Inbox/Outbox: October 19-October 25

My usual readers probably expect me to begin this post by saying something along the lines of, “Well, I’m trying not to buy any books, but I saw this one novel that I just had to have, derp a derp a der.” Guess what, though? G’wan, give it a guess. I dare ya.

Inbox

Inbox zero! I’m completely misconstruing that term, but it accurately describes the (admittedly unfamiliar) situation in which I find myself this week. It’s like I’m in an episode of The Twilight Zone. You know, the one in which the guy who buys books all the time suddenly wakes up in an alternate universe, one in which he never buys books, in fact, never reads at all, and his family and friends all think he’s nuts. “You want to read? BUH???” And then a gremlin only he can see tears apart the library. That one. You know what I’m talking about.

In a display of solidarity, though, I point you to this post by Kelly Jensen, Drowning in Books. The struggle is real, comrades. *bows head, raises fist*

Outbox

It’s been a good week all around, my friends. Not only did I not acquire any new books, I finished two this week, pointing, I hope, to a transition from the lethargy that characterized my reading behavior in August and September. (I know some of you read multiple books per week. For me, finishing two in one week is a big deal; I read slowly. It would also help if I only read one book at a time.)

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

I finished and reviewed Faitheist by Chris Stedman. Faitheist is a “spiritual memoir” (of sorts), and, thus, a departure from my standard fare. I can already tell, based on blog traffic, that it’s not a book that’s of much interest to the speculative fiction community of which I consider myself part. But that’s okay: I’m glad I read something that, if not out of my comfort zone, is, at least, a break in my steady diet of wizards and spaceships. After all, I did quote Murakami this week…

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

I also finished reading (finally!) Acceptance, the conclusion of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I’m still digesting this little morsel. Expect a (brief) review to pop up here next week.

I’m currently continuing my work on Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters. All I can think is, “Hot damn, why haven’t I read anything by her before?” Because I wasn’t ready to have my mind blown, that’s why.

All right, folks. That’s it for this week. I’m out. Enjoy ya weekend.

Review: Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, Chris Stedman

Near the end of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012), Chris Stedman wonders if he’s too young (24) to write a memoir. Stedman concludes that he isn’t. Turns out he’s wrong. Faitheist is full of good ideas, but it’s an article (or two) posing as a book. For those of you keeping count, the book’s metadata–that is, its bibliographic information–indicate that Faitheist is approximately 200 pages. If that’s accurate, 20 pages must be blank, and another 10-15 consist of front matter and notes. In other words, contrary to the advertised length, Faitheist is about 170 pages long, and, even then, it’s puzzling in its lack of specificity when it comes to Stedman’s life.

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Stedman is a native Minnesotan, and his sunny, Midwestern disposition shines through here. He cheerfully recounts his childhood, as well as his adolescent and adult difficulties, always concluding on a triumphant note, with success achieved or a lesson learned. Stedman’s optimism might be annoying if it weren’t so obviously sincere. It’s just hard to stay mad at that Chris, even when he’s kicking in church signs, or, in the case of the book, glossing over large chunks of his life.

Faitheist is clearly the work of a young man. This is not to say that young men aren’t capable of great things; they clearly are. But Stedman doesn’t seem to be aware–or willfully chooses not to acknowledge–that, as a twentysomething, his story has only just begun. Stedman presents as complete, or near complete, a story that, by rights, is just getting underway. He wants us to think he’s in chapter 15, when he’s really only in chapter 2.

Consider, for instance, the beginning of the book, in which Stedman goes into poignant detail regarding his grandmother and mother, his love for them, and their influence on his life. These women were independent, strong, and encouraged those qualities in Stedman. Of course, there is a glaring absence: Stedman’s father, who is not discussed. Stedman’s parents divorced, and it’s clear from the Acknowledgments that Stedman and his father are working on their relationship. Stedman clearly was uncomfortable with discussing in his memoir his relationship with his father. But that omission is obvious, and, in itself, speaks volumes about where Stedman is in his life. Given another 10 years, perhaps Stedman would be able to reach more meaningful conclusions about his relationship with his family. (His siblings are given short shrift.)

Of course, the draw of Faitheist is not Stedman himself, although he is charismatic, but his role in American religious life. Stedman is a “faitheist,” an atheist who is comfortable engaging in interfaith work and dialog with the religious. (The term is pejorative when one atheist applies it to another; Stedman’s intent is to reclaim it, as the LGBT community did with “queer.”) Stedman has had a remarkable spiritual trajectory, from a nonreligious childhood, to an adolescent infatuation with evangelical Christianity, to angry and alienated atheism, and, finally, to his interfaith work on behalf of atheism and Humanism, movements (or philosophies, or ways of life, what have you) that he goes to pains to point out are not religions.

Even here, in what should be the meatiest part of his memoir, Stedman is inconsistent. His struggle with his sexuality (he is gay) as an evangelical Christian is excruciatingly drawn. It’s after the chapters devoted to that period of his life, though, that Stedman’s narrative loses its momentum. Stedman discovers liberal Christians who welcome gays, and throws himself into the social justice work in which his community engages. Then, relieved to be welcomed into a new community, to have his very identity validated, he goes to college and, almost immediately, kinda, sorta gives up on religion for no reason other than that was his intellectual path. The angst of his adolescence and the joy of acceptance would seem to be at odds with Stedman’s almost apathetic abandonment of his faith. But wait: Stedman was angry. He carried a grudge against religion because of the box it had put him in, because it couldn’t live up to his expectations, because, try as he might, he couldn’t intellectually convince himself of the existence of God. But he’s okay with it, really. But he’s not. Stedman’s vacillations are understandable, especially in someone who is still relatively young, but, in the presentation of his narrative, he appears unaware of its internal inconsistencies. Stedman might have been advised to engage in more introspection as he considered his story.

Stedman’s philosophy is better thought out and will be of interest to the average reader. Put simply, Stedman encourages atheist engagement with the religious. He advances several reasons for this, for instance, education. Stedman argues that atheist-religious dialog serves atheists because it works both ways, allowing believers to discover that atheists are not the bogeymen they’re perceived to be (if popular polls are to be believed). In short, Stedman believes that “atheism” is a negative philosophy, defined as it is by what it does not stand for, and advocates for “Humanism” as a positive, active promoter of secular values.

Stedman is a social justice warrior (and I say that as a compliment) and advocate for his beliefs and those who share them. He is a promoter of understanding and dialog. He is a leader. But Faitheist is a poor reflection of Stedman’s ideas. It is not the book his movement needs. Faitheist is, like its author, sincere, well-intentioned, but callow. Give Stedman another 10 to 15 years. Perhaps then he’ll produce a memoir worthy of his goals.

From the Archives: Cities Real and Fantastic

As I write this, it’s a rainy day in Philadelphia, thus proving, despite whatever claims television might make, that it is not always sunny here. Television has been proven wrong. While it may be raining outside, it is a dreary day of the soul, indeed.

Cities are fickle things. We often find in them the ugliest parts of human nature. Consider, for instance, last night, as I walked to the train, and was greeted by the image of a drunken man vomiting on 18th Street. It’s hard to keep out an eye for beauty when you’re busy wiping puke from your shoes. Sometimes, though, the city surprises us. Consider, for instance, the doorway in the photograph below. The building to which the door belongs is decrepit, falling apart, but the graffiti on the door reads, in part, “I may be sleeping in the gutter, but I’m looking up at the stars.” I believe this is referred to as a “glass half full” perspective. [Edit: Thanks to From Couch to Moon for informing me that the quote is from Oscar Wilde.]

"I may be sleeping in the gutter, but I'm looking up at the stars."

“I may be sleeping in the gutter, but I’m looking up at the stars.”

I don’t live in the city, but I’m adjacent to it, and I work, play, and study there. It was a big change for a country bumpkin like yours truly. I’m thinking, in my old age, that it might soon be time for me to return to the cornfields and road apples (horse shit) of my youth. Should I lay down my briefcase and take up the lifestyle of a country squire?

One year ago today: I compiled a list of some of my favorite cities, real and fantastic.

You Can’t Do That in Book Blogging: Spoilers

Yes, I made it look like this on purpose.

Yes, I made it look like this on purpose.

You Can’t Do That in Book Blogging is a biweekly series that explores the “best practices” of book blogging and questions our community’s assumptions. Your participation is encouraged: Write a post at your blog (and link back so I know about and can share it), recommend a topic for me to write about, or offer to guest blog here.

Thanks to From Couch to Moon for suggesting this week’s topic.

So, yeah. SPOILERS. Don’t do that. I’m out. *drops mic*

Last summer, when I had just begun reading the final entry in a well-received trilogy, someone tweeted something along the lines of, “Just finished Big Rocket Go Now by Guy Smiley. So sad right now.” Which made me so mad…right…then. I had just started the third book. The fate of the world was in the balance! (In the story, not in regards to my reading.) It was an ARC, too, so I was reading it ahead of its publication. And then this individual came along and pooped in my shoes, so to speak. It detracted from my ability to fully enjoy the book. And my shoes.

Me in the wake of the aforesaid tweet.

Me in the wake of the aforesaid tweet.

Part of the problem with the situation I describe above is that Twitter’s purpose, at best, is to communicate one’s thoughts with others. (Sometimes it sounds more like a bunch of solitary lunatics shouting into the void.) And that’s what this Tweeter was doing: Sharing her thoughts about the book. A tweet is an informal thing, and people can say whatever they want.

I think we would all agree that the same is not true of book bloggers’ reviews. A review can take a variety of forms, from formal to informal, but the purpose is always the same: To provide readers information about the book, subjectively, with an eye toward helping them decide whether or not they should read it. I emphasize “subjectively” here because objectivity is impossible in book reviewing. We all apply our own standards and biases to the books we review. This is what makes talking about books fun.

We walk a fine line, though, as we determine just how much information we should provide readers, especially in regards to plot. Provide too little detail, and it’s useless to readers. “It’s a murder mystery.” Go the opposite direction and you render reading the book moot. “ZOMG THE BUTLER DID IT!!1!” An extreme example, perhaps, but in a case such as this, not only have you engaged in poor reviewing habits, but you’ve also potentially ruined the book for some readers, and maybe even alienated some of your blog’s followers. You don’t want that, do you?

One means of addressing this situation is to clearly alert the reader to your upcoming discussion of major plot points. No doubt you’ve seen warnings like, SPOILERS AHEADThis at least provides those readers who prefer to find out for themselves the courtesy that they should avert their eyes while you gush about all the insane shit that happened in Chapter 13. I’ve seen some folks put the spoiler warning at the beginning of their review, which is probably the best courtesy of all.

Personally, and with all due respect to those bloggers who employ them, I don’t care for spoiler warnings. My goal is to write reviews that in no way reveal major plot points to readers. I’m not perfect; there have been times when I felt the need to get all “spoilery,” and, I think, in those cases, I’ve warned readers off. But I think it’s best to summarize the plot as best one can without unveiling its major threads, or, worse, the outcome of the book. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when all you want to do is talk to other bloggers about the way Smiley sacrificed his lead female’s life to thwart the Centaurian invasion in Big Rocket Go Now. Oh, great. Now I ruined that one for you.

What are your thoughts about spoilers and spoiler warnings?

From the Archives: On Not Sleeping

Hey, man, what can I say? Sometimes these posts write themselves, and sometimes they’re ripped into the world, bloody and oozy, like a rotten tooth extracted from a big cat’s gaping maw. Mmm, veterinary dentistry.

I’ve had a troubled relationship with sleep most of my life adolescent and adult life. Interestingly, despite the energy I spent sleeping, or lost when not sleeping, I never gave it much thought, perhaps because sleep has been an “invisible subject” until the current century. I say “invisible” because it’s an everyday thing, taken for granted. We’re increasingly aware, though, that getting sufficient sleep is a problem for many people, if not because the media periodically tells us so, then because of advertisements for increasingly advanced mattresses and pharmaceuticals.

Dreamland.

Dreamland.

Sometimes I’ll go to bed, and, although my mind is fatigued, my body, specifically my hands and feet, will exhibit a fidgety sensation, a need to move. I’ve come to recognize this sensation very quickly, and now get out of bed at the first sign of it. Often, drinking a glass of milk and sitting up for half an hour will clear the way for sleep.

Sleeplessness runs in my family. My favorite family story involves my Gramma (that one). My mother and father were living at Gramma’s house for a few weeks as they tried to figure out whether or not to put her in a nursing home. My dad, unable to sleep one night, went downstairs to lay on the couch. My Gramma was a notorious insomniac, and was known to go to and from the bedroom every half hour all night, puttering around the house, eating, watching TV, deciding that it was time to clean out this drawer or that cupboard… On this night, though, my dad dozed on the couch, and didn’t once hear her emerge from her room. When morning came, my dad commented to my Gramma upon her apparent inactivity. She insisted she hadn’t slept a wink. My dad asked her what she did. “Well, I sat quietly on the edge of the bed all night,” she replied, an image I found so amusing–this old woman sitting upright on the edge of the bed, staring into the middle distance, occasionally checking her watch–that I immediately incorporated it into my repertoire. When someone asks me how I slept, I tell them that “I didn’t. I sat quietly on the edge of the bed all night.”

One year ago today: I wrote about my relationship with sleep and insomnia.