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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.

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Review: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

There are novels in which place is a character unto itself, when tone and setting are so artfully evoked that the reader is practically standing alongside the story’s protagonists. A skilled writer transports readers by drawing on the generalities with we’re all familiar–nature, in its grandeur or grotesqueness; city life, with its commotion and loneliness–and then situating them within the unique context–the setting–of the story. Philip Meyer’s American Rust comes to mind, as do Cormac McCarthy’s novels. With a touch less darkness and a pinch of magic, we may add add Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (February 2014, Penguin) to that list.

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Huran

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Harun

The story is set in an isolated town in British Columbia. As with many small towns, this one is less an idyllic hamlet than it is a hopeless blip in the wilderness. Harun masterfully conveys the desolation with references to an apparently hostile natural world and the rot characteristic at humanity’s attempts to defy it. Gerald Flacker, the local meth dealer, and his cronies, the Nagle brothers, treat the town as their personal fiefdom. Harun immediately establishes a sense of creeping dread: The town is adjacent to Highway 16, the so-called “Highway of Tears,” along which women, mostly aboriginal, have been disappearing for decades. In short, this is not a friendly place.

That’s not to say that Leo Kreutzer, on whom Harun focuses, is without friends. Poor and marginalized–Leo is half-white, half-aboriginal–Leo and his friends cling all the more fiercely to one another. Family, too, is important: Leo’s mother takes in her brother-in-law, the dying Uncle Lud, despite her husband’s absence. Brother and sister Bryan and Ursie, orphans, maintain a semblance of family in their parents’ decaying house. Tessa, on whom Leo has a crush, and Jackie, who works at the logging camp, round out the crew.

What plot there is unravels messily and without tidy resolution, which, in that respect, mirrors real life. The novel opens with the group engaged in a favorite pastime, as they linger at the town dump, shooting rats and birds. Jackie introduces her friends to Hana Swann, a charismatic itinerant who also works in the logging camp’s cafeteria. Swann, in contrast to Leo and his friends, is extremely pale, and her presence at once alluring and repellent: She shoots a marmot (a protected species). She challenges the friends to do something about Flacker, a notion that possesses Bryan and sets the plot in motion. Upon learning of Swann, Uncle Lud insists that Leo has met the “Snow Queen,” a troublesome character known to Leo from the many folktales his uncle unspools. Readers may wonder at Swann’s subsequent disappearance from the story, but she is like the “devil’s hopscotch” to which Harun refers, a stray stone thrown in that scatters players in a variety of unexpected directions.

A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is really a story about stories, the ways in which we construct meaning by imposing a narrative on events. Indeed, much of the book consists of Leo’s recollections after the fact, but related as present tense, a method that keeps the reader on his (and Harun’s) hook. Leo receives e-mails from the instructor of the correspondence physics class his mother forced him into. The notes are strangely personal, as Leo’s instructor explains that she attempted to study poetry at the graduate level but failed, and later turned to, and excelled at, science. Still, she quotes Leonard Cohen to Leo even as she analyzes his personality (with little to go on, as he is disengaged and sends her just one equation in which he proposes how one might quantify love). Science improves our lives, it provides us answers, but it can’t generate meaning. Uncle Lud knows this intuitively, spinning folktales about a devil in which he doesn’t really believe. Uncle Lud believes in stories, Leo tells readers.

Of course, we readers believe in stories, too, or we wouldn’t spend so many hours shushing our loved ones while we turn page after page. We may not take to heart the superstitious Catholic-aboriginal mishmash Leo’s mom practices, but we understand her reasons. Like Uncle Lud, we know that there are very real devils in the world, and that sometimes only the context of fiction can make them real. A haunting novel with folkloric and magical realist elements, A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is a debut not to be missed.

Review: The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

People require meaning. Indeed, we so crave meaning that we devote much of the human enterprise to generating it, whether in the form of religion, or politics, or (and especially) fiction. What can fiction tell us? In the case of Wesley Chu’s 2013 sci-fi novel The Lives of Tao, we learn that individual happiness can only be achieved by having a cause. And possibly by mastering a martial art.

The Lives of Tao tells the story of Roen Tan, a schlubby, unhappy, Chicago-based engineer. After a lonely night at a club, and while vomiting out of the door of his car, Roen is unwittingly inducted into a worldwide extraterrestrial war. Humanity is not alone: Quasings, a gaseous alien race, have been stranded on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs. Unable to exist for long in Earth’s atmosphere, Quasings are able to survive by entering a living “host,” be it rodent, chimpanzee, or sad, chubby human. Unfortunately for Tao, the recently-evicted Quasing who takes refuge in Roen, his new host is a mess. But there’s a war on, so Tao gets to work. Extraterrestrial symbiotic buddy dramedy!

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

As Roen and the reader learn, Quasings have been trapped on earth for millions of years, using animal life as hosts. When the first hominids appeared, Quasings saw their opportunity, and stepped in to direct evolution. One can only imagine the rictus of fear on the face of the first australopithecus to be inhabited by a wise and ancient cloud of sentient gas.

With the development of modern man, the Quasing realized that they now had a being capable of devising ever more advanced technologies, which presented them the (very) long-term possibility of finding a way home. Convinced that conflict drove human technological advancement, Quasings meddled with abandon, fostering discord throughout human history. In the wake of the Black Death, a small group of Quasing, calling themselves Prophus, determined that they should coexist with their human hosts and promote peace. The Prophus oppose the Genjix, those Quasings who believe that humanity is a mere means to their end. Roen is a bit player on a drama the timescale of which he can’t even imagine.

Chu does an admirable job of presenting his scenario to readers without overwhelming them. The Lives of Tao opens with an action-oriented prologue that grabs the reader’s attention and introduces Tao, who is clearly not a familiar life form. Tao’s decision to wait to introduce himself to Roen serves to further ease the reader into the plot: The reader learns about Roen (and his many weaknesses), and Chu uses the opportunity to explain the back story to the reader by positioning it as Tao speaking to his new host. It’s a very clean and clever way to orient the reader.

The book’s structure is its weakest point. The Lives of Tao is an action-oriented story with dashes of humor. It is not comedic: The sobriety of the climax and ending belie that. Still, Chu writes the first third of the book from a comedic viewpoint. The joke is on Roen, to whom Tao serves as drill sergeant and counselor. Readers will enjoy Roen and Tao’s exchanges as the latter harangues the former about getting shape, standing up for himself at his job, and so on. This portion of the novel is more lighthearted. Chu also shares extensive background about the Quasing sojourn on Earth. Readers will want more.

Unfortunately, Chu treads more traditional territory in the remainder of the book, which is mostly action. Finally trained, Roen begins to go on Prophus missions, one of which leads to some soul searching before he returns to the fold. Chu ends The Lives of Tao with an extensive action sequence and neatly positions it for a sequel.

Quibbles about structure aside, Chu poses interesting questions about human agency at both the individual and collective levels. Roen won’t quit the job he hates. His colleague tells him to do something about it, to go to law school. Roen balks. It’s only later, with Tao on board, that Roen finds the willpower necessary to improve his life. He eats right and works out. He stands up to his boss. He asks out his cute coworker. In the book, of course, Tao is an intelligent alien life form giving Roen a kick in the pants. But perhaps Tao is really that part of the mind that tells you to try something different. Chu seems to be saying to the reader that, if you don’t like something, it’s up to you to do something about it. For those of us who aren’t locked into impossible circumstances, there are choices to be made. You can take the safe route, like Roen, or you can change things. It might not be pleasant, it might not be easy, but it’s probably better than suffering in silence. Diagnosing Roen’s unhappiness, Tao tells him, “You are causeless.”

Those existential questions occur at the “species” level, too. What is the human enterprise all about? Is human history really just the story of war punctuated by all-too-brief periods of peace? Is there a common narrative to our history? The Genjix position, that war is necessary for evolution, seems almost to mirror certain theories that humans evolved only to better perpetuate the “virus” of DNA, or the assertions of some neuroscientists that humans lack free will, that we are simply acting out, based on received stimuli, the actions programmed into us.

This is all to say that there is more going on in The Lives of Tao than it would first appear. The Lives of Tao isn’t a “big idea” book. It is light on science-fiction; don’t read it expecting a serious exploration of the implications of this or that science. Chu, a martial artist (and former stuntman!) is firmly focused on telling an action-oriented story. There are guns. There are explosions. Still, The Lives of Tao is far from shallow in its examination of human motivation and agency. Recommended for casual sci-fi readers who enjoy action and a touch of comedy.

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

There is a moment early in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when the narrator, Clay Jannon, first meets and describes his love interest, Kat Potente, describing her thus: “[T]his girl is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.” It’s narration that not only describes Kat, but also reveals Clay’s reaction to her, and, above all, it’s true: It’s the way a twentysomething geek might react to a girl to whom he’s attracted. I couldn’t help thinking, “Reading is fun again!” Over-the-top, perhaps, but that’s how I felt throughout the entirety of Robin Sloan’s 2012 novel.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

The story begins in the wake of the Great Recession. Clay Jannon, recent art school graduate and employee of NewBagel, the pet project of two ex-Googlers, finds himself out of a job and in fear of living in a tent. Desperate for a job, Clay gives up on Internet searches (which invariably lead to hours spent bookmarking articles that are too long to read) and turns to the now-arcane art of “beating the pavement.” On one of his treks throughout San Francisco, Clay notices a “clerk wanted” sign on the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Inside, Clay meets the kindly and aged proprietor, Mr. Penumbra, and takes the job; Clay will work the 10pm to 6am shift.

But (of course) the bookstore is not all it seems. The entryway is stocked in a desultory way with the kinds of books a reader might expect to find — A Steve Jobs biography, some Dashiell Hammett — but the bulk of the store’s cavernous interior is devoted to huge folios checked out by members of the “club.” Clay opens one of these books (despite Penumbra’s instructions not to) and finds that they’re all written in code. A data simulation run on Clay’s laptop reveals a strange pattern in the customers’ borrowing behaviors. And that’s when things start to get weird.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra's store.

The symbol that adorns the facade of Penumbra’s store.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delight to read. Clay’s narration is spot-on. Meeting Kat for a second time, he notices that she’s wearing the same t-shirt as she was during their first encounter. Clay concludes: “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.” Later, describing Kat’s enthusiasm for various Google initiatives: “They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself…They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.” It’s that sort of knowing and just-slightly-jaded-enough tone that Clay uses throughout the story.

Of course, Clay’s commentary is informed by Sloan’s firsthand experience in the tech industry: Sloan has worked for Twitter, among other companies, and knows a thing or two about their culture. Several scenes take place on Google’s campus and, based on Sloan’s descriptions, it seems safe to say he’s been there. San Francisco, too, is lovingly described, and Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore will be recognizable to those bibliophiles who still indulge in haptic reading experiences.

Indeed, part of Sloan’s purpose appears to be the examination of the intersection of tradition and innovation, of old and new technologies. While Penumbra champions Clay’s use of technology, Corvina, Penumbra’s boss, takes umbrage: The “cult” (Clay’s word for it) should only use its traditional methods, which involve print books and slates for notes. Sloan recognizes that too great a reliance on any one idea or artifact is the basis for the cults he describes. He rightly points out that the movable type was a disruptive technology in its day, and that, of course, Google is not the antithesis of print (and other, more “traditional” forms of information and knowledge), but a continuation on a spectrum. The print book is a technology, among the most successful the world has ever known, but its use led to, and interacts with, the digital world. One does not negate the other. The story’s end points to a hopeful partnership between the two.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a pleasure to read. Sloan’s humor is snarky without resorting to cynicism; there is a touch of whimsy that buoys up what is ultimately an uplifting narrative. Even the secondary characters are recognizable, real, and readers will find themselves emotionally engaged with them, which, after all, is what you want from a good book. The “bibliomystery” aspect is really a device to move the plot forward, but book lovers, in the truest sense of that world, will especially appreciate it. Highly recommended.

Review: The Ritual, Adam Nevill

There lurks in the pages of The Ritual something even more terrifying than the creepy crawler that stalks the novel’s protagonists: A better book. Adam Nevill’s 2011 horror novel begins with a promising premise but becomes confused, and, ultimately, disappointing. You’ve read this before: Think The Ruins crossed with Deliverance.

The Ritual, Adam Nevill

The Ritual, Adam Nevill

Seasoned readers will be familiar with The Ritual’s conceit: Four friends (as they are English, perhaps they are best referred to as “mates”) head to Sweden for a camping holiday. Their relationship is tense: Hutch takes the role of leader and peacemaker. Dom and Phil are husbands, fathers, successful businessmen. Luke, from whose perspective the story is told, is the odd man out. Dom snipes at Luke, takes swipes at his record store job, his string of failed relationships. Predictably, amid their bickering, they lose the trail near the forest south of the Arctic Circle.

The story takes an interesting turn as the crew winds its way further into the forest. Soaked by rain, with night coming on, the group — fortuitously! — discovers an abandoned shack. Only Luke, heeding his instincts, balks at the idea of taking shelter in the cabin; he is vetoed by his friends. Luke et al do not enjoy a pleasant night. The next day, demoralized, lost, low on food, and aware that they may not be alone in the woods, the men face grim prospects. During a heart-to-heart, Hutch tells Luke, “Cities don’t work,” an ironic statement, given the circumstances. Readers will not be surprised that this is the moment when things really begin to go wrong.

Nevill does many things well. He is skilled at describing his setting, in this case the heaths and boreal forest of northern Sweden. Readers will be drawn into the woods with Luke and his friends: The endless rain, the dark, overhanging branches, the rocky hills where lost hikers might hope to find gentle slopes. Nevill’s talent extends to human habitats, as well; an especially strong scene involves an abandoned church surrounded by prehistoric mounds.

Nevill wisely situates the perspective with Luke, the outcast, with whose anger and self-doubt readers are likely to identify. Indeed, Luke is the most likable of the four characters. The early dynamics Nevill establishes seem to point toward a psychological thriller in the tradition of Scott Smith’s 2006 novel The Ruins, but his analysis of his protagonists’ behavior and motivations is shallow and remains firmly located with Luke. There is some commentary on the “modern world,” especially insight into how friendship in the West has (d)evolved into “PR.” Short, punchy sentences move the story forward.

But Nevill makes missteps that weaken The Ritual and denude its potential. Perhaps the biggest of these is his decision to structure the story in two parts, the first set in the forest, and the second, well, not far from the forest. The effect is jarring, and the two parts never quite gel into a cohesive whole. The second half of the book is especially weak, and bloated, becoming a repetitive litany of horrors visited upon the characters. How many different ways can a guy hit the floor? Read and find out.

The supernatural element becomes more pronounced in the second half of the book. The peeks readers get during the scenes in the forest are effective, due perhaps to the energy Nevill devotes to creating context, and to his decision to keep things unseen, always an effective horror tactic. The reader’s imagination is always more effective than the author’s words. This truism is borne out as the story winds on, revealing (minimal) supernatural touches that are less frightening than they are bemusing. Capering in the woods figures heavily.

This is not to say that The Ritual is not a good book or that readers should avoid it. I enjoyed it, compulsively reading it over the last few days. Nevill clearly drew me in: I cared about the characters, and wanted to know what indignities they might suffer next. I likewise developed an intense (and, given the tone of the novel, unwise) yearning to see the Swedish countryside, where Nevill has clearly spent time. But The Ritual is a disappointment; it does not deliver on its promise. Like the granola bars consumed by its characters, The Ritual is a tasty treat, quickly and easily devoured, but with little nutritional value. Readers should approach The Ritual with managed expectations.