Jael’s #CBR #5: The Story of My Face by Kathy Page

After much procrastinating, I’m finally going to get my reviews done.                                                        Image

The Story of My Face is the story of the past and present of Natalie Baron.  When she was thirteen, she became involved with a religious sect that followed the teachings of Thomas Envall.  Neglected by her mother, Natalie grows close to Barbara and her family, who invite her to an Envallist retreat.  Natalie is clearly an outsider there and her presence leads to conflict and division amongst the church members.  It also stirs up painful memories for Barbara, which eventually lead to the tragedy that disfigured Natalie’s face.

As an adult Natalie becomes a lecturer in religious history.  She goes to the birthplace of Envallism in Finland, to research Thomas Envall.  There is still tension between Natalie and the Envallists, who remember the trouble that was caused in the past.

I was interested in this book as I studied religion and am interested in stories about extreme sects.  And it partially takes place in Finland, which you don’t get in many books.  I was curious to find out what had happened to Natalie’s face, and why she had such an uncomfortable relationship with the Envallists.  The tension is slowly built throughout the book until everything finally unravels at the end.

I wish the author had gone into some more detail about a few things.  When Natalie is thirteen, she just walks up to Barbara off the street, and is suddenly like part of their family.  I thought it happened too quick, and I re-read that part to make sure I hadn’t missed anything that explained why she went to them or why they were so accepting of her.  There weren’t many details about what the Envallists believe, other than that they ban pictures.  There is also a seduction that comes out of nowhere.  Despite these minor complaints, I did enjoy the book.

3 stars

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #82: The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson

bitter kingdomThis was a great ending to a great series. Rae Carson sets a standard for writing competency that other lesser YA authors would be wise to measure themselves up to. It might not sound like a compliment when I say that Rae Carson’s best quality as a writer is her dependability, but it is. While her writing style doesn’t really lend itself to WOW moments, and those she tries to create fall somewhat flat, the underlying strength of her characters, her prose, and her world-building provides such a good foundation that her stories flow along smoothly even without the kick of a WOW moment.

And honestly, that might be kind of the point here.

The Bitter Kingdom concludes Elisa’s arc in a very satisfying manner. Elisa and her companions journey into enemy territory to rescue the scrumdiddlyumptious Hector, wrapping up plotlines as they journey back to ELisa’s kingdom. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll just say while none of the resolutions were earth-shattering, they all made sense and fit in with the overarching themes of Carson’s story.

The focus of the Fire and Thorns was never the war or the political alliances or the religion and mysticism. It was Elisa. Her growth from the first book is kind of astounding, and even more astounding is Carson’s ability to have her main character grow and change so gradually that we barely notice it as it’s happening. It’s only after something happens to call attention to it that we realize, hey, something’s different here.

And I absolutely loved that SPOILER (highlight to read): the reveal of the purpose of Elisa’s Godstone was so anticlimactic. This whole series we — and the characters — have been laboring under the impression that Elisa having that Godstone in her belly would play a significant part in the endgame of the series, but it doesn’t. Elisa’s destiny is essentially to dig a giant hole. All the rest of that stuff, the stuff that’s filled three books? She did it all on her own. And that is really nifty, and not just in the way it’s playing off expected genre tropes, but for Elisa’s character as well.

If you like YA and/or fantasy, this is definitely a series you should check out. It’s smart and well-written and it’s got a good head on its shoulders, even if it isn’t as flashy as others. Looking forward to Carson’s next series very much.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #21: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I forgot I hadn’t reviewed this book and I finished it quite a while ago, so I have to go into the reaches of my memory for my thoughts. I hadn’t read much Neil Gaiman, and I had high expectations because of solid recommendations from some fellow readers and I was not disappointed.

American Gods is the telling of the battle between the two factions of gods in america: the original deities that traveled with our ancestors vs the gods of today, the things that we worship such as Internet and Media. They battle for the affections of man, the old guys skating buy with remnants of belief while the gods of today are flush with power and greed. The concept alone is sobering and profound and combined with Gaiman’s gift for rich and thoughtful prose an impressive combination.

“None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an iconist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you – even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, triumphs over all opposites.”

The unreliable narrator/protagonist is a common literary device, but this book boasts the opposite. The main character, Shadow, is reliable, a rock in a sea of turmoil, but everyone else is full of secrets and deception. When he must be dishonest, he somehow still does so honestly, which makes an interesting contrast and foundation. In fact, he suits his name well as he is really more of an echo of the action of all the other characters and a pawn in the game.

Gaiman’s imagination and creativity simply blew me away in this epic battle and you are compelled to read on, though rooting for a side isn’t easy. Will anyone win? Should anyone win? What does winning even mean? These are the questions you are hoping to have answered and without giving much away, I for one walked away a little unsatisfied and conflicted. But like the subject matter, there are no clear answers and the unease I felt was welcome and to me a sign of a damn good book.

taralovesbooks’ #CBR5 Review #31: Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman



Cannonball Read V: Book #31/52
Published: 2011
Pages: 444
Genre: Nonfiction

I’m officially burned out on Scientology books. I actually bought this one before Going Clear, but figured since I already bought it, I might as well read it to. I figured it would be pretty redundant since Going Clear was so thorough, but I was surprised to find some new stuff in Janet Reitman’s book.

I’m just going to say this again: Scientology is scary. I don’t really care what religion people want to believe in, but when a religion refuses to allow people to leave that’s when it starts crossing the line over into cult territory (at least for me). Although Scientology constantly is refuting the claims of abuse from ex-members, I’m finding it really hard to believe it’s not true with all the first-hand accounts. And those are just from the people they haven’t scared or paid off to keep quiet.

Read the rest in my blog.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #34: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


I make the mistake sometimes of thinking that a novel of fewer than 300 pages will be a quick read. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson proves the lie. It is a very dense 280 page novel written as a letter by a 75-year-old midwestern preacher to his 7-year-old son circa 1955. It’s heavy on religion and theology, and it’s sometimes repetitive, which is perhaps not too surprising with a septuagenarian narrator. Robinson makes her preacher John Ames a kindly, gentle, flawed, but likable fellow whose family history spans the Civil War, the influenza epidemic, the Depression, and the two world wars. But those earth-shaking events seem to make less of an impression on him and his flock than the vagaries of their common, every day lives and relationships in the small prairie town of Gilead.

John Ames is writing this letter to his little boy in preparation for his own death. It’s sort of an explanation of his life and an apology for not leaving more for the boy and his young mother. It’s also John Ames’ attempt to come to terms with his impending death and making sure that his spiritual house is in order. In the course of the rambling letter, he discusses his grandfather, a preacher and abolitionist who helped settle Kansas and fought in the Civil War; his father, a preacher who embraced pacifism; his brother, who rejected religion for rationalism; his friend preacher Boughton, who is also old and dying; and Boughton’s wayward son, John Ames Boughton, godson of John Ames. John Ames struggles with anger (as his father and grandfather before him) and his distrust of his godson, recently returned to Gilead for reasons no one seems to understand.

Naturally, as this is a rambling letter, we do not get a linear story line, and there are certain mysteries about John Ames’ father, grandfather and godson that take some time to clear up. While the novel can sometimes be ponderous and drag, there is at its heart a pure and forgiving love that better exemplifies John Ames’ Christian theology than any of the texts he is fond of quoting. Gilead won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and while I liked the story, I can’t say I loved it. I found it okay, but it’s probably outstanding to those who enjoy theology and have a lot more time to reflect on it than I do.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #53: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

3.5 stars

Amal is sixteen, and about to start her second year as the only Muslim at a posh private high school, when she has an epiphany while watching Friends.She decides to start wearing the hibab full time, fully aware that this will attract all sorts of attention, and that it may be the most popular of decisions. Her parents, worried that it will give her too much negative attention, try to make her change her mind, but the more she thinks about it, the more resolved she is. Of course, when she shows up in school, the principal and a lot of the teachers think she’s been coerced into it by her parents, or religious leaders, and she has to be very firm about the fact that it’s her own choice, her own decision, and that they can’t prohibit her from her personal expression of her faith, no matter what the school regulations about uniforms state.

Most of her friends, while a bit puzzled at first, are extremely supportive. Only the mean girl clique try to bully her about it, but as Amal points out to herself and her friends, now they have something specific to tease her about. Amal is more concerned about the opinions of Adam, her lab partner, and one of the cutest and most popular boys in school. She has a massive crush on him, and would hate for him to see her as some sort of religious fanatic just because she chooses to wear a head scarf. More on my blog.

Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #27: Buddhism Plain & Simple by Steve Hagen

Although I’m kind of fascinated by religion, it’s never really worked for me. I’m too practical and honBuddhism Plain and Simpleest with myself to pretend I believe the stories–even in a metaphorical way. I can see the community and support that can come from church, but I also see the hypocrisy and judgment that often comes along with it and it turns me off. But I’ve never looked into Buddhism before. I don’t remember what first prodded my interest, but it seemed like a philosophy that would fit better with my personality. So, I picked up Buddhism Plain & Simple (1997) by Steve Hagen after reading some reviews on Amazon. And now I am intrigued and confused.

The introduction sucked me in, stating that a lot of us feel that we are intelligent creatures living in a meaningless world; that we try to gain security through money, power, education etc., but that real security is impossible. However, Hagen states that it’s our minds that are causing all this fear and uncertainty, and we can change that through enlightenment. He goes on to say that Buddhism is not about making up stories as explanations, but it’s about people finding the Truth for themselves. I appreciated that Buddhism didn’t include another creation myth, and I liked the idea of people finding things out for themselves rather than being told how and what to think.

Read the rest of my review here.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #29: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

A highly ambitious book which is almost like three books in one, Oscar and Lucinda nonetheless did not ring any bells for me, despite the high praise it has received from all and sundry. It follows the somewhat twisted love story of Oscar—odd-ball son of a fundamentalist Christian father in mid-nineteenth century England—and Lucinda, orphaned daughter of an early feminist who leaves her teenaged daughter alone in Australia, with nothing but an independent streak and a large fortune to try to survive in a man’s world. The two are destined to meet, but it takes more than half the book to get there, and even then, it’s not clear why they have come together.

Carey’s prose is lush and fit for a Victorian-era setting (even funny, at times), but I came to find it overbearing after a while. The overarching conceit of the novel—using an obsession with gambling as a metaphor for religious faith (Pascal’s Wager?)—was both fascinating and confusing, and I couldn’t tell by the end whether Carey was poking fun at religious fundamentalism, or giving it a gravitas it doesn’t deserve.

The first large chunk of the novel is the best part, I found, detailing Oscar’s strange maturation under the rigid hand of his widowed father, a naturalist who can only express his inner emotions when it comes to describing the bits of life he collects along the Devon shore, but whose deep love for his motherless son is beyond expressing. Just as his father studies patterns in starfish, Oscar studies patterns in everything. When he thinks he has caught his father in a theological lie, all it takes is a pebble landing several times in a distinct pattern for the 16-year-old Oscar to perceive an “act of God” and decide he must abandon his father for a different religious denomination. He flees in the night to the home of the local Anglican vicar and his wife, who attempt to prepare the awkward boy for the priesthood. The impoverished young man ends up at Oxford where he learns to survive, again accidentally, by devising a system of patterns that enable him to bet obsessively—albeit successfully–on the horses. Another “act of God,” presumably. Oscar’s travails are lovingly portrayed, and one comes to feel for this strange and gawky man-child whose sheltered innocence ill-prepares him for the world he is about to enter.

We next find him being carried aboard a ship—he is pathetically phobic about water–headed to New South Wales to take up a vicarage in a (unknown to him) politically-contested arena. On the ship, he crosses paths for the first time with gambling compulsive Lucinda, the lonely single passenger in first class who is lusting over the sounds of card games she overhears among the crew. She is returning from London where her search for a husband proved fruitless, and her seduction of the hapless Oscar into a card game in her cabin is a high point in the story. However, they go their separate paths upon disembarking in Sydney—she to spend her fortune on a glass-works factory that has caught her fancy, and he to attempt to lead a congregation suspicious and, ultimately, hostile to his strangeness.

But they come together for another fateful card game at the vicarage where, caught by two congregation members, Oscar is defrocked and expelled, penniless, into Sydney, where he is unable to fend for himself and is well on his way to dying of starvation when he is ultimately taken in by the eccentric and wealthy Lucinda. Love grows slowly, and in fits and starts, and in this middle section of the book we are exposed to a host of minor characters who help to forge a strange atmosphere of tension but who otherwise I found largely unappealing and somewhat extraneous.  I never found myself liking Lucinda, unfortunately, as she is simultaneously stiff-backed and impetuous, manipulative and yet a total victim of her own uncontrolled emotions. An unhappy combination which leaves Oscar mostly fumbling in the dark.

The last quarter of the book is a curious cross between Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—dark and tragic, and yet almost slapstick comical. I found it a disconcerting combination in Carey’s hands. Oscar undertakes the transport of Lucinda’s fanciful disaster of a glass church upriver on a bet intended to prove his love to her, but which instead leads to torture, drug addiction, murder, and doom, as well as the loss of Lucinda’s fortune. The speed with which Carey wraps up his story, and dispenses with his hero and heroine left me feeling deflated. Carey throws into his novel the obligatory pc discussion of horrific colonial slaughter of the Australian aborigines (“blacks”), but it is almost incidental to the story even as it is alleged to be a motivating force behind Oscar’s dedication to faith. Again, just not convincing.

Given the fact that this novel won the Booker Award and paeans of praise from critics–not to mention movie rights—I could well be missing something, and so I’d love to hear what other people have to say of this book.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #28: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Even more than with her debut novel Mudbound, Jordan has a powerful story to tell in When She Woke, and a moral (or two) she clearly wants to impart to her reader. Jordan has a highly creative imagination and a strong feminist streak, and her story—loosely modeled on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and drawing inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—packs a punch. All that said, I think Jordan was a little too busy trying to get her point across to notice that her story was morphing from sci-fi to romance to action thriller to political tirade, and getting weaker all along the way. And it’s a pity, because the conceit of the book is fascinating.

Hannah lives in the near-future, where nuclear war has ravaged some American cities, where right-wing religious zealots have taken over the U.S. government, and where crimes are punished by “chroming” the skin color of the criminal—yellow, blue, green or red. Hannah wakes up in a cell, bright red all over after she is convicted at trial for murder. Brought up properly in a Christian family, Hannah had nonetheless been seduced into a love affair with a widely-loved and respected—and married–evangelical preacher, and upon discovering her pregnancy, chose to abort it rather than endanger her lover’s reputation and marriage. Abortion is illegal and she is caught, tried, and punished with an indelible scarlet, all the while refusing to name names.

Thus begins the story, but it rapidly escalates as Hannah is released into a half-way house with other “Chromes” who are being “re-educated” under the dominance of uber-religious sadists disguised as teachers. When she and her friend Kayla abandon the facility, they face the uncertainty of survival on the streets—not only is the general populace violently hostile to Chromes, but there is an association of vigilantes called “The Fist” which hunts and kills Chromes. Fortunately for Hannah and her friend, there is also an active “pro-choice” underground movement which plucks the women off the streets in the nick of time and funnels them towards Canada, where abortion is legal and where they can be “de-Chromed.” So far, so good, even if we get the distinct feeling we are reading a cross between Hawthorne’s “Letter” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

And that’s where the action stumbles, the plot crumbles, and the book loses a few stars in my view:  Hannah faces a rather creepy kidnapping, a brief side-trip into red slavery, a steamy divergence into lesbian action, a philosophical tete-a-tete with a female priest, and a final inexplicable and doomed reunion with her former lover, the evangelical celebrity now promoted to head the government’s Ministry of Faith. No matter how Jordan chooses to end her story at this point, the creative momentum is lost in a swirl of melodrama and political harangue.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #27: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief By Lawrence Wright

Going Clear Book Cover - P 2013This book was so overwhelmingly thorough (and also just kind of overwhelming) that I’m not entirely sure what to say about it.

Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer prize for his 9/11 book, The Looming Tower, but Going Clear is the first piece of writing I’ve ever read by him. Judging by this book, he very much deserved that Pulitzer. Going Clear is an exhaustive long-form journalistic look at Scientology. Wright must have spent years and countless hours researching, writing, and fine-tuning this thing. It’s evident in every page, every carefully chosen word and phrase. Then again, if his own research is to be believed, he couldn’t afford not to be as careful as possible, given what has happened to journalists in the past who have dared to go up against Scientology (bad things, life ruining things).

As it’s subtitle might suggest, the book is split into three parts. The first eases us into the waters with a brief biography of Paul Haggis, a writer and director most famous for Best Picture winner Crash, but whose other credits include thirtysomething, Walker, Texas Ranger, Casino Royale, and Million Dollar Baby. It was Wright’s 2011 piece in The New Yorker on Haggis’ decision to leave Scientology (see: “The Apostate“) that spurred Wright to investigate Scientology at a deeper level. From there Wright segues into a biography of Scientology’s founder, prolific science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and the inception of the ideas that would eventually become Scientology. Using insider accounts, Wright paints a picture of a mentally unbalanced, narcissistic genius (he never actually comes out and says this, it’s just the impression I got) who seemed to have a lot of answers that comforted a spiritually empty, post-war generation. His bestselling book, Dianetics, enabled him to start his own religion, and the ingenious pyramid scheme nature of the organization itself (members take expensive classes to reach the next level in their spiritual enlightenment) brought in even more income. Wright paints an honest picture of Hubbard. I know this because even despite the crazy moments — and there were a lot — I found myself understanding how so many people could be drawn in by his message, able to ignore the warning signs (the physical abuse, the crazy demands, the belief that there was a conspiracy of psychiatrists who are trying to take over the world, etc.) Throughout the book, Wright presents facts and witness accounts and let’s us as readers draw our own conclusions.

From there it gets even scarier. Parts two and three chronicle the troubles the church faced after Hubbard’s death: a battle with the IRS and the media that could have ended the church once and for all if they had been declared a business instead of a religion, the rise of David Miscavige as Hubbard’s replacement (and his strange relationship with Tom Cruise), and the difficulties members in the church face. Miscavige comes off as a violent sociopath, which probably won’t be a surprise to anyone. The thing I found most surprising is the way the church’s clergy — called the SeaOrg — are treated. From the way Wright tells it, the vast majority of Scientology’s members have no idea what actually goes inside the organization: imprisonment, mental and physical abuse, forced separation of families, tampering of evidence, refusal of medical treatment, etc. The list goes on. Wright (and Haggis) seem to come to the conclusion at the end that if the incredible secrecy of the organization were breached, it would in an untenable position. Unfortunately this isn’t as easy as it would seem.

I’m going a poor job of explaining all of this, just like I knew I would. There’s just too much to tell, and it all adds up to one pretty frightening picture. What Wright has accomplished in this book is staggering, not just in the care and precision he took in writing it, but in the content of the story itself.  I’m glad I read it, and I think you should, too.