "Let's go," Dahl said starts to feel like a jackhammer.
No joke: I almost stopped listening after 20 minutes. Maybe I wouldn't have been as sensitized had I not read some of the critiques of the "said madness" here on Audible.
Glad I stuck with it.
Gaddis is well-known as a conservative historian, so his take here is not unexpected: individual human beings, mostly with a "conservative" bent, brought down the Evil Empire and ended the Cold War.
I have no reason to doubt his analysis — he knows much more about it all than I do — though there are some who do.
As a listener, I found the book and audio both well done. That said, Gaddis is just a little too biased in favor of his preferred conservative outlook on history.
What he doesn't bother to even touch is the fact that, whatever its many evils, the imperfect application of Marxism in history forced previously callous capitalist societies to moderate in an effort to compete (as Gaddis asserts). Thus, the birth of the modern social welfare state.
But without any competing ideology since (more or less) 1991, the capitalist world has begun a retrenchment of welfare capitalism, despite its remarkable record from 1945-1980 (and beyond, though less and less each year).
Marx is dismissed as a fool for his lofty theories of history. But it's intriguing to see that, in the absence of a competing socialist ideal, the capitalist world is reverting to a kind of free-market anarchy, vastly widening inequality and amplifying unfairness. Ayn Rand! Ayn Rand is now considered a valid thinker on such things.
So was Fukuyama correct in pronouncing the end of history with the fall of Communism? No, he wasn't. We are now recreating the conditions for social unrest and anger that — nothing new under the sun — will, at some point, result in some kind of revolution from below.
That is, if we haven't totally surrendered to a new kind of pluto/autocratic capitalist state, in which state power is entirely in the service of the "haves."
The ultimate irony on this audiobook file: There is an excerpt, at the end, from a book about the failings of American political society, from gerrymandering that has left the House of Representatives very far indeed from being the "people's house," to massive infusions of money by the well-to-do and industry, to the *continuing* "military industrial complex" — nay, the now well entrenched and growing military industrial complex — that Gaddis rather blithely skips over, implying that with the end of the Cold War it just kind of ... went away.
An interesting book. By intention, a glancing view, but a solid overview. But how interesting that Gaddis, so certain of his theses, unironically supported the idiotic invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
In other words, he knows a lot more than I do about the subject. But I still take him with a grain of salt.
I hadn't revisited "Heart of Darkness" for decades until I listened to this audiobook. My impressions are simple and intense.
Regardless of the post-colonial critique of Conrad - he was, I believe, remarkably understanding of the wrongs of colonialism for a man of his time - the writing and the psychological depth of the novella are nearly unsurpassed in 19th- and 20th-century English language literature.
In addition, Kenneth Branagh demonstrates here the difference between merely passable or even good dramatic reading, and true craftsmanship. I can't imagine how the publisher lured such an amazing acting talent into doing the narration of a book in the public domain, but Branagh's rendition is the finest of any audiobook I've ever listened to.
I'm deeply impressed with both Conrad and Branagh.
Thank you, Audible.
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