Tag Archives | Vintage Books

The Erstwhile | B. Catling

The cover of Catling's The ErstwhileThe Ersthile are the abandoned. Having failed their responsibility to protect of the primeval tree, they were abandoned by their creator to seek meager shelter as they faded away under fallen leaves and soil. That is, until they begin to awake.

With this theme in mind, Catling returned to the surreal world he created in The Vohr, picking up right where he left off. Like the first novel, Catling develops his fiction with a dash of history. In lieu of Muybridge, we are introduced to William Blake. Unlike the first novel, this story is tighter—the plot threads are more tightly intertwined.

The final scene sets up the third novel, The Cloven, to be released next year. I can hardly wait.

Catling, B. The Erstwhile. New York: Vintage Books, 2017.

The Road | Cormac McCarthy

The cover of McCarthy's The RoadThe Road is dystopian fiction like none other—lean and brutal.

The hook in dystopian fiction—and I’ve read more than my fair share—varies. Sometimes it’s a mystery novel in which the reader tries to figure out just how society arrived at its current misery. Other times it’s a constructive story of learning to transform the dystopia into something positive. None of this matters for McCarthy. In The Road there are only three ontological realities:

  1. Father
  2. Son
  3. Threats

The Road is a story of a father and son barely surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Everything extemporaneous to the survival of this relationship is stripped from the narrative. The father and son are unnamed. Even their dialogue reflects this minimalism, quotation marks absent from the text:

You walk too fast.
I’ll go slower.

You’re not talking again.
I’m talking.
You want to stop?
I always want to stop.

I know.
We’ll stop. Okay?
We just have to find a place.
Okay. (93)

How do you find a place where no place exists? How do you stop when to stop means to give up? These are the questions that propel McCormac’s desolate vision.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

The Vorrh | B. Catling

The cover of Catling's The VorrhIn the heart of Africa lies the Vorrh, a primal forest from which the world was created. The Vorrh is not a place to be wandered into lightly—it changes people, erasing memories.

The Vorrh appealed to me because the premise echoed Vandermeer’s gripping Southern Reach Trilogy. Furthermore, Vandermeer’s blurb on the back cover said The Vorrh “is unlike anything I’ve read.” I had to find out for myself.

B. Catling, a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist turned novelist, has created a compelling surrealist fantasy. It’s a world where an orphan cyclops raised by robots lives alongside historical figures like experimental photographer Eadweard Muybridge and French author Raymond Roussel. At times it reminded me of some of Michael Ende’s Mirror Within the Mirror stories.

Speaking of Muybridge leads me to my only criticism of the book. Some of the plot threads refuse to coalesce. I finished the book thinking that Muybridge’s narrative could have been a separate novel without effecting the primary narrative of The Vorrh. I have read that in his sequel, The Erstwhile, Catling has tightened his storytelling. I can hardly wait dive back into Catling’s vision.

Catling, B. The Vorrh. New York: Vintage Books, 2015.

Robopocalypse | Daniel H. Wilson

The cover of Wilson's RobopocalypseWith a portmanteau like Robopocalypse, how can you go wrong?

The setting is the near future. An AI researcher has made a mistake and his electronic child, Archos, has become sentient.

The author has serious credibility. Wilson holds a Ph.D. in robotics and has already written a non-fiction book on the topic, How to Survive a Robot Uprising. The grounding of his imagination is strong.

The structure of the book is also unusual and interesting. The major parts of the book are chronological, beginning before the robot uprising and continuing to the climax. Within each part, however, the chapters follow seemingly discrete characters whose plot lines grow and merge over time.

Stephen King called this book “terrific page-turning fun” which is precisely what it is. Robopocalypse is pure science fiction candy.

—Daniel H. Wilson, Robopocalypse (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

The Desert Fathers | Helen Waddell

The cover of The Desert FathersThe desert fathers were radicals. They sold their possessions and left society behind to spend all of their time in prayer and meditation. The further away they were from each other and especially from society, the better. They lived alone in their huts living on crusts of bread and water as they wove mats from reeds to sell at the market for sustenance. They devoted their silent lives to prayer and meditation.

There’s something inspiring about these figures. They’re portrayed as heroes, and in once sense, that’s true. These were the fundamentalists of the third and fourth centuries who gave their lives in drastic fashion on what they believed was the path to godliness.

The insight they developed into human nature is rich. Many of their writings cut to the core of what it means to be a human wrestling with sin. Consider this sentence on fleeing temptation:

The Fathers used to say, “if temptation befall thee in the place thou dost inhabit, desert not the place in the time of temptation: for if thou dost, wherever thou goest, thou shalt find what thou fliest before thee” (94).

The ascetics realized that the temptations they fled society to escape from resided in their heart no matter where they went. Solitude gave them the focus to wrestle with that temptation.

Despite the legendary godliness of these saints, I struggle with their decision to leave society and mortify their bodies for a couple reasons.

  1. Jesus spent his life rubbing shoulders with the people the Desert Fathers fled from. Although many of the stories concern people who tracked the saints down, the Fathers spent their life trying to avoid the very contact Jesus sought.
  2. In mortifying their flesh, they were disdaining the body the good Creator gave them. This betrays an eschatology rooted in Platonism, far from the robust earthy spirituality of our Jewish heritage.

In the end, I can’t get past Paul’s advice:

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism … If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:18, 20-23 ESV)

While I respect the wholehearted passion of these men and value their insight, I can’t help but think of them as stunted savants—excelling in prayer, solitude, and humility, while all the while missing out on the fullness of eternal life.

—Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers: Translations from the Latin (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).

The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi | Ugolino Brunforte

The cover of The Little Flowers of St. FrancisSt. Francis walked the earth at the turn of the twelfth century. In the later half of the fourteenth century, this book of stories about his life was published.

The stories are (literally) the stuff of legends. This is where we hear that St. Francis preached to the birds (although I think his evangelism and discipleship of a wolf was much more exciting). This is where we learn of the stigmata St. Francis was blessed with. Here we learn how St. Clare blessed a loaf of bread only to see the sign of the cross on every slice.

What I found most interesting about these stories was not that their creation or collection, but what they reveal about the mindset of the Christians of those centuries. While I found some elements inspiring, I was also saddened by misguided theology. I want to end with the positive, so let’s start with the bad.

The Bad

St. Francis and his followers were gripped with the idea of penance and mortification in a very physical way. Chapter 3 provides a good example. One day St. Francis lamented that his companion, Friar Bernard, didn’t answer him when he called three times. God proceeded to tell St. Francis that Friar Bernard was busy in Divine communion, so he could not answer anyone on the creaturely plane. Overwhelmingly upset with himself for his frustration with Friar Bernard, St. Francis found his companion, threw himself down before him, and said,

I command you in the name of holy obedience that, to punish my presumption and the arrogance of my heart, when now I shall cast myself down on my back on the earth, you shall set one foot on my throat and the other on my mouth and so pass over me three times, from one side to the other, crying shame and infamy upon me, and especially say to me: ‘Lie there, you churl, son of Peter Bernardone, whence have you so much pride, you who are a most abject creature? (9)

The Christians of this era seemed to take a perverse joy in being abused. This attitude is miles removed from Jesus’ words to sinner caught in the act: “I don’t condemn you … Go home, and from now on don’t sin any more” (John 8:11 NIV). Instead of hearing Jesus’ words of forgiveness, they chose their own self-punishment.

The Good

The inspiring part of this collection of stories can be seen in the same story: they took their sin seriously. If there was a tendency in their culture to overemphasize the most minute attitude of the heart and take matters into their own hands, there is a tendency in ours to ignore all sin and continue living like nothing is wrong. St. Francis and his followers recognized the diverse ways that pride can infect a community and did everything they could to resist it.

While I firmly believe that every Christ-follower should be rightly called, “saint,” it’s clear why the Roman church set some Christians apart as shining examples.

—Ugolino di Monte Santa Maria, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi (New Yrok: Vintage Books, 1998).

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