Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #89: The Chair by James L. Rubart

The Chair is a feel-good novel about restoring one’s faith in oneself through embracing Christianity. Rubart takes a handful of decent but damaged individuals and exposes them to various temptations and challenges, along with evil from an unexpected source, and leads them—and presumably us, his audience—to the conclusion that happy endings are just waiting for us, if we’ll just believe!

 A sweet old lady dumps an ancient chair on young struggling antiques shop owner Corin Roscoe, and strongly hints that it was built by Jesus Christ. When a young sick child appears to magically heal after sitting in the chair, Corin starts to believe in miracles, and when his life-long claustrophia disappears, he is nearly convinced.  This is the point at which Corin starts to hope that if he can just get his paraplegic brother Shasta to sit in the chair and heal, that his world will be right again. Corin is a danger junkie, and is responsible for pushing his reluctant younger brother into a ski jump ten years earlier that paralyzed him for life and for which Corin has neither been forgiven, nor forgiven himself.

Corin’s terror of water, stemming from a near drowning as a child, doesn’t leave him no matter how many times he sits in the chair, however, and Corin is sorely tempted when a charismatic evangelical preacher pressures Corin to sell him the chair so that he can cure himself of his various “weaknesses of the flesh.”  Corin could finally get out of debt if he takes the offer, but something doesn’t smell right about the preacher and he backs out. Break-ins, beatings, even death threats, follow. Corin’s attempts to talk about the dilemma he faces with his new girlfriend are rebuffed; Tory is fiercely anti-religious and has no sympathy for the crisis Corin is going through. The little old lady comes back into Corin’s life and turns out to have a special relationship with him. The action escalates, turns violent and even deadly, but the bad guys eventually lose and the brothers, well, take a wild guess?

The writing isn’t terrible, but it is a bit sophomoric, and I guess the fact that I finished the novel means the plot kept my attention, at least long enough to find out whether Corin and the chair ride off into the sunset together. What I can’t figure out is why, if the author wanted to proselytize, he went and chose as his “hero” a young man suffering enough mental anguish—claustrophia, hydrophobia, a severe guilt complex, adrenaline addiction, and more—to fill an entire mental ward. Perhaps Corin is supposed to represent “Everyman,” but does he have to be afflicted with Everything?

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #13: Insurrection by Peter Rollins

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human; To Doubt, Divine, the spectacular 2011 release by pyro-theologian Peter Rollins is a book that’s difficult to summarize or explain in brief. All the more difficult because I’d like to explain to EVERYONE, not just those that self-identify as Christian, why it’s so great.

In short, Rollins’ work hinges on the idea of dismantling what he sees as a wrongheaded understanding of God. He calls it the deus ex machina God, but we all know it as the bearded guy in the clouds calling the shots. Rollins asks his readers to look at the simple idea that “God is love” and from there begin to zoom out to the idea that God is manifest in the act of love, and is not some sort of celestial entity.

He gets to this through various means: Jesus’ words on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which Rollins posits is the moment when God becomes an atheist, the writings of Mother Theresa in which she describes living her entire life with a core-deep sense that there was no God out there watching over her, but that she experienced God in her work with the poorest of Calcutta, and through various parables that he uses to introduce each chapter.

Rollins asks his readers to strip away what he’s previously referred to as the idolatry of God, until all that is left is a person willing to live a life of love, kindness, peace, and humility. Understanding that in living that life we are producing the place where God dwells. He goes on, then, to extrapolate the idea that God’s will for our lives becomes our own will for a life based in love, charity, mercy, and respect.

I would struggle to recommend Insurrection to those not familiar with the basics of the Christian faith, though I’d struggle equally to recommend it to anyone who holds to those tenets with too much fundamentalism as Rollins’ work towards an a/theistic form of an understanding of God is all but heretical by comparison to what most think of as Christianity. But to those open-minded enough, or to those unable to fully embrace or fully leave the faith, it’s something of a revelation.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #5: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

As a newcomer to Neil Gaiman’s works, I found his American Gods mind-boggling in the literal sense of the word. When I finally turned the last page and put it down, I just sat there trying to figure out what it is I had just read—was it a good yarn filled with mythology, walking corpses, battles royale; was it a convoluted American road trip; was it a spoof of America by a Briton; was it a lament over the loss of faith in American society and/or a political commentary on the commercialization/”technification” of America? Given the iconic stature Gaiman’s novel has achieved in the past decade, I can only assume that it is all of the above.

American Gods is the story of Shadow, a very quiet, very big, very ordinary kind of a guy serving time for beating the crap of some fellow thieves and counting the days until he can be reunited with his beloved wife Laura.  He is released from prison early when Laura is killed in a car accident, and he goes back home to find nothing there for him—no family, no friend, no job, and the discovery that Laura had betrayed him with his best friend. So when a well-heeled grifter called Mr. Wednesday–who seems to know everything about Shadow–offers him undefined employment, he accepts. Shadow and Wednesday embark on a road trip of middle America (Gaiman mixes together real and fictional places, to keep us guessing), and little by little Shadow learns that Wednesday is in fact an incarnation of the Norse God Odin, who is attempting to rally the scattered and fading Old World gods brought over with the immigrants that make up America, to fight a battle for the soul of this country against the “new gods” of the internet, the credit card, the media, the automobile, the neon lights.

Some men-in-black types are deployed to stop Wednesday and his sad army of divine/satanic “has-beens,” who include the Hindu goddess of death Kali, the pagan goddess Easter, the African Anansi, the Egyptian gods Anubis, Bast, and Horus, and many more. But the enemy also appears to have fixated on Shadow for no obvious reason, and he survives a number of close encounters with their murderous henchmen, in part due to the intervention of his dead wife, who was accidentally reanimated and is determined to protect Shadow before she rots away. A benumbed Shadow, meanwhile, stumbles through his first weeks on the job, meeting peculiar characters, getting beaten up a lot, dreaming strange dreams, and practicing the coin tricks he began learning in prison to keep himself sane.

Gaiman’s novel takes on an increasingly psychedelic quality, starting with Shadow’s dreamed encounters with the dead Laura, his fantastic carousel ride with the gods, his visit to the stars with the Zorya sister, his vigil for Odin at World Tree, his sojourn in the land of the dead, his underground consultations with the buffalo-headed (Native American?) god, and much more. And yet, as strange a turn as the novel takes, it is also grounded in the real-life drama of Shadow’s efforts to cope with both Laura’s betrayal and her death, his unusual relationship with Wednesday/Odin and his growing commitment to Odin’s cause, and the almost “ordinary” sub-plot surrounding the mysterious town of Lakeside and its missing children. Throughout the novel, one watches Shadow change and grow into something much larger than himself, and it is at the same time mysterious and, somehow, inspiring.

The final battle, worthy of a Marvel comic, and the understated and mysterious conclusion to the novel, left my head spinning. A sequel, of course, is in the works. Word is that American Gods is about to be serialized by HBO, and as much as I would like to see what they can do with such a complex novel, I fear that it will lose something in the translation to screen, even with Gaiman writing the screenplay. Whatever the outcome, this is a book worth reading — and puzzling over.