Monday, June 29, 2015

Z for Zcreepy

The Internet Movie Database seems tailor-made for "rabbit-trail" research: look up a particular movie, intending to find out who that actor is that you can't quite place, and you end up looking up someone else, and a movie she was in -- and before you know it, you're eight links away from where you started, and only your browser's search history remembers how you got there. So I approached IMDB's ad for Z for Zachariah carefully, intrigued by something new and post-apocalyptic, but not wanting to get drawn too far down the pop-culture rabbit hole. The synopsis didn't promise much in the way of originality, but the movie's based on a novel by a name I knew: Robert C. O'Brien, probably better-known as the author of the Newbery-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (yes, it was adapted into The Secret of NIMH, but please don't judge the book by it, even if you liked it!), and a National Geographic contributor under his real name, Robert Leslie Conly. Thus ends the rabbit trail; but since I find it helpful to balance my nonfiction reading and writing with a novel, I picked up Z for Zachariah on my next visit to Mills Library (Thanks, McMaster, for free alumni library cards!). If you're a see-the-book-before-reading-the-movie geek like me, read on...

Yes, it seems weird that the same person who wrote an acclaimed children's book also penned something that could be readily adapted into a post-apoc love triangle. But it doesn't take long for the commonalities between Mrs. Frisby and Z to emerge. For one, they're both well-written for their respective audiences. The former puts its main characters (Mrs. Frisby, her family, and friends she makes along the way) in occasional jeopardy, both in their present and in the rats' backstory; this allows moments of empathy, tragedy, suspense, and joy, but never beyond what, say, a precocious six-year-old could cope with. Z, which won O'Brien a posthumous Edgar Award, takes the form of a journal, newly started by a lone teenager; it begins with beautiful, suspenseful simplicity ("May 20: I am afraid. Someone is coming."), appears to offer some promise of a hopeful future, then gradually steals that promise away, in ways that are definitely not for younger audiences. For another similarity, both books convey a healthy respect for the day-to-day details of farming -- not just as survival, but as the grounding of personal dignity, too.

That said, it's easy to see why Z lends itself to Hollywood adaptation, and why it does so now, when the novel is nearly 40 years old. Although the love-triangle aspect is added for the movie (after the first few pages of backstory, there are only two characters in the book), Z anticipates pop culture's current infatuation with ever-more-disturbing stories of young adults being forced, with varying degrees of nuance, to kill or be killed; The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner series are only the most (in)famous examples. There are several moments in Z that read like Misery for young adults. The problem's not that it's not good storytelling (quite the opposite; I took a few mental notes for my own novel), it's just that it's also just plain creepy.

I'm not sure I'll see the movie, but I wonder if Z was also chosen for adaptation because it's subtly suited to post-Christendom. The title derives from the heroine's description of a Bible alphabet book: she remembers reasoning, as a child, that if A is for Adam, the first man, then Zachariah must be the last man -- foreshadowing the problems of encountering someone who may be the last man on earth. On the one hand, it would be interesting to see how (and if!) the title is explained in the movie, to an audience less biblically literate than the protagonist herself. On the other hand, it's more than interesting: it would illustrate just how well-matched the post-apocalyptic genre and post-Christendom culture are. Weirdly, they might be the perfect couple -- even if neither of them understands why that is. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Review: Nancy Jane Moore's Walking Contradiction

It's time for another embarrassingly late review, this time for LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Nancy Jane Moore's Walking Contradiction and Other Futures (Book View Cafe, 2014) is an entertaining collection of science fiction stories -- well outside the normal purview of my LibraryThing collection, but well worth reading. The common thread between these eight stories is the question of what it means to be human; in most cases here, that question centers on what role gender plays in identity. That question is front and center in the title story and in "Nohow Permanent," as both stories' narrators are "ambi" (or, as the latter narrator puts it, "mostly" female). "Walking Contradiction" itself is skillfully told, full of intrigue and estranged regret; if it's over-exposited at times, that's made forgivable by the narrator's film-noir profession and tone. Here and elsewhere, there are moments when Moore starts to sound like Robert Heinlein, whether in references to the "troubled" years or in sentences like "All the people -- and not people, and not quite people -- made Vlad nervous" (113), reminiscent of gender-bending stories like Heinlein's "All You Zombies." The stories "Borders," "Gambit," and "In Demeter's Gardens" are a little less memorable, all featuring female protagonists in (relatively) near-future military scenarios, but told capably. "Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars" is a tragic love story that weaves a nice twist into interstellar travel; if it challenges gender assumptions, it's only because of assumptions the reader may bring to the text. "Or We Will All Hang Separately" completes the collection, with a post-apocalyptic tone that still manages to remain more hopeful than some of the other stories included here. Altogether, Moore's talent shines frequently in this book. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for more of her work.

Book Review: Sea Raven's Theology in Exile: Year of Matthew

Someday soon I will actually write a blog post that's not a book review. But that day is not today. For now, I'm continuing to clear out long-neglected projects, with another review for The Speakeasy: an ebook, Theology in Exile: Year of Matthew -- Commentary of the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity, by Sea Raven (Book 1 of Theology of Exile; Vol. 2 of Theology from ExileCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). ISBN: 9781491077320.

First, an apology: this review is badly late. I promised it before beginning renovations on our house, and that process had a predilection for torpedoing deadlines. But I hope that this review, late as it is, will still bring some welcome publicity to this book. As I'm supposed to do here, I'll also state that I was provided with a copy of this ebook in order to review it here on my blog, and that I was not required to give it a good review.

It's safe to say that Sea Raven, D.Min. -- an Associate of the Westar Institute and lay minister for worship of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland -- and I differ somewhat on our interpretations of Scripture. This didn't surprise me, as Speakeasy's initial description of her book promised a view of the Lectionary "through fresh eyes, providing compelling biblical study and insight for pastors and lay leaders ('believers in exile') who are drawn to Jesus' mandate for justice, healing and shalom, but who no longer find meaning in conventional interpretations of scripture." I'm sympathetic to the need to create, as she puts it, "reimagined rituals" of Communion and other rites (p. 9 of 364, according to my device). But having read her re-interpretation of the texts through the Lectionary year, I'm not sure that I find any meaning -- "conventional" or otherwise -- in Raven's commitment to "a non-theistic, 'kenotic God'" (9; "post-theistic," which she uses on p. 31, is more nuanced and might have made a better choice throughout). And though I share her desire to articulate and live out a "theology from exile" (11 and throughout) for a post-Christendom age, as my friend Lee Beach has done, I'm uncertain whether Raven sees the irony in uprooting this theology from its biblical and historical roots.

There are some features worth commending here. Raven will not let readers hide from uncomfortable truths of contemporary politics, noting, for instance, that "too much of Christian fundamentalism has become United States domestic and foreign policy" (17); nor will she let us forget that there are biblical texts that go unread as one works through the RCL (165, 168 and elsewhere). She excels at bringing the RCL's texts together, as here: "In Isaiah 35, the exiles -- redeemed -- return to Zion. They are redeemed because they return to the ways of the Lord. And what are those ways? Psalm 146 spells them out..." (28). And her exegesis occasionally produces memorable insights: "The pearl of great price is actually worthless to the one who sells everything to get it. In order to live in the normalcy of civilization, he would need to sell it. But nothing is needed for living in God's realm" (182).

Unfortunately, too often her interpretive skills end up serving a predetermined agenda -- which is inevitable in scholarship, yes, but need not be so to this degree. Raven cannot let herself stray far from the Jesus Seminar's findings, so when she doesn't like the meaning of a text, she simply changes it. For John 1:12, "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God," she states, "Believing in the light is not a prerequisite for becoming children of God" (34). Unless, of course, the text actually says that it is! It's one thing for Sea Raven to take issue with those who created the RCL (as she often does), and to offer re-interpretations of biblical texts. It's quite another thing, far more destructive than the "cherry-picking" of passages (of which she finds the RCL guilty), to make those texts mean the opposite of what they say. If you enjoy "progressive" readings of Scripture, to the point of allowing your exegetical skills to regress, then this book is for you. Otherwise, it's best read as an example not of good exegesis, but of skilled eisegesis -- bringing the interpreter's meaning into the text, rather than bringing the text's meaning out.