Fourth set of book reviews. Some written long long after actually reading, so maybe not the freshest thoughts.
By C.S. Lewis
This was exciting to read, I’ve not read a book this quickly since I first read Technological Slavery and Anti-Tech Revolution.
The first few parts I found familiar, the reasons for thinking that God exists and has plans for us beyond our more basic social-survival instincts, often contradicting even our “loudest” instincts: these ideas were explained very neatly and cleverly. The discussions on the nature of God were interesting to me, in particular the rejection of Dualism (in which God and the devil are two unrelated beings “at war” on Earth) in favour of the view that the devil is a fallen angel, and that the enemy is therefore a rebel rather than alien. I’d subscribed to a dualist-ish view of the world for a while, and though I’m not wholly convinced by the argument against Dualism (I’d never seen good and evil as “equals” to choose between) I did find the rebellion explanation convincing, elegant and very much in agreement with my own thoughts and observations (some very recent, synchronicity!) which I otherwise found confusing.
I found the chapters on morality and virtues agreeable and as with the other chapters these came with simple, insightful explanations. The more theological chapters were great too and new to me, I’d never really got my head around the Trinity doctrine before. The most surprising part to me came in the last few chapters, talking of the radicalness of God’s plans for transforming man: completely throwing out every trace of the old self and replacing it all with Christ. I did feel myself holding-back there: it hit differently, as if going from an idea I held in the abstract distance to an immediate reality straight ahead, one I’d have to make a decision towards and act upon quickly. I think that, beforehand I must have envisioned only excellence in the end, not truly perfection, the difference is almost frightening. This was made more palatable by pointing out that the individual is not erased like a drop entering a pool, but rather that his true self will shine through stronger and truer than before. This made some sense (as Lewis points out, much of our earthly “selves” are really the products of media and other people’s influence) but this is also contradictory on the surface. I’ll have to spend some time digesting this.
“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
The Crying of Lot 49
By Thomas Pynchon
Wild conspiracy-mystery involving a secretive alternative mailing system, lots happening over not-very-many chapters, ambiguous ending. Differentiating between the relevent and the irrelevent, trying to find answers is like trying to talk to the Maxwell’s Demon. The protagonist gets very caught up in trying to find the meaning of the word ‘Trystero’ after watching a play that includes just one usage of the word, I haven’t a clue what compelled her to become so interested in that one word. “Genghis Cohen”, funny name! Doctor Hilarius goes on a shoot-out, turns out he worked for the Nazis. Not sure how that fits in. Maybe I need to re-read it, or maybe I’m just dumb, or maybe the random feel is intentional. Very wild, enjoyed it, was very eager to see where it was heading. Really had to just push on, keep reading and not get too bogged-down in making sense of everything.
By Kurt Vonnegut
I loved reading this one. The narrator starts by trying to write a book about the dead Felix Hoenikker, the inventor of a bomb, by attempting to interview Felix’s three adult children. Then the story shifts over to the fictional impoverished island of San Lorenzo where one of the Hoenikker children has been appointed as Major General.
The story is broken up by little bits talking about Bokononism, the religion followed by most the island’s inhabitants. The religion is highly illegal on San Lorenzo, and anyone caught practicing Bokononist rituals risks being executed on The Hook (‘Hyooo-kuh’?). It turns out that the religion’s founder, Bokonon (who co-founded San Lorenzo and lives in hiding) requested that it be made illegal to add to it’s meaning or something (ughh I shouldn’t have waited so long to write this review! - The reasoning, whatever it was, was really neat and interesting!). There’s also a dangerous new form of ice with apocalyptic potential (Ice IX) invented by Felix and shared up between his children, which freezes and spreads through any water it touches. Ooo scary!
Cool Bokononist terms to include in your speech include ‘foma’ (harmless lies) and ‘granfaloon’ (a grouping of people that is not as meaningful as some people think it is). Foma is a running theme of the novel (‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies’) and is central to Bokononism. The United States is described as a granfaloon, so this is indeed the same Kurt Vonnegut who wrote Breakfast of Champions (though this time he wasn’t so interested in the lengths of his characters’ penises).
The Great Divorce
By C.S. Lewis
Given how much I enjoyed reading Mere Christianity, it was inevitable that I’d pick up another C.S. Lewis book.
The story follows a group of people (ghosts) on their journey from Hell (or purgatory) to Heaven. As the journey goes on, more and more people drop-out of the tour (like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) through their own choices. The first step of the journey is to catch a bus, and the experience of queuing is enough to put many off. I was lead to think that the bus-ride itself would be a more prominent feature of the story than it actually was, that turns out to be a short fraction of an already short story.
Eventually, the ghosts make it to heaven, and this is where the real meat of the story is. As a rule of thumb, in each chapter the narrator follows a different ghost and listens in on their conversation with a “spirit” who has been sent to greet them into heaven. However, the ghosts usually turn their backs on heaven and go back home for their own reasons. One is too angry and offended at seeing a murderer in heaven, one rushes back to work on his art instead, one is too preoccupied with his own abstract big-brained pseud thoughts about possible afterlives to actually bother staying and experiencing heaven, and so on. Some of these discussions are really painfully tragic.
The highlight for me, after several (frankly upsetting) encounters between ghosts and spirits, is the ghost who walks into heaven with a lizard (representing lust) stuck to him. He is embarassed and cannot take the lizard with him into heaven-proper. He tries bargaining with the spirit, trying to get in, but the spirit makes it quite clear that he will not be allowed in until after he has the lizard painfully removed, and that despite the ghost’s hesitations there is no ’later’ (“this moment contains all moments”). It came as such a relief when this ghost made the right choice.
I’ve forgotten many of the finer details of this one. It has been a while between the reading and the review-writing, partly because I’m busier now but also because I’ve just been enjoying reading so much recently (thanks especially to Lewis and Hamilton) and haven’t cared to stop to write.
By Edith Hamilton
This was an excellent book. Greek stories, gods and heroes, the Trojan war, a little bit of the Romans in there too. Many many concise retellings of classic stories with additional insight into their sources (commentary on favourite and least favourite poets for each tale, deails as to the origins of different parts of the retold story). The stories are surprisingly interconnected, names like Theseus, Jason and, of course, Hercules pop up in a huge number of the tales.
The shorter stories and the less well known parts of famous ones are delightfully colourful and quirky, such as King Midas growing donkey’s ears after (foolishly) declaring that he preferred Pan’s reed-blowing over Apollo’s lyre playing. There are usually prophecies involved, and they always come true - usually tragically. Theseus is sent away by his father as, according to a prophecy, Theseus will kill his father. Theseus returns to his father’s land in adulthood to patch things up, gets sidetracked by a game of discus throwing, and accidentally kills his father in the crowd, to give just one example of many.
The last 50 or so pages (out of ~480) are dedicated to Norse mythology. This section, though not feeling particularly strongly linked to the rest of the book, is really refreshing and starkly contrasting to what came before, one of my favourite parts.
The Hermetic Tradition and The Doctrine of Awakening
By Julius Evola
I read these long before the others on this list. And I am writing this review last. I’ll keep this very brief. Hermetic Tradition felt like a throwback into third-year quantum physics at uni. All these symbols, they’re confusing but I kind of get what they mean - even though I’m not sure why they have to be the way they are, and then if I go more than a few days without looking at them I completely forget it all. Interesting, didn’t retain much though, and didn’t finish it. Doctrine of Awakening was far more sensible. I had a similar issue as in Hermetic Tradition in that if I went a few days without reading I forgot what the different terms meant, but I followed it much better and would be more open to revisiting this one (though it’d be best if I made notes of the different terms and their meanings as I went along next time!).