Book Reviews: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

This year has been sparse for reading for various reasons, but now is as good as anytime to write book reviews again.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a book I’d wanted to read for a while. It didn’t disappoint.

It’s a slow story, told in epistolary/journal form by an elderly pastor to his young son. It’s a story about fathers and sons, family, and the struggle to reconcile different worlds and the rift between generations and lifestyles. It’s also a Christian story, about how an earthly father deals with a prodigal son.

The prose is luminous. Robinson has a way of turning the most everyday observation, and the most introspective thought, into a marvellous occasion. It is also rife with symbolism, all subtle, and only detectable if you understand Christian and Biblical principles.

It’s an intellectual story, and a faith story, and an American story. It haunts me.

The question the story basically asks and tries to deal with, is: “How does the Christian deal with the prodigal who is neither repentant nor forthcoming? How does one respond rightly according to one’s faith, how does one live faith out in the face of such a rift and an apparent defiance? Is American Christianity big enough to contain the prodigal?”

Gilead clearly poses this question to challenge Christian culture. Life and family are messy and untidy. And faith is not meant to be contemplated in the abstract, but acted out in the messy trenches of life. Is one’s faith robust enough to endure and influence the heartaches and circumstances of real life?

What is so compelling about the novel is that the narrator’s journey has no closure or ultimate growth: the only way he “grows” is in awareness of his own failings and inability to cross the gulf between the faithful and the prodigal. The stigma against the prodigal is so strong, a ban that cannot be broken. The prodigal demands honesty, but the narrator baulks at it, and that gulf is never crossed effectively. In the narrator’s failure lies the failure of many Christians, which originates from the ongoing tension between knowledge and practice. It is a commentary on Christianity, and a prompt for believers to consider their ways, and how their practice can often just widen the gulf between believers and those outside who are seeking answers, honesty, and evidence.

This is the conflict within the story’s narrator, and he never really overcomes it. His (and the novel’s) conclusion is: when words fail, when there’s an uncrossable gulf, when all the instinct is to shun and to ignore — the only way to cross over is through grace. The only reconciliation that can be made is that of grace, and blessing; not just grace shown by the faithful towards the prodigal, but also grace shown by the prodigal towards the failings and weaknesses of the faithful.

This is challenging, and the novel is full of this struggle. Because grace is unfair and undeserved, even “wasteful”. It offends justice. But the heart from which grace grows is unconditional love, and extravagant forgiveness. This is the challenge in the novel that confronts the reader.

I don’t often read “Christian fiction”, but this is a wonderful Christian novel. I believe Robinson is not a Christian, and I respect how she is able to tell such a wonderful story, so raw and honest and real.

Robinson’s later novels, Home and Lila, both tell the stories of characters surrounding the events of Gilead. I bought Lila on a whim from the library used book sale, so I will get to it soon.

I can’t help but compare Gilead to Leif Enger’s luminous debut novel, Peace Like A River, which through a different story also deals with families, fathers and sons, a faithful father and a wayward prodigal, and the Christian faith in North America, and comes to the same conclusion of grace. Enger’s novel, especially its ending, was profoundly (but appropriately) dissatisfying because of this offensive grace; while Robinson’s novel had a neat conclusion, it challenged me just as much as Enger’s.

By the way, I highly recommend Peace Like A River. The writing is so brilliant it leaves longing and ache within me. I read it last year, and Enger has become one of my favourite authors as a result.

A review of Assassin’s Creed: an immersive, groundbreaking experience.

I don’t think there are spoilers, because I talk mostly about the gameplay instead of story. But this review would make more sense if you’ve played them even a little.

I’ve been playing quite a few video games lately, and pretty good ones too. Mass Effect 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Long Live the Queen have been the standouts in the last few months. But none of them have really been worth blogging about: there’s not much to say about them except “That was fun to play and the story was great!”, you know? And my desire to blog is just about non-existent these days, so it takes something truly unique, distinctive or impressive to rouse my mind to analyze why that’s the case.

Assassin’s Creed is the game that’s worth talking about. True to my style (if I have to start something, might as well do so from the beginning), it’s my first, fresh introduction to the series. As of writing, I’ve just finished it and launched right into Assassin’s Creed II, but I think I’ve seen enough of both games to say that the first AC is the far superior experience, and probably will remain the best out of the series, and the most memorable to me.

Continue reading A review of Assassin’s Creed: an immersive, groundbreaking experience.

Postscript on Samurai Champloo.

Spoilers: I discuss the ending in some detail.

Finally finished Samurai Champloo — what a wonderful series to watch. It’s nice to see how one’s predictions bear out in the end, and I was right in most ways.

Except with Jin and Mugen’s final duel. I was a teensy bit disappointed that it wasn’t what I expected or predicted. I thought it would’ve been more in line with Shinichiro Watanabe’s style, as exhibited in Cowboy Bebop, to make their ending ambiguous or tragic.  That happier resolution felt like pulling punches.  But the fact that both samurai lived is also appropriate for the themes in the story, as Mugen and Jin are more than merely human: they represent the eternal duality in Zen. The climactic episodes had the Japanese titles of “The Cycle of Death and Rebirth”, and indeed there was death and rebirth for all three characters, literal for the samurai, and figurative for Fuu.  So while I think the themes would’ve been more powerfully driven home if the ending was more tragic or bleak, I wasn’t terribly disappointed in the resolution.  It was also good to see in the final episodes that both samurai still retained a measure of humanity, in the way that they cared for Fuu and enabled her to complete her quest to their own detriment.

Update: After pondering more, I realize there’s another angle on the ending.  Since Mugen and Jin helped Fuu to accomplish her quest, they would not die, but continue on the reincarnation cycle — because they still demonstrated a measure of human interest and earthly concerns, and so have not achieved complete dissociation from the world yet.  The adversaries they faced recognized that and explicitly called it out.  If they were completely disinterested from her quest all the way to the end, they would both have achieved nirvana, as what reason is there left to keep living?  I guess between a happy ending (Fuu succeeding) and a tragic one (Fuu failing), a happy one was more appropriate for the tone of this series.  Still, I can’t help but feel that the story did not go all the way to its ultimate conclusion, but stopped just short of it, retreating from the full measure of Zen towards something a bit more human.  I suppose that’s why I felt a little disappointed.

Overall, I really enjoyed this series. Some episodes were rather random and had nothing to do with the main story, such as Ep. 9 (Summer of Love — although that double-entendre on “grass” was ace), Ep. 22 (zombies), and Ep. 23 (of course there would be a commentary on baseball) — I thought these detours were a bit weak. But the other episodes kept pushing character development and plot forward, and overall it still was still a strong storyline. Good to see how Jin and Fuu’s histories wind together and resolve at the climax; Mugen’s wasn’t so tightly resolved, but I suppose it’s in his nature to have such a random, chequered past.

And I caught that cameo of Lone Wolf and Cub in an episode — what a treat!  That by the way, is another excellent series with strong Zen themes.  And the ending… not so happy.  Now that I think about it, Champloo bears a lot of similarities to Lone Wolf and Cub.

As Fuu said, I was sad to come to the end of the trio’s story. And in a way, it didn’t end either, for they are continuing on separate adventures, and will surely meet up again. I’m certain this is a series I’ll revisit in future.

It’s about time I rewatched Cowboy Bebop too, as it would be interesting to see what kind of themes are embedded there. But before that: Gunslinger Girl awaits. I’ve had it for ages and it’s long overdue for a full playthrough.

Thoughts on Samurai Champloo.

At last, after a long delay and an abortive start last year, I am watching my way through Samurai Champloo. I’m at Ep. 16 at the time of writing, and currently I’m enjoying it more than Cowboy Bebop. (Granted, it’s been about 5+ years since I watched Bebop, and I might have grown enough since then to appreciate it more. Probably time to watch it again.)

As usual, you might find some spoilers here.

I think I was quite neutral towards the main characters in Bebop, so it’s a real treat that I adore Mugen, Jin and Fuu. All for different reasons, and all for hard-to-articulate reasons. –Well, Jin is easy: I like the strong and silent types. I especially like strong and silent types who are lean and bespectacled. (If I so desired, I’d have a huge fictional character crush on Jin. ^.~;;) It’s a bit harder to define just what I like about Mugen and Fuu. I didn’t think I’d like Mugen, but he grew on me very quickly.

It probably has a lot to do with the dynamic in their relationships. By themselves they’re good characters, but together they have a synergy that takes their likeability through the roof. They just complement and interact with each other so well.

Beyond them, there are a whole lot of interesting themes in Champloo that I’ve been noticing so far.

The first is Zen, emptiness and void. I think both Mugen and Jin embody the void of Zen in a yin/yang dichotomy, which is contrasted in the series. Mugen (whose name means infinity) is yang, striving towards the all-encompassing infinite through absolute mastery of self and the world — and judging by his conceit and absolute self-confidence, he has achieved that. Jin is yin, who is “annihilated” through void within his own person. Others might call him the stoic ronin, but I beg to differ. Jin is beyond stoic: he has emptied himself of self, hence he comes across as immovable and indifferent, even apathetic. (The only time — so far — this façade cracks is when he falls in love with a woman sold into prostitution in Ep. 11 and acts to save her from her fate in the brothel… I must say, that is the most poignant episode I’ve watched so far. So sad. Then again, all stories involving unrequited love make me especially melancholy.)

So the two ronin have achieved Zen, but through different means, and they are constantly contrasted throughout the series. Beneath their different methods, they are both absolutely indifferent to the world and their circumstances. Why else would they accompany Fuu on her quixotic quest, if they still retained any self-interest? And their promised duel against each other would be the meeting of yin and yang to achieve unity, or annihilation. On the other hand, Fuu embodies all the fullness of life, the antithesis to Zen. However — AND PLEASE DON’T SPOIL IT FOR ME, I HAVEN’T FINISHED THE SERIES YET — I believe her quest for the samurai who smells of sunflowers is also going to end in void. She will find what she is questing for… and at the same time, she will not find it.

The second theme in Champloo is embodied in ukiyo-e, the Floating World, the world that is constantly passing away into vapour. It’s no coincidence that the opening titles depict the three characters in ukiyo-e artform. Champloo is distinctly set in the shadows of society: all the characters are the lowlifes, the criminals, the forgotten, the neglected, the outcast of society. While this matches the hip-hop theme (and I ADORE the anachronisms that appear in the episodes), it also represents the shadows that are constantly yearning for transfiguration and apotheosis… yet it is an apotheosis that is momentary and fleeting. Characters that the three meet die, or disappear and are never to be seen again. They come and go — the fleeting world.

Once again, I’m quite certain that ending will be characterized by the Floating World: Fuu will reach her goal, but it will disappear and pass away as soon as she lays hold of it.

So many parallels between Bebop and Champloo. Champloo is full of pathos and melancholy, probably even moreso. Even the closing credits on each episode makes me cry a little bit inside, listening to the song and watching the images of Fuu’s past. It also has the same kind of ambiguous morality and outcomes as Bebop has. If Bebop’s ambiguous ending is anything to go by (it’s never quite clear whether Spike Spiegel dies — though I think he does), Champloo is going to end in the same manner. I’m going to predict that when Jin and Mugen have their final duel, we will not know which one will die. Or, both will die.

I’m actually rather reluctant to finish the series, because it’s so great. I’ve been relishing every episode so far, and it just gets better as it goes… and I’m trying to stretch out the experience. I have watched very little film as of late, but this is definitely worth my while.

Giant robots, amoral outlaws, and fever dreams: Some movie reviews.

Movies feature few and far between in my consciousness, and many aren’t worth recording thoughts about, but I’ve been watching some good things lately.

I review: Driving Miss Daisy; A Fistful of Dollars; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Unforgiven; The Thin Red Line; Pacific Rim; The Great Gatsby.
I make general comments about the movies, but nothing plot-specific. Should be spoiler free.

Continue reading Giant robots, amoral outlaws, and fever dreams: Some movie reviews.

Of Mass Effect and eschatology.

The rest of the world was deep into Mass Effect 3 (and ranting about the apparently horrible ending) when I finally played and finished Mass Effect 2 sometime last October. Lately I’ve been playing through it again as a different class, making alternate choices, and picking up the expansions.

A few thoughts (ah, more like praises) on the game, and more on the world. NOTE: I have played ME1 and ME2 (so this post assumes their knowledge), but I have not played ME3. If you’re planning to comment, do not spoil ME3 or I’ll sic a drell assassin on you.
Continue reading Of Mass Effect and eschatology.

Code Geass, and looking for anime recommendations.

I’m super-picky about what anime I watch. Not much can top Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Cowboy Bebop, in my opinion.

But lately I’ve been itching to watch a new anime series. It has to be a good story, and I have to like the artistic style: two very important criteria, especially with the varieties of anime artform out there. Finally settled on Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion: it seems like the right mix of anachro-futuristic epic saga that I’m fond of. And I’m not averse to this variety of CLAMP’s artistic style.

I finished the first collection (episodes 1-5) today. This is winding up to be an interesting saga. The setting has been descibed, most of the important characters have appeared, and some intriguing clues of identity and motive have been dropped. Lelouche is a most fascinating protagonist. While his motive and actions can be construed quite simplistically, I suspect that there’s more to him than meets the eye. Time to find out more…

Okay, I’ve been sucked in to Code Geass and want to watch more. But my two local libraries don’t have any more of the series… time to go twist some arms nicely ask some university friends if they can borrow it from their library for me.

Samurai Champloo is probably next. (It would’ve been first, if I was able to get it.) Other anime that look promising (somewhat in order): Macross, Full Metal Panic!, Bubblegum Crisis, Serial Experiments Lain, The Vision of Escaflowne, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rurouni Kenshin, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, and RahXephon.

Should also get my hands on Appleseed and Battle Angel Alita manga. And EGADS — I believe my local library has the complete Akira. I may actually get to finish it after all.

Book Review: Reading the OED

I am one of those lunatic logophiles who will read — and enjoy — a dictionary if it’s in front of me, so I was pleased to find a fellow dictionary-reader in Ammon Shea, who wrote Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,370 Pages. It is partly a memoir of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and part wordlist of curious, obscure words that are “both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless.”

Of course, I was excited to see what a fellow logophile would pick from the vast menu of the OED, but I swiftly discovered that Shea and I are different kinds of logophiles. And I mean vastly different. Continue reading Book Review: Reading the OED

Recently Read: Un Lun Dun, Amulet, Decoding the Heavens, and others…

Mini-reviews for things I’ve recently read.

I’ve been (slowly) reading through China Miéville’s oeuvre in a roughly chronological fashion for a number of years, and have finally reached Un Lun Dun, his juvenile/young adult novel. Now that I’ve read more and tasted sterling fantasy prose, I’m not as enamoured by Miéville’s writing as I once was. Nevertheless, his distinctive narrative style is quite suited for this novel, which is a light-hearted, youth-oriented variation on the New Crobuzon of his Bas-Lag novels. In fact, I’d say that this is Perdido Street Station turned juvenile fiction: the plot progression is virtually the same, and UnLondon is weird, wild and wonderful as I’d come to expect from Miéville’s fertile, off-beat, yet peculiarly sensible imagination. The characterization wasn’t much to speak of, but given the world was the main character, I expected this too. Un Lun Dun is simply a fun, off-beat romp.

I re-read Orsinian Tales while waiting for my library books to come in. Like said in my book rambling, Ursula Le Guin’s stories are endlessly captivating, and this collection is no different. It’s less overtly fantastical and more magical realism… and there’s actually no magic here except that which comes from imagination. Which is the whole point: these stories only serve to ignite the reader’s imagination, which is where the true story unfolds. All the Orsinian Tales are lovely, but I really bought this collection solely for one of the stories, titled “Conversations in the Night”, which I plan to write about later.

My latest graphic novel foray is the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi, mastermind behind the Flight anthology. A juvenile/YA story, this series is filled with lovable characters and a perilous adventure, illustrated in Kibuishi’s light-hearted, lushly coloured style. I’m now engrossed in the story and have read until volume #3. There are 5 volumes so far, and Kibuishi is working on the 6th. Ah, that’s the trouble with starting an ongoing series — I have to wait for the author to finish!

The non-fiction on my TBR list have been sorely neglected; it’s time to make some dents in it. I’ve just finished reading Decoding the Heavens by Jo Marchant, subtitled “A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-long Search to Discover Its Secrets”. It’s a “popular science” account of the discovery and decipherment of the Antikythera mechanism; I love clockwork and analogue machines, so I’m especially interested in learning more about the mechanism. Marchant’s account was uneven: I think it tried too hard to be both historical and conversational/biographical, and ended up reading stilted and inconsistent. Some of the descriptions of persons involved seemed just a bit too colloquial, even emotionally biased. It was also difficult to follow the chronology of events, I found myself often wondering when certain discoveries were made, and having difficulty finding dates. Finally, a huge shortcoming was the lack of images to support descriptive writing. My engineering/mechanical knowledge is rudimentary, so I had difficulty following and visualizing Marchant’s written descriptions of gear positions and arrangements. A diagram would have been extremely helpful. Ah well, that’s what the Internet is for! In all, this was a good introduction to the Antikythera mechanism, and I appreciated Marchant’s meticulous research into all the people involved in deciphering its function, how the various theories were reasoned out, and finally the current prevailing theory and significance of the mechanism to history, archaeology, engineering and technology.

Currently reading the non-fiction book Reading the OED by Ammon Shea, with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay upcoming. Kay has been on TBR for years — at last, the day of reading him is coming soon!