I don't mean that headline as derision, by the way. Readers of Barnes, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, McEwan, and club, will likely enjoy this book. It shares the collective postmodern concerns of ambiguity and uncertainty conveyed through a narrative about minor detail, complexity, and literary tradition--like Derrida in literature, the parrot being the entryway to larger concerns. Barnes is a beautiful writer, and the project is largely aesthetic, like Amis' -London Fields-; it orbits a great deal without touching down at any center, except, well, the absent center of the eponymous parrot (or parrots). For what it is, it's a perfect thing. I can picture enjoying this book while walking about a city in particular. The attention to detail is exquisite, the research on Flaubert is interesting (for the scholar) and the narrator reads French quite well, his voice a perfect match for the book.
On the other hand, if the question, "Which of two stuffed parrots was the inspiration for one of Flaubert’s greatest stories?" (from the description) sounds boring to you, there are better reads. On a personal level, I indeed found the book pointless, boring, and meandering. For Barnes and a number of the authors above, a good question might be, Why write at all if you're going to write about some of this stuff? I don't see the point. I understand the issues at play, but they don't make for filling fiction, according to my tastes. The novel feels more like a working out of Bloomian Anxiety of Influence than anything else. It did make me want to pick up Flaubert's -Madame Bovary,- which is a plus. But, like a cover song that makes you want to listen to the original, you begin to wonder about the need for a cover in the first place.
I wanted to see if the hype measured up for this 2005 Swedish novel, which became an international bestseller. As with many book-turned-blockbuster, I’m left puzzled at the appeal. While the story is at first intriguing, the novel suffers from lackluster, routine writing, bland characters, and odd political asides. If you enjoy this style of book, then, by all means pick it up for a listen (Vance reads brilliantly too). However, if classical or complex literature is your thing, you'll be left puzzled at what all the excitement was about.
The plot is well-known, so I won’t rehearse it, but the initial mystery is, at least, exciting. Setting up the investigator protagonist Blomkvist as just on the losing end of a trial nicely builds the beginning complexity. That’s about all that can be said. The best word on this book is that it’s an “entertainment,” which was the term Graham Greene used to describe his forays into non-serious literature.
From this initial setup, scenes and dialogue begin to bloat: morning activities are described in amateurish detail. I suppose the writing may be better in the original Swedish, but the descriptions and characterizations are mechanical. There is little original writing in terms of style, no panache, no flair.
Throughout the work, I had the sense that the author’s own political views were thinly veiled: they'd punch through in random, highly specific digs at particular Swedish politicians and authors--imagined, real, or concealed, I don’t know. The gender politics were also paper thin, as all men, save Blomkvist and Salander’s first guardian, are straight-up out to get women. The original title of the book, and I’m not kidding, was “Men Who Hate Women.”
All in all, it’s a deeply flawed, but entertaining distraction, a fun, but predictable who-done-it.
And that's not to decry readers of McEwan, by any means. McEwan was earlier known as Ian McAbre because of the odd and often disturbing turns his early novels would take. Like, Rushdie, it took McEwan a few go-arounds to reach massive critical success with -Atonement-, which is an excellent work, not only for story, but for its connections to British literary history.
-Solar- was hotly anticipated as McEwan's climate change book, but those hoping for a progressive position on the issue will be disappointed. McEwan puts forth the right science, but in a boor of a protagonist. Now, there's a difference between an anti-hero, like Leopold Bloom of -Ulysses-, or Patrick Kenzie of -Gone Baby Gone-, and just plain jerks like Michael Beard, the central character of -Solar-. Anti-heros are sympathetic, because they are good, yet flawed. Beard, on the other hand, is just a jerk. That doesn't make for much of a compelling narrative, and McEwan has a lot of rather petty fun setting up Beard in silly physical comedy (think throwing up, or getting, ahem, unfortunately exposed to Arctic climates, etc). This all comes with McEwan's typical dark twist: you slip on a banana peel, or, in this case, a bear skin rug, and instead of comedically crashing, you end up, well, dead and bleeding.
The plot is basically that Beard borrows some research amid being caught up in love triangles, then, years later, benefits from said research while being finally consumed by love triangles. None of these are especially convincing, though I've never found McEwan's characters (aside from -Atonement-) very believable (Perowne from -Saturday- being the least believable).
At the end of it all, I'm not sure what the point really was. Science helps us (as McEwan argues in -Saturday-), but can be corrupted by the scientist? Good causes aren't always backed by good people? Don't steal others research? I don't know.
McEwan completists should read it, as it has all the touchstones of vintage McEwan. And they'll likely enjoy it. But the odd sensibility combined with a dull, and finally unclear narrative, boor protagonist, and unbelievable events and supporting cast left me completely unsatisfied.
Prof. Bauerlein argues that technological changes have affected literacy and learning in such a way that students in US high schools and colleges are actually radically deficient in a number of skill and knowledge sets. This argues against the perception of over-worked "super students," common in the US media. Bauerlein is a professor, so he speaks from experience as well as statistics. My own experience as a teacher in college largely confirms what he says, though I do think Bauerlein is perhaps a little hard on what are overwhelmingly well-meaning students.
The larger problem is that the promised radicalization of learning introduced by technology has had, for Bauerlein, the opposite effect. Despite having access to databases of knowledge, students won't know things like the dates of the Second World War, or the current speaker of the house, to say nothing of diagramming a sentence. The problem is that students use technology for entertainment, rather than education. In the defense of these students, they're faced with marketplace pressures to sell technology one way or another, and most things that can be used for learning can be used for entertainment. Cf. the Microsoft deal where you get an XBOX 360 with a new computer over 699 dollars: "So you have everything you need for college," I think the catchphrase went. Yeah. Or Tablets and smart phones that are advertised through games and movies.
The main defect to this book, and hence my three stars for story, is that it can tend to get repetitive, with repeating sets of statistics. There also isn't much of a meaty self-examination on the part of a liberal education to provide a concrete, meaningful motivation to study things like Homer, politics, and civic life. There are larger issues of justification lurking here, and it would be interesting to hear Bauerlein discuss. Heck, I'd even rather play Dead Space 2 on XBOX 360 than read some of the texts I was assigned as an undergrad... Another issue is the increasing specialization of faculty, who often won't know much about different time periods in their own fields, let alone other disciplines. So, it's entirely possible to have a highly specialized education in a few texts with massive knowledge gaps across the board.
On the whole, worth a listen and consideration of the arguments. Decently read.
(On a side note, I had freshmen students read his first chapter, and they are, no surprise, not receptive to his argument.)
And I've read a lot of books on Jesus (theology degree). A minor corrective to the excellent review below is that Wills is not really after "the historical Jesus" as it is usually meant. "The historical Jesus," as he explains in the book, connotes the quest for a Jesus of history (in our contemporary sense of "what actually happened") behind the narratives in the Bible. Some biblical scholars work out a number of tests to determine what Jesus actually said and then report that as history. Wills is right to challenge a lot of this way of thinking, though these approaches are certainly valuable. Indeed, anyone with experience in the language and culture of the text will likely be familiar with many of Wills' readings, which are often drawn from scholars who rely on methods from the search for the historical Jesus (Raymond Brown, for instance).
Wills' innovation is to change the terms of the debate from "history" and "faith" to "meaning," which is a brilliant move. What makes this book so powerful is that it actually takes Jesus' words for what they meant (imagine that...). The teachings on non-violence really mean absolute non-violence. The teachings on poverty and against wealth really mean that. Jesus is egalitarian, non-hierarchical, did not come to found a church or a priesthood, and would be saddened by the condition of Christianity today, especially its division and thirst for worldly power. God's love and forgiveness are absolute, and Jesus was an unconditional friend of the outcast, women, and the unclean. He radically changed the codes of cleanness, by shifting their meaning to the heart (not to things like sex, per se), and declared his Father's reign, which was "not of this world." He sent a "Champion" in the Holy Spirit. Later interpretations of atonement theology are a radical misreading of what actually took place. The sections on Judas, who stands for all of us, are moving and well-written.
One objection might be that Wills minimizes the political impact of Jesus' message. A frequent theme is that Jesus did not come "to found a politics," but announce God's "reign," to be fulfilled at the end of time. This idea might rely a little too much on a modern understanding of a separation between religion and politics, which would have been foreign to Jesus' context. The terms of Jesus' message are political, he placed God's reign against the Roman Empire of the time, and he was killed for political reasons. Living out his message as Wills sees it obviously has political implications today. It might be interesting to contrast these assertions with John Howard Yoder's excellent book, The Politics of Jesus. In any case, a minor point of debate. Another might be that the book is pretty hard on the concept of priests, but, as Wills says elsewhere in books like -Why I Am a Catholic-, he's been inspired by priests too. Finally, Augustine comes up a lot as a positive touchstone, but, paradoxically, he helped introduce many of the things Wills most objects to (the fall, atonement theology, sexual purity fixations, hell, war, etc.). There's a tension there. (See his book on Augustine, by the way).
Wills reads the work himself and does an excellent job. A book to share, inspire, and return to.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's book is more a memoir than a real engagement with issues troubling the Church or American society. Her book contains long, rather dull accounts of her experiences with her father and other Kennedy relatives. I stopped reading part way through, lost somewhere in these sections. Her engagement with the Churchs strikes me as a safe, upper-class liberalism that isn't nearly radical or learned enough. Read Hans Kung's work if you have an interest in more radical critiques of the current dire state of the Church. This book will certainly entertain as a memoir of the Kennedy period. It will probably also appeal to a less academic interest in challenging current conservative trends in the Church and American religion. With its lack of sophistication and rigor, it is sure to dissappoint academically inclined listeners. As other reviewers have noted, the narrator is mismatched. She sounds like she's reading Anne of Green Gables.
Thomas Cahill situates John XXIII’s person and papacy within the history of the Roman Catholic Church as well as developments in the Church after John’s death. Cahill begins with a lengthy description of papal history up until John’s time. He then briefly introduces John’s family life and movement toward the throne in Rome. Cahill then treats in detail—complete with Vatican intrigues!—John’s greatest contribution to the Church, the Second Vatican Council. Finally, Cahill compares John’s papacy with that of his more conservative successors.
Cahill’s “dark history” of the papacy might offend some, but it is largely accurate. Indeed, Cahill offers some papal highlights amid all the gloom, most notably the reign of Gregory the Great. Any objective history of the papacy will turn up just as much dirt, maybe even more—papal executioners, concubines, wars, excesses, and so on.
As a contrast to much of this debauchery or well-intended inaction, Cahill offers the wise and compassionate papacy of John XXIII. His anecdotal history of John’s family life and struggles through the priesthood make for especially enjoyable and spiritual listening. Current world affairs make John’s lifelong commitment to peace resonant and urgent. John’s equanimity and focus on Jesus, while making his way through well-meaning, but closed-minded bureaucrats, also offers a model of sanctity and compassion in the midst of disagreement and misunderstanding.
“Conservative” Catholics will probably dislike this book. “Liberal” members will most likely nod along. And the open-minded will probably learn a few things about a remarkable man and a model of sainthood.
Also Recommended on Audible: Hans Kung, -The Catholic Church-
Edmund White’s biography of Marcel Proust weaves biographical research about its subject with material from ? la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), Proust’s seven volume masterpiece, arguably the greatest literary achievement of all time. White covers Proust’s life as well as material from all seven of the titles that comprise ? la recherche, though Le temps retrouv? (Time Regained) gets rather short shrift.
For someone with absolutely no knowledge of Proust, this book would make a decent little introduction, though it is somewhat scattered, both in presentation and selection from the literary and biographical material. Even those who have only read Du c?t? de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) and have yet to read the remainder of the novels might find some interesting insights into the overall architecture of the entire work (though White tends to pick only the rather obvious).
Indeed, one would get a better introduction to Proust simply by reading his own writings (which are now available on Audible in the unabridged so-so C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation).
For veteran readers of Proust as well as for Proust scholars, this book is largely a waste of time, unless academic pressures require one to know what Edmund White happens to think of the author. Scholars certainly do not share some of his views, for instance that Proust’s women in ? la recherche are merely the men from his life in literary drag.
The narrator for this title, David Case, has a nice reading tone. He does, however, have the annoying habit of affecting quotations from Proust in an odd exaggerated voice that starts to seem demeaning. His pronunciation of French is also inadequate. For instance, he pronounces “fille” (daughter) like “fils” (son).
Overall, I found this book disappointing.
Since Hans Kung is not a Church Historian, but a systematic theologian, his treatment does not pretend to exhaustive and objective historical study. For historical studies, see the French titles Fr. Kung mentions early in this book or, perhaps more accessible, (and in English), the work of Peter Brown or Alistair McGrath. Fr. Kung does well to admit his own position as a Catholic theologian, whose license to teach Catholic theology (under Catholic auspices) has been revoked. He admits that this position will determine his focus and perspective. Although, as harsh as they often sound, Fr. Kung’s historical views are not personal screeds aimed at the Church, but represent pretty much the consensus among objective historians of Christianity (i.e. not those with theological investments that determine the content of their work). In other words, it really was that bad. Of course, Historians differ in their analyses of causes and influence. One should also note that his views are fairly mainline among educated theologians.
Fr. Kung accomplishes a great deal in a limited space: He traces the power exchanges and interests that helped determine Catholic/Christian theology and governmental structures from the time of the Jesus Group communities to the present-day Church (as of 2003). Indeed, one can say that the book follows a macroscopic, Foucault-like approach in tracing power relations within and without the Church. The fairly systematic abuses of power by the curia and pontiffs dominate much of the books treatment, but then (sadly), they dominate much of Church History and continue to influence the Church today.
As Fr. Kung cautions, for those with little previous exposure to Church history, the contents of this book will be shocking. “The truth shall set you free, but first it shall make you miserable.”
In print, see also -Infallible?: An Inquiry-, where Fr. Kung tears the Church teaching on infallibility into tiny shreds.
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