The Real Mary Poppins, How Foucault Won the Right & the Children’s Table of Literature

As I attempt to get back on the blogging horse so to speak, what better than that classic of blogging days past, the link collection post? Below, some articles I find interesting…

Sarah Schutte discusses the real Mary Poppins at National Review:

Mary Poppins first alighted at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane in 1934, changing the lives not only of the Banks children but of countless readers around the world. Those exposed only to Julie Andrews’s charming portrayal of Mary Poppins (for indeed, you must always refer to Mary Poppins by her full name) in the 1964 Disney film may find the character in Travers’s book rather jarring — even downright unpleasant. Vain, haughty, snobby, abrupt, Travers’s nanny causes our Disneyfied senses to revolt in favor of the sweeter film character. But this is to give the “real” Mary Poppins short shrift, and naysayers will miss out on some of the most whimsical stories ever penned.

The Real Mary Poppins Reminds Us to Wonder

ICYMI, Ross Douthat had an interesting column on how How Michel Foucault Lost the Left and Won the Right:

Taken together, the essays tell a story that’s surprising at first but reasonable once you accept its premises: If Foucault’s thought offers a radical critique of all forms of power and administrative control, then as the cultural left becomes more powerful and the cultural right more marginal, the left will have less use for his theories, and the right may find them more insightful.

How Michel Foucault Lost the Left and Won the Right

Over at The Dispatch Guy Denton talks with Christopher Buckley about humor sitting at the “children’s table” of literature:

Buckley recognizes today what Wolfe and Heller understood before him: that there is no richer source of literary material than real life, and that real life is a comedy. Readers crave stories of equal scale and strangeness to their everyday experiences in what Wolfe described as this “wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping Baroque country of ours.” The quotidian in America is often ridiculous, and the ridiculous demands to be parodied.

The View from the Children’s Table

The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry

I am not sure how I heard about The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry.  If I had to guess, I would say it was Shelf Awareness.  But it was on my To Be Read (TBR) list for a while. Midwestern setting with a religious/faith twist?  Yep, that seems like me.

Rather than purchase it, however, I decided to check out from the library using Overdrive (Sorry, but I have been on a bit of a binge on other books I am afraid).

Life is suddenly full of drama for low-key Harley Jackson: A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor’s heart, a Hummer-driving predatory developer is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm, and inside his barn is a calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ. His best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to avoid the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf. But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called “a scene.”

Then the secret gets out—right through the barn door, and Harley’s “miracle” goes viral. Within hours pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a percentage) of the calf. Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want—and raise enough money to keep his land—and, just possibly, win the woman and her big red pickup truck?

Harley goes all in, cutting a deal with a major Hollywood agent that transforms his little farm into an international spiritual theme park—think Lourdes, only with cheese curds and t-shirts. Soon, Harley has lots of money . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed.

It turned out to be yet another book I was pulled in two directions about.

On one hand, it does a fine job of capturing the character and characteristics of Midwestern life.  The close-knit community that can seem suffocating at times and yet still foster loneliness and a longing to escape.  The petty politics and gossip yet the ability to rally around a cause and make a real impact.

And I really like the internal dialog of the lead character Harley Jackson.  The way he is pulled toward politeness and even piety by the memory of his parents; their faithfulness and fundamental goodness.  The way he feels connected the land and rhythms of his family and community.

But he also feels a pull to escape and be his own man.  He leaves his parents faith, leaves town for college, and expands his horizons.  But he ends up back at home never having graduated, working a factory job and raising beef cows on the side.

He feels the urge to be the bad guy, to be the angry jerk who lashes out, to be the arrogant boss type, but in the end he can’t do it.  He wrestles with his doubts, feels guilty about his angst and worry but can’t stop.  Life seems to just carry him along. So when he decides to cash in on the Jesus Cow you know he is in for a ride.

So far so good.  But after awhile the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Perry has painted the picture but it starts to feel like a sitcom you might watch if nothing else is on.  Kinda interesting but doesn’t really grab you or shake you.

The characters began to edge toward caricatures.  The setting begins to seem paint by numbers.  The meditations on faith and relationships feel like late night dorm conversations.  And when the plot and emotions climax it seems a little too easy.  Which is compounded by the neatly wrapped up ending.

On balance, however, I lean toward the positive side.  It was an entertaining and easy read full of good-natured humor and thoughtful exploration of the relationships of small town America.  A little too cute and neat? Sure, but not in an overbearing or heavy handed way.  And in he end I liked Harley and he felt real.  In fact, I could very much relate to some of his struggles and angst.

If you enjoy light-handed satire and humor and don’t need a lot of narrative drive or suspense you will enjoy The Jesus Cow. If you have lived in small town middle America you will chuckle at the accurate portrayal of the characters one finds there.

But like the Midwest, it can meander a bit and take its time getting to where it’s going.

There Goes the Galaxy by Jenn Thorson

As you can see from the reviews below, I have been reading more non-fiction of late and not exactly fluff subjects either. So I figured it would be good to read something a little more lighthearted. So when Jenn Thorson tweeted about her new book There Goes the Galaxy, and there was a Kindle version for only a couple of bucks, I picked it up.

I turned out to be a sort of slap-stick science fiction adventure: earthling kidnapped by aliens only to find he is slated to save his home planet but must fight his way through the rather bizarre universe to do so.

It’s the age-old tale of boy meets alien abductor. Boy meets stun-gun. Boy learns he’s the only one who can save the Earth from Extreme World Makeover by interstellar landlords. Yeah: he thinks it’s a bit much, too. Like everyone else on his planet, Bertram Ludlow hasn’t paid much attention to fluctuations in the intergalactic real estate market. But as a cognitive psychology grad student, he has given some thought to what a complete mental breakdown looks like. And this is pretty close. Now he’s discovering space is a mad and mind-boggling place where interspecies communication rests on the power of a gumball. Where androids demand better work/life balance. Where crime is Art, technology still has its bugs, and lasers don’t actually go “pyew-pyew.” It’s also surprisingly easy to get on the Universe’s Most Wanted list. So with the weight of the world on his shoulders and the cosmic law on his tail, can Bertram outrun, outwit and out-bid to save the Earthling squatters from one spaced-out redevelopment plan?

And it is pretty funny; full of sarcastic retorts, one liners, absurd situations and lots of word play. A send up of the absurdities of earth culture through the lens of aliens. If you like smart aleck and playful sci-fi you will enjoy this one.

I did feel like it was drawn out a bit too much and the plot suffered. Interspersed with the narrative plot chapters are what you might call marketing guide book parodies.  In the guise of a book on famous examples of marketing success these chapters fill the reader in on the bigwigs who are the seeking to buy Earth in this Extreme World Makeover competition that threatens to either kill of the planet’s population or make them intergalactic slave baristas.  These chapters are clever, and were funny at times, but they really slowed the book down (as noted they did add some important background information but I am not sure they were the best vehicle or tool for this).

And the marketing and reality show aspect as a hook was a little thin at times; there are a lot of side characters and alien cultures to try and digest and they are rely all that developed. But, to be fair, you don’t read these kind of books to think to deeply about the plot and plausibility. And if this becomes a series, the author is working on book two I believe, then the details can get filled in as the story progresses I suppose.

My verdict: a genuinely funny intergalactic comic adventure that could use a little more polish and plot tightening.

Mercury Falls by Rob Kroese

Mercury Falls is yet another discounted Kindle book that enticed me by both its description and its price.  Here is the publisher’s overview:

Years of covering the antics of End Times cults for The Banner, a religious news magazine, have left Christine Temetri not only jaded but seriously questioning her career choice. That is, until she meets Mercury, an anti-establishment angel who’s frittering his time away whipping up batches of Rice Krispy Treats and perfecting his ping-pong backhand instead of doing his job: helping to orchestrate Armageddon. With the end near and angels and demons debating the finer political points of the Apocalypse, Christine and Mercury accidentally foil an attempt to assassinate one Karl Grissom, a thirty-seven-year-old film school dropout about to make his big break as the Antichrist. Now, to save the world, she must negotiate the byzantine bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell and convince the apathetic Mercury to take a stand, all the while putting up with the obnoxious mouth-breathing Antichrist.

I happened to be reading a commentary on the Book of Revelation (N.T. Wright‘s  Revelation for Everyone) at the time and so this seemed like the perfect fiction companion.

It turned out to be a witty and whimsical take on the end of the world and a fun read. It is full of dry humor, and winks at popular culture, that make you smile and even chuckle out loud. But for some reason it seemed to lack something – at least for me.

I guess it just seemed a little too much fluff and not enough craft. Don’t get me wrong, it is funny. But the constant plot turns and lack of any real tension whatsoever let the air out of the story quite often. It is as if the story is just a vehicle for jokes, and some clear pontificating against bureaucracy and for human choice, rather than the point of the writing.

You never really felt any of the central characters (Mercury or Christine) were at risk or that the conflict wouldn’t be resolved in a positive way – hence the lack of tension. And the characters also felt a little thin – vehicles for jokes rather than three dimensional people.  It was never clear exactly what motivated Mercury or what his history was. And Christine was a little hard to read as well. They just kind of get dropped into the story with little backstory or character development.

I know what you are saying. Relax it is just a slapstick comedy don’t critique it as if it were classic literature. Fine, point taken. But good stories, even funny ones, grab you and hold your attention because of the way the characters are developed and the way the plot is structured and resolved.

So, all in all found the book to be fun and entertaining read but I didn’t find it to be quite the “cult classic” so many reviewers did.  A lot of potential but without quite reaching the proverbial “next level” for me.

The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus by Tom Breen

I won The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches from the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture by Tom Breen in a Facebook or Twitter giveaway from the good folks at Baylor Press. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it but is sounded interesting and it was a quick read. So I bumped it up the TBR pile.

I am afraid I am going to offer one of my truisms again. What you think of it will have a lot to do with what you expect and the attitudes you bring to it.

Here is Publishers Weekly:

In this entertaining gem of religious satire, Breen, an AP journalist, skewers American Christianity from every imaginable angle. Calling himself the ‘Internet Theologian,’ Breen romps through the Bible, religious history, denominational differences. Halloween, contemporary Christian music and spectator sports, among other topics. Some of the book is pure silliness, but other sections achieve that elusive ‘perfect storm’ where humor is sharpened by raw intelligence and a keen knowledge of history and theology. Even Breen’s glossary of terms is hilarious. Heck, even his endnotes are funny and not to be missed. (One says merely, ‘Seriously. Wasn’t Calvin a nut?’) Readers seeking irreverent, laugh-out-loud musings on the sometimes ludicrous intersections between faith and pop culture will want to read this insouciant guide.

If you want satire, there is plenty of satire. And there is lot of humor that I found quite funny – from laugh out loud to quiet chuckle. But the larger question is whether the satire and humor adds up to something more than entertaining reading.

My take after the jump …

Continue reading

The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus by Tom Breen

I won The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches from the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture by Tom Breen in a Facebook or Twitter giveaway from the good folks at Baylor Press. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it but is sounded interesting and it was a quick read. So I bumped it up the TBR pile.

I am afraid I am going to offer one of my truisms again. What you think of it will have a lot to do with what you expect and the attitudes you bring to it.

Here is Publishers Weekly:

In this entertaining gem of religious satire, Breen, an AP journalist, skewers American Christianity from every imaginable angle. Calling himself the ‘Internet Theologian,’ Breen romps through the Bible, religious history, denominational differences. Halloween, contemporary Christian music and spectator sports, among other topics. Some of the book is pure silliness, but other sections achieve that elusive ‘perfect storm’ where humor is sharpened by raw intelligence and a keen knowledge of history and theology. Even Breen’s glossary of terms is hilarious. Heck, even his endnotes are funny and not to be missed. (One says merely, ‘Seriously. Wasn’t Calvin a nut?’) Readers seeking irreverent, laugh-out-loud musings on the sometimes ludicrous intersections between faith and pop culture will want to read this insouciant guide.

If you want satire, there is plenty of satire. And there is lot of humor that I found quite funny – from laugh out loud to quiet chuckle. But the larger question is whether the satire and humor adds up to something more than entertaining reading.

My take after the jump …

Continue reading

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by Gideon Defoe

Cover of "The Pirates! In An Adventure Wi...
Cover via Amazon

Instead of repeating myself, allow me to quote from my earlier review of Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! series:

Last week I described the Eddie Dickens Trilogy as “over-the-top farcical romps” for children; a mix of Dickens, Monty Python, and Lemony Snicket.  Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! adventure series is in many ways an adult version without the Dickens and with pirates instead.

I stumbled upon The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists at Half Price books.  As I am always on the lookout for short, well packaged, and humorous reading material I picked it up.

It wasn’t very long before I was laughing out loud as I read it.  And when I laugh out loud while reading my wife always makes me read the passage out loud to her (she hates to be left out).  Soon I was practically reading the book to her.  Luckily, the book was short.

The plot is rather hard to describe, but it involves The Pirate Captain and his band of merry men sailing the high seas arguing about shanties and looking for adventure.

Not surprisingly then, when I heard a new The Pirates! adventure was out I knew I needed to read it.  Luckily, I had a coupon and I bought myself a birthday present.

And The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon sparked the same kind of laugh out loud process described above.

This particular adventure involved the Pirate Captain giving up the life of a pirate!  That’s right.  Despondent after losing the Pirate of the Year contest yet again, the Pirate Captain decides to give up adventures on high seas for the quiet contemplative life of a bee keeper.  Luckily, his nemesis Black Bellamy feels sorry for him and sells him the perfect place for such a life: the island of St. Helena.

Those of you who did well in history in school will recall that St. Helena was the island where Napoleon was exiled.  And that it isn’t the tropical locale perfect for bee keeping nor was it Bellamy’s to sell.  Shockingly, it seems Black Bellamy has tricked the Pirate Captain again.

The Pirate Captain is intent on sticking to his new life, however, and soon finds himself in a battle of egos and wills with the famous general as both figures want to be the star of St, Helena.  The problem is the Pirate Captain lacks the tools to battle the man who nearly conquered all of Europe; except his luxuriant beard and stentorian nose.

As in previous adventures, this involves a lot of silliness and slapstick humor including a variety of semi-educational – but still silly – footnotes.  Or as Kirkus calls it: “Relentlessly, aggressively, inventively and often hilariously silly.”

Looking for some light hearted entertainment this summer? What could make better “beach reading” than a book whose exciting climax involves the Pirate Captain and Napoleon wrestling on the beach at St. Helena and in danger of getting swept out to sea?!

Be careful, however, it could lead to frequent laughing out loud.  So be prepared to share what was so funny …

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by Gideon Defoe

Cover of "The Pirates! In An Adventure Wi...
Cover via Amazon

Instead of repeating myself, allow me to quote from my earlier review of Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! series:

Last week I described the Eddie Dickens Trilogy as “over-the-top farcical romps” for children; a mix of Dickens, Monty Python, and Lemony Snicket.  Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! adventure series is in many ways an adult version without the Dickens and with pirates instead.

I stumbled upon The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists at Half Price books.  As I am always on the lookout for short, well packaged, and humorous reading material I picked it up.

It wasn’t very long before I was laughing out loud as I read it.  And when I laugh out loud while reading my wife always makes me read the passage out loud to her (she hates to be left out).  Soon I was practically reading the book to her.  Luckily, the book was short.

The plot is rather hard to describe, but it involves The Pirate Captain and his band of merry men sailing the high seas arguing about shanties and looking for adventure.

Not surprisingly then, when I heard a new The Pirates! adventure was out I knew I needed to read it.  Luckily, I had a coupon and I bought myself a birthday present.

And The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon sparked the same kind of laugh out loud process described above.

This particular adventure involved the Pirate Captain giving up the life of a pirate!  That’s right.  Despondent after losing the Pirate of the Year contest yet again, the Pirate Captain decides to give up adventures on high seas for the quiet contemplative life of a bee keeper.  Luckily, his nemesis Black Bellamy feels sorry for him and sells him the perfect place for such a life: the island of St. Helena.

Those of you who did well in history in school will recall that St. Helena was the island where Napoleon was exiled.  And that it isn’t the tropical locale perfect for bee keeping nor was it Bellamy’s to sell.  Shockingly, it seems Black Bellamy has tricked the Pirate Captain again.

The Pirate Captain is intent on sticking to his new life, however, and soon finds himself in a battle of egos and wills with the famous general as both figures want to be the star of St, Helena.  The problem is the Pirate Captain lacks the tools to battle the man who nearly conquered all of Europe; except his luxuriant beard and stentorian nose.

As in previous adventures, this involves a lot of silliness and slapstick humor including a variety of semi-educational – but still silly – footnotes.  Or as Kirkus calls it: “Relentlessly, aggressively, inventively and often hilariously silly.”

Looking for some light hearted entertainment this summer? What could make better “beach reading” than a book whose exciting climax involves the Pirate Captain and Napoleon wrestling on the beach at St. Helena and in danger of getting swept out to sea?!

Be careful, however, it could lead to frequent laughing out loud.  So be prepared to share what was so funny …