Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor—Goodreads Book Review

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Unemployed, approaching middle age, and hearing voices (again), Jon Mote is hardly the sleuth type; indeed, his developmentally challenged sister-turned-ever-supportive sidekick is often much more successful with people than he. Nonetheless, when the wife of his previous literary criticism professor asks him to investigate her husband’s death, the erstwhile graduate student must return to academia to find what enemies a post-modernist could have made—which, he finds, is not a short list.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist mixes metaphysical crises with the murder-mystery plot. Throughout the main plot, the first-person narrator of Mote experiences the deeper subplot of his investigation’s effect on his own mania. With both, Daniel Taylor examines the bases and implications (rarely just theoretical) of modern deconstructionist perspectives regarding things like truth, beauty, goodness, and the ability or inability of language, reason, and literature to accurately reveal them.

In his dual professors, the older classicist Dr. Abramson and the younger, modern, and dead Dr. Pratt, as well as other characters, Taylor also articulates the debates between the old and new schools that have characterized academia in recent decades, as well as the internal politics and non-theoretical conflicts therein. Through the academic, civic, and at times evangelical milieus into which Jon and Judy find themselves, Taylor examines how one’s past shapes their consciousness as much as it does their stated beliefs and convictions, and he questions many of modern academia’s assumptions about reality and human psychological health—a conflict concretized most consistently in the contrast between the manic Jon’s experience of the world and that of his challenged but free sister.

I would recommend this book mostly on account of the narrator (reminds me of Raskalnikov from Crime and Punishment, with which this book has many thematic parallels) and because of how well it articulates the changes in academia and why they might matter, on both broad and individual levels. While I’m at best an amateur at evaluating crime dramas, the book’s pacing is excellent, its characters deeper than they initially seem, and its themes relevant to today. The well-prepared climax brought me to tears.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain—Goodreads Book Review

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What would a 19th-century factory boss from New England do if, in a brawl, he was knocked unconscious and awoke in Old England? This is the question Mark Twain considers in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court through the character of Hank Morgan—whose answer is to make gunpowder, pretend to be a wizard, and try to industrialize and republicanize Arthur’s England.

A classic of satire, Twain’s use of a frame narrative allows him to examine, poke fun at, and comment on the, as his character believes, outdated aspects of chivalric England while also doing the same at his character, himself. Like with other narrators, Morgan’s assumption that he understands things best makes him subject to parody, as well. The effect is a complex mix of humor and commentary that, even when it is didactic, is rarely unironically so.

Throughout the work, Twain’s juxtaposition of the American man of progress with the established structures of England’s narrative past concretizes the questions of what had been gained by the development of the American national character, and what may have been lost. As such, it is as much an investigation of Gilded Age culture and character as it is of the English past, from which Americans should not believe they are so cut off—nor should they want to be. Because of all of this, CYKAC exemplifies why Twain stands as a quintessential American writer, incorporating so many aspects of American culture and its origins into a humorous plot as he does.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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An exploration of a setting and the characters therein, Cannery Row follows the residents and vagrants of a Monterey, CA, community during the Great Depression. Set between Lee Chong’s Heavenly Flower Grocery Store, Doc’s Western Biological Laboratory, the Bear Flag Restaurant, and the storage-shed-turned-Palace Flophouse and Grill, the book consists of a series of vignettes that loosely follow the simple plot of a group of men, led by the enterprising Mack, trying to throw a thank-you party for their friend, Doc.

Throughout the plot Steinbeck includes different vignettes of other denizens of Cannery Row, employing his selection of detail in showing characters’ situations and living conditions. However, unlike, say, the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck refrains using the vignettes as a flashpoint for explicit political discourse, instead allowing them to show and speak for themselves. Because of this, although it is less character-driven than other works, Cannery Row exhibits many of the best aspects of Steinbeck’s writing.

Nonetheless, the book shows many of the aspects of American life into which Steinbeck had such insight. Brotherhood among unlikely friends, the mixed shrewdness and compassion of local business owners, the antics of well-meaning fools, and the attempts of honest people to live well and virtuously despite their circumstances can all be found in the book, and they make Cannery Row a great example of Steinbeck’s style and ability.

The Hammer And The Cross: A New History Of The Vikings by Robert Ferguson—Goodreads Book Review

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As the title implies, Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross tracks the earliest interactions of Scandinavian and Danish vikings with the usually Christian post-Roman Europe. Following events from the 8th century attack on the Lindisfarne monastery in what would become NE England to the founding of Normandy in NW France, from viking expeditions to Spain and northern Africa to their establishment as the Varingian Guard in Kiev, Ferguson shows how the vikings shaped much of what became medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Presenting viking paganism and post-Roman Christianity in a cultural, often political, back-and-forth, Ferguson follows the eventual acceptance (and often full embrace) of Christianity by viking leaders from Denmark to Norway to Sweden. Taking the perspective that such oral cultures–usually written of by both antagonistic and, more often than not, sympathetic Christian writers–often carry more myth in their history than literal event. While he seeks to cut through the exaggerated stories of viking legends to describe the real men and women in them, Ferguson nonetheless sees a poetic value and usefulness in such legends, and he by no means attempts to reduce the size such figures have in the stories, then or now.

I had some idea of the influence the vikings had on European history, but I did not know that influence was so extensive and, after reading Ferguson’s book, so visible. One cannot study medieval history without studying the vikings, and whether one is a history buff or merely a fan of “Vikings” the show (which, though taking liberties with time and interpretation, ends up being quite based in the culture’s history and key figures over the centuries), Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross is an excellent read.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter—Goodreads Book Review

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Caveat: I’m an ESL teacher and grammar tutor who’s been playing with and thinking about the oddities of English grammar for years. Also, I listened to the audiobook (read by the author).

That being said, while it is an academic historical study, McWhorter’s book is eminently approachable. His witty, colorful narration can carry one over the technical grammar discussion—English’s odd use of the negative and interrogative “do” verb, or its use of the “-ing” verb ending, for starters. Even as he engages in the grammar, McWhorter provides references and perspective on where such oddities came from, ultimately arguing that the English we know was influenced by many other languages and demographies.

One section of the book stands out wherein the author describes the implications of his reading of English’s history. Recognizing how language is more often a practical tool than a means of cultural influence, McWhorter debunks the common claims that a culture’s language is key to understanding their unique perspective and that changes in language necessarily imply cultural conflict or oppression. Rather than language dictating culture, he argues, cultural change among the shared practical needs of people groups (who interacted, mixed, and lived simultaneously much more than current perspectives might suggest) affected the grammar and vocabulary of language, both spoken and written. In other words, while a language’s grammar and vocabulary might tell something of what its culture considers important enough to name, record, or label, they probably don’t imply a completely different metaphysical “worldview.” McWhorter then goes on to articulate why this might be a good thing—for people in general and grammaticians in instance.

Whether to non-academics or for use in a grammar or cultural studies curriculum, I definitely recommend the book, especially the audio version (read by McWhorter himself, it captures the wit of his off-hand comments and at times admittedly bad pronunciation).

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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I’ll preface this review with two caveats: first, I did not read this book. Instead, I listened to the audiobook voiced by Gary Sinise, and it was excellent. Second, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive across the USA more than once via different routes. Both of these made me thoroughly enjoy this book, and I knew within the first few chapters that it would make me want to do several things: enjoy more work by both Steinbeck and Sinise, find a dog like Charlie, and take my own road trip across America.

Of course, much has changed since Steinbeck made his trip. Indeed (not to jump ahead), this book or portions of it could be included in any course or high school study unit on the Civil Rights movement. What I found I enjoyed most — and which I would most worry would be missing were I to take my own trip — was the consistent theme of the mid-20th century sensibility of modesty, understatement, and yet humble pride among the people Steinbeck found in his travels. I don’t doubt this still exists, and that one might still trade a cup of coffee or whiskey for a trusty conversation wherein no names are needed nor expected. However, from my own trips I’ve found the KOA campsite has replaced the corner of farmland (though the respect for coffee and whiskey, perhaps, has not depreciated).

Not only Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Northwest or the South make this book worth reading, but his reflective commentary on America, as well as on the human person. Having grown up in and traversed California several times, I found Steinbeck’s take on returning to his home of Monterey especially poignant. I’d expect people from across the US, especially those with familial connections to the mid-west, would equally find enough homage and reflection to chew on. Conversely, I could also see myself using this book in my second-language English classes and tutoring sessions to give students and friends from other cultures a more personal view of the 20th century American ethos than they would find in a history book. Also, if you’re a dog lover, this book might be for you — Charlie is appropriately included in the title, his being a prominent character and occasion for commentary in the book. Definitely worth the read — though I’d also recommend the audiobook.

Subtle Man Loses His Day Job by Thomas Allbaugh—Goodreads Book Review

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Subtle Man Loses His Day Job is a book of short stories written by author of Apocalypse TV, Thomas Allbaugh. Comprised of both standalone vignettes and other stories loosely connected through the Michigan setting of Side Step Tavern, the book incorporates themes of grief at past loss, the inner life of characters who worry they’ve missed their chance, and the tension between past faith and current lack (or processing) thereof.

Set at the midpoint between steeple-laden neighborhoods and the slums, Side Step becomes the meeting place for those halfway through whatever it is life has dealt them—and it often provides the setting for the ridiculous burlesques into which they find their way. In their hijinx, reflections, and discoveries, Subtle Man’s characters find hidden and often humorous realizations that bring light and hope to their worries and humblings, all of which make them both absurd and uniquely relatable.

Ultimately a set of comedies, Subtle Man does not shy away from the tragedies that form its characters’ backdrops; approaching such things with introspection without pretension, the characters find their way out of their troubles—or at least to a place where they might possibly see the way out.

Full disclosure: I personally know and have worked with the author. Nonetheless (or perhaps therefore), I was able to find much in Subtle Man that is worth reading and rereading, and the book makes me look forward to more from Thomas Allbaugh.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck—Goodreads Book Review

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I had somehow avoided reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school—for which I’m glad, since it allowed me to read the book with a background not only of US economic history but also of European continental philosophy (specifically Hegel and Marx). I was surprised that I should have needed this last for context: I had not known how polemical is Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece.

The book, of course, follows the Joad family from the American Midwest to California in search of relief from poverty in work. Amidst the efforts of the family to make their way and survive (a plot which is conveyed excellently and sympathetically by Steinbeck) there are both explicit and implicit references and advocacy of a takeover by the farming and working class of the land from its legal owners. Though this is rarely more than an underlying theme in the book, it is, nonetheless, there, and it ironically acquires greater impact due to the selective nature with which the causes of the Great Depression are presented.

It’s not because of style that I only give it three stars (Steinbeck is excellent in his details, in scene depiction, and in the tension and release of his plot), but because the book, unfortunately, often presents an unnuanced perspective of the Great Depression. Granted, this may be intentional—one would not expect Tom Joad to approach his circumstances like an economist or a philosopher—but if Steinbeck was meaning us to interpret his characters’ experience with a critical or ironic eye, I could not see it. It definitely bears rereading, but I would only recommend or teach it with the same type of caveat and grain of salt I would use when teaching Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.

Spellmonger by Terry Mancour—Goodreads Book Review

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Cincinnatus with Diogenes’s mouth.

After serving his time as a professional warmage, the wizard Minilan opted to pursue the relatively quiet life of a country spellmonger. However, his experience leading men, as well as his being at the right place at the wrong time (during a goblin attack on his village, to be precise), ensure that his time wielding his mageblade is far from over.

Very entertaining fantasy. The narrator’s capacity for irony and understatement are evident from the first page. The plot follows Minilan’s present exploits while being interspersed with tension-relieving scenes from his time growing up and joining the college of mages. The book incorporates many fantasy tropes (son of a baker discovers he possesses a strain of ancestral magic, he acquires a weapon/stone that gives him both great power and responsibility, the calling upon a seemingly omniscient and timeless race to aid him, etc) without being cliche–in many parts due to the ironical self-awareness of the narrator, himself. The names for the different types of magic becomes a type of etymology, itself, which nonetheless often sounds curiously similar to Greco-Latinate etymologies; same goes for location names (the region known for its cattle and cheese is conveniently called “Boval Vale”, etc).

Among the themes that nuance the book pertain to the interactions between races. What does it do to the “humans vs goblins” trope when it’s discovered the goblins are just as smart as humans, and that they are only invading to take back their ancestral homeland from the previously imperialistic humans? Can one lead men and women in defense of their homes while, nonetheless, recognizing past crimes? Through his at times diffident, at more times humorously conceited, narrator, Terry Mancour explores these questions and more.

A slight caution for parents considering the book–one of the book’s many studies of magic is sex magic. While it’s presented consistently with the rest of the book, and rarely, if ever, gets too pornographic, it’s there, as is the narrator’s frank availing of himself (again, in quite humorous ways) of the local feminine population. Gandalf, he is not, though he does quote him at one point…