The Ideal of Culture: Essays (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Ideal of Culture: Essays, by Joseph Epstein (2018).  More great essays by the great essayist.  I have sung his praises before, and you can read some of them here, here, and here.  The down side of this volume, if it has one, is that Epstein includes several essays about lesser-known masterpieces of literature, and he’s such a good salesman that I ordered two of them online before even finishing this book.

Longbourn (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker (2013).  In the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is the name of the estate where the Bennets—the family at the center of the story—live.  Longbourn is a novel about the servants of those very same Bennets, before, during, and after the events of Pride and Prejudice.  I liked it well enough.  The main character is Sarah, a young servant whom the Bennets took in after she was orphaned as a child.  Two interesting men come into her life at the same time—a new servant working down at the Bingleys’ house and a mysterious stranger the Bennets take on as a footman.  It’s kind of fun to watch little snippets of Pride and Prejudice take place in the background, and to see the Bennets from a different (and not very flattering) angle.

The Sparrow (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk?  That’s what The Sparrow is.  In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system.  Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world.  The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous.  Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee.  But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention.  Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….

Brave New World (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932).  I read this classic dystopian novel a long time ago and was inspired to re-read it by an episode of the National Review podcast called “The Great Books.”  It is a weird story, much weirder than I remembered it.  Huxley set his tale in the distant future and predicted a caste-bound society in which people are created in laboratories and subjected to extensive physical and psychological conditioning so that they will be perfectly adjusted to their eventual caste and status in life, whether the lowly, semi-intelligent worker class or the higher classes who do the finer work in the bio-factories and conditioning centers.  (The caste descriptions are, unfortunately, pretty racist.)  Everyone, save only the tiny group of world-governing Controllers, is kept mindlessly content with a feel-good drug called soma, constant entertainments, and endless recreational sex.  But off in the wilds of New Mexico is a reservation of people who still live the old way, and the action of the tale is sparked when a reservation dweller called the Savage makes his way into modern society and questions everything he sees.  Definitely worth a read.  The volume I got also featured a subsequent Huxley essay called “Brave New World Revisited,” but I found it very tiresome and couldn’t finish it.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (2018).  I saw a glowing review of this new book and promptly ordered it.  It didn’t live up to the hype, but it’s fine.  It’s a slightly oversized book that is full of reproductions of maps, both real maps from long-ago days and modern maps of fantastic places like Oz and Middle Earth.  The illustrations are pretty cool.  The book also contains lots of short essays by “a team of distinguished writers and illustrators” about how wonderful and inspirational maps are.  I found the essays pretty forgettable, although I did like the one about Dungeons & Dragons by Lev Grossman.

Dear Committee Members (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher (2014).  I had a heck of a time getting a copy of this comic novel after reading a good review of it long, long ago.  First I prowled the used bookstores for months and never found it.  Eventually I gave up and ordered it on Amazon.  Doh!  The package never arrived.  More months passed.  I discovered the Amazon locker service and ordered it again.  Finally, I had it!  Amazingly enough, it was worth the wait.  The entire book consists of letters, emails, and the like written by a fellow named Jason Fitger over the course of a year.  He’s an English professor at a second-tier liberal-arts college, and after publishing one very successful novel many years ago he pretty much fizzled out as an author.  He vents his frustration (both professional and personal) in his letters, many of which are letters of recommendation for students.  I laughed out loud more than once at his splenetic utterances.  And I gave it to my sister and then my best friend from college, who are both college professors, and they both liked it.  Highly recommended.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty (book review)

New from The Movie Snob.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty, by Steven D. Smith (2014).  In this slim volume (171 pages, excluding endnotes), Smith sets out to correct what he views as the misleading conventional wisdom about the meaning of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment.  (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”)  He argues that the Framers did not intend the Clause to usher in a strictly secular state but rather to establish that the national government had no jurisdiction to mess with state establishments of religion or to infringe on people’s rights to worship as they chose.  And he argues that the Supreme Court’s current incoherent religion jurisprudence is a result of straying from those original (limited) purposes.  I thought it was an interesting, if dense, book, but it seems to underplay the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment and especially the Equal Protection Clause.  Before the Civil War, yes, the states could have an established church or show favoritism to a religion (or religion in general).  But once states had to give everyone the “equal protection of laws,” what did that mean for religious favoritism?