Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review of Book Reviews

Ten years ago I would have described myself as someone who "doesn't read much fiction." Sure I liked to go to the bookstore and poke around for non-fiction titles on whatever topic caught my fancy at the moment. But when it came to novels, I was reading only a few per year, and almost exclusively things that were recommended to me (sometimes quite literally pressed into my hands) by friends and family members.

It's not that I didn't like literature. It's just that there are plenty of other (time-consuming) things I like to do, and fiction has this added hurdle that you can't really know if you want to read a given book until after you've done it.

I'd like to attribute my change of habits to blogging and the Internet. Because if you know anything about me, you know that I'm a true believer who can trace all that is good and right in this world back to the Internet. But really, that wasn't it. To give credit where credit is due, I think I started reading more novels when I took up with my husband, who is a big-time literature lover. He didn't deliberately try to convert me to his hobby or anything -- it was more just the osmosis of his leaving books around the house all the time and my resulting reaction of "hmm, this looks kinda interesting..."

My first book review (Parade of Mormon Light Fiction) grew out of an attempt to explain (to myself mostly) why I was so fascinated by the shelf of Mormon teen romances at my parent's house: "Do you ever hide the book you're reading because it's something you'd be embarrassed to have people catch you with? Particularly your parents?"

I wrote the next one (Lifestyles of the Rich and Literate) after noticing how the characters in three popular leisure-class novels (Dangerous Liaisons, The Age of Innocence, and Pride and Prejudice) have very different attitudes and outlook -- corresponding to their vastly different ranks in the social hierarchy of the upper class. You might have thought that there's nothing left to be said about Pride and Prejudice, but wait until I go after it with my famed love of primatology!!! :D

Then we have His Dark Materials -- the first set books I ever read with the intention of writing a review. As I explained in Ask Chanson (via Google)!, this is my all-time most googled book review. Some readers want to know about the atheist themes, some want to know how these books compare to Harry Potter, but most are asking that burning question: "Do Will and Lyra have sex?"

After that, I decided to go back and try some more Mormon lit, so I read The Pictograph Murders by P. G. Karamesines and Wives and Sisters by Natalie R. Collins. The contrast that really took me by surprise when reading these two murder mysteries was that in the mystery by the apostate author, the hero was an exmormon/apostate and the villain was a devout Mormon, whereas in the mystery written by a faithful Mormon, it turned out that the hero was a Mormon and the villain was an atheist.

Hahahahahahahahahaha!!! Just kidding -- that didn't surprise me at all. The parallel was just too perfect! So I had to write a review comparing them. Natalie Collins liked my review well enough that she sent me an ARC to review her next book (see below). P. G. Karamesines didn't give me any reaction or response at all even though it was a positive review and I'm pretty sure I left a comment over on A Motley Vision pointing it out to her. I can only assume that she didn't think it was very funny that I would compare her book back-to-back with such a naughty, naughty exmo book like Natalie's. Personally I thought it was hilarious!! But I have a perverse sense of humor...

(Out of fairness, I did a review comparing my own book to Wives and Sisters as well. Not sure if that helps....)

I had a little more luck with the faithful Mormons after I met up with Christopher Bigelow of Zarahemla Books, and I reviewed his novel Kindred Spirits (with some follow-up here).

This later led to reviewing some more Zarahemla titles, notably Brother Brigham, and more recently Angel Falling Softly. (By crazy coincidence, I had decided to review Eugene Woodbury's earlier novel The Path of Dreams before I discovered that he had a new novel out through Zarahemla Books.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before those last few Zarahemla titles, I had a little more to say about the classics of the Mormon teen romance genre. You know who I mean: Jack Weyland.

After that, I hit my stride with an exmo-lit bonanza!!! There isn't much exmo lit out there, but I'm determined to find it all and review it for you! :D



There's My Ex is Having Sex with Rex: Jennifer Lee's memoir about rebuilding her life after divorcing her gay husband. There's Natalie R. Collins' next thriller Behind Closed Doors. This was the first book that I got an advance copy of for review. So far I have four (not including e-copies), and we'll see how many more I can collect! :D And who can forget the hot, hot Always Listen to the Ravings of a Madwoman?

Then I discussed some of the challenges of Mormon Literature (such as difficult topics like unbelief and sexuality) when reviewing the short story anthology In Our Lovely Deseret collecting up some of the best short stories "not for or against, but about" Mormonism. For a taste, you can read Love, Mormon Style online.

Of course I can't help but want to poke my head out of my little niche every now and then to have fun with the biggies that everyone is talking about!!! So I compared Harry Potter to Jesus (and to Spock and George Bailey for good measure) even before the author announced the connection in an interview.

I also explained my Da Vinci Code-inspired conspiracy theory (after giving my excuses for why I even picked up this book in the second-stupidest thing I did in Scotland and later explaining the stupidest thing I did in Scotland).

I also recommended some of my favorite new and popular graphic novels: Fun Home and Persepolis.

But I can't stay away from my favorite topics, like atheism! So, of course I reviewed "friendly atheist" Hemant Mehta's delightful church-visiting spree I Sold My Soul on eBay.

That one isn't fiction, though. It's weird -- even though atheist-interest nonfiction titles are all over the best-seller list, it seems like atheist-interest fiction is rarer than hen's teeth! (Can I say "rarer than hen's teeth in the Internet age"?) What is up with that? Is it true -- as they say -- that atheists are "obsessed with reality" hence have no interest in made-up stuff like novels?

The folks over on A Motley Vision are always lamenting about how hard it is to build an audience for Mormon literature. Well, let me tell you, you guys are riding the gravy train. There's a whole publishing and distribution industry just for Mormon lit, not to mention the few million (very well organized) members to make up your potential audience.

But atheist lit? There are far more atheists than Mormons, but unfortunately we don't make up much of a market since the publishing industry apparently doesn't have any special talent for herding cats. A lot of fiction has nonbelief/skepticism as a major theme, but it's very hard to find an organized network of people interested in atheist literature or any kind of atheist lit resources. (Try googling "atheist literature" and you essentially get nothing but the non-fiction "how and why not to believe in God" books.)

That won't stop me from trying though!!! I have a few plans in the works to put atheist lit on the map! :D

The Exterminator has been making some great headway with the entertaining book club Nonbelieving Literati. Have a look, and consider joining if you like reading (or if you're thinking of taking it up)!!

Reviews I've written for this club include Humans vs. Death, Humanist blogging a la Voltaire !, and The Grasshopper King (this one was cheating, though, since it wasn't on the list).

You can find these and more on my book catalog page, conveniently linked from my booklist sidebar. I imagine all of those Amazon links make it look like Exmormon/LFAB is a money-making operation, but it's not really. The ads don't even pay the server costs, let alone begin to cover the cost of my time. It's a labor of love and a public service to bring good books and readers together.

Happy reading!!! :D

16 comments:

Kay said...

Is it true -- as they say -- that atheists are "obsessed with reality" hence have no interest in made-up stuff like novels?

Most of my favorite fiction is written by atheists (although the storyline might not have an overt atheist theme). Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Tom Robbins are three that come to mind. Their books are about as far from reality as you can get. :-D

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Kay!!!

That's cool!!! I agree, I think there is a lot of really imaginative fiction out there by atheist authors, it's just not grouped or identified as such (in the same way that atheists themselves notoriously resist organizing).

Personally I didn't realize that any of those authors are atheists. I guess in my own magical fantasy universe there'd be some network of places for atheists to go when they're curious to read novels by other atheists. :D

Aerin said...

Not sure if you've read any Salman Rushdie, but I wonder if he also qualifies. wikipedia's article about Rushdie

I'm assuming an author has to self-identify as an atheist to count? Another author (who I read recently) Ray Bradbury, I'm not sure what his religious beliefs are either.

Also, you wouldn't have appreciated science fiction/fantasy in the past - before you started reading more literature ten years ago?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

Actually, I think part of the problem is that atheist literature is very hard to define. Logically any fiction in which God(s) don't play a role might reasonably be considered atheist literature. That includes the majority of all fiction, so it makes sense that it's hard to catalog atheist fiction as such.

Still, grouping works written by self-identified atheists might be interesting since they probably have a bit of a unique outlook even when they're not specifically writing about faith vs. skepticism.

Then there are cases where the author explores religion, such as Rushdie. He's on my list of authors whose work I'm planning to read...

Regarding Sci-Fi/fantasy: I read a fair amount in High School (because my friends who recommended books to me were all nerds). But on the whole I'm not that enamored of it. Actually I'm not so big on any genre that has standardized conventions (mystery, romance, etc.)...

Pants said...

Oh man, I used to LOVE Jack Weyland books!

Need to read Persepolis.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Pants!!!

Need to read Persepolis.

Yes, you do! :D Everyone should read it. Then go see the film.

And that Jack Weyland... So repetitive, so ridiculous, yet so entertaining. ;^)

MoJo said...

This reminds me of a big hulabaloo going on in romance right now, which is the deliberate branding and shelf segregation of African-American romance from white romance. African-American romance exists, but to find it in a bookstore, you most often have to go to the African-American section which is the last place I, Random White Romance Reader, would think to look. To me, any "African-American" section screams Academia.

This is an inverse analogy, obviously, because you're talking about atheist literature NOT being tagged deliberately atheist, the end result being people either don't know what it is when they read it and/or can't find it when they're looking for it.

There are pros and cons to any sub-subgenre classifications such as "atheist" and "African-American." The biggest question, to my mind, is "If it's tagged X, Y, or Z, would you attract more readers than you repel?"

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MoJo!!!

Well, I think in the case of labeling something athiest literature, there's a good chance of repelling some part of the audience. Many people who would be wary of atheists would hardly notice the absence of God-references in a given novel.

OTOH, it's very easy to shelf a book in more than one section...

MoJo said...

OTOH, it's very easy to shelf a book in more than one section...

You would think so, but most bookstores will not do that. They aren't going to give a book two shelf spaces when it already has to limit the number of books it carries.

We had a discussion over on Eugene Woodbury's blog about how some spots in bookstores are paid for by the publishers.

B&N or Borders (can't remember which) has a test program in one of their stores of facing more books out, which then further limits the number of books they can carry and shelve.

C. L. Hanson said...

Yeah, that's true, but just the other day I saw a book shelved in two different places in the local English bookstore!! :D

(The bad news: it was Twilight. And, no, I'm not joking...)

MoJo said...

(The bad news: it was Twilight. And, no, I'm not joking...)

I don't know how European bookstores work, but if it were in the US, I'd assume the more prominent placement was paid for by the publisher.

C. L. Hanson said...

It's very possible that was the situation here as well. The local bookstore just received a giant shipment of the whole series, and now they're everywhere...

pgk said...

"P. G. Karamesines didn't give me any reaction or response at all even though it was a positive review and I'm pretty sure I left a comment over on A Motley Vision pointing it out to her."

Ah, well, C.L., sorry for the oversight. Thank you very much for your book review of Picto-Murders. It's an under-reviewed book and every review counts.

"The contrast that really took me by surprise when reading these two murder mysteries was that in the mystery by the apostate author, the hero was an exmormon/apostate and the villain was a devout Mormon, whereas in the mystery written by a faithful Mormon, it turned out that the hero was a Mormon and the villain was an atheist."

See, I know a secret about the antagonist in Picto-Murders that you don't. He's a composite character based upon a couple of old BYU professors, my husband's old Mormon boss, a couple of ex-boyfriends (including a very definite ex-mo boyfriend), and my own dark fantasies. So Tony's more Mormon than you think. ;).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey PGK!!!

That's cool -- he's a great villain!!! :D

Dale said...

Nice post! I thought you'd want to know it's included in Humanist Symposium 22 on my blog.

Thanks!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Dale!!!

I've just posted the link. :D