Friday, January 29, 2016

Dean Koontz's Ashley Bell: The World Is A Battleground

 “Fiction is a dangerous art… creating new worlds populated by people as real as you can make them… involves risks. Not risks just to readers who may be influenced toward darkness instead of light, evil instead of good, despair instead of hope, but also to the author.”

There are a number of writers whose works linger in my imagination. James Lee Burke’s haunting stories of life in Louisiana reveal the complexity of human nature in a way I have rarely seen replicated. Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls) and Neil Gaiman (The Ocean At The End Of The Lane) write modern fairy tales that reach into my heart. Neil Shusterman (the Unwind Dystology) and Jonathan Mayberry (Rot and Ruin series) have been building quite a reputation in YA lit, and Brandon Sanderson could drop the literary mic right now and walk with his legacy of epic fantasy ensured.

Yet Dean Koontz stands out to me. From The Corner of His Eye was the first his books that really got my attention; The Taking was next, revealing how well he could write a story both grim and hopeful. The Odd Thomas series, though, turned me into a serious fan. Pretty much everything he has written since then has served to solidify my admiration.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists" (Rodney Stark)

“The French government has officially designated 173 religious groups (most of them Evangelical Protestants, including Baptists) as dangerous cults, imposing heavy tax burdens upon them and subjecting their members to official discrimination in such things as employment. Subsequently, Belgium has outdone the French, identifying 189 dangerous cults, including the Quakers, the YWCA (but not the YMCA), Hasidic Jews, Assemblies of God, the Amish, Buddhists, and Seventh-day Adventists.”

Christopher Hitchens claimed religion poisoned everything; Dawkins has compared a religious upbringing to child abuse. Are they right?  Are religious groups really such a threat that these kinds of measures should be taken? Sociologist Rodney Stark draws from an impressive range of studies to make the case that the opposite is true. Religion – specifically evangelicalism – helps everything it touches to flourish. 

Stark, a sociologist of religion, began his professional life as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He has since worked at the University of Washington and more recently at Baylor University.  He has written over 30 books (two of which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion) and published over 140 scholarly articles.

He has described his early stance toward religion as that of an agnostic incapable of religious faith; in 2004, he claimed neither faith nor atheism; in2007, he described himself as an “independent Christian.” In other words, he spent years studying a worldview that he often did not support before aligning himself with the Christian faith. One would think that his long (and thoroughly researched) path from skepticism to belief at least affords him the dignity of being taken seriously. 

This book is not meant to be an apologetic for the Christian faith. It does not argue that Christianity is true. Mr. Stark merely makes a well-informed case that by multiple measures of what is popularly called ‘human flourishing,’ Christianity is the solution we’ve been looking for, not the problem we should be seeking to avoid.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Girl On The Train: Unreliable Narrators and Hearts

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.”

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train debuted at number one on the New York Times fiction list in early 2015 and stayed there for thirteen weeks. By August, it had sold three million copies in the United States alone. Considering its domination in the UK market and its publication in thirty-four countries, three million is just the tip of the iceberg. A film starring Emily Blount will hit the big screen on October 7, 2016. Here is a brief introduction to the plot courtesy of

“The Girl on the Train” is a mystery and suspense novel by Paula Hawkins. It follows the lives of three women – Rachel, Anna, and Megan – and the events surrounding Megan’s murder, ultimately bringing the lives of the three women together. Each day, Rachel takes the train to work in London, heading past the town of Witney. There, she can see her old house, where her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna, live, and she can also see the home of another married couple a few houses down. Rachel becomes endeared by this couple, whom Rachel nicknames Jess and Jason. They appear to have the perfect life, and Rachel is both jealous of, and happy for them. 

One day, she discovers that Jess is having an affair, and this enrages her. Rachel has no idea how someone could cheat on someone as seemingly perfect as Jason. When Jess – who turns out to be Megan Hipwell – goes missing, Rachel is sure that the man she saw cheating with Megan is the culprit. She thus involves herself in the investigation, going to great lengths to try to get to the bottom of things.

One of the things that has endeared critics is that The Girl On The Train uses an ‘unreliable narrator’ (ala Gone Girl) in such a way that readers are never quite certain if the first-person account they are reading is accurate. While critical review has been largely good, reader reviews are often more along the lines of “Meh. It’s been done before by better writers and with more compelling characters.” I tend to agree.

However, since the purpose of this blog is to focus more on worldviews than on the literary merit of the books being reviewed, I will focus on two of the narrators who stood out to me as thought-provoking characters.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino's latest movie has already won or been nominated for awards centered around script, casting and the soundtrack, and rightly so. In Hateful Eight, he has assembled a stellar cast that delivers sharp dialogue in the midst of yet another homage to a classic genre of film - in this case, the Western.

Rotten Tomatoes gives a helpful overview of the plot:
Set six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War, a stagecoach hurtles through the wintry Wyoming landscape. The passengers, bounty hunter John Ruth and his fugitive Daisy Domergue, race towards the town of Red Rock where Ruth, known in these parts as "The Hangman," will bring Domergue to justice. Along the road, they encounter two strangers: Major Marquis Warren, a black former union soldier turned infamous bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix, a southern renegade who claims to be the town's new Sheriff. Losing their lead on the blizzard, Ruth, Domergue, Warren and Mannix seek refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery, a stagecoach stopover on a mountain pass. When they arrive at Minnie's, they are greeted not by the proprietor but by four unfamiliar faces. Bob, who's taking care of Minnie's while she's visiting her mother, is holed up with Oswaldo Mobray, the hangman of Red Rock, cow-puncher Joe Gage (Madsen), and Confederate General Sanford Smithers. As the storm overtakes the mountainside stopover, our eight travelers come to learn they may not make it to Red Rock after all...
Tarantino reminds me of Stephen King in some ways. He has a knack for capturing the bleak depravities of the human heart - and make no mistake, this movie plumbs the depth of evil that resides within. These eight are called hateful for a reason. They are the kind of people who have both received and doled out the kind of violence and wickedness that you pray never crosses your path. Tarantino himself was a little surprised at how the movie played out once he began to film it. He told Entertainment Weekly ("Quentin Tarantino: The Hateful Eight interview"):
"I was realizing when I was watching it about [seven] weeks ago that this could almost be a post-apocalyptic movie, to some degree or another. It’s like this frozen wasteland, and the apocalypse has destroyed every semblance of their society and their way of life, and these survivors are huddled together in this pitiless wasteland shelter. And suddenly they’re all blaming each other for the apocalypse, but the apocalypse is the Civil War."