Saturday, March 15, 2008

Quick Comment: Not the End of the World

Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0-87113-787-9

Steff Kennedy is an unlikely hero for an action thriller. One thing's for sure: he's no James Bond (nor even a Jason Bourne). Which is okay, because the villain in this piece, Rev. Luther St. John, is no Dr. No either. And author Christopher Brookmyre is no Ian Fleming.

I love a good thriller as much as the next person. There are many nights when I go to bed at 2 or 3 a.m. because I can't put down the book in my hands. There are many mornings when I arrive at work bleary-eyed and fuzzy-headed because I didn't put down the book in my hands until 2 or 3 a.m. the previous night. Not the End of the World did not live up to the publisher's promise (inscribed on the dust-jacket) that this book would "keep [me] furiously turning its pages." In fact, it took me nearly a week to plow through it, reading perhaps 75-80 pages at a time before finally calling it quits for the night.

What's wrong with this book? The plot for one thing. It reads like something that was inspired by some of the lesser James Bond films: a lunatic Christian evangelist schemes to bring America to God by causing a tidal wave to engulf Los Angeles and its environs at a time of his choosing. (Okay, this isn't the plot of Licence to Kill, but that Bond film does feature a villainous evangelist.) This dastardly plot is foiled, after some twists and turns, by an unlikely team comprised of a photographer, a porn star and a policeman. Maybe it would work on film - where it could be enhanced by special effects and beautiful people (I'm talking lots of effects and the most beautiful people on the planet) - but it misses the mark, badly, on paper.

What's wrong with this book? The characters for one thing. The villains are all religious kooks. The villains' disciples are all kooky religious dupes. The heroes are all atheists whose experiences with religion have been unremittingly negative. The primary villain, Rev. St. John - surprise, surprise - was raised by his sexually dysfunctional mother. The secondary hero, or heroine (is that term still acceptable?), porn star Madeleine Witherson, was - surprise, surprise - sexually abused by her father, who is - surprise, surprise - a hypocritical Republican in the United States Senate. And, just in case you haven't guessed it already, the hypocritical Republican Senator is a good friend of the right-wing religious fanatic villain, who is, in turn, a supporter of the Republican Senator. Good God! Brookmyre compounds his sin of religious stereotyping with that of political stereotyping! Did I miss Wal-Mart's three-for-one special on cardboard characters? Brookmyre obviously didn't.

I haven't read any other books by Brookmyre and, based on my experience with this one, I'm not likely to do so. My recommendation is that you avoid this book and read something else. It won't be the end of the world if you do so.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Quick Note: Bill of Wrongs

If you haven't read Molly Ivins' last book, Bill of Wrongs (which co-author Lou Dubose completed after her death), you need to do so. Now.

Ivins' longstanding opposition to the policies of George W. Bush is well known. In this book, she and Dubose complete the work they began in their earlier works, Shrub and Bushwhacked, and provide insights into the many ways that American freedoms have been deliberately eroded by the Bush administration. None of what Ivins and Dubose describe in this book is news. All of it has been documented elsewhere. Nevertheless, the compilation of these diverse stories into one tome is effective.

You're probably aware that, when President Bush speaks in public, his political handlers and security forces ensure that dissenters are herded into "Free Speech Zones," which are often located several blocks away from the event they are attending. Those who manage to avoid isolation in the zone are hustled away from the view of the president and the news cameras as soon as they are discovered. If they refuse to move, they are arrested. How is one identified as a dissenter? A T-shirt or lapel pin is usually all the evidence the Secret Service needs to justify hustling one away to the Free Speech Zone. If one refuses to be hustled away, the local police will hustle one to the nearest jail. Read the book for details.

So much for Freedom of Speech.

The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of the press. Tell that to the San Francisco reporter who, notwithstanding the fact that California has one of the strongest journalist shield laws in the USA, spent 199 days in jail for refusing to provide investigators with either the names of people who attended a protest or videotapes he had filmed at the rally. Read the book for details.

So much for Freedom of the Press.

The Bush Administration's Constitutional violations do not end at amendment number one. Federal agencies also have systematically and deliberately violated the fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and fourteenth amendments of the Constitution thousands of times over the past eight years. Ivins and Dubose tell some of these stories in their book. Many other authors have done the same. Do a quick Amazon search of the term "patriot act" and check out some of the hits you get. Also, check out my review of Walter Brasch's book, Sinking the Ship of State. (Check out his book too. Warning: Brasch's book is published by a small press and has several editorial errors. Nevertheless, the substance of the material is good, if one is willing to overlook its stylistic shortcomings.)

I firmly believe that the upcoming federal election is one of the most important elections in American history. Ivins' book has reinforced that belief. The Republicans have taken this country down a dark and dangerous path throughout the past eight years. This election will be our opportunity to change course and start undoing the damage that Bush, Cheney and an untold number of "loyal Bushies" have done to the USA and the world at large. Read Ivins' book. Get mad. Then go do something about it. At the very least, vote for ABAR (anyone but a Republican) in the upcoming primaries, caucuses and elections!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Two Complementary Views of American Christianity

Several months ago, I reviewed Shopping for God, by James Twitchell. A few days ago, I read a book entitled, I Sold my Soul on eBay, by Hemant Mehta, which comes from a completely different perspective, yet covers much of the ground that Twitchell covered.

Twitchell's book was scholarly and Mehta's was personal. Twitchell examined questions about the relationship between Christianity and advertising in American culture. Mehta, who was raised in the Jain faith, explored personal questions about Christianity and the relationships between Christians and non-Christians in American culture. Mehta's book began with an experiment in which he allowed the highest eBay bidder to buy his time and church attendance. He posted an ongoing account of his visits on a web site, then decided to expand his study and publish his findings in a book. His book, which is published by a Christian publishing house, aims to help Christians understand how non-Christians see them, and to help Christians understand how they can speak more effectively with those who don't share their beliefs.

Both authors visited churches across the USA and interviewed numerous pastors and parishioners. They visited large churches, small churches, and 'tweener churches. They visited urban and suburban megachurches with multiple pastors and money to burn, and country churches that barely pay their bills and their pastors; if there is only enough money to meet one of these obligations, the bills get paid first.

Twitchell's book is well-written, but, since it is a scholarly work, it takes a bit of time to digest its contents. Mehta's book, an equally well-written personal narrative, is easily digested. In keeping with the styles and intentions of both authors, Twitchell's analyses and recommendations tend to focus on global communications issues, while Mehta's findings and suggestions focus primarily on personal and local communications strategies. Twitchell's book is richer in historical context than Mehta's book, but Mehta compensates for his lack of historicity by providing rich contextual insights. For example, Mehta records his emotional reactions to the rituals, worship choruses and scripture readings he encounters, as well as the questions that church rhetoric and practices raise for him. Twitchell, if he has any similar reactions and questions, does not record or address them at all.

Twitchell and Mehta both began their studies as non-Christians and they ended their studies in the same spiritual state. Both books offer interesting analyses of outsider views of the current state of American Christianity. If you read only one of these books, you'll be intellectually rewarded. If you read both of them, your understanding of American Christianity will be well-rounded and enriched.