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

Friday, June 27, 2008

What I've been up to lately

setting up

This event was a lot of fun, not to mention exciting! I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've given a lecture since grad school (not including internal presentations at work).

my enormous talk

It builds on some of the techniques I wrote about in my latest Java book.

looking up, trying to figure out what to say...

Now that I look at these photos, I can see that my city-girl habit of keeping my wallet in my front pocket does not do wonders for my line. (Yes, that's my wallet, I'm not "just happy to see you," so to speak ;^). ) Geez, for a sex positive feminist I don't seem terribly concerned about looking like a porn star, do I? Oh well, I gotta be me! And besides, tech geeks rule!!! :D

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Look! They're male and female, and they're mating!

Sorry for the above X-rated photo and dialog. This is a photo that Nico asked my husband to take while the family was out walking recently.

This is one of the more amusing side-effects of Science education: sometimes Sex Ed comes along for the ride. Way back in the birds and the bees and the whales, I was fretting about what I should tell my kids about sex and when. Since then I've learned. Just stand back and let science take its course.

The down side is that while Nico now knows quite a bit about about the mechanics of human reproduction (extrapolating from the other species in his nature documentaries), he's a little hazy on a lot of the social trappings that are supposed to be the easy part. So one night a few weeks ago he asked me a few follow-up questions:

Nico: How did you meet Daddy?
me: We were in school together.
Nico: When mating, could you feel Daddy's sperm?
me: [hedging, not sure how to answer that one]
Nico: Does it hurt?
me: No, no, it's very sweet.
Nico: What about rival males?
me: You won't have to worry about rival males.
Nico: But in every species there are rival males...
me: Once your sweetie loves you, there won't be any rival males around.

I almost hesitate to write the above dialog since I'm sure at least some people reading this will be going "Wow, that's weird -- a six-year-old kid asking such questions!" But I figure that I might as well answer his questions as clearly and accurately as I can since he probably wouldn't have come up with these questions if he weren't ready to have answers.

It was questions like the above, though, that made my husband once muse that maybe these nature videos he's contantly watching aren't really appropriate for kids (as I mentioned here), what with all the sex and violence. Nico might talk about how "the male injects his sperm into the female and the eggs are fertilized" (in his BBC / David Attenborough voice) and people could get the wrong idea and think he's some sort of pervert...

Of course his passion for Biology isn't all about the mating. For fun, I'll throw in a few more of his recent drawings:

alpine newts

"les animaus de la bisse" -- one of his amusing phonetic spellings in French. It should be "les animaux de l'abysse" or "the animals of the abyss"

"The deep sea" -- as soon Nico saw this picture on the computer, he got all excited and told me the names of all the species he's drawn here. :D

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Carnivals and more!!!

Is it as hot where you are as it is here in Switzerland right now? Well, sit back and enjoy a refreshing cocktail at Humanist Symposium #21 (Old enough to drink!) :D

And this week is that once-in-six-weeks celestial alignment when we also get a new Carnival of the Godless! The Carnival of the Godless is up to #94, and going strong -- full of godless goodies!!!

Remember, both these carnivals are looking for more hosts, so if you're interested, please email Brent Rasmussen (brent dot rasmussen at gmail dot com) for The Carnival of the Godless or Ebonmuse (ebonmusings at gmail dot com) for the Humanist Symposium. Submit your posts, here and here.

Ordinary Girl has rounded up the Nonbelieving Literati's Voltaire posts (among other fun stuff) in her weekly reader.

Paul has earned himself the coveted link from Pharyngula for compiling a summary of the John Freshwater affair.

Lastly, I saw something cool over at HH's place. Here's a grandpa who's giving a fantastic gift to his grandkids, and to yours:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Polygamist wrap-up

As many have noted, this last segment Part V: Polygamist was a short one -- only two chapters.That's because -- even though it's a short story by itslef -- it's something of a lead-in for Part VI: Temple Wedding, which ties together all of the earlier parts.

Temple Wedding is currently scheduled to begin on the 9th of September. I hope I can get all of the illustrations done in time. I've got a bunch of fun ones planned, but only three actually drawn. Here's a teaser:

Monday, June 16, 2008

This close to paradise

"Thank you so much."

"No problem," he said. "Now just lay low, and I'll see you tonight." Then he went back to the house.

As soon as he was gone, I knew immediately where I wanted to go. Riding on the local bus the other day, I had noticed a large brick building marked "Orem Public Library."

I'd made a note of basically how to get there. It would probably be a bit of a walk from here, but I figured it wasn't too far, and I didn't dare waste any more of my tiny remaining money on bus fare. Read the rest of the story ->

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Humanist blogging à la Voltaire!

Me: So, today I have to write my essay about Voltaire.
My Sweetie: Poor Voltaire.
Me: Ah, you feel sorry for Voltaire and not for me...?
My Sweetie: Well, everyone is going to say he wrote a very bad book, and it's probably true...

My husband objected to the Nonbelieving Literati's selection of Zadig as soon as I told him about it.


Because -- said he -- the context and influence are what's interesting, not the text itself. Reading Voltaire today is like people three centuries from now reading a popular columnist from this year's New York Times. High School kids in France study Zadig in the context of a few semesters' worth of study about its time period and influence.

(He then went on to suggest that the Nonbelieving Literati should be reading Joyce and Melville. That was where I parted ways with my hopelessly highbrow-lit husband. If there's a list of authors I'm not reading for any damned book club, #1 would be Joyce and #2 would be Melville.)

But I agreed with my husband about Voltaire's place in history firing the imagination. A few months ago, I read a couple of fantastic books by Robert Darnton about the culture and literature of the time:

The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

Working from an amazing array of primary sources, Darnton explores the culture and attitudes of all the different segments of the population of enlightenment France, from illiterate peasants to artisans to the "bourgeois" to the nobility. A newly-abundant information technology -- printed books -- was spreading new ideas far and wide. Books that the church or the state found threatening were at once illegal and quite popular. Voltaire was one of the usual suspects. Illegal books (as a category) were called "philosophical" by the publishing industry (as well as by the authorities) even though this genre included books about politics (especially the king's personal life) and smut/erotica in addition to books on more obviously philosophical subjects like deism and atheism.

Naturally I see a parallel with the Internet today. It may just be that I see blogging everywhere (being obsessed with it and all), but please hear me out.

Printed books are a form of one-way communication -- like television -- from knowledge producers to knowledge consumers. There's one big difference, however: less is more. The less your infotainment consumes of your brain's attention, the more your brain has to work on its own in response. Caleb Crain argues this in The Twilight of Reading: "It makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone." Darnton's research illustrates this in his chapter analyzing police records of (spying on) nightly conversations taking place in taverns around town. Unlike television today which can consume all of your brain's leisure time without your brain ever having the strain of producing a single thought of its own, in those days you could only read books for so long, and then the next natural step is to go down to the pub and discuss them.

And so with the Internet today. We're bringing back not only written communication but also a two-way flow of ideas (as I explained in Think for yourself!). Blog and forum space form a beautiful silicon web of conversation. The division between idea producers and idea consumers is blurred to the point of being completely erased. No one article or post is ever the final word on any subject -- the most interesting ones get linked into a network of hundreds and thousands of related but contrasting perspectives.

Are we ushering in a new "enlightenment" in the tradition of Voltaire et al? Perhaps. Hopefully it will be one that doesn't end quite so badly...

p.s. I really did read Zadig (in French, no less -- be impressed! ;^) ), and I'll add my thoughts on the text itself in my comments on the posts of my fellow Nonbelieving Literati.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Atheist 13

For fun, I'd like to do a little meme this morning which I saw here and here.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

Absence of belief in the existence of god(s).

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

This is a tough one, but I'm going to go with Mormon.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Naturalism, especially observing amphibians in the wild. My little Nico loves Biology. This morning he tore me away from my Internet habit to show me a series of fossil crustaceans -- screenshots he'd taken from his current favorite David Attenborough D.V.D.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

I'd like to see more emphasis on charity and volunteer work. Belief in God makes it easier to say "I have no choice but to donate 10% of my income," but if you know that you have to rely on yourself, you often say "I have to be sure I'm providing for my family's future first, and we'll see what's left..." But we have to make it a priority to think about humanity's future.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

What? Whatever happened to becoming a Biologist???

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

That atheism is a ("fundamentalist") "religion" which requires just as much "faith" as belief in God. If you have to call atheism a religion in order to discredit it, then religion has already lost. (See It takes a lot of faith to believe that!!!)

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I don't think my views are terribly controversial within the atheist community. However, the one topic that consistently generates controversy and disputes when I post about it is this one.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

P. Z. Myers. Yeah, I know he's not on the list, but he's my favorite of the scary "new atheists". Of course Dawkins scored some points with me when he performed that hilarious rap video...

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I'm not really interested in deconverting people. I'd just like to encourage critical thinking in general.

Now name three other atheist blogs that you’d like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet

I don't feel like tagging anyone. Anyone else who'd like to do this meme (or has done it), please feel free to link to your post in the comments. :D

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

God vs. the Vampire: Angel Falling Softly by Eugene Woodbury

Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Rachel Forsythe is trapped in the bargaining stage. Her daughter Jennifer is caught between life and death in a coma with no expectation of recovery. Family and friends lose hope, and Rachel turns to the cold comfort of God's Old Testament bargains when an even colder comfort arrives.

Milada Daranyi is no ordinary vampire. She's a master of the art of the deal who has put her centuries of youth to good use in pursuit of lucrative business acquisitions. But is she up for a wager with the most powerful dealer of them all?

A vampire story can't help but cover life and death and their relation to immortality and the supernatural. So one might ask how God fits into this picture, as Eugene Woodbury has done in his new novel Angel Falling Softly from Zarahemla Books. When tragedy strikes, mere mortals can't always expect a miracle, not even after heartfelt prayer and priesthood blessings. So is God still up for an Old Testament style wager, playing dice with His creations, so to speak? Or should we assume we humans are left to our own devices?

Woodbury gives both sides of this question a fair shake. On the Bible allusions side, he might have added a reference to "Jonah and the Whale" as another example of God's deals yielding zany results, but overall he makes a good case for the parallels between Bible stories and life. The classic deist perspective is represented by Rachel's brother Carl, who is something of a New Order Mormon. Milada (the vampire) is a jaded agnostic, but under her charred surface she's yearning for family, peace, and absolution.

There's more than just theology in this book, though. In Angel Falling Softly, as in his earlier novel The Path of Dreams, Woodbury captures human relationships with realism and depth of feeling. He also paints a warm and homey portrait of Utah Mormon culture as seen from a sophisticated worldly perspective. All of this is woven into a suspense-filled tale of a dangerous friendship as two women -- born lifetimes apart -- find the desperate courage to bet it all.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Who cares what Brigham Young said?

I woke from my fitful sleep to a light in my eyes.

As I was groggily sitting up and regaining consciousness, I heard Spencer say "See? I knew we'd find him here." Then Spencer and Sam both squeezed into the tiny room, standing the flashlight up to point at the ceiling.

"Are you okay in here?" asked Sam.

"I'm really cold," I replied.

"Of course," said Sam, "I'll go get you my sleeping bag." And he got out and went back to the house.

"Listen," said Spencer, "I know we shouldn't have been joking around about polygamy like that -- because it's no laughing matter -- but I have to tell you that was a pretty stupid thing to say." Read the rest of the story ->

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Carnival of the Godless!!!

This week's god-free carnival is up: Carnival of the Godless #93!!!

Even though this is a very popular carnival (better known than the three newer carnivals I plugged last week), it's low on hosts. If you'd like to volunteer, email Brent Rasmussen (brent at brentrasmussen dot com) of unscrewing the inscrutible. Remember: hosting a carnival is a fun way to get connected with your blogging community!!!

I haven't hosted the Carnival of the Godless myself since '67, so I've signed up to host on the 17th of August, right after I get back from my long awaited trip to Minnesota!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Heaven and Hell in Bern, Switzerland

Things were so much simpler in the olden days. When the populace is largely illiterate, and the church fathers (et al) want to keep the peasants in line, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Monday, June 02, 2008

An Uncertain Destination

I sat back in my chair as I listened to the teacher recite the same story of Joseph Smith that he had been repeating to us all week. The handful of other students in my class looked just as bored.

The the teacher turned and asked, "Now who can tell us what year the Saints arrived in Far West Missouri?"

Since no one else responded, I raised my hand.

"Yes, Joe?"

"Please, we're supposed to be studying Biology," I said.

"Of course," replied the teacher. "And I have a special lesson for you. All of you turn to page 65 of your books."

I opened the worn, old book and turned to the correct page. On it was a brightly-colored drawing of some sort of monster with six legs and bat wings and a dragon's head. Read the rest of the story ->

Carnival roundup!!!

OK folks, time for this week's carnivals!!!

First there's The Humanist Symposium #20!!! This is a fun carnival, which you might want to bring home to your own blog one day! To volunteer to be a host (I hear there a fair number of open hosting slots), please email Ebonmuse: ebonmusings at

Then there's the exciting new Feminist Carnival of Sexual Freedom and Autonomy #4!!! Of course I submitted my most controversial recent post...